As I write, I hear some of the most tragic news stories from all over the world: Mumbai is racked by explosions yet again; a suggestion is put forth to end "Islamic terrorism" in India by disenfranchising Muslim citizens unless they admit to their Hindu ancestry; a European ultranationalist guns down scores of young people at a camp while detonating a bomb in the government headquarters in Norway; the American debt ceiling question is resolved with disastrous long-term consequences; the one hundredth and thirteenth anniversary of United States colonial control of Puerto Rico quietly passed. In their enormity as well as their everydayness, these are moments when the cross of History sits heavily on our collective shoulders.
As humans, we have taken History very seriously for the last two hundred years or so. Too seriously, as a matter of fact. We would be hard-pressed to find a country that does not teach History mandatorily in its education system. Perhaps there are exceptions that I am unaware of. But for most part and from a tender age, in the classrooms of citizenship that our schools invariably are, students are taught History - their history, as a people united under the sign of the nation. The History we are taught in schools rarely represents us as inhabitants of the expansive living world and only occasionally acknowledges us as members of a vast humanity. Our History primarily trains us to become citizens of a nation and denizens of a particular region within it.
The task of History is to narrate the past of a nation, as it happened, and good histories perform this business well. It carefully weighs evidence, examines it for veracity, and builds a narrative of national becoming. Indeed, History is unimaginable without its subject: a nation and its people. It inscribes a narrative of a people's common struggle for survival against all odds. As such, History requires heroes and villains; battles fought, lost and won; traitors and loyalists; golden and dark ages; rulers and subjects. And in a successful historical narrative of national becoming, heroes and loyalists win battles to establish a golden age whence subjects are, in effect, the true rulers.
We hear of these narratives in India too. Ashoka's reign of non-violence in the wake of his religious transformation by a Buddhist monk amidst the violence he had caused; Samudragupta's patronage to arts and letters after bringing the subcontinent into vassalage under his suzerainty, leading to a renaissance of Sanskrit literature; Harshavardhana’s charity and care for the poor of his reign; Akbar's policies of tolerance and multiculturalism in a society purportedly racked by religious difference and bigotry. Each one a national hero, great ruler, and, above all, a symbol of the nation’s becoming in the past.
National heroes apart, there are regional histories and their heroes as well. In an attempt to integrate the region into the nation, such pasts are now narrated as local chronicles. National histories speak of the remarkable emperors of the Chola and Pandya dynasties (to mention the most obvious ones) as the 'also ran' of the Indian past. These empires stretched into South East Asia, leaving an imprint on the region’s distinct culture. Nonetheless, these dynasts are recognized in nationalist histories as the purveyors of a specifically regional culture.
And if History has been unjust to the region in its attempt to frame it as a fragment of the national, it has perhaps been severely cruel to the margins: the women, Dalit and tribal populations, and the religious minorities, silencing them for most part and requiring them to prove their loyalty to itself and the nation time and again.
The past is replete with the possibility of alternative becomings that History effectively puts to rest. This is History’s task; indeed, its primary, though unacknowledged, task. Each retelling, therefore, is potentially an act of treason that carries in its womb the possibility of another. Indeed, a successful alternative retelling of the past is also the moment of birth of a new nation. It is not for nothing that nation-builders are consummate narrators of the official version of the past. Witness our own first Prime Minister and his ability to tell a riveting History.
The Discovery of India is a grand chronicle of the nation's becoming at the cusp of its birth. It had to argue against prominent voices that doubted the possibility of a nation in face of the enormous diversity within the subcontinent—voices of the Raj that were skeptical of any kind of unity in a region so plural, culturally, linguistically, and religiously. India was, at best, an administrative unit for the critics of the Indian national movement. Countering such opinions, nation builders emphasized India's diversity as its very strength and as the foundation of its future. Ironically, some of these claims were being made even as the subcontinent was in the middle of a bloody partition.
Since then, diversity itself has been enshrined as a slogan at the altar of our national History. It is displayed in cultural representations and during Republic Day celebrations. The choice remains between accepting a state-sponsored version of India's diversity and to celebrate it, or to face the ire of the nation, its people, its constitution, its law, and its peacekeeping forces. The nation may itself have emerged from an alternative retelling; it must, after its birth, vigorously defend a singular narrative.
Such singularities trace the sign of fear everywhere in the world. Tea partyists in the US to neo-Nazis in Europe to Hindu and Islamic ultranationalists in South Asia to Zionists in Israel to Stalinists during the Cold War era—this list of believers in a single, truthful History of the people could go on and on. It is perhaps not surprising that many share the notion of a historical wrong done to them in the past, which they now wish to correct through their acts and ideas. This historical wrong may be as hypothetical as the immigrant Mexican worker in the United States or as real as the horrors of the Genocide. Often, the desire to get even with real or perceived historical wrongs leads to a McCarthyite witch-hunt for an abstractly defined 'enemy'. Rarely, if ever, is anything resolved by rabid posturing. It merely demonstrates a will to power; and it never fails to recognize similar appeals to a singular truth elsewhere.
Such mutual recognition is evidenced by the recent tragedy in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian white supremacist and ultranationalist, who imagines himself as nothing short of a Christian crusader against the Islamization of Europe, notes a few unexpected allies in his detailed manifesto. One of these is Hindutva. Despite Breivik's Christian understanding of martyrdom and political action, he is not averse to recognizing non-Christian, 'pagan' allies in his overall war against Islam. Indeed, ultranationalists of all hue and cry, despite their seeming differences, make remarkable bedfellows in their endeavors for homogeneity and purity within a nation. Whether racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural, such homogeneity is the bedrock of extremist nationalism. History, invariably, emerges as the crucible wherein each citizen must prove her loyalty.
Perhaps it is time, then, to abandon such an all-consuming, single narrative based History and look for other forms of retelling the past to forge the present. Critical historians of South Asia have been engaged in precisely such a practice for the past three decades or so, writing the biography of the nation from its margins. To this, we may also add the efforts of those scholars who trace movements of the people beyond the territorial boundary of a single nation.
It is necessary in the current conjuncture to bring their insights and analysis into classrooms of citizenship, beyond the towers of academia where they currently hold significance. Foundation building pedagogy must push towards a deep plurality that demonstrates the fluid and changing nature of territorial boundaries, national identities, and patriotic loyalties, rather than pontificating on its exact opposite—as it now tends to do—by insisting on a nation in the past. Indeed, we must not merely narrate this plurality, but also emphasize its need and significance today, much more than in earlier times.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, US)