Why People Need to Know Their History
History and Society
Prof. Makkhan Lal
History, history writing and history teaching have,
indeed, become newsworthy not only in
That notwithstanding, let us remember that rewriting/revising history textbooks or general books is not viewed as a rare phenomenon anywhere in the world. A survey of literature on the subject the world over shows that history is being written and rewritten not only because of new evidences that come to light but also because of several other factors. Even a cursory perusal of academic journals like History, Journal of Curriculum Studies and History and Theory, prove that there are a variety of factors that warrant the rewriting of history. In the 1990s, history textbooks in Canada were rewritten because: (a) schools did not teach enough Canadian history and students, therefore, did not know it; (b) the history that was taught was no longer sufficiently national; (c) social history had destroyed the old nation building-narrative and dwelt on negative rather than positive aspects of Canada’s past; and (d) child-centered teaching and other pedagogical fashions had led teachers to devalue factual knowledge.2
there is an intense debate going on regarding the nature of the history of
South America and
“It may be a subject of celebrations for Europeans but for us it is a subject of mourning because just in a few years the Europeans destroyed our civilisation developed over several thousands of years!”
In Indian context history books and history writing come in public domain and became a matter of media attention when during the NDA Government NCERT took up the revision of the National Curriculum Framework and the textbooks of all subjects as a matter of routine. While there was no problem with the revisions textbooks in any other subject, all the hell broke loose when it come to history textbooks. Those historians – prefer the tag ‘eminent historians’ – who were involved earlier in history textbook writings and their students and supporters began a campaign that history cannot be rewritten or revised. They argue that the nature of history is static and there is not enough new evidence that could warrant the rewriting or revision of history and history textbooks. One of the most ‘eminent’ among the ‘eminent historians’ said that there should not be any revision in the history, at least in those areas on which there is a general consensus among historians. When asked about the topics on which there is general agreement and the historians among whom this agreement has been arrived at, he preferred to maintain a stony silence. All one could gather is that there is agreement among some of the ‘eminent historians’ and the topics are those that can be used for the blackening of the ancient period of Indian history. Thus, the core of this argument is that whatever has been written by the ‘eminent historians’ on those areas of history is final. No modification, no addition and no deletion could be made under their pronouncements and history written by them was not to be rewritten. Taking an alternative path to history writing or introducing new history books is being painted as nothing less than sacrilege. 3
Why Study History
have often been raised that when there are so many problems and difference of
opinions among the historians why should we study history at all. Once I
attended a History seminar in
History is all about the past. In almost every country, city, town and village throughout the world, a large number of existing buildings were built in the past to meet the needs and aspirations of people, now dead. This is most obvious in existing temples, churches, mosques, fireplaces, houses, public buildings, and so on Most of the ancient societies have now, to a greater or lesser degree, changed or even become extinct.
The systems of governments, political ideas, religious beliefs, art, architecture, cultural practices, educational systems, customs and behaviours are all products of the past, recent or remote. The past is all-pervasive which, indeed, means that we cannot escape from it. The past signifies what actually happened – events that have taken place, societies that have risen and fallen, ideas and institutions, eating habits, dressing habits, etc. History is precisely the study of this human past. The past is our heritage; we are part of it and the past is part of us in all aspects: be it culture, behaviour, religious faith and practices, be it rituals, be it tradition of political, social and economic systems. It is reflected in our day-to-day living.
History is also about roots. It provides societies and individuals with a dimension of longitudinal meaning over time which outlives the human life span. It connects us with our past. History also allows us to peep into the future by providing precedents for contemporary actions and forewarning against repetition of the past mistakes. From its sense of continuity, history offers the apparent form and purpose to the past, the present and the future. In the words of E.H. Carr: “The past is intelligible to us only in the light of the present; and we can fully understand the present only in the light of the past.” He further said that history is needed “to enable man to understand the society of the past and to increase his mastery over the society of the present.”4 There is a need for history. It has a deeper social value and meaning.
We cannot ignore or avoid the past; wherever we go, the past keeps staring at us. The human past has determined much of the built environment, the political boundaries which divide country from country, their forms of government, precise character of social and economic distinctions, the sources of tensions within and between nations. Deep in the past lie beliefs and prejudices, modes of thought, the rise, spread and fission of religious faiths, conquests and atrocities, all still exercising potent influences.
