Humankind settled and sowed rice alongside the riverbanks that became the first cradles of civilisation. Soon, there were joyous cries of children in bustling markets of mudbrick houses and clay walled alleys. By the same measure, entire battlefields on this earth have been christened over a canvas of faiths, ideas, and nations.
These events are now but bare footnotes and mere dates to be memorised. They are hollowed out from any thought over what must have made someone so intrigued as to write history and continue writing for ages, allowing it to eventually become a flexible discipline.
Back in 2016, to an unsuspecting kid like me, history seemed to be a timeless, intellectual rant about the past. However, now that I look back, I see that my current passion for the discipline only grew because I was willing to shed its old meaning and begin enquiring on my own. It reminds me of why the father of history, Herodotus, called his magnum opus Historiae, literally meaning enquiries.
I believe human experience has a role to play in all of our lives. No wonder history becomes central to us when we understand that human beings have a stark capacity for memory – a thin thread mediated by consciousness. When these delicate threads are woven together, they become records of the past. We cannot help but compare the past and the present, and thereby make sense of the present by imbuing meaning in the past – thus creating the bonfire of the Humanities, that is, history.
I came to view historians and their craft as mages and their magic. Oftentimes historians are challenged by the complexities of the world, and spend hours in a labyrinth of questions. To think that a historian can navigate through the lies and contradictions of the past using their ability to analyse and present, or rather re-present, the past, was awe-inspiring for me.
However, the fabric of the discipline is being torn.
History in danger
It is by pure principle that history cannot, and should not, be an objective discipline. Therefore, it is imperative that the politicisation and over-dramatisation of history stop if history is to regain its original shine.
India’s current rules dictate that the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) be appointed by the HRD minister. Organisations like the ICHR should not stay dependent on the government for any kind of appointment. Rather, it should become an autonomous body of an all-inclusive, professional team of historians and scholars who do not represent any pronounced bias. It should bar any involvement of the State.
As for school textbooks, there was a recent report about the government asking for recommendations from the public for changes in textbooks. It goes without saying that no historian or ordinary history buff can write with perfect truth about the past. To write without bias, is itself a bias. However, this decision of the government only further damages the fabric of how historiography in India is cultivated and will invite a host of critical problems with regard to methodology. This is a plane where ideological leanings leak through and State heroes are deified.
Future of history
Academia has turned on itself, proving to be an anathema to the humanities. The only desirable answer by a disciple of History now is an ‘IAS’, which shows the disregard and degradation of respect the discipline has suffered.
History is besieged on all sides, attacked by denialism, where facts are outright denied and removed from mention, then rendered inflexible by rampant negationist social media handles and influencers, and finally tossed between the ruthless, reductionist politics of ideological camps.
The budding historian in India must therefore resort to a call of arms, to liberate, bridge and illuminate the present as well as the future, by becoming vigilant guardians of the past where their inquisitive nature must destabilise already received knowledge and act as questioning agents as well as exposers of corrupt institutions by speaking truth to power – whether by quill or tome.
Emad Khursheed is a student of Laxman Public School, New Delhi. Views are personal.