India seems to have more history wars than a genuinely historical consciousness. Representing the past is fraught with controversy. This is even more so when the contemporary political stakes of history are high. We often engage with history to construct a pedigree for ourselves, not to come to terms with the past. Some of the current opening of historical questions has been overdue. The simplistic versions of history that the Congress peddled, that narrowing of icons it encouraged, needed to be challenged. And the culture of secrecy created by undue denial of access to documents has licensed conspiracy theories about the past. It is also the case that, as social undercurrents shift, so will the sense of the past.
The BJP’s big push to appropriate B.R. Ambedkar, beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ubiquitous references to him in 2014, is understandable. It exposes the Congress’s own fraught relationship with the past. Even if motivated by opportunism, the BJP’s move is a signal that the normative horizons of our democracy have shifted.
Political parties need to acknowledge the importance of Dalits. And they need to acknowledge the Constitution, with all its tensions, as the ultimate touchstone. The issue is not whether a political party can appropriate this or that icon. Reaching out to new constituencies, or even reinvention, is fair game in a democracy. It would be a churlish exercise of undue proprietary rights over leaders to suggest otherwise. It is also never a persuasive objection to say that a leader has been selectively appropriated. It is an unhistorical imagination that thinks icons can be used only whole, not piecemeal. After all, Nehru himself took Gandhi’s moral authority as he rejected his ideas, and the BJP conveniently forgets Syama Prasad Mookerjee on free speech. The issue is not the fact or partiality of the appropriation. It is whether it has been done with conviction and credibility, in service of worthy ideals.
A lot of these appropriations, whether of Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel or Subhas Chandra Bose, are so simple minded that they evoke suspicion. Another storm in the tea cup has been brewing over the Bose-Nehru relationship. The revelations that Bose’s family was under surveillance should prompt a deeper historical understanding of the relationship between surveillance and state power in a democracy, a historical truth few would want to confront. The idea that Nehru was not a saint but a complex politician is hardly news. But then there is this artificial creation of a Nehru-Bose divide, one to which neither of them subscribed. As Rudrangshu Mukherjee has argued magnificently in his tactfully understated Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives, they had immense personal affection and ideological affinity. If we were interested in a historical consciousness rather than a historical war, we would make the effort to ask the question that is central to the pathos of the book: how wrenching it was to Nehru to have to choose between Bose and Gandhi. It gives a sense of what it meant for Nehru to exercise judgement in the context of complex pulls: ideological affinity and brotherly love for Bose on one hand, and Gandhi’s moral authority and exercise of almost parental anger on the other. It has the sense of tragedy and complexity that most genuinely historical accounts possess. The book has one element of historical consciousness, empathy. We cannot forego our location in time and space. But genuine historical sensibility requires stepping outside one’s own skin a bit. In history wars, on the other hand, we scalp historical figures for our purposes.
Ambedkar was always a difficult figure because his mere presence was a reminder of just how superficially India has confronted the reality of its oppressive hierarchical past and present. The suspicion his appropriation evokes is whether it is in the service of liberation or concealment. Is talking about Ambedkar now an easy way of talking about caste, one that still does not have to confront the full scale of the moral horror that the institution represented? Günter Grass, who passed away on Monday, always reminded readers that if you have a genuinely historical consciousness, you better have a willingness to explore really dark and evil spaces, and that history and guilt are often inexorably tied together. The languages of politics and ideology, icons and conventional history, are often, even when being true to the facts, elaborate ruses to escape questions of complicity and guilt. But revelations about Grass’s own wartime career were also a demonstration of just how difficult it is to confront one’s own past. The reason why Ambedkar’s appropriation invites suspicion is that it does not seem to be accompanied by a sense of historical complicity or even guilt in the production of oppression. It does not even acknowledge the sense in which we failed Ambedkar: neither was caste annihilated, nor were constitutional values firmly established. Ambedkar as a mirror of our failings would evoke more credibility than Ambedkar as another occasion for self-congratulation.
Perhaps literature does a better job of accessing a deeper historical consciousness than the surface historical facts that we bandy about in history wars. As Haruki Murakami once wrote, “the truth is not in the facts”. In some ways, all societies escape from history through the veneer of facts and icons. And the reason they want to escape is this: our social arrangements are often constructed on foundations where people are targeted for being who they are. It can take an unprecedentedly murderous form, as Grass reminded us in the case of Germany. But it can also take less dramatic forms, where people are denied opportunity because of who they are. Confronting Ambedkar is confronting this fact.
It is also often said that India is peculiarly unsuited to a historical consciousness. In a superficial sense, that might be true. But in a deeper sense, the whole culture is permeated by the overdetermination of history. The sensibility underlying itihasa traditions like the Mahabharata is that each past action leaves an inescapable trace on you and the world. Indeed, all action has to reckon with these accumulated traces: there is no escaping them, and no running away. You can overcome the past, but by working through it rather than denying it; even the gods have to confront their own past deeds. It is a world thick with causality; complex chains of actions converge in historical events. The burden of the past, usually a forgotten transgression, fells even the mightiest, and order and justice is always a hard-won and precarious achievement. It is hard to imagine how a culture with this deep a historical sensibility has given itself over to political hagiography of the most superficial kind.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’