“We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
History has its ways, ways that a lot of people fail to understand, especially people like me who were engineers, who have always been science students were evolved on the tenets of cause-and-effect. How far from the truth, the idea of the irrelevance of History could have been, struck to me, a few years back when I was researching on my family tree. It was an eye-opener and has always intrigued me ever since. All my literary endeavours of those times seem like ballad-mongering, all due to the skewed perspective of the importance of History.
History opened up the idea of relevance when I revisited the tales of my ancestors about the role they played in the concept of minimalism and controlled consumerism among their fellow countrymen. Especially, when relating to them with contemporary works like ‘Consumerism in World History: The Global Transformation of Desire’ by Peter N. Stearns’. There are other works like ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ by Yuval Noah Harari which have significantly influenced the thought process of an engineer – always trying to visit the cause-and-effect tenet! Thus the tales of my ancestors which I hold as a matter of belief, have become deeply ingrained. So much so, that in spite of not being verified beyond word of mouth, these will remain as part of me until the end.
Thus, I approach the question of the relevance of history to our existence in the present and the future.
The Story of India
There are some versions of Indian History written by people with their perceptions – I won’t scandalise, by saying that these are coloured, but one must understand the idea of writing history is greatly influenced by what is one’s background. When it comes to recording History, some influential factors come into play – what particular group of academicians does the writer represent or what school of thought does (s)he belong to or maybe which country one represents and so on and so forth. Rarely, one comes across a work of History which is purely recorded as a series of events without the biases created by the above-said factors. Then, to top it all, add the variations of a geographical region called the Indian sub-continent or if I may say India, the nation. The vagaries of considering all possible perceptions before we come to the established version cannot be imagined even as a possibility, and at best can be termed as conflicting. An example of how History should be helping us but fails to improve is the idea of identity. Thus, the originality of the concept of what is the Indian character is enormously confusing and often gets dropped. Same happens to other facets of History. In the Indian context, it is so varied and fragmented and therefore confusing that people start asking its relevance.
So, seemingly the best option is to question the relevance of History, for it does not help directly, say, in innovations in the field of Information Technology, the design of driverless cars, space exploration or medical science etc., etc. So? Well, why not drop it all together? That is a sad cry from some corners.
That I comprehend, would be such a sad thing to say. I will now attempt to substantiate it with examples where History has been helping – one wants it or not, does not matter.
The Case Of Caste System In India
Well, it is a pretty huge fight out there in the mainstream media, television, politics and almost every aspect that touches an average Indian? The conflict remains unresolved because History does not offer adequate resources to set a benchmark. Well, if you want a solution – you have to assimilate the History in a way that is most accepted by the most Indians. Something that will need shedding of professional and social egos – a tall order in the present times. It is a considerable challenge, but then solutions to such issues can either be found in logic provided by History or not at all; at least in a democratic setup like ours. To find out solutions without the help of History would be like establishing a hypothesis based on the contemporary understanding of the case and setting out to experiment one question after another before a solution seems possible. Well, that is the Scientific Method of handling issues. It cannot work here, because the samples are human societies and not anything else. The problem gets further compounded by the conflicting vested interests of champions of a group or community of people.
The same is true for the understanding of trade deals and military alliances with other nations at the macro level.
Thus, History is essential.
The Case For Our Civic Sense
So negative has been written about the idea of the civic sense of an average Indian, that, one is often made to feel that we as Indians would have been the last of the Homo-sapiens to have evolved. Feel hurt; well take the solace in History, and I am sure that we would be able to change that retrograde idea to the feel-good factor of where we come from. Ancient India is replete with examples of consideration for others; something of which we have come to realise does not exist anymore; something that forms the basis of all sets of civic sense. Studying the past gives stories of heroes which we can emulate. Gandhiji talked about ‘Cleanliness being next to Godliness”. Had it not been for the History, Swatch Bharat Abhiyan may not have caught up with the common man who so readily identifies with the Father of The Nation, irrespective of the segment of society to which (s)he belongs. That is the exact reason why Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi chose 2nd October for the mission to clean India.
The same holds good for any reform that good governance desires to undertake – be it in agriculture sector or the education infrastructure.
Thus, History does galvanise goodness.
The Case of An Indian identity
We talked about the Indian Identity. Where does that come from, if not History? The great struggle for Independence, the sacrifices of people for independent nationhood, the subsequent conflicts with our neighbours and the legendary bravery of Indian soldiers, the stories of famines, droughts and earthquakes that brought people together and many such stories. Somewhere, in those stories lies the modern Indian identity. How come, India happens to be a democratic nation that flourishes as against our neighbours that wither away, devastated by bad policies and terrorism.The story of our high-value constitution and the efforts of the pioneers and visionaries who toiled to put forth a document that would survive the differences between people and then go a step forward to bind them together.
The same is true for the many tribal people of India as much as the royalty that we sometimes have a glimpse of.
Thus, History has an importance that cannot wish away.
The Case for Change
The talks in various thinking circles, political debates and the drawing-room discussions of the ordinary citizens often revolve around the wish to change. Well, turn from what and to what? What is the benchmark? What needs to change? How do things need to change? All the questions and answers willy-nilly home on to some chapter of our History – howsoever fragmented it may be. Where do those benchmarks come from, if not History? So, those among us who do not find History useful will be found wanting to talk of change without the essential terms of reference – an exercise in futility. If one is concerned about the change, one should also be worried about History. That is how important is History.
Such use of historical benchmarks will be used for change, to improve societies.
Thus, History is the basis of change all concerned citizens yearn for.
Our History lacks the integrity that is often seen in the contemporary Western History. Some portions of our History is also motivated and inspired to change those benchmarks. A lovely example is the British version of History of India which has been shattered by the pioneering work of Mr Shashi Tharoor: “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” But then we are a reasonably young nation. It may be fragmented, and it may be unverified. A lot has been erased and distorted, but we as worthy citizens we need to vet it and adopt a version what we all can call it as ours. Let time pass while the Historians do their bit, and we too will have a History that is better than the best.
History will affect the future, that is for sure. It is not for nothing that there are adages like “History repeats itself”. Be it an administrator, a military general, a diplomat, a social worker, a business person or for that matter any other citizen – they all are writing a history of their own, so slowly that some of us feel that History has lost its importance in shaping the future. Every Indian turns to History, if for nothing, then for seeking and establishing an identity worthy of living and emulating. If for nothing, then for leaving a legacy a little better. A legacy which (s)he hopes her/his offspring would be proud of.
Even if we for a moment decide that we should not allow the History to determine the future, it cannot happen. For, in such a case all the benchmarks for good governance and practical problem-solving in the domains of social development and even scientific growth would be lost. Can that be an acceptable situation? I think not. It is History that has changed the way we exist and continue to do so.
Thus, if someone says that History should not affect us, then the person should be questioned at various levels to see that it indeed does not change her/him. Then, (s)he would be from Utopia, something that does not exist.