Don’t rewrite history, end it instead

Acute Angle

Are we about to make history by remaking it? Home Minister Amit Shah finally gave voice recently to the BJP’s hitherto unstated agenda of rewriting history to give it an Indian perspective. That, knowing the party, probably means a Hindutva perspective, which makes it a plan rooted in righteous indignation and pregnant with possibility, potentially mired in mischief.

Presumably, Shah means an attempt to correct the Left-Liberal slant given to Indian history. But the problem with rewriting history is that the temptation to keep going even after the said ‘correction’ is complete will be irresistible, especially when targeting a generation with a tenuous understanding of the past and an over-dependence on the University of WhatsApp.

So, what could start with countering the Aryan migration theory will progress to an account of how temples were desecrated, extolling and exaggerating the valour of Hindu kings and queens, according Dara Shikoh the recognition he missed during his severely truncated life and further blacken the name of Aurangzeb, who must be whirling like a horizontal dervish in his unmarked grave in Khuldabad.

Whether it falsifies a truth or rectifies a falsehood, rewriting history is problematic in other ways. If the Centre releases this genie, what is to stop every crank from propagating his or her version of the past? Recently, an exam paper in Gujarat queried students on how Mahatma Gandhi “committed suicide”. In an era where photoshop is art, abuse is prose and slander is poetry, is anything safe?

Clearly, rewriting history is a fraught exercise. Why not end the damn thing instead?

No, this is not a reference to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which famously posited that a global embrace of Western liberal democracy would signal the end of history (we are still waiting). It is, instead, a fantasy where parties on either side of the world’s festering wounds decide, instead, to bury the hatchet, nations move on, and focus instead on feeding their masses, lifting them out of poverty and unleashing innovation for the greater good.

Ending history in this way would demand contrition from the aggressor and magnanimity from the victim, followed by a determination to let the embers cool, never to be sparked again.

It’s not impossible. Take Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which ensured that one of history’s worst injustices, apartheid, did not provoke a bloodbath when the aggressors left office. A grand gesture is often called for in ending history: in Mandela’s case, it was his public embrace of the once-shunned South African rugby team, the Springboks, Afrikaans in name and white in composition, immortalised in the film Invictus.

Take the other great outrage of the 20th century, the Holocaust. The Germans have made almost a fetish of remembering and reliving the villainy of a generation gone by. Holocaust denial is a crime, and the other H-word seldom uttered in polite company. The decent German is determined to end history but end it slowly and deliberately, making sure that real regret insulates against the resurgence of a beast he fears lies buried deep in the national psyche.

At Jalianwalla Bagh last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury prostrated himself at the memorial to those butchered by the British, in one act doing more to end history than his political compatriots have done in a century. In an ideal world, that emphatic gesture would have come from the royal family or prime minister, and the Indians would have responded with grace and ended any discussion of compensation. That would have been tribute to the greatest history-ender of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, a fitting response to the concern about an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The Ayodhya temple has for years offered an opportunity to end history – liberals have long called for a garden or a hospital, or some such, instead of a temple or mosque. Don’t hold your breath, though. Brace, instead, for the sound of conches, cymbals and war cries in temple after rebuilt temple.

If one were to take the end of history literally, let’s remember to retain a few musty corners in every library, where dog-eared tomes offer a primer on the history of history. In real terms, though, the end of history is really the end of resentment, not the end of the study of evolution in its widest sense.

In any case, history buffs needn’t worry. Ending history, with a determination to keep it ended, is likely to remain a pipedream in most cases. What would political parties around the world that depend on righting historic ‘wrongs’ do if those wrongs are expunged by a show of repentance and grace?

(Sitaraman Shankar lives for the space between the headline and the story)

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