On Thinking About the Past

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.


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27 Responses to “On Thinking About the Past”

  1. Vinod Says:

    What I love about an unbiased study of history is that it shows the present as only one among many possibilities and that there are other possibilities to the present. This awareness of the possibilities of the present as it uncovers the future is so energizing to reform the present.

  2. kabir Says:

    “The past is political”. This is why, as Vinod points out, the study of history is so important. More people need to be exposed to the academic rigor of social science. In South Asia, we have seen how flawed interpretations of history and some outright lies have been taught to school children, who then grow up to be “educated” IT people, and bankers– yet who believe for example, that every Indo-Pak war was started by India and was won by Pakistan. Which is just wrong, but that’s what the national, jingoistic propoganda teaches them

  3. Vinod Says:

    yet who believe for example, that every Indo-Pak war was started by India and was won by Pakistan

    And on this side it is the belief that every war was started by Pakistan to expand its islamist plans for the world. If only the two could meet…:)

  4. kabir Says:

    Lol Vinod, the same nuts exist on both sides of the Radcliffe Line.. their pet theories are just different:)

  5. Indophile Says:

    Thanks for Susan Bayly’s link, it was very informative. Do you have any link/data about the migration of South Indian Muslims to Pakistan ? I am also very much interested in their general absorption in the mainstream culture which was very much Punjabi/North Indian in nature.

  6. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Indophile: I agree the Susan Bayly paper is enlightening. I can try and give an impressionistic view of the migration of South Indian Muslims to Pakistan although I do not have any definitive link/data at this time. There was virtually no migration of non-Urdu speakers from South India. The only sizable community to migrate was the Urdu speakers from Hyderabad who felt compelled to leave after the Indian annexation in 1948. The majority of these migrants were associated with the service of the Nizam and were relatively better educated.

    In general they did not assimilate well in the dominant culture of Pakistan and like other educated communities that were outside the mainstream (like Parsis, Bahais, Anglo-Indians) were disproportionately represented among those who further migrated out of Pakistan. I hope someone can substantiate these impressions.

    Hyderabad (Deccan) and Hyderabad (Sindh) were both culturally very rich cities. But to put the residents of one in the other involuntarily would be close to a sentence of death. Try imagining it.

  7. Anil Kala Says:

    If past is political, shouldn’t we try to make it irrelevant? After all there is always the possibility that commonly held beliefs may be true or are we discounting it? No matter what we do now, past is not going to change therefore the message has to be look forward….

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: Before the British no one wrote history in India – the only accounts that existed were the court chronicles of kings and the accounts of travelers. It was the British belittling of Indian traditions (beginning with James Mill’s History of British India) that prompted Indians to write their own history. It was only Gandhi who saw the danger in this British ‘habit of writing history’ and said “I believe that a nation is happy that has no history.”

      Gandhi’s views did not carry the day and different histories of India were written and are still being written. We can’t make the past irrelevant because everything that is being done in the present finds its justification in some past – commonly held beliefs rest in one or the other interpretation of the past which is why there are conflicting beliefs.

      The events of the past are not going to change but their interpretations will keep changing depending upon the needs of the present. Instead of ignoring the past (which we can’t) my recommendation would be to teach an appreciation of the historical method in schools so that people are aware that many interpretations can coexist, that the past can be used for political ends. We need educated, aware, thinking citizens not ignorant ones. We need to equip our citizens so that they can tell good history from bad.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        This is the weakest reply from you, SA. The only utility of history is to learn from mistakes. Any serious scrutiny of history implies we are holding ourselves responsible for acts of our ancestors. The rational thing is – we are not Indians or Pakistani or Hindus or Muslims due to our efforts neither are we Rwandan Hutus due to our clumsiness, if so we may as well declare a lottery winner a hero! Let us assume Mohammed of Ghazni was a radical Islamic fanatic who raided Somnath with the express purpose of breaking idol, destroy Hindu icon thereby weaken their faith and loot being only secondary intention. What does it matter? Do all future generation of Muslims owe Hindus pay back? The point I am emphasizing is that people should be made aware that it is quite irrational to look at history as some kind of obligation. Therefore we need not equip people to tell good history from bad but emphasize to them to regard history pointless.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: We must have different things in mind otherwise we cannot have such a fundamental misunderstanding. I don’t see how “any serious scrutiny of history implies we are holding ourselves responsible for acts of our ancestors.” There are hundreds of thousands of history departments in the world – their task is not to assign blame. We can learn from mistakes but that also is not the “only utility of history.” Mahmud raided Somnath – what do we learn from that? Especially if we do not know why Mahmud raided Somnath.

          Suppose someone says to you that the Holocaust never happened. Are you just going to say in return that it did? To prove whether it did or not you will have to go over the historical record. And to be able to assess the credibility of the evidence one would need the skills to tell good evidence from bad.

