Friday, July 8, 2011

Where history stops

I ordered a couple of books titled 'Modern Indian History' a few weeks ago: I was looking to read about recent developments in India. So, I was surprised and disappointed when I found out that the books dealt with events starting with late Mughal period, the most recent event discussed being the Indian Independence. I went back online, and after some searching, found a book titled 'India After Gandhi': so figuring that I could not go wrong here, given its title, ordered it. Interestingly, the prologue of the book reflects on this very same problem: the seeming end of Indian history with Independence. The author quotes Krishna Kumar who wrote that 'for Indian children history itself comes to an end with Partition and Independence. As a constituent of social studies, and later on as a subject in its own right, history runs right out of content in 1947... All that has happened during the last 55 years may filter through the measly civics syllabus, popular cinema and television; history as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover it.'

Yes, our history books in school dealt with the struggle for Independence at great length, but that was where it ended. I find myself lacking anything more than a vague idea of most events after Independence (those that I didn't live through myself, that is), even major ones. Only recently did I look into and find out, say, as to how Goa or Nagaland came to be a part of India or why Indira Gandhi was assassinated. And I find that very odd, primarily when contrasted with the economics or civics syllabus, which deal with events after Independence. The civics texts talk about Indian involvement with the UN and its international policy, and the economics texts talk about India's five year plans and the opening up of its markets in the 90s. So, does the school board think that these nuggets of information gleaned from disparate sources make up for a holistic view of recent Indian history?

But of course, Guha (the author) argues that the problem is not the school boards as such, that in fact there is very little work being done on recent Indian history, and that most of the texts published pertain to India before Independence. Compare this to the US or Europe where new books come out after every major event. Incredibly, most Indian states, some larger than any European country, haven't even had their histories written. 

So, does this have to do with Indians being stuck with the idea of the day of independence as the start of the present? Or maybe it has to do with Indians being bad historians in general: we do have a rather notorious reputation for not writing things down, and being lazy about facts - given that Indians have such a long history, we only find accounts of ancient India in foreign texts (of course, we do find accounts in mythological poetry and prose, but that is not exactly factual history, is it?)


  1. You know, that might not be totally specific to India. There aren't exactly new books published after every major event in Europe, or at least they are not history books, but current affairs/poltiics. I think, although now it has become quite common to study more recent history, a lot of it has to do with the history of the discipline. For a long time -- like with literature, where you weren't allowed to study authors who were still alive -- something could only be studied as history when it was far enough in the past. And there are some good reasons for that, including that historians need hindsight and distance, and also that many facts, documents etc. do not emerge until many years after the events. School history in Europe (and school history is always conservative compared to history at university) is quite cursory about events after second world war (roughly same date as Indian independence). I remember doing something about the early stages of the cold war (50s and early 60s) and some stuff about social changes in Europe after the war, but we spent very little time on it. And that's the pattern in other European countries. As I said, although it has become more common, it's always difficult to write as a historian about the recent past. If you read histories that have a long time span, up to and including the present, they often offer postscripts on recent decades, with a bit of crystal-ball gazing thrown in (predictions about the future). But it's always extremely tentative. The problem is that we don't (yet) know what period we're in now... Of course, periods aren't facts, just constructions we put on the world, but still historians tend to reach a consensus about them. And historians struggle quite a bit without them.

  2. You have a point. And that might be the view that Indian historians adhere to. But, even if you call it current affairs, I do remember books coming out about the Blair era right after his time, and the same in the US with regards to Bush. But there is little resembling even that in India, and I find that astonishing. And as I said above, I don't think I can find an account of the happenings in Andhra Pradesh, or Tamil Nadu, either as history or current affairs, even though they are both massive states with their own independent language and culture. Several Indian legends don't have biographers either.

  3. Well, take Alistair Campell's (chief spin doctor) diaries. He has been publishing them since Blair left office, but he has left out all the politically sensitive stuff, which he will publish eventually, maybe in ten or twenty years. But even then for historians it will be a just a primary source, and emphatically not history. As for the books I call current affairs, I would suggest they have none of the attempt at "objectivity" that we associate with history. They are often polemical tracts written by people with an interest in promoting a particular point of view. But yes, you are right, every year in every major European country there are hundreds of books published about current political and economic affairs. Later they will be primary sources for historians, who will use them to have an idea of how these events were viewed at the time.
    As for histories of Andhra Pradesh, Assam etc., I would suggest you need good history departments in universities locally. If you want histories you need historians, and small-ish places (in Europe also), usually have historians from their own countries to write their histories (or maybe the odd foreigner with some connection to the country). Whereas the big countries always have a lot of foreign specialists in them. Every European history department is basically a collection of specialists on different countries and periods. In India a foreigner would need to know the local languages for their primary research, which are not very widely taught, and really to know a lot about India in general, so it would be difficult. But you know I'm sure people will start to write about it, and I'm sure that some people already are.

  4. Agreed. As for the history departments, they are not funded properly, as is the case with most humanities and social science departments. Though, I'm sure once India starts moving out of its science and technology craze there will be more output from the historians.