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Friday, October 29, 2010

Remembering right

India is a country with a rich history and poor historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a court in Normandy ordered the prosecution of the Mayor of the small French hamlet of Gonneville-sur-Mer for his refusal to take down a photograph of Marshal Philippe Petain, the head of the Vichy Government from 1940 to 1944. The photograph had, along with photographs of other presidents, hung on a wall in the Council chamber for the past 70 years. Earlier this year, however, a visitor claimed to be offended by it and reported the matter to the League against Racism and Anti-Semitism which in turn initiated proceedings.

The Court ruled against the Mayor. It accepted the prosecution plea that Petain was "the very embodiment" of a regime that, apart from collaborating with the occupation forces, was also xenophobic and virulently anti-Semitic. The judgment also coincided with new revelations that Petain personally had a hand in the laws that excluded Jews from French public life after 1940.

The Mayor and his Council didn't contest the ignominy associated with Petain and the Vichy regime. Petain, he argued, couldn't be written out of the pages of history: "The figure of Marshal Petain has its place in the Town Hall, as do memories of the most painful and most glorious moments in our history."

The Mayor may well have been echoing General Charles De Gaulle, the man whose uncompromising resistance to the Vichy regime and the German occupation allowed France to emerge with its honour intact after Liberation. In a speech during a visit to the town of Vichy on April 18, 1959, De Gaulle struck an emotional note: "…history is a continuous thread. We are one people and whatever ups and downs we may have suffered, whatever events we may have seen, we are the great nation of France…I say this in Vichy. The past is finished. Long live Vichy! Long live France! Long live the Republic!"

This scarcely-remembered speech (quoted by historian Henry Ruosso in his much-acclaimed The Vichy Syndrome) didn't however permeate into the innards of France. The awkward reality of a vast section of patriotic French people having endorsed Petain's truce with the Germans as a way out of further humiliation is undeniable. Contemporary accounts suggest that till the tide of war changed with the German defeat in Stalingrad, the average French person accepted Petain's National Revolution as a viable approach to restoring national honour. Certainly, Vichy stalwarts like Petain, Pierre Laval and Robert Brassilach—all three convicted of treason after Liberation—perceived themselves as fiercely patriotic.

The awkwardness of having adjusted to the short-lived German occupation and ending up on the wrong side of history has troubled a large section of France. This may explain why, till very recently, embarrassed silence greeted attempts to probe too deep into the Vichy experience. In his own way, the Mayor of Gonneville-sur-Mer has challenged this evasion.

There may be few apparent similarities between the French discomfiture with Petain and Germany's handling of its Nazi past. Ever since the second Auschwitz trials in 1977, Germany has unambiguously owned up to its responsibility for the Holocaust and other horrors. There have been German apologies to Israel, Poland, Russia, and countries where the swastika flew at some point during World War II. Indeed the earnestness with which Germany has atoned for its Nazi past once prompted Avi Primor, a former Isaeli ambassador to Germany, to once ask: "Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?"

The willingness of Germany to confront its troubled past and yet not be overwhelmed by it took another leap this month when the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened its exhibition "Hitler and the Germans—Nation and Crime". The exhibition addresses the issue that, until the late-1960s, many Germans were unwilling to confront: that Hitler would have been nothing had he not received the enthusiastic support of the German people. The curators deliberately kept the exhibits prosaic. The idea was to show the extent to which both ordinary Germans and the elite accepted Hitler and deified him.

There is, of course, a real danger that in being obsessed with confronting the inheritance of the Third Reich the other facets of "German genius" may be overlooked—an argument made forcefully by the English writer Peter Watson. Watson's contention that Germany did itself incalculable harm by endorsing the Nazis—without Hitler, the 20th century may well have been Germany's century and not America's—is compelling and may serve to offset the impact of the guilt-tripping commentaries that have accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel's robust interventions on economic and social policy. Unlike France which is still squeamish about its Vichy past, Germany appears to have handled its history with incredible maturity.

The German experience has a bearing on India's uncertain clumsy experiments with the past. At the most basic level, India is happiest obfuscating many centuries of history under the mantra "5,000 years of culture and civilisation". 'Official' India is most troubled when something like the dispute in Ayodhya erupts and a High Court judgment resurrects an issue that has been frozen in denial—the destruction of shrines under the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls.

The troubling feature of India is the growing chasm between popular historical memory and the officially endorsed 'nation-building' history. In the popular perception, there was widespread medieval vandalism and India is dotted with physical evidence of a shrine that was either destroyed or whose denominational character was changed. Yet, since the early-1970s, historians whose works are deemed 'respectable' have wilfully glossed over themes that apparently run counter to an idyllic syncretic or composite culture. In schools and universities, narrative history has been junked in favour of a crude economism. It is somehow felt that 'nation building' will be better served by focussing on the economic intricacies of feudal societies rather than the bigoted excesses of Aurangzeb. Outright denial or obfuscation has become hallmarks of a country with a rich history and poor historians.

