The anxiety of distance: three professional historians on ‘present’ public lives of history in India
Their discussion offered an interesting opportunity to reflect on what may be loosely called the public life of history in contemporary India and how professional historians have been thinking about it.
I came across a video of an interesting recent conversation among three professional historians of India. Tapati Guhathakaurta, Upinder Singh, and Mukul Kesavan were referring to various common sense perceptions about India’s pasts in a discussion revolving around Singh’s recent book; how, why, in what manner and to what effect they should, or should not, dominate public discourses about India’s pasts. Singh is a distinguished and widely published historian of ancient India who taught in Delhi University for many years and currently teaches in Ashoka University. Guhathakurta is easily the preeminent contemporary historian of art and visual culture in and of South Asia. Her work is marked by a relentless interrogation of how objects of art acquire meaning through (at least partly) controlled executions of (not always) clearly worked out ideas of how its grandeur, or value, must be perceived and consumed by an audience. As such, she writes intensely political histories of art-making, curation, and consumption, since, roughly, the nineteenth century down to the present. Kesavan, who teaches in Jamila Milia Islamia, read history in Delhi and the United Kingdom and is better known as a novelist, literary essayist, and regular columnist on contemporary issues with a liberal and cosmopolitan point of view. Their discussion offered an interesting opportunity to reflect on what may be loosely called the public life of history in contemporary India and how professional historians have been thinking about it.
Singh’s recent book, around which the discussion revolved, offers a history of thinking about violence in ancient India. But in this conversation, the three participants reflected on several broader issues, such as why Singh wrote the book in the first place, or how it seems to the average Indians that ancient India has always been an idyll of peace and harmony where violence had been at worst an occasional irritant. The conversation returned several times to questions about how common sense perceptions about the past are born and circulate, and how professional historians have been thinking about such questions. To me though it appeared an opportune moment to reflect on how distinguished professional practitioners of history have been responding to a particularly new crisis or opportunity in the career of the discipline of history in India. This crisis or opportunity, depending on how one looks at it, relates primarily to how ideas about the past currently circulate for popular consumption. It is also about a felt and widening gap between sophisticated professional research in the discipline and its somewhat freewheeling public lives, which elude the supervision of the latter.
There has been a surge in thinking and publishing about how the layman thinks, lives, and consumes history in India lately. Over the last two years, there have emerged at least two dedicated websites on south Asian history which regularly publish well researched but accessibly written stories on episodes from the past and their present ramifications. Several new media platforms now publish at least a story or column or two every week or month on how, for instance, delicious new recipes could be found in ancient texts and so forth. Non-professional but mighty well-read writers have published several delightful new books on the Mughals in particular, rich in details and insights and eminently readable. The turn, as it were, has been so visibly appealing that professional historians have been forced to come out of their university and peer sanctified niche of professionally authorised singular excellence and begin publicly accessible reflections on their craft and its evolution over the last four of five decades. This is not a comprehensive account of the turn. There have always been historians who have engaged in public debates in popular publications. Some even wrote delightfully and were read and cited enthusiastically by the average informed reader. But the professional historian of India, or South Asia, for obvious reasons, over the last few decades, has not felt a particularly pressing need to talk to the wider public as a necessary, if not the predominant, part of her professional practice; she was certainly not assessed, fairly enough, on the basis of her public engagement.
An alarming rise in the acceptability of popular myths as historical truths and a general indifference to studying history in the university as a rewarding career option, coupled, ironically, with the rise of a few elite universities where the subject receives an unusually high degree of emphasis and is well served with a rich concentration of competent scholar-teachers, have together changed radically how the average reader used to approach the subject even in the recent past. It is a complex landscape of how reading or doing history is practiced, circulated, or consumed in India today. There is, nonetheless, a welcome new trend that the professional historians are weighing in with far greater rigour and regularity on how to talk to the common reader who may not have any formal training in history, but is familiar with a school textbook knowledge of Indian pasts. This reader is always keen to claim an opinion on how pasts have influenced the present, waving away professionally grounded versions of history as determined entirely by the political choices of the trained professional practitioners. Politics here is interpreted extremely narrowly, and truth as a point-like certainty, with absolutely indisputable veracity, and without any regard to its location within words or language or context.
