History as a Notion

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The question what is history has been asked in so many different ways. There have been as many different answers too, and all of them in some way or the other have indicated that it is the story of the State, and that without the State there would be no history. This is a definition which has put many indigenous communities which lived outside State consciousness at a disadvantage, and indeed, much, though not all of the post colonial insurgencies have been largely about formerly Stateless peoples either coming to terms with modern States or else aspiring to be autonomous States themselves. Even if this postulate were to be accepted, the problem of the notion of history would be far from resolved. If in post colonial nations, history has been about State building, the intriguing question is, what happens when the State has been built? Where does history go from there? Again, this is a question which has been asked in many different ways, with the answer remaining incomplete and illusive. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History and the Last Man”, where he argues history ended with the conclusion of the Cold War and the triumph of the Market economy, is indeed a landmark in this intellectual query. What followed after this epoch are events and no longer history as it was traditionally understood, Fukuyama asserts. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its challenge to Western complacency, perhaps the course of evolution of this notion of history is destined to change yet again.

In India’s context, this question was asked in the most profound ways by Ramachandra Guha in “Indian After Gandhi” and Sunil Khilnani in “The Idea of India” both international bestsellers. Both imply, as Fukuyama did in the context of the Western world, that Indian history came to an end in 1947, or at least that the idea of Indian history must transform to accommodate the new challenges. What indeed would historian write of Indian history post 1947 is intriguing? Would it be about electoral victories, government formations, government toppling, the multi-crore scams the country has witnessed, the famines, the insurgencies, the rise of national GDP, government salary hikes…? Would these qualify to be historical events in the manner that the Battle of Plassey 1757, Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Quit India Movement 1942 etc, did? Would Sonia Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Arvind Kejriwal, Manmohan Singh etc, be historical figures as much as, or in the same sense as Gandhi, Nehru, Subhash Bose, Sadar Patel are considered to be? Should the story of the market be also history? Under the circumstance, should the notion of history also not change?

Guha’s and Khilnani’s books are interesting in this light for they both imply again that the foremost challenge of modern Indian history, especially in the initial decades of its independence was about coming to terms with State building institutions that evolved out of European experiences without having gone through these European experiences. In the words of Khilnani, modern Indian history has been most prominently an adventure with the political idea of democracy. In the European context, the idea of democracy was a result of centuries of conflict resolution strategies and political dialectics shaping the reshaping the political system to resolve their societies’ internal contradictions. Among the preconditions this democracy presumes is wide literacy and political consciousness among its citizens and in fact for a long time, the debate in Europe had been on the question of enfranchising the poor and illiterate masses and making them participants in the democratic process. India went ahead and discarded this question, giving a new meaning to democracy, and despite the initial verdicts of sceptics in the West, this came to be ultimately for the better for the idea of democracy itself. It may be recalled, Western observers, most prominently India baiter Neville Maxwell, had predicted India’s 1956 General election would be the last democratic election the country sees before the country collapses into chaos or else lapses into authoritarianism – a confident prediction for which he is evidently embarrassed even as late as in an interview given to Outlook Magazine in 1910. Our reflections on this issue are meant as a flag for those who are so eager to use history as alibi to justify their current agendas, to be a little more wary and humble.

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