          I don’t think people look upon history as an obligation. But a study of history can tell us how we got to the present and if we identify the major forces correctly it can tell us where we might be headed in the future. If it is a future we don’t like, we could do something to change course. The past, present and future are part of a continuum – the same forces coming out of the past are moving into the future. The present is the point in time when we can steer the wheel if we understand the dynamics of the forces. That is why the study of history is not pointless.

          • Ganpat Ram Says:


            Your principle that Muslim invaders’ destruction of Hindu temples should not be considered a crime indicating Muslim intolerance of Hinduism is interesting.

            As you say, some Hindu rajas also raided temples.

            In the same way, I suppose it could be argued Hitler’s destruction of the Jews did not reflect Nazi intolerance of Judaism? And come to think of it, if we are careful about history like omila Thapar, must it not be admitted that there were several very oppressive JEWISH rulers who massacred Jews – like Herod? Why point the finger at Hitler only?

            You sure have a point, South Asian.

            Thus, by your method, we derive a very optimistic, constructive view of history, according to which there are NO crimes, ever. Or if there are, ALL are equally guilty.

            So, no use blaming Israel for the Pletinian problem, no use blaming the slave traders of the West for African slavery, et etc.

            Beautiful !

            Hats off to Romila Thapar !!!!

      • Vinod Says:

        Anil, often when people look at history it starts out with trying to find an explanation for the present. In the course of looking at what was, it is only human to slip into the what ought to have been and what ought to be done. The was-ought to distinction, that you are suggesting, is not easy to hold. Therefore, it is important to constantly be revising the what-was and derive multiple what-oughts to prevent the hegemony of one single what-ought.


      • Anil Kala Says:

        Vinod, you can’t get more cryptic than this. Still this ‘was-ought’ fantasy is in the end fantasy only, often results in tragedies and may not even interest ordinary folks. Ordinary people bind themselves to historical events as some kind of obligation which is what I am trying to assert is wrong.

  8. Indophile Says:

    Thanks for your reply !! I remembered a news, in one of the Pakistani blog, about some Muslims in Karachi, who were originally from Malabar cost in Kerala. That was very intriguing, and also the fact that Muslim league had so much support in southern pockets during pre-independence days, which makes it an interesting subject for further reading. Being a Keralite is another reason for this interest.

  9. Anil Kala Says:

    ” There are hundreds of thousands of history departments in the world – their task is not to assign blame. We can learn from mistakes but that also is not the “only utility of history.”

    There may be hundreds of thousands of History departments, their existence could still be absurd. Millions thought earth was the centre of the universe, they were all wrong. There was a Flat Earth Society in America fighting court cases to prevent teaching that earth was round, I don’t know if it still exists.

    “But a study of history can tell us how we got to the present and if we identify the major forces correctly it can tell us where we might be headed in the future. If it is a future we don’t like, we could do something to change course. The past, present and future are part of a continuum – the same forces ”

    We may know how we arrived at out present position but no way are going to know where we are headed or to prevent where we are headed. The history is replete with random occurrence of events and future will continue to be influenced by random occurrence of events; human nature is too fickle, there are too many variables influencing our response therefore we are not even in position to guide human behavior forget effect of random occurrence of events. The future will unfold in according with our evolution as human being with or without the knowledge of history.

    “I don’t think people look upon history as an obligation”

    You think so? Why do you think it is so important for people to interpret history in certain way? Why do you think Ahmadinezad is dismissing occurrence of holocaust? Why do we feel shame at the misdeeds of our ancestors or take pride in their achievement? After all we did not play any role in either of them!

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Anil: It is possible that all the departments of history are in error but the error is not one of trying to assign blame. In my view history tries to assign a cause to an action in the past and then trace the effects of that action. That effect can have long lasting implications – the present is just a moment in time; it is only a mental construct that breaks up time into past and future with reference to a present that is momentary.

      Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah (1377) is considered to be the first modern work in the philosophy of history. He notes seven points why a study of history is needed. Three of them are the following: a mistaken belief in the truth; the inability to place an event in its real context; and the ignorance of laws governing the transformation of human society. I feel these are important enough justifications for studying the past. If you feel we cannot affect our future you are condemning us to the existence of automatons.

      On obligation, I think we are basing our arguments on different interpretations of the term. The questions you ask would require me to study the history, wouldn’t they? As for ancestors, it seems you are using the term very narrowly. If I am a convert four generations back who are my ancestors? The problematic of pride and shame is rooted in our personalities not in our history. If we cannot figure out how to deal with our emotions the solution is not to throw out history.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        History is not about errors it is about absurdity much like a large chunk off bureaucracy filling up registers. From within it may seem important but from outside quite meaningless!

        Knowledge will come to us with or without study of history.

        Who is having narrow view? How does religion affect our ancestors? I feel pride in Taj Mahal and shame at practice of Sati. Do people disown their ancestors because some generation earlier they changed religion. All the Muslims I have met take great pride in Kali Das’ plays. Some who learn Sanskrit actually flaunt it.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: Are you not contradicting yourself? In an earlier comment you said we are not responsible for the acts of our ancestors. Now you are saying you feel shame at the practice of sati.