The study of history is not a luxury. It is a necessity. This necessity has been best summed up by Arthur Marwick. He writes, “Individuals, communities, societies could scarcely exist if all knowledge of the past is wiped out. As memory is to the individual, so history is to the community or the society. Without memory, individuals find great difficulty in relating to others, in finding their bearings, in taking intelligent decisions–– they lose their sense of identity. A society without history would be in a similar condition… A society without knowledge of its past would be like an individual without memory… It is only through a sense of history that communities establish their identity, orientate themselves, understand their relationship to the past and to other communities and societies. Without history (Knowledge of the past), we, and our communities, would be utterly adrift on an endless and featureless sea of time.”5
The notion that the past of an individual society and the people can be forgotten or given a go by, and that a world culture can be created simply through improvements in technology, material prosperity and universal education has lost much of its credibility.6 Science may advance, but we all move ahead through the past of our own cultures, and it is this accumulation of ideas and experience, transmitted through education and sheer daily living that gives our thoughts meaning and our actions patterns and purpose.7 It is not that we live in the past but we are defined by it,8 and so the success of even the most forward-looking developments must inevitably rest on their relation to the ideas and practices of the society they are meant to serve. Science may forget its own history, but a society cannot.9
Every advanced nation has – apart from its historical profession and related institutes and associations – museums, archives and libraries – devoted to the preservation of sources and relics from the past out of which history is written. Engraved upon the entrance of the National Archive in Washington are the following inscriptions: ‘What is Past is Prologue’; ‘Study the past’; ‘The glory and romance of our history are here preserved in the chronicles of those who conceived and builded the structure of our nation’, ‘The ties which bind the lives of our people in one indissoluble union are perpetuated in the archives of our government and to their custody this building is dedicated’, ‘This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.’
The inscription clearly emphasizes that history is participated in and shared upon by the people and the society. It is not a luxury domain of just a handful of historians and the ruling elite, but the heritage and inheritance of the entire humanity.
The subject of history is not an easy one, as many simple souls may like to believe. In fact, no academic discipline, beyond a certain point (at the level of higher research), is easy. Even scientists working in disciplines like physics and chemistry at the level of higher research disagree and debate fiercely on the nature of a given problem, the approach, and the conclusions arrived at. But this is much more common in the social sciences, particularly so in history because of the very nature of the subject. To say that history is a science, as many Marxist historians propagate, is nothing but a fallacy. To use David Clarke’s phrase, history is an ‘indisciplined discipline’. The writing of history involves not only facts but also the political, social, economic and other kinds of ideological agendas of historians. But problems begin when the hard facts of history are trimmed, selectively used/quoted, or presented in a coloured and distorted manner, or even swept under the carpet to suit the historian’s agenda. Such attempts and practices lead to the presentation of not only factually incorrect history but also distorted history, which finally results in the distortion of a nation’s history, its people’s past and their identity. Those involved in such defiling of history do everything to justify their version of history and strive hard to retain their powers, position and privileges by any and all means.
Most people see history in terms of separate periods like ancient, medieval and modern – each period characterised by a different political, economic and social set up. Further, it is often seen as being solely concerned with the recovery of the facts related to the past. In this way history books are seen as merely the chronicles of the past. But this is a very superficial notion about history. In an absurd vein A.J.P Taylor wrote, “Historians should not be ashamed to admit that history is at the bottom simply a form of story telling… There is no escaping the fact that the original task of a historian is to answer the child’s question: “What happened next?”
