Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on History

Chaighar has two new articles:
Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Distortions About The Pakistan Movement
The Idea of Pakistan

You can use this area for comments on these articles.  But why spend any time at all on these seemingly unending and fruitless controversies?

History could be presented, somewhat objectively, as a selection of events (the selection and emphasis of the historian could change the narrative).  It would look something like this (all dates and events are made up)

On Jan 14, 1946, Jinnah was in Lahore, and made a speech to XYZ.  In that speech he said, L,M,N, reiterating points he had made in previous speeches, and also said O, an argument he had not made in any of his public speeches before.
When news of O reached Gandhi in Ahmedabad, on the night of Jan 14, his immediate reaction as recorded by his secretary was Q.  Gandhi's official reaction was published in the Hindustan Times the next morning......
This would be a rather dry, but factual history.  It is simply a record of events.  The histories produced by different historians would differ only in which of the myriad of events are reported, how they are summarized, what emphasis is placed, and so on.  But there would be much less controversy, especially in the cases where the source materials are abundant.

But historians like to attribute beliefs, intentions and purposes in the actors in the history like that above.  Even if humans were entirely consistent in their beliefs, intentions and purposes, this is a difficult task, the historian often has to slur over or omit details that contradict their hypotheses.  In any case, I doubt that it is possible to construct an indisputable version of history.  The beliefs, intentions and purposes found in the main actors of history by different historians will differ, and there will be many narratives.

(Aside: IMO, the Mahabharata narrative is quite devoid of beliefs and intentions of its characters.)

If there is no unique history, and there are disputes, then the question is - why should one want to engage in these disputes?  This leads to the question - what is the use of history?

The answers that I can see are twofold:

1. Knowledge for knowledge's sake - this is quite important, but only those for whom this knowledge is interesting will engage in the disputes.  It will generally be an academic, ivory-tower type thing.

2. History as a means of influencing our future (and present): Presumably there is something to learn from history that will help us with our current problems, help us set goals and directions, explain behaviors of current actors and so on.

As an example, the controversies surrounding Jinnah, Partition and the purpose of Pakistan are of interest to me precisely because of those reasons.  The narratives which dispute whether Jinnah wanted Partition or not, whether he meant Pakistan to be secular or not,  and so on are interesting in what they reveal about current political forces and trends in Pakistan.   E.g., proponents of the claim that Jinnah did not want Partition, Pakistan was a bargaining position only to achieve certain concessions for Muslims in a united India, have particular political ends in mind.  What are these?

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