History and past are a study of not just the narration of power politics but also that of experiences, struggles and memory of such experiences which interact with and impact the present and the future in innumerable ways. To understand the present and why we are where we are, it is important to know how we reached here. It is important also to know past for shaping a better future. Forgetfulness is a dangerous tool that robs us of our past and fogs our present and future with delusions.
The decision to cosmetically forget today is central to not just the hatred and divisiveness that guides the politics of South Asia but also reinforces a culture of forgetfulness to issues of justice. In all the three units of the erstwhile British Raj – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the approach to atrocities, brutality, riots and excesses by state or non-state actors remains casual enabling the process of acceptance of injustice as normal.
“The first step in liquidating a people,’ said Hubl, ‘is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
In the name of relieving school students of the burden of cumbersome curriculum and marks-oriented education system, the BJP-government has begun trimming the books by omitting out relevant chapters in NCERT history books prescribed as per CBSE curriculum. Three chapters each have been pushed out of Class 9th and class 10th books. One of them that had 200 pages, is now 72 pages thinner. In 2017, NCERT made 1,334 changes, which included additions, correction and data update in 182 textbooks. The chapters include history of clothing, cricket, peasants and farmers, rise of cities, novels and literature, nationalism in Indo-China. Barring the last one, all other chapters are a telling of various social and economic aspects of Indian history with strong connections to caste, region, communities and economic oppression in a colonial setting coinciding with signs of capitalistic interests.
The trimming of the history books in no way reduces the syllabus or burden of the students as the chapters deleted were part of the choice-based system. In Class 10th, for instance, students were to be assessed on basis of knowledge of any 5 out of 8 chapters including the ones that have been deleted. Only the choice has been omitted, the burden has not been reduced. The only thing this deletion of chapters from the history text-books helps to do – is to erase memory – memory of oppression and peoples struggles against that – while keeping alive the dates and events of war and power games. It is no secret that the right-wing powers are on pins to re-write history of the country, also the world. The first step to the re-writing project is the erasure of existing memory whether through history books, raising, replacing and erecting new memorials or through renaming of places and roads.
History and past are a study of not just the narration of power politics but also that of experiences, struggles and memory of such experiences which interact with and impact the present and the future in innumerable ways. To understand the present and why we are where we are, it is important to know how we reached here. It is important also to know past for shaping a better future. Forgetfulness is a dangerous tool that robs us of our past and fogs our present and future with delusions. History in the past was always written from the viewpoint of the powerful. In recent concepts of unravelling the past, peoples struggles and peoples history was brought central to narration of the past. These radical ideas found a place in the NCERT books which were very scientifically and thoughtfully planned almost two decades ago under the guidance of noted scientist Prof. Yashpal, who was joined in his efforts by intellectuals from various streams and subjects.
For those who want to centralise authority and perpetuate brute power, the history of the lesser mortals, their ordinary lives and struggles would be more important to erase. However, it is not just erasure of memory alone that is problematic. Living with the torment of past without dealing with it, sometimes, is not just painful but in many ways facilitates the authoritarian powers to assert and oppress more. The saffronites who under the influence of power have begun their project of erasing and re-writing history cannot entirely be blamed for the ability of Indian nation, like many other peoples across the world, to absorb and retain knowledge of the past without understanding the need for a proper closure.
India began its journey of independence with a mounting burden of brutalities of the British Raj and the horrific massacres that unfolded in the wake of two-nation theory and consequent partition. The memory of partition remains central to almost every aspect of life in South Asia and has continued to shape its politics, society and economy in innumerable ways. As, noted Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal writes about partition of 1947: “A defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”
There are no precise statistics about the horrors of partition but as per rough estimates 1-2 million people were slaughtered, 75,000 women were rapes, disfigured or dismembered and 14 million people were displaced. The documentation of narratives of partition by scholars and writers is too little in the face of the huge tragedy that unfolded but offers chilling and shameful accounts of what happened. The bloodshed of 1947 is no less grotesque a chapter than the German holocaust which happened less than a decade before that. But while Germany still dealt with its horrifying shame through Nuremberg trials and memorialization of the holocaust (albeit not adequately enough), South Asia moved on with a forgetfulness that was present only in the public sphere. It sunk in deeper into the psyche of the peoples, often with a tinge of prejudice and even hatred with nationalistic divisions running parallel to communal divisions. There was no conflict resolution, no truth telling mechanisms, no post-conflict healing and no voices for justice, which shockingly remained absent even with respect to the many massacres at the hands of the British empirical powers. The divided sub-continent wanted to move on. It is good to forget and move on with a positive energy. But the laws of nature do not allow the massive baggage of a tormenting past to be discarded without a process of reconciliation.
The decision to cosmetically forget today is central to not just the hatred and divisiveness that guides the politics of South Asia but also reinforces a culture of forgetfulness to issues of justice. In all the three units of the erstwhile British Raj – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – the approach to atrocities, brutality, riots and excesses by state or non-state actors remains casual enabling the process of acceptance of injustice as normal. The deteriorating political discourse, the increasing appetite for extremist views, the communal and caste divides and the jarring notes of war mongering are to a great degree a culmination of that casual approach to tormenting memory. The existing culture of not seeking accountability has much of its genesis in the events of and before partition, and how these were handled.
It is for this reason that the region has comfortably moved on from one riot to another, handled terrorism with bellicose rhetoric or by overlooking it (depending upon political affiliations). In the aftermath of Babri mosque demolition, the focus has been a discussion on who is the rightful owner of the piece of land and what should be built there; and not holding those who brought the historic mosque down accountable. The gradual rise of the Hindutva and saffron terror has been built on the edifices of this debris. In the aftermath of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the central issue was not justice and healing, but how to appease the Sikh community or wipe out terrorism in Punjab. What happened in Gujarat in 2002 or continues to happen on a regular basis in the form of beef related lynchings gets a certain legitimacy on how riots and incidents of violence had been dealt with in the past. In the Indian national imagination, human trauma in Kashmir is denied while ‘terrorism’ is magnified, giving armed rebellion and insurgency a greater legitimacy at the local level.
In contemporary times, the events all over the globe are instructive of how the ghosts of the past can easily come back to haunt if not dealt with effectively, responsively and sensitively. Sri Lanka’s inability to address the vital question of transitional justice 10 years on after the war against Tamil guerillas ended has in many ways created the space for the recent terror attacks. In Ireland, despite a peace process that involved several mechanisms to ensure peace and reconstruction by skirting all the conflict-related legacy issues, today is creating space for resurrection of the troubled past.
Leave alone forgetfulness and the tearing hurry to move on, in India, the ongoing attempt to erase the past, instead of dealing with it, will in future bring us face to face with unimaginable destruction.