Thursday, December 10, 2015

Can History be Civilised?


English philosopher, C E M Joad, defined civilisation as thinking new thoughts, making new things, and obeying the rules for the smooth functioning of the society.  Yet we don’t find such people in our history books.  Our history books are filled with people who killed others, conquered their lands, and imposed themselves on other people. 

How many Indians have heard of Satyendranath Bose though there is a subatomic particle (Boson) named after him?  How many Indians are ready to recognise the name Ali Akbar Khan though he is known to the world as the Indian Johann Sebastian Bach?  Why does the genius of a Shakespeare get eclipsed by a Queen Elizabeth in history books though Shakespeare’s contribution to civilisation far outweighs that of the Queen? 

These are some of the many thoughts that crossed my mind as I read the very long article by A. G. Noorani, ‘India’s Sawdust Caesar,’ in the latest issue of Frontline.  “A year and a half after he became Prime Minister of India on May 26, 2014, the people of India have begun to discover that Narendra Damodardas Modi is a flawed character who has proved himself unfit to sit on the chair on which Jawaharlal Nehru once sat.”  That’s how the article begins. 

Nehru made significant contributions to civilisation.  Even if we ignore his contributions as a statesman, his writings will be enough to ensure a prominent place for Nehru in the history of India if history stops giving undue importance to killers and conquerors.  How will history remember Mr Modi?

Noorani quotes a cable sent by Michael S. Owen, the U.S. Consul General in Mumbai, in 2006 to his bosses in America: “In public appearances, Modi can be charming and likeable. By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person who rules with a small group of advisers. This inner circle acts as a buffer between the Chief Minister and his Cabinet and party. He reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory to even high-level party officials. He hoards power and often leaves his Ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios.”

Source: Frontline
How will history books celebrate Modi?  It will depend on who writes the history, of course. 

Noorani cites instances that prove the little-mindedness of the Prime Minister.  For example, gifting a copy of the Gita to the Japanese Emperor, Modi said, “I do not know what will happen in India after this. There may be a TV debate on this. Our secular friends will create toofan [storm] that [sic] what does Modi think of himself. He has taken a Gita with him. That means he has made this one also communal.”  Modi was ridiculing his own country in another country. 

Another example: On September 23 in Dublin, Modi praised Indo-Irish students for reciting Sanskrit mantras, but in a manner that he can never shed: “It is a matter of happiness that they can do it in Ireland, but had this been done in India, it would have raised questions on secularism.” 

Which Prime Minister of a country, especially if he claims to be in love with the country and its culture as Modi does, will belittle his own country in a foreign country like this?

Yet how will this man go down in history books?  How much of his personality and its dark truths be buried, how much of the other side exaggerated? 

Why is history like this?

These are just some of the thoughts that crossed my mind.  I suppose there are no answers except that that is how history is.  If you want Bose and his boson, you should study science.  If you want Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, you should have music in your veins.  And if you want Shakespeare, be literate enough.   

But if history is what interests you, you will get marauders and conquerors.  History cannot be civilised, it seems.


PS.  Mr Modi is taken as an example here merely because it is an article about him that triggered these thoughts in me.  There are many, too many, leaders in the world today who can trigger the very same thoughts.  That’s precisely the question: why are leaders like this?

12 comments:

  1. Something on my mind as well, had written a post this week on how history books present history with an example of Mughal history! The realm of the textbook is place of drama and war with every changing government, how modi gets written depends on as you say, who writes that portion.

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    1. Suppose we change our approach to history and present scientists, philosophers, and so on to students in such a way that they learn to question, investigate and discover. Instead of mugging up boring facts about who killed whom!

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  2. Well written and thought provoking..

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  3. I am genuinely thankful to the holder of this web page who has shared this fantastic paragraph at here.

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  4. Interesting article. History has been a complex subject that gives rise to debates because what one writes comes from his/her own 'situatedness' as well as 'affiliations. I think Gadamer had talked about 'understanding' it 'differently', and bringing one's own understanding to the historical text. I think history itself is a series of 'texts' that have been subjectively (masked objective) written.

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    1. History can never be objective, in short :)

      The article I have cited above illustrates it eloquently. America had refused to grant visiting visa to Mr Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 riots. However, later it revoked the decision because the same Consul General mentioned in the article suggested it. And the reason? Modi's meteoric popularity! The Consul General was sure Mr Modi would rise to national politics and in all probability become the PM. Then, if America changed the decision after that, it would be accused of opportunism. Hence he advised the diplomatic action of revoking the decision earlier. A few years from now, most people will forget these details and historians will make a new history: that even America realised its error with respect to Modi and the riots. That's how history works. It is manufactured. Heroes do not make history, history makes heroes, as a historian said.

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  5. Incidentally I knew all three, interestingly enough, I was always intrigued by history, but that did not yield any info. History as it goes is penned on corpses and other things that are not "civilized" why? because history was always written by the victors, who won a war and massacred. It is a great flaw in us to understate the good and magnify shady incidents as history

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    1. History inevitably belongs to the victor. See how the Indian history is being rewritten or attempted to be by the present BJP regime. A lot of RSS people have been appointed to relevant positions so that the process will be subtle but effective.

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  6. Leaders in the current world are hardly those who have been given that place by society,leaders are generally those narrow-minded people who are in that place today because 20,000 different methods were calculated before inculcating them in the "necessary" propaganda to earn the required profit.All of fundamentalism,hypocrisy,communal-ism are just the components of the entire process.

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    1. That's interesting, Titas. 20,000 calculated strategies!

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  7. Well written article. Enjoyed reading it. Very thought provoking.

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