Labelling History (#1)

Updated: Jul 25

Opinions on Indian history are often expressed on social media platforms like Twitter. These views are divergent and polarising. Some pay homage to famous historical figures while others admonish the past with accusations. A pattern however emerges in their reading. These threads seek to judge history.

Why shouldn’t we judge history? I will use two examples to illustrate my argument. When colonial authorities began writing about India, their perception of the country’s past was plagued with Western biases. India’s histories were a-historical and many practices labelled barbaric and backward. Nationalist historians however revived ancient Indian histories and proceeded to write extensively about the exaggerated glories of ancient and medieval India. The next example focuses on Richard III who ruled England until 1485 when he was defeated by Henry VI at the Battle of Bosworth field. Richard III has been known to history as a tyrant. However, recent evidence reveals that this perception was a product of Tudor propaganda.

Leopold von Ranke was the first historian to put forth ideas on the importance of ‘objectivity’ in history. He theorised that history should be written with primary sources and a hierarchy of sources should be adhered to. We should however ask ourselves- can historical evidence be trusted without examination? Let us use reconstruction of the reign of Mauryan emperor Asoka as an example. Historians have continued to use the emperor’s inscriptions to gather details of his reign. These inscriptions were commissioned by the emperor and written under his supervision. Do they give us an accurate glimpse of his reign? Can we accept this evidence uncritically? These instances of manipulation show us that no historical evidence can be trusted completely. Thus before drawing any conclusions, a historian needs to ask some important questions- why was the text written, when and where was it written, who were the intended audiences and how was the narrative crafted along with several other crucial considerations. The study of history is never stagnant. New evidence is often unearthed through research and archaeological excavations. This theme has already been explored above with the case of Richard III. History hence cannot be objective. No piece of evidence can be produced without bias. Historians too cannot isolate themselves from innate biases. History cannot be studied objectively. How then can we hope to judge the past? Does this idea though, dismiss the abhorrent histories of epochs like the Nazi era? No. Why? The simple answer is because of evidence. No historian can speak to a subject of

Emperor Asoka for an understanding of his reign. Common people rarely left accounts of their lives. However, survivors of the Holocaust record even today the horrors of the Nazi regime.

To demonstrate the necessary nuance that one must incorporate when analysing history Most of us fail to take into account the German point of view when talking about this matter and fail to see the potential for evil in ourselves. Germany was humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles.It’s people were living through unparalleled economic hardship. Adolf Hitler in their eyes was a messiah. Only he could save Germany and revive the nation’s lost dignity and pride in their eyes. People both now and in the past have fallen prey to charismatic demagogues like Hitler. On the other hand, does this theory absolve slave-owners? No. the experience of slavery in fact, corroborates this idea. In our labelling of certain historical periods as ‘glorious’ and ‘golden’, we ignore the prevalence of practices like slavery.

We must also understand that time is not stationary. The past influences the present. In our judgement of the past we create a more tumultuous and hostile world for ourselves. Bias is inherent to all of us and morals evolve with time. Ideas like liberty and equality began to gain popular acceptance only after The French Revolution of 1789. How can we judge the past with the morals of today? It is of course important to recognise certain actions of the past that were unprecedented in their occurrence and have long-lasting impacts. However, both laypersons and historians should work to look at history through a more conscious and

critical lens and realise the importance of a balanced view of the past.

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