Early during the conversation, the three addressed the question of the popular reception of epics, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata. Kesavan wondered why, for instance, there is a relative paucity of works, until recently, by historians of South Asia, which deal with the epics as valid repositories of political thought. Singh said that political scientists have to do that as a matter of course, and so did the now somewhat discredited nationalist historians, but subsequently historians have moved on to focusing on questions with greater emphasis on social, economic, and cultural histories. There was a potential here for longer reflections on why and how the latter had necessarily to drown the former, and could not coexist. Guhathakurta, who was moderating, wanted Singh to reflect more on how epics cannot be accepted any longer as sources of indisputable facts, and on how details were organised by their authors, who were many, largely anonymous, and often lived far away from one another across space and time. This shift was welcome enough, for it proposed to critically analyse the suspect sensibility to deal with epics as a collection of firmly grounded historical events in a literal sense, and it goes back over a hundred years. But that it had to come at the expense of adequate attention to shifts in professional research interests much nearer to our times made for an intriguing question in itself.
Singh has suggested in the book, as Kesavan read it, that the history of political thought as it evolved in India has placed great emphasis on a tension between violence and nonviolence. One of the reasons she suggested for it is that this is how the older Brahmanical tradition has responded to the emergence and growth of two major new religions in the sixth century BCE, namely Buddhism and Jainism, which privileged nonviolence as a core belief. He wanted Singh to reflect on how later, outside India in particular, there grew organisations which carried out a great deal of violence and yet firmly claimed origin from these two pacifist religions. Singh in response made a clear distinction between the degree of pacifism intrinsic to Buddhism and Jainism. The latter, she said, is probably the most pacifist religion in the world. But Buddha even in his lifetime interacted regularly with the kings and advised them on how to defeat rival state powers. Yet, there was little violence in the name of religion in India between 6th century BCE and 6th century CE partly because no religion at the time completely dominated the state as such. Once that happened, which was later, politics in the name of religion or vice versa debuted and persisted more visibly.
At this juncture, Guhathakurta asked Singh and Kesavan to respond to what she saw as a contemporary erosion of civilised debates about where and how the state often tends to exceed its sanctioned role as a legitimate dispenser of violence. Violence, after all, is a necessary attribute of the state, and it uses it, broadly speaking, in two ways. One is protective, as in how the state provides security to its subjects or citizens, and the other is punitive, as in how it punishes an offender with violence so that others are afraid and do not commit the same offence. As Guhatahkurta read Singh’s book, she appeared to suggest that in ancient India there were constant debates on how and where the state tended to exceed the sanctioned limits of legitimate violence. In that sense, Singh was writing not so much about how religion did or did not sanction violence, by somehow coming together with politics, but about how there had not yet appeared a clear ethic on how much violence it is legitimate for the state to exercise. That ethic may or may not have produced a clear consensus later about a transcendental baseline of legitimate violence in default possession of the state. Guhathakurta does not quite elaborate that point, but she was clear that in recent times there has emerged a climate which discourages debates and questions about how much punitive or protective violence must necessarily be conceded to the state. Kesavan asked an analogous question about how to understand the contemporary invocations of ancient religious texts which explicitly defend violence as fair, legitimate, and entirely excusable in particular circumstances. He referred to a mention of Mahavamsa, a 5th-century text, in the book where violence against a political rival is explicitly justified at least indirectly in the name of religion. He said that he had heard the same rationalisation in a radio broadcast by a contemporary Buddhist monk in Myanmar recommending a purge of Rohingya Muslims.
Singh offered, in response, an insight about the practice of a professional historian, though in all fairness, she was speaking only about herself. She said she was not thinking about what ancient religious texts must mean to the contemporary reader while writing the book. She did think about it, but after the book had been written. During writing, she was immersed entirely within her materials, without consistent attention to making sense of what they should, or do, or must, mean for times that they did not see. She said, tellingly, that she had to think a lot more about this dimension of reading later because the early readers somehow tended to pick up more on what she had written about Gandhi or Nehru, which is a relatively minor concern of the book. Here too, she offered an insight on how the popular readings of a work of serious scholarship tend to be prefaced with contemporary political concerns. Particular parts of a book in popular reception are made to stand in for its essence, and recur in public discussions around it, even as the deep investment of rigour by the professional historian to reading past material as what they stood for at the time they were composed recedes from the popular reckoning. Within these two divergences, Singh appeared, with a gentle smile of exasperation, to place the divergence between the practice of the professionally invested historian and the reading of her work once it is released in the public domain. This dissonance, again, makes the historian return to her work with a fresh, and somewhat sudden awareness of how often ancient texts are invoked, as it were, to arbitrate on contemporary debates, but without a sensitivity of their immediate context. The more the professional historian in isolation labours to study those immediate past contexts in themselves, it seemed, the more she is condemned to return to the readings of her published work as an intervention in the politics of the present. Finally, she is forced to change the question. It is more interesting, she says, and Guhathakurta too had earlier flagged the point, to understand how there were multiple versions of the epics and how they made sense to various peoples across time and space, in their varied immediate contexts. One way or another, historians struggle to maintain the sacredness of distance of good history from the present.
