Forget the History Wars, it’s Time We Debated How and Whom to Commemorate

Untitled. Painting by Savi Savarkar. Credit: Triratna_Photos/Flickr, CC 2.0

Untitled. Painting by Savi Savarkar. Credit: Triratna_Photos/Flickr, CC 2.0

The recent decision to rename Aurangzeb Road in Delhi has kicked off an important public debate. Robust counter arguments to the proposal made by BJP MP Maheish Girri have been presented in The Wire by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Harbans Mukhia and Narayani Gupta. While my personal position is quite clear – I am in support of not renaming the road – there are issues and elements that demand a deeper scrutiny of the arguments involved. This is so not only because the debate has touched the turf of History — which is obvious from the fact that all three reasoned and passionate critiques have come from those practising the craft of history writing. The debate also provides a good opportunity for us to reflect on how not just big monuments and institutions and something as crucial as textbooks get drawn into politico-ideological battle but even apparently benign and small objects – such as a road – can potentially be loaded with the same inflections.

History vs. commemoration

Watching Girri speak in defence of his petition for renaming the road after the former President, A P J Abdul Kalam made two things clear. The first line of argument runs on the turf of history, that is, it is a fact of history that Aurangzeb was cruel, that he was a despot who killed people of all faiths (mostly Hindus though) and destroyed temples. Thus, to give him a place of honour was itself a mistake which nonetheless should now be corrected. In other words, to quote from Girri’s words, the renaming provides an opportunity “to correct mistakes in history”.

The second tier at which the argument runs is not related to some positivist views of history in which facts are uncontested. It is in fact the very malleability of history – as reflected in practices of commemoration – which is at stake. What does the nation want to remember is the question for those who support the change, rather than what actually happened in history. Do we want to remember Aurungzeb’s cruelty or Kalam’s patriotism? The question, therefore, at one level is not was Aurangzeb really bad but rather do we need to remember him at all, when as the pro-change group argues, we have a ‘better’ option in Kalam.

Of course, both levels of this debate are interrelated – the need to not remember stems from Aurangzeb’s alleged cruelty – but for the purposes of understanding the contours of the debate it is necessary to disentangle the two: one leads us towards the discipline of history and the other should open a debate on the criteria for commemoration which, given the nature of the beast, is bound to be political at its best and divisive at its worst.

It is, therefore, not a surprise to see one of the leading historians of Mughal India, Harbans Mukhia, spending a lot of space in putting across the view that the fixed religious identity of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’ was not the primary axis of social and political relationships. Aurangzeb had the support of Hindu Rajput chiefs, and he did patronise Hindu temples as well – these are ‘facts’ well recorded in historical accounts. In a debate like this, they certainly need to be told and retold and the importance of Mukhia’s intervention lies precisely in this robust reminder that characterising the ruler just as a cruel tyrant is both a factual distortion and a distorted interpretation.

The historian’s limits

Historical counter arguments can also encompass other rulers. To my historian’s mind, the great ruler Ashoka – who after the Kalinga war, turned towards propagating Buddhism and hence became relatively pacifist – was no less cruel in his early career than Aurangzeb. The brutal killing of his brothers to get the Maurayan throne parallels Aurangzeb’s quest for the Mughal empire. According to the popular wisdom on history, Ashoka had dumped their bodies in a well in the old Patna city. This Agam Kuan – or the ‘unfathomable well’ – was a site of torture and stands next to the revered site of Sitala Mata mandir. The oldest thorough road that connects the old parts of Patna with Gandhi Maidan, dotted with all major educational institutions of the state including its premier research library (Khuda Baksh), is called Ashoka Rajpath. And I am sure we will not hear about any petitions to rename it. Dare not anyone even think of this.

