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How India Can Learn Lessons Better from its History

History has a tendency to repeat itself, so most people either think that the past has no relevance today, or they view even the distant past as being one and the same as the present. That is why politicians are able to use the demolition of temples by Aurangzeb to perpetuate hate against innocent Muslims today.

History is a field that has always been subject to contestation. Its dynamism lies in the process of analysis, interpolation and reinterpretation of its content matter by successive generations. As George Orwell wrote in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” So, the practice of using history for political aggrandisement isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t being used for the first time. But it needs to be refuted, nonetheless. History can and should be dealt with on its own terms.

Before doing that, it is important to understand what crucial aspect allows history to be utilised as a tool of hate – the dual nature of people: on the one hand, people function as an entity with the capability to think for themselves, and on the other, as a phenomenon, capable of being persuaded. It is precisely the latter aspect of human nature that leads them to be very emotive on certain issues, and hence prone to getting carried away by cleverly manipulated historical narratives.

Let’s consider a simple example: It is a fact that Hindu temples have been demolished by Muslim rulers in the past. Precious heritage was ravaged. It is an abhorrent truth and one that must be acknowledged. But if an Aurangzeb demolished temples and happened to be Muslim, does that mean that all adherents of Islam today are guilty of his crimes and must atone for his wrongs? How is the 21st-century Muslim responsible for what happened in the 17th century?

Yet, Aurangzeb’s name in particular, and the Mughal name in general, remains a basis for perpetuating hate against the modern Indian Muslim today. Those who use the past to demonise people in the present know that, on the issue of temple demolition, many Hindus will give priority to their emotions and are more likely to function as a phenomenon capable of being persuaded.

This is a very dangerous act; it diverts from the fact that the past of India, with all its cultural variety and greatness, is a common heritage of all the Indian people: Hindu, Muslim, Christian and others, and their ancestors who had helped build it. The fact of subsequent conversion to other faiths does not deprive them of this heritage – just as the Greeks, after their conversion to Christianity, did not lose their pride in the achievements of their ancestors, or the Italians in the great days of the Roman Republic and early Empire.

How to Make Sense of History

How do we then make sense of the past without diluting its value for the present? This process must be undertaken with a clear perception of the objective of history. History is written with the aim of recording events on the basis of an educated interpretation of one’s sources, and exploring the ideas that shaped and influenced those events.

But history does have a tendency to repeat itself, so most people face an impasse at this point – they either see a schism between the past and the present, with the past having no relevance today, or they view even the distant past as being one and the same as the present. This is a shallow dichotomy and there can be a middle ground. The middle ground is one that lets us learn from the past without glorifying it, and one that acknowledges that the past was a different realm where circumstances were absolutely different from today.

An instance of this middle-ground view could be learning from the spirit of Akbar’s rationalist tolerance as state policy, while at the same time accepting the caveat that his society wasn’t even close to what would classify as “democratic” in contemporary terms.

What stops us from studying historical figures as products of particular times and places? We do not have to absolve those we study of guilt – and we certainly don’t have to like them. We just have to hold back judgement long enough to allow for a more nuanced and compelling tale to be told.

Consider another instance: Mahatma Gandhi’s problematic experiments in Brahmacharya (celibacy), which some use for writing him off altogether.

For Gandhi, Brahmacharya – the control over sexual urges and the elimination of all desires – formed an integral component of a Satyagrahi’s character. The more polemical and shocking aspect of these experiments included young women in his ashram – some of them still teenagers, one of them his own grand-niece (Manu Gandhi) – sleeping naked with him in his bed at night.

Even Ramachandra Guha, one of Gandhi’s most reputed biographers, has found this “inexplicable and indefensible”. But the shock and rage evoked by these experiments blind us from understanding that Gandhi was a creature of his own circumstances, and in that sense, a prisoner of his own society. He blamed himself for all the pain he saw around him and sought to make amends. Testing his Brahmacharya was apparently (and rather egotistically) the way he felt he could do so, even as we correctly deem it to be disgusting today.

But we cannot use this one indefensible aspect to discard him or his contributions. By doing so, we risk being impervious to the immortal lessons of self-reliance, religious harmony and peaceful coexistence which he imbued into the national imagination. It is possible to rightfully revere Gandhi for his pluralism, egalitarianism and adherence to principles while also acknowledging that he was sometimes wrong and hence entirely prone to human folly. Nuance is accepting Gandhi as both great and flawed. Dogma is viewing him from a yardstick derived from the 21st century, instead of his own time and circumstance.

The Duty of Indian Historians

Pure objectivity in history obviously isn’t possible, since every historian’s work is essentially intermediate – to be succeeded by a more knowledgeable scholar with more sources at their disposal. So, it is understandable that the historian can’t help but inexorably tinge the lens through their narrative. By contextualising our stand and yet gaining from the positives of the past, we can develop a holistic and pragmatic perspective.

Indian history has a repertoire of richness and vivacity just waiting to be tapped – from the erudite ponderings over philosophical quandaries in the Upanishads, through the vibrant tradition of debates in Buddhist kutagrahashalas, to the intellectual and philosophical traditions embodied in the beautiful compositions of the Bhakti and the Sufi saints. Conversely, there is much to be critically examined – the bane of caste, which was purportedly meant to develop individuality and freedom but ended up becoming a guarantor of social hegemony to Savarnas; the heritage ravaged by both our colonial forebears and the external plunderers of the preceding ages created a victimhood complex that threatens to initiate divisive proclivities.

Hence, history needs to be analysed such that the wrongs of the distant past are acknowledged as being in the past – no one living today has to atone for them. And the dynamic traditions of the past – which can contribute to the making of a more just, plural, prosperous and harmonious society – must be wholeheartedly embraced. As opposed to, say, the Chinese, the resistance of the Indian project to the past was in the form of the creation of an alternative social imagination, never the avenging of humiliation. We have the precious distinction of choosing to build upon the logos of a crossroads culture, sui generis for its warm embrace of cosmopolitanism and diversity.

It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we maintain our cultural dignity and civilizational legacy by not letting parochial political instrumentalization of history triumph over its very ethos.

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Armaan Mathur is pursuing Political Science Honours at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He has previously written for the Student Edition of the Hindustan Times and is passionate about history, political science, literature and international relations.