          I am glad we are agreed that ancestors cannot be construed narrowly. If we have common ancestors we have many fewer problems to deal with.

          I don’t see myself as a bundle of pride and shame and I don’t feel the same way about associating feelings of pride and shame with the past. I am delighted that the plays of Shakespeare exist but I don’t see how I can take pride in them since I had no contribution in the writing. As for shame, I find it more useful to try and understand why a practice existed in the past than to project a present-day morality on it. I am afraid I am not one of those to whom knowledge comes without the study of history. I guess individuals differ in this regard.

          You may be right about the uselessness of history but the fact that thousands study it voluntarily should also be taken into account. At the very least it can be said to provide some pleasure and it cannot be said that those who do not study history are any more virtuous or tolerant. We are coming back to Russell’s principle of diversity here. I presume you do not intend to ask for a ban on the reading or writing of history based on your strong preference.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            “Are you not contradicting yourself?”

            Am I? This is the precise point I am emphasizing. It is irrational to take pride or feel shame at our ancestor’s deeds but we still do it. You don’t appear to do that but I believe common folks do that. The idea is to encourage folks to be like you.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: You are pulling my leg! People are responsible for themselves (and to some extent for their children) but not for their ancestors – the very notion makes no sense. How can one be responsible for something that happened before one was born? One can certainly wish that some things had been different (like Adam not having nibbled at the apple) but that is a different perspective. The interesting thing is that people don’t even feel ashamed of the shameful things they do finding some way or the other to justify them. Take the Roman Polanski case for instance.

          • Anil Kala Says:

            You know SA, Indians never cared to write history and nobody died of it. They started writing it and so many died.

            Roman Polansky! Just a question of perspective here. A lot of people squirm in shame at mention of misdeeds of their ancestors or try to distance or disown them quite instinctively.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Anil: You are right that Indians never cared to write history and nobody died of it. On the other hand, the Arabs had a very old tradition of writing history and nobody died of that either. There is a very interesting window into these contrasting habits in Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (page 35):

            The rising prosperity of the Jaina merchants was dependent on the trade with the hinterland and with the Gulf. This meant that Indian merchants had bases in the entrepots of the Gulf and merchants from there visited India. The Indians visiting the Gulf have left us no accounts or narratives of what they saw or did. Fortunately, the Arab visitors and traders did write about the Indian scene.

            As I mentioned in the post, Gandhiji had the same position as you. He felt writing history would lead to violence and called it the ‘British habit.’ In his opinion the country was best that had no history. There is an interesting observation about Gandhiji himself by V.S. Naipaul who noted from his autobiography that when Gandhiji landed in Southampton in 1888 at the age of 19, he noticed only two things: that it was Saturday and that he was the only one wearing white flannel. There was no comment on the city, the people, the weather, the culture, or the architecture. This seems to be a curious Indian habit.

            I do believe that Gandhiji was farsighted in sensing that the writing of history would lead to problems. But I also believe that it was not the history but the mental frame in which Indians began writing history, as a reaction to humiliation by the British, that was the root of the problem. There was no organic Indian history, only a complexed desire to prove the greatness of India and Indians – thus the invention of a glorious imagined past that was ruined by invaders and could only be reclaimed by putting the invaders in their place.

          • Ganpat Ram Says:

            South Asian

            As a matter of fact, the Hindu past was only recovered thanks to the British and other Western scholars.

            Hindus were bad at keeping historical records, and the Muslim invadwers did all they could to destroy evidence of Hindu achievements.

            In this situation, the modern Hindus would have had no sense of their cultural achievements, except for the British.

            Historians like K M Pannikar have long ago pointed this out.

  10. Ganpat Ram Says:

    The issue of separate Muslim nationhood is not an event caused by the relatively small time political wrangling between Nehru and Jinnah or the Muslim League and the Congress but is rooted in the centuries old history of Islam and the Muslim ummah and it will remain that way as long as the rigidity and unalterability of the present Islamic dogma remain in place.

  11. Vinod Says:

    Anil, what about the explanatory function of the present of history? Isn’t that important in understanding the problem of the present, the resentments among different communities and the policies that need to be formulated in resolving them?

  12. J. Radhika Says:

    Detachment is a virtue for Hindus, especially as they advance in years. It would be a real intellectual achievement if history teachers and textbooks were to make an effort to mount their view of history on this ‘virtue’. Then the account of the past would no longer be considered absolute. Historical accounts would be hypotheses, overturned by fresh evidence.

    In fact, Mrityunjaya Vidyalankara (an 18th century pandit at the College of Fort Williams) wrote a ‘history’ of India based on the idea of karma; what he wrote lacked any sense of evidence but was marked by detachment – he did not represent his people as victims. This attitude though naive could in fact sit comfortably with more sophisticated methods of writing about the past.

  13. SouthAsian Says:

    There are some sobering ideas on war and collective memory in this review of two books:

    The Illusion of Victory: The True Costs of War by Ian Bickerton
    Against Remembrance by David Rieff


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