History is neither a simple chronicle of the past nor a list of rulers and kings and the narratives of their rules. The past is not simply a collection of distinct ages or a hotchpotch of facts. History is an extremely complex discipline and historians disagree on what it is. E.H. Carr, one of the most sophisticated Marxist historians, opined in his famous book What is History that history “is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts” (thereby saying that it was changeable). Carr further said that history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”10 He virtually endorsed what R.G. Collingwood had written in his book The Idea of History: “Each age writes its own history”; “each age must reinterpret the past in the light of its own preoccupations.”11
Benedetto Croce, the great Italian historian and social theorist, once wrote: “All history is contemporary history.”12 In other words, each generation writes and rewrites history in the light of its own time and experiences. A.C. Danto pointed out that “All historical descriptions are, and must be, temporary and provisional. No complete description of the past can be given till the end of the future––that is, until the sequence of events also came to an end.”13 It must be mentioned here that this is
true not only of historical descriptions but also of historical explanations and interpretations. However, the idea behind suggestions like “each age having to write its own history” is not to produce a root-and-branch new version of history every ten, twenty or fifty years, but to continue refining and revising what has been written before, while also opening up totally new areas. Historians must strike a balance between judging the past by their own standards and entirely stranding the past in its own frozen compartment of history. We must have a proper balance of time, of change and continuity and of similarity and difference which are central to our understanding of the nature of history and the dynamics of social development. We, in our enthusiasm, must not lose sight of the fact that “each age is a unique manifestation of the human spirit with its own culture and values. For one age to understand another, there must be recognition that the passage of time has profoundly altered both, condition of life and the mentality of men and women.”14 History must be written and rewritten observing the long established, though constantly developing, canons of historical profession. History must be as reliable as it is possible to make it. For this, the guarantee lies in the careful observance of the methods and principles of professional history. Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most distinguished Marxist historians once said, “Historians are professionally obliged not to get it wrong– or at least to make an effort not to.”15
Another point that needs to be emphasized is that a historian’s job is not that of a cook who prepares dishes as per the liking of his customers and adds spices accordingly. It is not the job of a historian to write politically correct history. His obligation is to write factually correct history. It will be helpful if all historians remember what Sir Jadunath Sarkar wrote about the job of a historian: “I would not care whether the truth is pleasant or unpleasant, and in consonance with, or opposed to, current views. I would not mind in the least whether truth is, or is not, a blow to the glory of my country. If necessary, I shall bear in patience the ridicule and slander of friends and society for the sake of preaching truth. But still, I shall seek truth, understand truth, and accept truth. This should be the firm resolve of a historian.”16
discussion on the nature of history as an academic discipline should make it
abundantly clear that history is neither a static discipline nor can the
writings on and of history be put into a set mould. Each generation views and
writes about the past in the light of it’s own experience. Therefore, all
interpretations and explanations are, and must be as temporary and provisional
as the descriptions. But in all these endeavours the sanctity of truth and
facts should not be forgotten. This phenomenon must be seen not as a weakness
but as the strength of the discipline as it generates debates. Unanimity or
one’s efforts to make others surrender is a recognisable characteristic of
dictatorships, and not that of a
And now a word of caution! There is a tendency among historians to act as judges and give moral sermons. Historians must write and rewrite history. They are not supposed to be moral judges. Benedetto Crose has rightly said:
“Those, who on the plea of narrating history, bustle about as judges, condemning here and giving absolution there, because they think that this is the office of history… are generally recognised as devoid of historical sense.”17
Problems in History Writing
Historians recognise that they are all culturally and socially influenced in their endeavour to write history but make all efforts to deny that their work is culturally, or socially, determined or constructed. As has been discussed briefly in the Introduction, E.H.Carr in Chapter II of his book What is History provides a useful summary on this aspect of history writing. He quotes Donne Devotion that society and individuals are inseparable. “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of continent, a part of the main.”13 Like any other individual, a historian too is a social phenomenon, both the product and the conscious and unconscious spokesperson of the society to which he belongs. It is in this capacity that he approaches the facts of historical past. Therefore, we must not forget that we cannot fully understand or appreciate the work of a historian unless we have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approaches it, and that standpoint is itself rooted in a social and historical background. It is, therefore, essential that before we study history, we must study the historian and study his historical and social environment. When some historians claim that they are writing scientific history, or that only their version of history is correct, one must conclude immediately that the historians are not only being untruthful but are also hiding their political agenda under the garb of a ‘scientific’ history. There exists nothing like scientific history. On similar lines, Benedetto Croce also spoke with his characteristic bluntness:
