Historiography, an art or agenda?

If I ask you today what shaped you? Your most instinctive answer would be ‘my past’. In short, our present individual life is determined by our past history. Very similarly, the human society with all its manifestations in terms of polity, culture, economy, science is a product of our past. We are forever shaped by our past. Thus history is a multidimensional subject encompassing all the spheres of human life.

In this aspect the art of historiography assumes great significance. The way our past has been written shapes our discourse. In essence, the historiography has three main features. Firstly, chronological description of events; secondly, causes of such events; and last, but not least, the impact of such events. It is a duty of a true historian to incorporate these features in their work discreetly. The failure to do so not only prevents the reconstruction of true picture of our past but can also have potent ramifications for our society, specially when the subject of the history deals with the issues of religions, race and caste.

Take this very quote of Churchill, he says “history is written by the victor.” What do you make of it? Doesn’t it make history sound biased? That a victor will always be right is no guarantee. What if the Nazis head won the war? Wouldn’t the history then justify the holocaust.

Just as a victor can’t give an impartial interpretation of history, similarly any ideologically inclined person can’t do justice to the practice of historiography. When an ideologue interpret history he/she already has some values attached with. The person sees everything and every event of the past from that narrow lens. For example, for Karl Marx, almost all of history (except the early history without any private property) is a history of class struggle. Based on this historical class struggle, he developed a theory of dialectic materialism, in which economic relations form the base upon which the superstructure of the society rests. It was a fellow communist, Gramsci, who repudiated that the economic relations alone is a deterministic features of the society. Gramsci was inquiring about why the communist revolutions as prophesied by Marx never happened. He attached equal importance to culture, religion in human society. Thus, on this ground it can be proved that Marx division of society as a mere class struggle between two groups of people; one who owned the means of production and the other who didn’t- falls flat.

The other issue involved in historiography by an ideologue is that he or she won’t shy away from distorting or justifying events and characters of the past to realize their objectives. For example, most of the leftist historians in India have devoted great amount of time to prove that all the Muslims rulers that ever ruled India were all seculars and any act of bigotry committed, if any, were political or economic necessity. Similarly, for almost all the nationalist historians, all the Muslims rulers in India were bigot and exception if any was rear. A closer examination of acts and events, and outlook of the characters of the Muslim rulers in Medieval India reveals that there were both secular as well as bigot rulers. To the first category belong rulers like Muhammad Bin Tughlaq, Zainul Abedin of Kashmir, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and to the later group belongs Ala-ud-din Khilji, Feroz Shah Tughlaq, Aurangzeb.

Such a left and right cleavage can be seen in almost all the countries with variations based on religion, race, culture etc.

Another difficulty in writing history is that the history of the past was itself written by the poets, priests, and scribes of the royals. Such a source of history can never be impartial. Such a source will over amplify the success of their patrons and overlook their failures. For example, Banabhatta, the author of Harshacharitta which he wrote for his patron king Harshavardhana (an ancient king of India) talks highly of his successes but doesn’t mention the defeat he had to endure in his fight with a South Indian King Pulakesin II. This information comes form the Aihole Inscription, inscribed by Pulakesin’s court poem Ravikirti.

Similarly, it was a tradition among ancient Greek and Roman scholars to treat other civilization as inferior to their own. It didn’t matter if the Egyptians, Persians and Indians civilization were equally good.

In modern times, the above practice was seen among colonial historians and Christian missionaries. In order to justify their rule, the indigenous and natives were proclaimed as savages who had to be civilized, that nothing great happened in these society in the past. In case they couldn’t deny the past successes of any native societies, they were quick to link it with the European connect.

It was to be the the ‘White Man’s Burden” of the new rulers (read colonial masters) and Providential missions of the missionaries to rectify the historical savages. This movement of colonialism in the Americas then became celebrated. So much so that future generations wanted to live up to what they were told by historians was a brave and glorious Columbus. To them, Columbus wasn’t a monster who committed genocidal atrocities, he was a pioneer worthy of having the capital of the United States named after him. This led to the manifest destiny movement, that America was obliged by a hire calling to spread across North America, and thus the genocide of America’s indigenous people took place because of the cultural values instilled by a corrupted history. It’s a different fact that there were many positive changes introduced by both of them but these changes were introduced for self-interest. However, the subject of the matter is not the good or bad works of the colonial rulers, but failure of the colonial historians to interpret the history that is being judged here. A true historian has to be impartial.

The question then that comes to our mind is what is then the right method to write history. Kalhana, a kashmiri scholar of 12th century has shown the way. He was the author of Rajatarangini (River of Kings).

Firstly, Kalhana argues that a true historian should examine the works of a past historians critically so that a true picture of the past can be presented. Secondly, a historians should have a character of a judge, he should examine the details given in any historical books to that truth can be separates from lies. Thirdly, a historian should not bring his personal bias in writing history, his only duty should be to present the last as it was. Fourthly, a historian shouldn’t emotionally get involved in details as it would clout his judgment and the truth will be lost somewhere.

Kalhana also mentions that history should be written in a way that history and present can be linked and a valuable lessons can be drawn for the future. At the same time I believe history should not be written in a bias way to create a better future because it will only be counted productive. Let’s us take an example, of holocaust and Armenian Genocide. The Germans accepted holocaust and today the state of Germany and Israel share friendly relations on the contrary the Turks never accepted Armenian Genocide and hence the state of Turkey and Armenia remain perpetual enemies.

The word history is derived from Greek word ‘istoria (historia) which means to inquire, to investigate. Thus it remains our duty as a student of history to do justice to the investigation and present nothing but truth without any bias or agenda. As the Indian saying goes, “satya meva jayate” meaning truth alone triumphs and let history not just be a fable agreed upon as Napoleon would have us believe.

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