The context in both cases involves understanding political formations in their respective times without imputing or imposing any misleading generalisation. There would be scholarly disagreements even in the parallel which I have briefly sketched, and that is alright. However, the line of critique based on nuanced historical understanding can only go so far. To have rounds and rounds of discussions on history — most frustratingly on news channels where Mukhia, in his inimitable wit rightly points out, the version of public history is doled out by ‘TV experts who are otherwise surgeons or dentists by profession”  — can be pointless. For a long time, Mukhia has remained untiringly involved in public debates related to history but if, as he notes, “the popular image of history has remained unaltered” since the times of colonial historiography which divided India’s history along religious lines, then a big share of the blame also lies with the practitioners of history. We need to ask ourselves why have we failed to undo or refine what we understand as the simplistic and distorted version of the past; why have we been so limited in influencing the public and the popular versions of the past?

This indeed is the time for reflecting on the historian’s role — as Romila Thapar had provocatively done [PDF] in her widely read piece on the role of intellectuals, but such a concern needs a sustained engagement and should not erupt with the cycle of change in political leadership.

The other part of this debate — as to what the nation can rightfully remember — is equally important. This is no place to ruminate philosophically on what memory and public memory are but to put things in a simpler way: to my knowledge (and I would like to be corrected) there is no widespread debate in India on the practice of commemoration involving public spaces. The counter petition to not change the name invokes the argument, once again, of history and heritage. Can parts of history which we don’t like be undone? Of course, the correct, simple and straight answer is no. However, linking the current effort to the misplaced sense of authority as Gopalkrishna Gandhi does when he says, “Renaming roads is about the most immature and least sign of authority”, hardly helps.

The politics of naming

It is so because historically, cities and towns, chowks and qasbas, roads and bazaars have been named and renamed constantly. They are tools of acquiring political legitimacy and imposing authority. Such demands are also the ways of searching for (invented) authenticity that suits the political ideology of the claimants. This search for authenticity inevitably brings history into the ambit of discussion (the Ram Setu discussion was one such) and historians must be prepared to see their discipline being marshalled or masqueraded publicly – in ways that range from the most amusing to the most disturbing. The presidency towns of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras have been renamed to represent this ‘authenticity’.

Another aspect of the demand for renaming is to go back to the golden past – to the moment of glory, origin and authenticity. This is precisely what lies behind the demand for changing the name of Patna to Patliputra that keeps surfacing from time to time, irrespective of the fact that for more than a century it was also known as Azimabad. We can also be sure that Patliputra may one day become the official name of Patna but it will never be Azimabad again. The Indira and Rajiv Chowks in Delhi are recent examples of how either historical personalities or contemporary political personalities are immortalised through commemoration.

Delhi has been the capital of Mughal India, and then of colonial and independent India and so there is a valid argument that in its roads and monuments lay traces of a past which cannot be erased whimsically. To my mind, however, the debate on what can or needs to be commemorated using public places cannot only happen on the terrain of history and heritage. Commemoration by its logic involves some selection, and history by its craft, at least ideally, requires keen sensitivity towards multiple voices of the past and their reasoned contextualisation. They cannot go together all the time. What is required is an informed debate on public commemoration that gives due importance not only to ‘eminent’ and well known personalities from the past and the present but which is also open to integrating marginal and subaltern figures in the commemorative pantheon. The rationale of such a selection nonetheless requires that we not let caste, community, ethnicity and religion play a role in a bidding game to pamper the vote sentiments of the political community or in dividing people on the basis of “our” and “their” icons.

It is important to point out the rather maverick stroke of Girri and those involved in pushing this matter. Kalam’s credibility is ‘national’ and not related to any specific group; hence, at the surface, Girri and his supporters escape the direct charge of being ‘anti-Muslim’. But the question to ask is: is their move genuinely aimed at honouring Kalam or at replacing Aurangzeb? If there is a message to be drawn by pitting Kalam against Aurangzeb, then what is it if not the usual run of  ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’? Kalam’s commemoration need not be based on ‘correcting history’. He can independently acquire a road without us bothering to erase an existing name. Commemoration can and must rest on foundations other than the narrow and misleading goal of ‘correcting history’.

Nitin Sinha is a lecturer in Modern History, University of York