“The historian must have a point of view…an intimate personal conviction regarding the conception of the facts which he has undertaken to relate… It suffices to read any book of history to discover at once the point of view of the author, if he be a historian worthy of the name and know his own business… Absolutely historical historians do not and cannot exist. Can it be said that Thucydidus and Polybius, Livy and Tacitus, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Giannone and Voltaire were without morals and political views; and in our own time, Guizot or Thiers, Macaulay or Balbo, Renke or Mommson?... If the historian is to escape from this inevitable necessity of taking side, he must become a political and scientific eunuch; and history is not the business of eunuchs… Historians who profess to wish to interrogate the facts without adding anything of their own, are not to be believed.”19
The problem with Marxist historiography and its relationship with history are much more curious. For Marx and his followers, i.e. Marxist historians, the problem of history is not just understanding ‘what happened’, ‘how it happened’ and ‘why it happened’. For them the problem is “how to change the world” by the use of history. At the core of this view lie two fundamental beliefs. Firstly, the Marxists believe in five universal stages of history. These five stages are: (i) Primitive Communism, (ii) Slavery, (iii) Feudalism, (iv) Capitalism, and (v) Communism.20 Secondly, they believe that the society we inhabit is the bad bourgeois society and, fortunately, this society is in a state of crisis. The good society which lies just around the corner can be easily attained if only ‘we’ work systematically to destroy the language, the value, the culture, the ideology of this ‘bourgeois’ society. This necessitates a massive, radical left-wing political programme and everything the historians write, every criticism they make, is determined by that overriding objective. In this, the post-modernists are exceptions. They are fully convinced of the utterly evil nature of the ‘bourgeois’ society but have lost all hope of change and have fallen back into destructive nihilism. They assert that the only way to achieve Marxism is to destroy the society if it cannot be changed.21
Marxist historians have failed to understand and appreciate the fact that the society we live in has evolved through a complex historical process, very different from the Marxist formula of the rise of feudalism over slavery and bourgeoisie over throwing the feudal aristocracy. It is highly complex with respect to the distribution of power, authority, and influence. Just as it was not formed by the simple overthrow of aristocracy by the bourgeoisie, so, in its contemporary form, it does not consist simply of a bourgeois ruling class and a proletariat. The idea that we are now in the final period of the late-capitalistic crisis is simply absurd. Marxists have been looking forward to the final capitalistic collapse for over a century – in 1848, 1866, 1918, 1946, 1963 and 1968, to mention just a few dates, but as fate would have it, they are themselves doomed forever.22
Statements like “The pursuit of history is, whether practitioners choose to acknowledge it or not, a political occupation,” indeed, are not only exceptional but also far-fetched. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the experience of colonisation around the world has shown that domination by a more powerful culture – which defines its reality in quite different ways – either totally destroys, or at least drives, the less powerful ones into a subservient role. What was considered culturally ‘valid’ can be rendered ‘invalid’, and the politically weaker ones are somehow required to modify their reality to fit within the constraints of the new codes. We, as historians, must learn to recognise that:
“The past is perceived in
different ways by different cultures. Methods of interpreting, recording,
managing and protecting the past also differ between cultures… The way people
define their existence, their world view and their creation stories, and how
they value, interpret, manage and transmit their past will continue to be
handed on from generation to generation.”23
Reasons of Distortions in History
It is a proven fact that a desire of domination and to rule over an individual, society or a nation can be achieved in two ways: subjugation and enslavement by sword or enslavement of the mind. Enslavement by the sword is not only short-lived but also there has to be a constant use of the sword, because even a little laxity provides enough room for revolt by the enslaved people craving to reclaim their freedom and identity, the ultimate desire of a conscious and vibrant mind. Thus, the rulers have to be virtually on their toes to keep their power and position unchallenged.
the mind is, perhaps, the deadliest weapon in the world. Those who succeed in
enslaving the mind of a nation can create a permanent empire comprising a
mentally enslaved population. In this context, no one has been able to better
the record of the British and this can be better understood from the example of
Besides, massive efforts were made towards the falsification of Indian history and heritage and the negation of its contribution to world thought, culture and civilization? The reason is not too difficult to understand. History is al about the past, roots, memory, identity and society’s contribution to the world. The motive is to distort it in a way that ruled ones hate their own past, believing that there is nothing good in their past, and there is nothing to be proud of it. Ruled ones start believing and emulating the rulers. For this, people need to forget everything about their past, about their glorious achievements, about their heritage and, indeed, their entire history – where they have come from, and what they were. In other words, they need to become a group, a society and a nation with no memory of the past, the very same collective memory we have talked about earlier. And let us not forget that a person, a society and a nation without a memory is like a rudderless ship, or a leaf fallen off a tree which can be made to drift in any direction the wind is blowing in or can be made to blow.
