Manpreet Badal, the Finance Minister of Punjab, through his “law of historical memory”, has decided to erase the domineering memories of India being a country of losers and focus on the grand achievements of Indians. Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has since claimed that Badal was expressing a personal opinion. Badal though is following the time-honoured strategy of sporting coaches: Think like a winner to be a winner. After all, things that are deemed to be real, often have real consequences.
By suggesting a new law for historical representation in public spaces, Badal has done what the Shiv Sena, BJP and the Congress had feared doing, even as they went about twisting history to their liking by renaming roads and buildings, and punishing anyone who wrote a history of which they disapproved. Not that professional historians were different. Irfan Habib, among historians of repute, has been on record saying that professional historians select facts that fit their narrative and ignore others. That does suggest that history writing is open to being diddled by anyone who chooses.
Long ago, the Congress government had started writing history textbooks under the aegis of the NCERT with the stated objective of moulding young Indians in a manner approved by the government. This unleashed a barrage of history writing. On the one extreme were crackpots whose research insisted that the Taj Mahal was a Shiva temple or a Rajput palace. On the other were historians who explained away mass killings and temple-destructions as stray events driven by political expediency. What was common to both was the tremendous whining about exploitation by outsiders. Such outsiders, like the Turks, Farsis and Afghans, who settled here were exempted from deep criticism and attracted appreciation for having contributed to Indian culture. Special venom was reserved for the English, partly because they went back to England, draining some of the fabled wealth of India. It did not matter that the days of India being the soné ki chiriya because of its hand-made cloth, saltpetre and indigo were already over.
The people were more interested in knowing about other issues from the past. But the historian, even while accepting the importance of myths and memories for reconstructing history, considered it beneath his/her dignity to allow scientific investigations into myths. Rather, they took ghoulish pleasure in thwarting research into topics of popular curiosity like the Ram setu, or a search for the vanished Saraswati.
Professional historians were soon sucked into the game of shaming Indian culture and civilisation that the English had begun in the 19th century. The English might have had an ideological agenda in showing up India as a country needing a dose of even-handed English justice and equality but, what might have driven the Indian historians? For, soon enough, the shaming game evolved into one where it became fashionable to define India as something that did not exist before English rule. Given our weak traditions of history writing and the copious accounts left by British officers and history writers, we are stuck with a one-sided view of the past. That Indians should accept such stories is not so easy to understand. Could such self-flagellation be the result of them being a demoralised people?
By proposing the new law, Badal has ensured that the public will be told about, and positive stories be associated with, the Indian past. It is time that the colonial narrative of India as obscurantist and oppressive was tested against historical evidence. It is true that history tends to be mostly about winners, who get the right to suppress truth. But outsiders cannot be used as reference points for historical memories by a society.
As if to underline the extent to which we look at outsiders to define our history, we have the report that tells of how the last survivor of Jallianwala Bagh praised the then British Prime Minister for his condemnation of the event.
Hopefully, what Manpreet Badal is now saying would focus our energies on our internal resources for nation building. Minimally, this would help people to stop complaining about the past and show some sense of confidence in their abilities to manage the present.