The past is political, which makes interpreting it very tricky. In this post we try and illustrate some of the pitfalls involved in thinking about the past.
One common tendency is to look at the past from a position that is anchored in the present. If the anchor is political it nearly always leads to finding an interpretation of the past that helps to justify or strengthen the stance in the present. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani puts it very plainly: “In India, as elsewhere, present politics are shaped by conceptions of the past. Broadly, there have been two different descriptions of Indian history…”
We need not be concerned here with the details of the two descriptions. We only need to note that more than one interpretation of the same facts is possible and that the choice depends upon which political position in the present is being supported.
While this is a political choice, the second common tendency falls in the category of conceptual error. This involves applying the frameworks of the present to the events of the past.
We can begin with a simple example. We are familiar today only with the political form of the nation-state and unless we remain conscious of the fact that this is relatively recent we can place the past into the same political frame. For example, we could feel justified in expecting that the invaders of a thousand years ago should not have entered India and should have been conscious of the fact that they were doing something unacceptable.
This not only ignores the fact that there were no sovereign borders or entry visas at that time but also the fact that there was no such entity as India in existence. India as a geographically bound territory with borders was a much later creation of the British. The problem with such a position becomes obvious when the proponents are forced to also argue, in the face of much evidence, that there never was an Aryan invasion of the subcontinent. Rather, their imagined India was from time immemorial populated by the same people who by virtue of that fact have prior claims on the territory.
A second mental frame of the present pertains to the separation of religion and politics. Projecting this to the past leads to the claim that political conflicts should not have led to attacks on religion and that such attacks, which did indeed take place, were inevitably motivated by religious prejudice. That the reality is more complex than it appears becomes obvious as soon as one starts reading the work of serious historians. Susan Bayly of Cambridge University provides the corrective in her paper ‘Islam and State Power in Pre-Colonial South India’:
The problem that I have been dealing with over the last few years is how it might be possible to create a historical context for the study of South Indian religion…. All South Indian rulers – Hindu as well as Muslim – perceived religious institutions as repositories of power, and there is no real distinction here between the sacred and political power which these rulers were seeking to amass; in pre-colonial India, acts of religious benefaction were just as much a part of statecraft as the recruitment of an army, the forging of networks of alliances and affiliations, and the creation of a revenue system.
Once we get to terms with this feature of the past that is different from the present, we can also accept that it could have been possible for local Malwa rajas not only to loot pilgrims to Somanatha but to repeatedly attack the temple itself which was under the protection of the Chaulukya kings. Mahmud’s raid of the temple is a historical fact but one that is placed in this context of a non-distinction between the sacred and the political. Romila Thapar describes this context in an article that is much more richly supported in a later book (Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History, 2004).
Yet another reality of the present pertains to the stark communal divide between India’s two major religious communities. This too can be projected into the past lending the impression that the relations were always thus over the centuries. Susan Bayly notes this in her paper on South India:
This brings us to another difficulty in the way in which South India has been described in much of the literature. What has been assumed is that the whole of South India was and always had been ‘Hindu’ in the sense in which the term is used today. In fact, across most of the South, what we really have is a society in which what we now think of a fully developed tradition of high Hinduism was only just taking root…
Romila Thapar’s reading of contemporaneous documents shows that local people in Gujarat did not see all non-locals as homogenized Muslims but made distinctions between Turks and Arabs and had different relationships with them. She makes the point in her paper that part of our difficulty in understanding the past is that we continue to see it in terms of a binary projection backwards of the monolithic categories of Hindus and Muslims. This conclusion is even more categorical in her book where she notes that contemporaneous sources “provide evidence of the existence of multiple communities and glimpses of their relationship with each other. These tended to erode the notion of two dominant communities identified by religion.”
The conclusion from these examples is that while it is simple and convenient to see the past as a backward projection of the present, it can be grossly misleading. In India, it can make us view our situation as one characterized by an eternal clash of religions between two monolithic enemies aided and abetted by despicable ‘collaborators.’ This can certainly serve a political purpose in the present but it does not hold up to careful investigation.
The past is political because it is inherently complex and thus amenable to multiple interpretations. The only way one can hope to get close to an non-politically motivated understanding is to disengage from the compulsions of the present and imagine oneself in the world of the past. From that mental vantage point, one would need to rely on the evidence that is contemporaneous with the event or events under study.
Needless to say this is a tall order and most people prefer to take the easy way out. Not only that, they reject the views of those who take the trouble to systematically study the past in accordance with the accepted norms of historical research if the findings contradict their prior beliefs. And here we come full circle because this rejection too is evidence of the fact that the past is intensely political. Our loyalties in the present can be entirely dependent on our readings of the past and the present is almost always more important than the past.