This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Those Who Fail To Learn From History

If it’s true, as they say, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and if it’s true, as logic says, that the key to learning from something is to study it, then we Indians are condemned to repeating history, because – especially for a nation that claims to be one of the oldest in the world, with an undoubted historical lineage that stretches back at least 4000 years – we learn nothing from history and try to understand even less.

The signs are all around us, really; if we only knew how to look. But we do not know how to look. Instead, we allay ourselves with tales of a golden ten thousand years of history in which we, apparently, knew everything, discovered all natural laws, invented everything (including spaceships, nuclear weapons, and jet aircraft, not to speak of cures for the common cold and AIDS) – a golden ten thousand years during which we also invaded “no other country” – a colossal joke if there ever was one.

The first, most obvious sign is the condition of all those heritage buildings – those of them that are left, of course. If you just ignore the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi and a few others, the rest are either heaps of ruin (and a huge number of structures, from ancient walls to forts to mausoleums, literally vanish every year, swamped by “development” or simply crumbling back to the elements) or well on the way there. All you have now where the history that created our present was written is misspelt graffiti (and not even literate graffiti at that), piles of rubbish, and crumbling plaster and brickwork.

And it’s not only the average small-time moron with a pencil who can’t resist the urge to write his name, literally, on history. Living in a bandit-capitalist society that has no regard but for the perpetual present has some drawbacks apart from the standard ones. Recently, a film crew was shooting a film at a fort in Jaipur in Rajasthan state actually demolished part of the structure (which – incidentally – I’d visited in January last year) in order to facilitate the placement of cameras and so on.

Nowadays we talk about our “glorious historical tradition”; but virtually all traces of that tradition had vanished from our consciousness a long time ago until it was rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries by...the British. Yeah, it was those white-skinned foreign usurpers from a quarter of the way round the planet who informed us that we had once boasted of the Indus Valley Civilisation (aka Harappa Culture), and the rock temples of Elephanta, not to speak of various Buddhist Stupas and the great university of Nalanda. We had long chosen to forget them.

I once read an archaeologist’s explanation of the reason behind this curious neglect of historical heritage. He said it was a cultural phenomenon: “You see, we Hindus burn our dead.” In other words, once the past was the past, it was done with, finished off, and could be allowed to dissolve into the black stream of time. I’m not a hundred percent convinced he was right – but he certainly wasn’t entirely wrong.

In one of his books, the virtually unreadable Salman Rushdie makes a valid point: no people whose language has the same word for “today” and “tomorrow” (kal, in Hindi) can be said to have a very firm grip on the concept of time. Nor can any people who believe in the concept of destruction and recreation of the universe in cycles, over and over, be expected to care overmuch about the relics of one particular epoch either. But even recent history is completely ignored, except when it’s to be mythologised for political purposes (I’ll get to that in a moment). For instance, the Stilwell Road which as of great strategic importance during the Second World War, connecting China with the British colonies of India and Burma is an overgrown, rutted track today in India, while in China it is a modern highway. A little to the south, in the state of Manipur, the insurrectionary Indian National Army of Subhas Chandra Bose had set up headquarters in a border village. Nobody today is even sure precisely where those headquarters were. So much for a love of history.

But, really, it isn’t surprising. In order to value any sort of historical knowledge, one must want to know history; and to know history, one must begin by learning something about it in school. I recall what they taught us in school about history...oh yes, how I recall it.

History, then, was the history of North India, no more; North India was the be-all and end-all of all history, and there was not the slightest discussion of the world outside the Indian subcontinent or how that world affected the multifarious kingdoms and principalities of this part of the world. And history, then, was basically a procession of dates; X became king of such and such a kingdom (in North India, naturally) in the year something or other, defeated King Y in the year something or other plus two, then went on to defeat King Z the year after that, and built roads and temples, such as the temple at Q.

I ask you – is this a way to make anyone the slightest bit interested in history?

