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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

On the persistence of time: the use and abuse of history

As India celebrates fifty years of Independence on August 15th, there is a lamentable tendency, especially on the part of the Western media, to act as though India had only existed for those fifty years. That it is merely the blink of an eye in 5,000 years of Indian history is somehow ignored. But then, it is unfair to blame foreigners when we ourselves display abysmal ignorance in this matter.

In a perceptive column in The Hindu on May 20th, Rizwan Salim bemoaned the fact that Indians do not have a historical consciousness. I agree wholeheartedly: this is most regrettable, for, in my opinion, the study of history is the most valuable of pursuits. It is art because, as in the hands of a Herodotus or a Thucydides or a Gibbon, history comes alive as brilliant literature; yet science because you can use the scientific method with it, albeit rather imperfectly.

A scientific study of history allows us to create hypotheses and then compare reality with the predictions of the hypotheses. Like the weather, there are so many variables that it is a highly perturbable system -- thus unpredictable. Maybe someone will invent a computer powerful enough to calculate the future based on the past. That would truly be the 'end of history', in Francis Fukuyama's notable phrase. As Mark Twain said once, the obituary is somewhat premature!

For now, we have to live with our imperfect understanding of history. For reasons I don't fully understand, Indians have never cared for history. I can only conjecture that it is because of the ancient Indian concept of the vastness of time; after all, if the universe were 4,320,000,000 years old, how important could the events of a mere 50 years be?

Then again, it might be because of humility -- after all, how insignificant we mere mortals are when compared with the universe. Therefore, our anonymous scientists cared not to sign their names to their inventions -- thus, we know not who invented that most subtle of concepts, the zero. And our writers, too: we must depend on obscure clues to deduce that Dharmakirti, the severe Buddhist logician, is the same Dharmakirti who wrote surpassingly beautiful erotic poetry.

This humility is altogether charming, of course, but also altogether misplaced in a world where, as we shall discuss, history plays such a large part. Those who have mastered the past master their own futures and those of others. For example, the British were able to enslave us because they correctly identified our history of being fractious, fragmented and fratricidal.

Those who don't have history manufacture it: for example, the United States. But what is more common is someone hanging on to their histories over centuries. The Economist, in an excellent article on the misuse of history, pointed to festering ancient animosities and grudges. People -- except Indians -- don't forget.

Serbs, for example, still remember that they were crushed by the Ottoman Turks on St Vitus Day, June 28, 1389 CE, leading to five hundred years of Muslim subjugation. (Therein lies the root of the troubles in Bosnia-Serbia-Croatia.) On that selfsame St Vitus Day in 1914, a Serb assassinated Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, their then colonial ruler, thus directly precipitating the First World War.

Similarly, Chinese remember, with vivid immediacy, their humiliations at the hands of Europeans and Japanese in the 19th century CE. The Opium War 1839-42. The loss of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War 1857-60. Territorial concessions (including Siberia) to Russians, Germans and Japanese. War with the Japanese 1894-95. All of them utterly disastrous, and today the focus of much nationalistic breast-beating. Hence their euphoria over recovering Hong Kong.

Hence also the remarkable similarities between Nazi Germany and China today. They both have memories of great pride and bitter humiliation. Both also have delusions of grandeur and the conceit that they are a chosen race ('Middle Kingdom', 'Aryan' and such-like nonsense). Anybody who has studied Nazi Germany the least little bit would be petrified at the prospect of a Chinese equivalent dominating Asia.

Consider: in 1939, the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia's Suedetenland on the flimsy pretext that ethnic Germans lived there; the world sacrificed Czechoslovakia to placate the Germans (remember Neville Chamberlain mouthing pious platitudes?). In 1959, the Chinese invaded Tibet on the flimsy pretext that it had once been part of a Han empire; the world sacrificed Tibet to placate the Chinese (remember Krishna Menon mouthing pious platitudes?)

The Germans launched genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities such as Jews and Gypsies. The world did nothing, until the German Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions thundered across Europe on blitzkriegs. The Chinese launched genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. The world will do nothing, I suspect, until the Chinese People's Liberation Army rolls across Siberia or nuclear-bombs Japan or attacks oil-rich Central Asia. Too late then.

The big difference between the Germans then and the Chinese now is that the former, all things considered, is a relatively small nation surrounded by wary neighbours. China, on the other hand, is a continent-sized country, with immense natural, military and human resources. The Germans couldn't truly put the necessary muscle behind their extreme nationalism. The Chinese probably can, and their history--of centralised empires: Ming, Qing, Manchu, etc--suggests they will.

Europeans will one day wake up to the fact that when China talks about its historical claims -- as dubious as that on Tibet -- it is talking about the old Mongol empire of Genghiz Khan and Kublai Khan. This empire extended, if I remember correctly -- (search the web for the current exhibition at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum) -- all the way to the outskirts of Vienna. Never mind the Mongols are not, strictly speaking, Han Chinese. Details, details.

Speaking of the Germans, one of the factors in their eventual defeat was their hubris regarding Russia. They thought they could beat General Winter. They should have heeded the bitter lesson Napoleon Bonaparte had learnt long before -- it is impossible to beat the Russians on their home turf in the middle of the winter. As they say, those who do not learn from history...

On the other hand, General Patton, in his campaigns in Europe, studied the Punic Wars and other Roman campaigns, and emerged as one of the cleverest military tacticians of modern times. Apparently, the means of war have changed, but not strategy. Consider Ahmed Shah Masood, holed up in Panjshir in Afghanistan, successfully defending his enclave with millennia-old tactics of perimeter defence, strategic withdrawals, and hit-and-run. It clearly pays to study the past.

The same Economist article had some risible things to say about India's other unlovely neighbour, Pakistan. It quoted historian Ayesha Jalal: "The rewriting of history from an Islamic point of view, however defined, was given the highest priority by the managers of the state and has since been refined to a bureaucratic art by national research societies and central or provincial textbook boards".

The article continued that a Pakistani textbook claims that by the 13th century 'Pakistan had spread to include the whole of northern India and Bengal.' Furthermore, Pakistan apparently 'moved further southwards to include a greater part of central India and the Deccan'. Rather a fluid thing, this 'Pakistan'. And how come it then retreated to the Northwest thereafter? And here I was, thinking somebody had invented 'Pakistan' at Cambridge in the 1920s!

Rajeev Srinivasan, continued

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