A recent article by Hilal Ahmed about not treating evidence-based history and emotion-based history as necessary binaries speaks partly to the long-held academic opposition to the discipline of oral history.
Academic historians have traditionally looked down upon oral histories as a lesser and somewhat unreliable form of constructing the past. Their insistence on so-called hard evidence like primary archival records and archaeological artefacts often undervalues the importance of intangible history. As if these hard evidences offer definitive histories. British historian John Hugh Arnold said, “History is above all else an argument.”
One of the first things I learnt in my museology classroom was that history is not a set of facts but a set of interpretations. So neither streams — academic historians or public historians — have a moral and monopolistic claim over history masquerading as the truth. Oral histories belong in India’s national archives too.
Even though Hilal Ahmed has written the article in the context of the National Archives of India, the argument he put forth goes beyond the immediate destruction and construction involved in the Central Vista project, underway in the heart of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s New Lutyens.
Scholars of tangible histories often fear that if emotion and people’s memories are included in historiography, then the majority communities, or those who can leverage power, will weaponise this emotional capital. In algorithmic democracies, that is a real risk. But the solution is not to police them or dismiss them as unreliable or emotional. There are standards and gatekeeping that shape this discipline too.
“Oral history is not simply stuff that people say on tape or camera,” wrote American public historian Jason Steinhauer. “Oral history (as a methodology) does not exist in disciplinary isolation.”
What oral history can do
Let us try to imagine what it would look like if academic historians were all to agree to enlist collective memories and emotions in the writing of histories, as Ahmed recommends.
First of all, a sort of hegemony would be broken. I don’t mean that cold hard facts won’t determine historical research any more. But a sort of arrogant academic pretence of being the sole searcher and purveyor of truth will come undone.
The other outcome of this action would be that history will become more inclusive and accessible. It will also become what it was always meant to be — fluid, changing and open, one that admits there are many ways of looking at and interpreting history. It would finally be an acknowledgement that the study of history is, at best, interpretive.
This is not about liberal or conservative approach to history — or secular versus Hindutva histories. It is about recognising and dismantling an almost century-old wall that has existed in the history departments of campuses around the world.
Investing energy in resisting Central Vista reconstruction is futile now. That ship has sailed. We can, however, do two things: continue asking for transparency in the way the archives are handled and preserved in the interim period until they find a new home, and also keep pushing for a new, expanded scope and definition of archives. Adversity is the best time for reconfiguring old ways. Teen Murti library has a rich collection of oral histories. Delhi government is currently building oral history archives of the city by recording “memories and perceptions” of 100 individuals through one-on-one interviews. It’s time we bring them to the new home of the National Archives of India too, like in other countries.
Making the archives richer
As the National Archives of India building is torn down (not the archives itself, just the building. And that too, the Annexe, a sarkari term for PWD extensions done in the past couple of decades), there is much to worry about the state of the fragile records; but there is also an opportunity to imagine a better, more inclusive archive. One that doesn’t keep people away in order to keep history impervious. We need the National Archives of India to include oral histories that are now stored in colleges, advocacy groups and personal collections. Oral histories are primary source material that belong in archives.
There’s an impressive collection of oral histories of Narmada Bachao Andolan voices that Nandini Oza worked on; there’s another by Pramod Kumar Srivastava on militant freedom fighters who were sent to Kala Pani; C.S. Lakshmi’s women’s movement archives; Godrej archives managed by Vrunda Pathare; Indira Chaudhury’s oral histories of Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
There will, of course, be some chest-thumping histories that will pour in, or what John Dower dismissively called “4th of July historiography.” But there will also be those that run counter to handed-down, State narratives, like anti-caste oral histories, Dalit and tribal people’s histories, and disability rights. Room must be made for all. The archives will be richer for it.
Unity to uniformity
Hilal Ahmed quotes Jawaharlal Nehru to show how he accommodated national imagination and framework for the collection of historical evidence. He also quotes Modi and his foregrounding of ‘feelings’ in history writing. Both use history to serve their nation-building motives. If Nehruvian India witnessed the first nation-building age, then, for some, Modi’s India is going through a third nation-building phase; 1991 was the second phase of nation-building. Whether some wince at it or not, the old India is being changed.
Nehru’s core template for historiography was unity, and Modi’s is uniformity. And public history — with all its fluidity, diversity and autonomy — is a stronger antidote to uniformity than fixed academic histories.
Across the world, big, dominant narratives have been defeated not by what’s in the history books but by people’s voices.
Rama Lakshmi, a museologist and oral historian, is the ThePrint’s Opinion Editor. After working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum, she set up the ‘Remember Bhopal Museum’ commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. She did her graduate program in museum studies and African American civil rights movement from University of Missouri, St Louis. Views are personal.