The Mirror of History

By Dilip Simeon
(Hindustan Times, March 11, 2000)
“The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of violence” – Adolf Hitler, in Mein Kampf.

Dilip Simeon

The Mirror of History


The history of the Indian sub-continent over the past century unfolds like the chapters of a chronicle of civil war. India was partitioned, the partitioned segment was re-partitioned. “Internal enemies” were identified and massacres unleashed – the list of victims runs into millions and affects every major community. Communal myths are armed with nuclear bombs. There are boundaries and lines of control everywhere – in villages, urban areas and in the hearts and minds of people. Barbed wire, iron gates and armed security guards abound. Flagpoles of religious places compete with each other for height. Society is awash with fear. Judged by the outpourings of the guardians of “identity” and “culture”, outraged sentiment seems to be the dominant frame of mind – fighting its battles over cricket pitches, books, films, paintings and even archival collections.

Humanity is endowed with a capacity for long-term memory and institution building. This, coupled with the short life span of individuals, generates a natural tendency towards remembrance and its transmission to the young. For those interested in ideals of change and progress History is the truest laboratory of social theory. It is also the terrain of Identity, a category that sits uneasily with the ideal of human equality and which acts as a double-edged sword that in the past decade alone, has taken millions of lives in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. When history becomes the maidservant of a Cause, it undermines its own disciplinary procedures. It is true that no history is free of opinion, tendency and even bias. Historians convictions undoubtedly affect their output. However, just as the (imaginary) Euclidian point is essential to geometry, the search for balanced judgements and truth in its entirety has to remain an ideal, even if a manifestly unattainable one, for history.

This is a painful commitment, because history materials are recalcitrant for dogma. None of us like our beliefs being challenged. Gandhians do not want to be reminded of the repercussions of the Khilafat movement or the Congress’ attitude to the naval mutineers of 1946. Communists are defensive about the stance of the CPI during World War II; and the Adhikari resolution with its support for Partition. Propagandists of Savarkar do not advertise the fact that he supported the British war effort, was not averse to Mahasabha participation in the Muslim League ministry of NWFP in 1943, and was one of the main accused during the Gandhi murder trial. The Pakistan Ideology Act restrains Pakistani historians from questioning the two-nation theory or even writing a non-tendentious account of Jinnah’s career. The RSS might not like to be reminded that in May 1947 the Akhil Rajya Hindu Sabha under the J&K state RSS chief, Prem Nath Dogra, passed a resolution on Kashmir stating that “a Hindu state should not join secular India”. Or that their preferred Congress icon Sardar Patel accused RSS men of distributing sweets upon Gandhi’s assassination. Trotskyists don’t dwell much on Trotsky’s role in the Soviet military action against the Kronstadt sailors in 1921, Stalinists don’t remember any state terror and mock trials in the USSR in the 1930’s. Nazi apologists don’t recall the Holocaust and Zionists suffer amnesia about the terrorist activities of the Haganah and Stern gangs in 1948. Japanese historians are defensive about the massacres in Nanking and Shanghai in the 1930’s and maybe some day Chinese historians will forget that China waged war on Vietnam in 1979 in tandem with the USA.

The list is endless, and extends into stereotypical analysis. The last number in 1999 of Time sums up the history of the 20th century as a victory of “free minds and free markets over fascism and communism”. Along with Clinton’s essay in the same number it misrepresents the victory of the Allies in World War II as a victory of the USA and Roosevelt – completely omitting the role of the Red Army and the fact that the USSR lost over twenty million dead, compared to less than 3 lakh Americans. I do not mean to imply that all viewpoints are equally good or bad, or that history provides us no lessons. From the welter of denial and partiality, we may glean lessons, truths and hope – but our values determine what those lessons are. This is where historical discernment comes in. Our profession has to be informed by respect for human experience (and not just “Hindu” or “Islamic” experience). The historian has to be an iconoclast or risk becoming a propagandist.