Singh made this point concerning how there was no uniform manner in which the relation of religion and violence was considered in ancient India. Kautilya, for instance, did not bother about whether or not religion or morality justified the use of violence. For him, it was an entirely legitimate means of exercising authority. But Yudhisthira in Mahabharata, on the other hand, considered the relative morality of violence with great attention. But the issue could not be avoided at all. Even the early Buddhist and Jain texts did not outrightly condemn violence, while the later texts largely sidestepped it.
Guhatahkurta now brought up the question of omissions or collateral damages involved in the exercise of necessary violence. Some violence is always unavoidable. Even when Ashoka renounces violence, there remained the questions of felling trees, for instance. Some Buddhist texts condoned war waged by Buddhist rulers as legitimate violence inflicted on subhuman beings. The conquered subjects here are denied the humanity, which appears to be the minimum required qualification to be spared violence. No matter how pacifist a religion is, or a thinker, there always remains a degree of violence that is defended as unavoidable. At this point, she wished Singh to weigh in about how to deal with the question of violence concerning Ashoka’s career. We have used him often enough, she said. But have we done justice to the historical Ashoka? She was mildly sarcastic. The question was fraught with pathos, as much as with an insight on public uses of pasts with an explicitly political objective.
Singh responded once again with a return to the immediate context. Ashoka, she said, was no mere symbol of pacifism, asking everyone to be good. He was deeply invested in serious existential questions such as how to be good or happy. Traces of his intellectual exercises are engraved in his inscriptions, and for an adequate understanding of the process of his arrival at his final ruminations, readers must themselves engage with those inscriptions. It was a generous and open conclusion of an engaging conversation among three gifted professionals of history as a vocation and practice. The conversation with the audience lasted far longer, but that calls for separate treatment.
A few points emerged clearly enough. One, there is no clarity, even among historians, on how to handle histories of histories written in the past. Some respond to some such past histories, and others to others. Some questions appear more pressing, and some methods or approaches more acceptable than others. There is nothing unfair or partial about this filtering. No living historian can possibly transcend it, except in fantasy. There is a need, however, to think, and articulate that thinking in public, about how such methodological choices are made and projects are chosen, in a more self consciously autobiographical vein. It is a common enough practice among anthropologists, but not among historians. They worry more about the soundness of their methods than about how they choose one method over another. There is an implicit assumption that the latest method is best suited for investigating the questions being asked, and every historian individualizes the question being asked. There is no need at all to change that assumption, but greater transparency about prejudices and politics of individual historians might be more useful to endear the public to the cult of how history marries contingency with the rigours of sustained empirical enquiry. Two, how the present both does and does not intrude into the practice and circulation of history calls for more reflection. At stake here is how the historian can negotiate the inevitable simultaneity of a claim to a distance from the present politics and an inspiration from it as a point of departure. There cannot be a universal formula to negotiate this necessary tension, and every historian manages it in her own way. But they rarely reflect, either in print or in speech, on how they do it, except through a few cursory paragraphs in the introduction of a new book or a paper. Finally, Kesavan’s question as to how indeed to respond to contemporary citations of hundreds of years old texts as though they carry an immediate literal or binding prescription or proscription is not going to go away, even if the historians call it an anachronism. How will historians write or talk about histories of older texts in such a way that they do not necessarily embody the status of an inviolable law or transcendental command? There are many histories of how such transcendental status came to be conferred to older or religious texts, or about how objects are invested with values. There is a complementary need, perhaps, of focusing on how the emphasis on some of those objects caused a simultaneous reduction in the worth of other objects. For every popular, or acceptable, story, an earlier story has to make way, without being erased altogether, even as it recedes from the immediate reckoning. This is as much a shift as a displacement, but not a complete disappearance. The displaced stories continue to survive in the public domain, unattended by the professional historian, gradually acquiring fresh lives as myths and legends.