There was never the slightest attempt to discuss happenings outside the Indian subcontinent, or how such might have affected the kingdoms and peoples here – it was as though the subcontinent was a place outside the rest of the universe, entirely self-contained, and, of this self-contained universe, the heart of the heart was the biggest kingdom in North India, whatever that was at any given time. Thus, Kanishka, the Kushan dynasty ruler of a Central Asian kingdom a part of which included some of North India, got a chapter on him in every history book; the native kingdoms that co-existed with his never got a word.

 Never did we hear more than casually mentioned the kingdoms of South India unless they had some kind of temporary presence in the North or had fought battles against North Indian kingdoms. And as for Eastern Indian kingdoms, even that wasn’t enough. We had endless discussions on the Mughal Empire; but when the Ahom kingdom of Assam roundly whipped Mughal ass in the Battle of Saraighat, it didn’t make it to the history books; and the old fortifications of the battle have crumbled back into the river-bank from which they had been constructed.

History, by these books, was only a matter of kings and battles and grand construction projects and sometimes a note on religions, the latter carefully edited to avoid hurting anyone’s sensibilities. Ordinary people didn’t exist except as an occasional gratuitous reference to the “common man”, usually explaining how the “common man” was unable to understand all the good things being prepared for him. Famine, disease, migrations and the like, were never touched on; it was as if those kings fought each other across an empty land with chess pieces for soldiers. None of them even bothered to explain just why and how one king defeated another; it seemed kind of, you know, as though one was a better chess player than another, full stop. (If I could just include a piece of real history here: in the Third Battle of Panipat, the Afghan forces of the warlord Ahmed Shah Abdali defeated the much larger Maratha army because the Marathas waited so long for an astrologically favourable moment at which to attack that the Afghans outmanoeuvred and smashed them – but that never got into the school textbooks.) And, of course, no discussion of what made one of these mighty empires collapse, as they all did, sooner or later. The standard phrase was “X’s successors were weak men.” Weak men? All of them?

Also, in our case, history seemed to stop with the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb, who died in 1705 if I recall correctly. Over and over we were taught the history of (North) India from the Indus Valley Civilisation to Aurungzeb – and then...nothing. The later Mughals, the Maratha Empire, the British, the Sikhs, none of them got a mention. Back to the Indus Valley Civilisation and start over. Imagine studying the Roman Empire up to the reign of, say, the emperor Trajan, and then going right back to Romulus and Remus – over and over again.

How can anyone ever either understand or enjoy history like this? Doesn’t it become a hated subject, somehow to be endured?

I can just see a better way, perhaps, of presenting history – as a process leading up to the present time, with the various influences explained and debated, and dates and battles de-emphasised in favour of explaining historical flows and processes. That would get the children involved and enthused – but it would be innovative, and in a situation like we have here, who the hell would dare bell the cat?

Yeah, I know that most people these days have better things to do than learn about history; it isn’t exactly top level executive career material, is it? But as I said, those who fail to learn from history get knocked up the side of the head when it comes round again, and here we are getting all set to be knocked.

Just for an example: the Brits came to India as merchants, of the East India Company, an d secured a few trading privileges. Nothing much, just the right to run their trading bases independently of local laws, and so on; and the local businessmen, enamoured at the prospect of fat profits, enthusiastically supported these – er – Special Economic Zones, and roundly rejected any suggestion that the Brits might just take over one day. But they did, in short order, and stayed for two hundred years.

Today, we have no historical memory of this, so we can allow foreign multinationals to set up enclaves on our soil with laws independent of the laws of the nation, and the capitalist fatcats, slavering at the prospects of massive profits, condemn any mortal who dares to suggest that giving these foreign corporations tax breaks and freedom to work as they feel like isn’t perhaps the best thing one might do. And we can already see how economic pressures from these pleasant little companies are twisting national policies, foreign and domestic, round to their agendas.

Maybe I’ve just discovered why they don’t want the kids to learn history. It might complicate things if they do.

(April 2009)

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