For some ideological currents, history is a saga of victory and defeat, strength and weakness. The fear of ambivalence is characteristic of these tendencies, addicted as they are to a notion of Absolute Truth – more deadly when it is attached to state power. In their hands, history is pure polemic. Thus, Savarkar’s speech to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1942 spoke of India in 1600 as being “a veritable Pakistan”, with “Hindustan being wiped out”, and India in 1700 witnessing the march of triumphant Hinduism. This communal anachronism is repeated by a Pakistani textbook of 1982, which teaches that in the 16th century, “`Hindustan’ disappeared completely and was absorbed in ‘Pakistan'”. Why has our historical intellect has undergone such gross perversion?

Commenting upon Bharat Bhushan’s article The Other Italian Connection (HT Feb 18), K.R. Malkani attempts to refute him (Feb 23) by stating that the RSS was founded six years before Moonje visited Italy, that its heroes were Indians, and that Gandhi also met Mussolini. Here is an example of history as polemic. Malkani does not address the point that it was the militaristic mind-set of fascism, not its specific heroes that inspired Moonje. For than matter, German, French or Hungarian ultra-rightists had their own “national” heroes. Mussolini seized power in 1922, and the fascist movement’s ideological impact upon certain Indians was evident by the time the RSS was founded in 1925 – hence the numerous appreciative articles on fascism in the Marathi journal Kesari between 1924 and 1935. The citation of Gandhi’s visit to Italy is disingenuous. Whereas Moonje was greatly impressed by Mussolini, Gandhi told the latter that his state was “a house of cards”, and had a dim view of the man, “his eyes are never still”. Why does Malkani render Moonje’s trip into an innocuous replica of Gandhi’s?

In the debate on the withdrawal of the ICHR volumes, government protagonists have stated that their authors reduced Gandhi to a footnote. It is ironic that persons whose sympathies lie with the politics of Gandhi’s assassin repeatedly take refuge behind Gandhi’s memory. Let us address the issue differently. Gandhi was a proponent of ahimsa. Hinduttva’s proponents believe that Hindus are too pacific and tolerant – even cowardly. They need to become militant. Their heroes are those whom they identify as warriors, violent patriarchs. Their cultivated obsession with revenge and their constant evocation (in the company of every variety of communalist) of wounded sentiment as a justification for “direct action”, make it necessary for us to ask the government to clarify its position on violence. We are faced with a complete subjugation of institutional norms to sentiment – which has been elevated to a level superior to the needs of civic order and criminal justice. Is it surprising that a retired CBI director should be so fond of the Bajrang Dal, an organisation known more for muscle than mind? That a former union minister encouraged the violent intimidation of a film unit? That the vandalisation of the BCCI office in Mumbai should have been condoned by a Chief Minister, who saw no reason for a police case? Is it their case that the violence of Naxalites is wrong but the violence unleashed by outraged sentiment is acceptable? Do they have the courage to say so explicitly once and for all?

The monopolists of identity have worked assiduously to produce justifications for the militarisation of civil society. An elderly social reformer can be ruthlessly assaulted for challenging the powers of a religious head. (Whatever happened to the democratic rights of minorities within the minorities?). Demands may now be voiced (rather late in the day) for a ban on Dante’s Inferno. Professors may be assaulted for suggesting that the ban on Satanic Verses be lifted. (A prominent Congressman had a lot to do with this). Viewings and shootings of films can be violently disrupted. Historical analyses of the Granth Sahib can result in threats of excommunication for the scholar. (How brave all these militants are!). And when the discussion ought to focus on the rule of law, we indulge in literary criticism, film appreciation etc. Surely the point ought rather to be whether bad authors and filmmakers have a right to remain alive, with their bones intact. Whether the government can ensure a peaceful resolution of conflicts or if strong-arm men may run amuck because they have friends in high places. Gandhi rendered Hindus nirvirya and napunsak, said Godse at his trial. As a historian I beg to differ. Gandhi had greater physical courage than most politicians in his time or after – not many of today’s luminaries would venture forth without protection after three attempts at assassination. His ahimsa was a name for restraint, without which no society may survive, and no institutions gather strength. Let us stop flaunting our boringly delicate sentiments, and address ourselves to the deliberate inculcation of fear and revenge. Those who care about human survival can see their future in the mirror of history.