T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a great read but is it a credible record of the Arab uprising against the Ottomans? The Arab historian Aziz al-Azmeh was scathing in his denunciation of Lawrence, holding that his was a work of fiction. But that is not the way many others recalled it over the years.
Except for those nursing an acute sense of victimhood, Shashi Tharoor’s engaging polemic, An Era of Darkness, is not a serious, objective work of historical scholarship. While the British rule of India had its rotten side, it had a redeeming one as well. As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh had the courage to acknowledge this in his widely publicised July 2005 speech at Oxford University — all without one whit downplaying the harmful aspects of British rule. That is a balanced perspective.
The best of our historians tie themselves in knots toeing a nationalistic line, however unintentional that might be. A widely acclaimed book, India’s Struggle for Independence, by Bipan Chandra and some of India’s best regarded historians, is a case in point. Partition is seen as the outcome of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s intransigence and the Congress’s inability to carry the subcontinent’s Muslims along. The latter point is Bipan Chandra’s view too. But any historian claiming to be objective would also have highlighted Abul Kalam Azad’s objection to Partition on the grounds that it would reduce, intentionally perhaps, the Muslims from a politically powerful quarter of the population to a less significant and vulnerable minority in free India. Developments since then have proved him right.
The mass killings and forced migration of millions caused by Partition was entirely foreseeable, especially in the light of the extreme violence that accompanied Jinnah’s ‘Direct Action Day,’ a year before. Then why couldn’t independence have been delayed to ensure a less cataclysmic separation? This is rarely discussed anywhere, and never in our schools, where most Indians have their last brush with history, reinforcing life-long prejudices.
It is time we stopped raising generations on a diet of victimhood while at the same time hoping to make peace with those of our neighbours we feel most threatened by. With the evidence now available, we should accept that, far from being victims, we share historical responsibility for our difficult relations with Pakistan and our border dispute with China. As the largest country in the subcontinent, and its principal economic driver, India has a great stake in getting its history right, for lasting peace to follow.
In his perceptive essay, ‘The Decline of Historical Thinking’ in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Eric Alterman observed, “A nation whose citizens have no knowledge of history is asking to be led by quacks, charlatans and jingos.” How true of today’s India!
The writer has taught public policy and contemporary history at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru