In recent weeks we have seen a spate of statues being pulled down. A statue of the confederate Robert E Lee and the British slave trader Edward Colston were the first to go in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Then in Antwerp, a statue of King Leopold of Belgium (who oversaw the systematic killing of millions in Belgian run Congo) was set alight. But now there are many statues that are targets. And unlike Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein, whose statues were knocked down many years ago in Hungary and Iraq, the new targets are those who have often been on the right side of the historical narrative. Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Clive, Winston Churchill, Christopher Columbus. The list is long.
Pulling down a statue is relatively easy. What’s far more difficult is presenting a historical counter-narrative to the one that has been force fed over generations. Author William Dalrymple recently wrote, “In Britain, study of the empire is still largely absent from the history curriculum. Now, more than ever, we badly need to understand what is common knowledge elsewhere: That for much of history we were an aggressively racist and expansionist force responsible for violence, injustice and war crimes on every continent.” And that’s where the real challenge lies. History can be quite easily manipulated by leftists, rightists, whites, blacks, conservatives, liberals, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, capitalists, socialists, fascists and virtually every other group to erase their past sins or to glorify their own deeds.
History is always seen as part of a liberal arts curriculum. ‘Liberal’ comes from the Latin ‘liberalis’ that means ‘free’. The end of World War II resulted in Western democracies that called themselves liberal. The values encompassed included individual rights, democracy, free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, racial equality and secularism. But history, that progeny of liberal arts, rarely talks of the contradictions within the liberal narrative.
While preaching liberalism at home, America was supporting dictatorial and monarchic regimes in the Middle East that suppressed women’s rights, killed homosexuals and punished non-Muslims. Britain was teaching the world about liberalism while it drained $45 trillion from India during 173 years of colonial rule. France gifted the Statue of Liberty to America while colonising Algeria and Indo-China. Mahatma Gandhi, the messiah for equality and religious tolerance was happy to support the Khilafat Movement aimed at reviving a global caliphate. Liberals let down liberalism.
So let us ask ourselves this question: What is fundamentalism? I see it as the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world. In that sense one can see fundamentalism in all walks of life. Religious fundamentalism is the most obvious example. But political fundamentalism and historical fundamentalism are no less dangerous. Liberalism was meant to be a solution to fundamentalism. Alas, liberals spawned their own fundamentalists. Disallowing alternative narratives of history is one aspect of such fundamentalism.
We are often advised to avoid treating something as the ‘gospel truth’. But when the four gospels of the New Testament cannot agree on a single narrative about the life of Jesus Christ (not even taking into account the gnostic ones), which version will we consider to be the ‘gospel truth’? French author de Fontenelle famously said, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” The version of events penned by the victors tends to gain credence over time. All history is distorted by the lens of the observer. I call it ‘distory’. Each set of historians peddles their own narrative and repeats the errors of the group that held the opposite view earlier.
What’s the solution? As it turns out, the solution in the matter of both statues and history is the same: Don’t be selective. Let thousands of statues stand. Let thousands of historical narratives flourish. Allow history to be understood as an inexact narration of events often coloured by the sensibilities of the narrator. Allow all sides to have their say.
It’s possible that Churchill may indeed have saved England from fascism; but why can’t it be equally true that he allowed millions of Indians to starve to death during the Bengal famine, an act no less horrendous than genocide? Why isn’t it possible that the Mughal empire was extremely wealthy and powerful, yet presided over a time period when India’s share in global GDP actually fell?
The problem, as I see it, is selectivity. When we say ‘black lives matter’ but use fairness creams, that’s selectivity. When the lynching of a Muslim doesn’t attract the same sympathy as the death of a lynched Hindu monk, that’s selectivity. When the Kashmir issue is a problem but the clampdown on Uighurs is not, that’s selectivity. When Azaan on the loudspeaker is a problem but the DJ on a Ganapati truck is not, that’s selectivity. When private control of churches or mosques is fine but private control of temple trusts is not, that’s selectivity. When prevention of cruelty to animals is noble but veganism is unnecessary, that’s selectivity.
George Orwell said, “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.” While politics determines control of the present, history determines control of the past. It’s about time we freed them from the shackles of one-sided narratives. Unfortunately I am not too optimistic. Alas, in the words of Hegel, the only thing that we learn from history is that we never learn from history.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.