Did Hindus once eat beef or was Aurangzeb really cruel: Let history be

Santosh K Singh
Santosh K SinghOct 23, 2015 | 20:55

Did Hindus once eat beef or was Aurangzeb really cruel: Let history be

History is never a fully complete project. For it is open to interpretations, to spasmodic fuzziness, loss and relapse of memory, both collective and individual, and to the whims of those in power. More distant the past, more vulnerable it gets to mythification. It is precisely why there is no permanent closure in history. The seeming upheaval that the Indian society is currently undergoing, I believe, has also got a lot to do with this unending nature of the project of history or what EH Carr calls "an unending dialogue between the present and the past".

Did Hindus eat beef or not in the ancient past? Whether Aurangzeb or Akbar was benevolent or barbaric? Did Shivaji or Rana Pratap essentially fight for the establishment of a Hindu kingdom or Hindu cause or were they, just like any rulers, engaged in the act of mere territorial conquest? Did Gandhi espouse anti-Hindu politics? Why did Nathuram Godse kill him? Answers to these, and many other similar questions, invariably, more so now, will have no singular response. There will be competing arguments accompanied with equally vociferous defence, depending upon one's sense and the reading of history. And perhaps more importantly how the narratives from the past have been transmitted and conveyed by the history teacher in the school. The best scenario, befitting a mature democracy, would have been to be able to appreciate and live with counter arguments, despite our differences, and not indulge in physical annihilation. But that sounds like asking for the moon in a changed atmosphere.

In such a scenario of half-baked, selective digging and excavation in the name of history, courtesy largely social media sources, invoking the idea of citizenship can provide that much needed breathing time and space, currently so vital, to infuse some sanity in the way we are conducting ourselves in public. I argue, a substantive, firm grounding in lessons of citizenship will make our history reading exercise an adult act, and not an infantile gazing of the past which is prompted, more often than not, by hormonal kicks and persuaded by jaundiced, monochromatic sense of history.

Foregrounding our citizenship, to begin with, means backgrounding primordial affiliations like caste, religion, race and ethnicity. It also means reprioritising agenda of our day to day existence. In effect it means asking questions that are different from the set of questions we are asking at the moment. New set of questions should relate to: status of malnourishment among our children, poor status of our women, fragile status of our civil rights and liberties (with growing street vigilantism) and many others such as education, employment, security and health.

These questions relate to our present and our future. For the kind of questions that we Indians are asking today, no doubt have a strong bearing upon our present, but most significantly and substantially, this will affect the next generation, the future citizens of India. History reading and invoking can be an intellectually exciting idea, provided it is not part of a pursuit of retribution and vindictiveness; when it is pursued with a large heartedness that comes intertwined with the sheer intellectual quest to look back and reflect on various interpretations of our past. As far as possible, a detached, dispassionate looking back is the first and elementary premise of any meaningful engagement with history. Sadly some people, a sizeable number of them being actually very young, it seems, in India today are looking at the past with anger, to settle scores, to find an enemy, even imagine the descendants of the portrayed ''villains'' of history and persecute them. This is most unfortunate. History is to learn lessons, even from the villains, if at all, and not repeat those acts, for a better, more humane world.

My sense is that in the preceding decade and a half, when our educational emphasis tilted heavily in favour of technical knowledge, ranging from mobile repairing to IT, I am afraid, not much attention could be given to social sciences in general and History in particular. Or at least these enterprises were undervalued in our curriculum. As a result a new generation arrived on the horizon which gradually swamped the social media, with very little sensibility or even awareness to our shared cultural capital. A certain bullishness that might be a hallmark of excellence or a champion performer, in a new post-industrial corporate ethos, perhaps surreptitiously infiltrated in to the social realm as well, spawning a new youth culture. We did not perhaps remind them of: Vidya dadati vinayam, vinaya dadati patrataam, meaning wisdom gives humility and with humility one becomes more deserving. The language of vendetta, that people with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and tricolour on their DP speak today, on the social media makes one wonder whether they have any clue of the values that Gandhi stood and died for.

French historian Ernest Renan (1823-1892) once famously wrote "Nations are built partly on the knowledge of history and partly on ignorance of it". It is time to remember, acknowledge and reiterate those patches of the past that remind us of our shared cohabitation; of coexistence, plurality and inter-community harmony. Rest must be, with due respect, either ignored or given a decent burial (read archiving). Only a compassionate, non-violent and yet reasoned attitude to history is what is capable of taking us and our society forward. Whichever side of the ideological spectrum we may be, we simply cannot afford to allow our country to become a mobocracy. Democracy is our only substantial achievement in the last more than six decades; let's not jeopardise this project with our petty politics for narrow gains.

Last updated: October 26, 2015 | 16:23
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