This what the British did with
He had expressed similar sentiments in a letter to Chevalier Bunsen
written on August 25, 1856. Here Mueller says: “
Historian R.S. Sharma has best summed up the whole approach of British/Imperial historians: “British interpretations of Indian history served to denigrate Indian character and achievements, and justify the colonial rule… However, the generalisations made by historians were either false or grossly exaggerated. They could serve as good propaganda material for the perpetuation of the despotic British rule. … At the heart of all such generalisations lay the need of demonstrating that Indians were incapable of governing themselves.”30
Let us remember that no country can become a
great nation, a world guru and a
world leader on borrowed ideas, borrowed cultures and borrowed systems. The
greatness and leadership is built upon the solid foundations and the pride of
the past; deeper the foundations, taller are the superstructures. Even the
globalization is built upon this foundation. Many countries are part of
globalization on a much larger scale than
1. R. Aldrich (ed.), 1991, History
in the National Curriculum.
2. K. Osborne, 2003, ‘Teaching history in schools: a Canadian debate’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol.35(5), pp. 586-626.
3. Beside a large number of
articles in the newspapers and magazines, see also Makkhan Lal, 2002, NCERT
Social Science Textbooks: False Propaganda, Political Agenda and the Eminent
10. E.H Carr, 1977, What is History. p. 30, (first edition was published in 1961), Penguin.
11. R.G. Collingwood, 1978, The
Idea of History, p.12 (first edition was published in 1945).
12. As quoted in Jeremy Black and D.D. MacReild, 1998, Studying History, p.18, MacMillan.
13. As quoted in Michael Stanford, 1998, ‘Preface’, An Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Blackwell.
14. Arthur Marwick, 2000, The
New nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. pp. 31-32,
16. Jadunath Sarkar, Presidential Address at a History Conference held in Calcutta, quoted in R.C. Majumdar, History of Medieval Bengal, 1973, p. x, Calcutta.
17. Benedetto Croce, History
as the Study of Liberty, (English edition in 1947), p. 47,
18. Donne Devotion Emergent Occasions No. XVII, as quoted in E.H. Carr, 1977, What is History? p.31. Penguin (first edition was published in 1961).
19. Benedetto Croce, History
as the Study of Liberty, (English edition in 1947),
20. These stages have been
discussed and defined in Fredrick Engel’s Origin
of the Family, Private Property and the State. Progress Publisher,
21. Jacques Derrida, 1976, Of Grammatology. Baltimore; See also Derrida: A Critical Reader, edited by David Wood, 1992) Oxford; Michael Foucault, 1980, Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other Writings; New York; F. Fukuyama, 1992, End of History and the Last Man, London; Ludmila Jordonova, 2000, History in Practice, London; Hayden White,1987, The Content of Forms: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, Baltimore; J. Lyotard, 1984, The Post Modern Conditions, Manchester.
22. With the collapse of the
23. Hirini Matunga, 1994, ‘Waahi Tapu:Moari Sacred Sites’, pp. 219-25, In D.L. Carmichael, J. Hubert, B. Reeves and A Schanche (eds.) Sacred Sites, Sacred Places, London.
24. As a representative of
British Crown and the East India Company which was Chartered in A.D. 1600, Sir
Thomas Roe negotiated and succeeded in getting the Royal Farman of Jahangir in 1618 to do business in
25. For details see Chapters II
and III dealing with the British Education Policy for India formulated by
Charles Grant, James Mill, Wilber Force, and T.B. Macaulay and distortions
carried out in presenting Indian history, especially the ancient Indian history
in Makkhan Lal, 2005, Educating to
confuse and Disrupt: The Defiling of History and Education System of India.
26. See the Minutes drafted by T.B. Macaulay in above.
27. Max Mueller (1902) Life
and Letters of Right Honourable Fredrich Max Mueller. Vol. 1.
28. Max Mueller’s letter to
Chevelier Bunsen, dated 25 August, 1856,
29. Max Mueller’s letter to the Dean of St. Paul’s (Dr. Millman) dated 28 February, 1867.
30. R.S. Sharma, 1999, Ancient