Unfortunately, the experiments with disingenuity haven't really worked. Academic historians constituted themselves into a cosy club during the Ayodhya agitation claiming that the whole Ram Janmabhoomi belief was an elaborate hoax and, most likely, a sinister colonial creation. No shrine, they insisted, had been destroyed to make way for a mosque in 1528. Far from neutralising the Ram bhakts, this negationism actually drove the devout into greater bouts of frenzy, culminating in the demolition of the 16th century shrine. Had the more pertinent question—Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs?—been asked, it is entirely possible that society wouldn't have been so damagingly polarised. The battle to set back the clock of history was actually a crusade to right the wrongs of historians.

"Our history", the British Education Secretary Michael Gove said last month while unveiling an initiative to restore narrative history to the school curriculum, "has moments of pride and shame, but unless we fully understand the struggles of the past, we will not properly value the liberties of the present." It's an enlightened message that could just as well be relevant for India.

History is essentially a conversation between the past and the present, an engagement that doesn't follow a pre-determined script. However, this scintillating encounter will be hideously distorted if the past is bowdlerised to suit contemporary fashion. India is paying the price for trying to learn from a history built on questionable certitudes.

The Telegraph, October 29, 2010


Tarun Malaviya said...

Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat It - George Santayana

Keep up the good work Swapna Da.

Anonymous said...

Guess who's on the cover of today's Bangalore Mirror? Ramachandra Guha. Did David Cannadine earn the distinction of making to the cover page of London's Daily Mirror? We can now proudly claim that India has tabloid historians too ...

Raghu said...

History, by default, is a narrative of the victor. Survivorship bias is most evident in historic records.

satyam said...

hmmm...hard hitting...
but i think sir icse school syllabi books have great history books... for one there was an entire chapter on the ruinous reign of aurangzeb.. no words minced whatsoever.....

captainjohann said...

As Raghu said History is a narrative of the Victor clothed as Truth. Hindu Kings have vandalized Jain temples and Budhist Viharas and even they very cleverly obliterated cultural history that the Tamil Saint poet Thiruvalluvar of Thirukural was not known to many Tamils was a Jain saint.The placing of Shiv lingh in Bodh Gaya is another point. As Ayodhya was a political movement, it is incumbent on the leaders who started this to EDUCATE the Indian Muslims that in fact a Temple was destroyed by Mir baqi to build this Mosque( I will call it a structure) because it did not have essential requisites of a masjid. I was dumbstruck when i visited the Mosque on first week of December 1992 that the four black granite Karpoori stones jutting out from the central dome was part of an ancient temple. this point was NOT publicized by any the national media(both print and visual) of that time.In fact even today many an Indian Muslim feels cheated by the judgement because he doesn't know the truth about the structure. It is here I think the Shiv sainiks who destroyed it have done a great
disservice to Indian unity at the behest of I feel USA.

Independent Thinker said...

Hello Swapan,

You write "Must India spend its energies overturning medieval wrongs?"

Arguably the caste system is a historical wrong. Should we not overturn it ?

I think we should right those wrongs which could lead us to a better future. Pandering to militant religious/casteist displays is unlikely to point us in that direction.

bookz said...

Thank you Swapan.
I have observed increased attempts to white wash pre-Islamic history of India. The general tactics are to demean and attempt to discredit prominent historians and the Archeological Survey of India by dubious means.
ASI has to constantly fight off allegations of being a Hindutva organization whenever it tries to dig up some pre-Islamic dirt.
Here is an example.

KR said...

Isn't the situation with history is a manifestation of the insecurity felt by secular minded people? Neither Jinnah's Pakistan nor Savarkar's Hindustan were expected to have room for secular people, although religious minorities were perfectly okay. Thus any official acknowledgement of earlier times now stands the risk of turning seculars into stateless persons searching for a place to call their own.

Anonymous said...


The French have not been as squeamish about their Vichy past as it may seem to you. Films set during the WW2 (Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien and Au revoir, les enfants) or even the commercially driven retelling of Belmondo's Les Misérables, and the works of a host of other artiststes have tried to to be plainspoken without any artifice. Leaders too have been unequivocal. If there is one country that finds it hard to come to terms with its murderous past, it is the United States. Although Hollywood has done its bit, Bury my Heart at wounded Knee, and the many films about Vietnam as well as evena Bruce Springsteen's acerbic "Born in the USA" have screamed, the establsihment politician and the official history is silent.

Anonymous said...

Swapan, There is an interview today in the TOI of Irfan Habib where he says that the judges are incapable of judging the historians who deposed in court. Why does the Mainstream Media publish only these people? Is it any surprise that the muslims and a few hindus have an entirely different worldview since they read nothing else?

THOMAS said...



balaji said...

I cant believe how a civilisation which did wonderful pieces of architecture like this ended up in the way that we are now.

balaji said...

Look at the detail in thee Parsvnath Temple amazing looks like a thousand figures are carved in a square meter of stone

satyam said...

sir not updating your blog regularly??? read a few of ur articles elsewhere

Anonymous said...


The so called "eminent historians" had been thoroughly exposed by Arun Shourie in his book, and yet they are still considered as "historians". Why?