By Sonia Soans
India has been sold very effectively as the land of spirituality and history by Indians and this helps maintain a façade. Despite evidence to the contrary the image has stuck. Yet there seems to be a dearth of both history and spirituality. Mihir Bose talks about this lack of historical writing and how in recent years any writing on this matter has been accompanied by violence and protests. This brings me to the heart of the problem – how we tell our histories. If you have followed the news in India you might have seen reports of Dinanath Batra and his talk of how great India was and returning to Indian culture. Batra a retired school teacher has made a claim that we in ancient India had aircrafts, automobiles and various anachronistic technologies. He then goes on to tell people they need to celebrate their birthdays in an Indian way minus the cake (western invention) by feeding cows and the needy. I do agree with feeding animals and the needy however the cake bit is a bit silly as is the talk about aircrafts. I don’t agree with the bit about birthday celebrations because culture is constantly evolving and assimilating besides as a democratic nation we are free to choose how we celebrate things. I know a lot of people who have laughed about the aircrafts theory but there are a lot who actually believe it. These ideas touch on a deep-seated sense of inferiority and are overcompensated for.
We have spoken too long about British oppression (without qualifying what this means) in India which has led us to create myths all postcolonial nations tell of their ancient greatness stolen away by foreign powers. Colonialism was a complex phenomena and not morally easy to categorise. There were those who benefited by the system and those who did not. The idea of foreign rulers coming into the country is not a new one it dates back to our earliest rulers who have been invading for centuries. Indians have benefited and from all these rulers in terms of the culture of the ruling class being adopted by society at large. Colonialism has left an indelible mark on Indian society vestiges of which have been absorbed into society and refuse to be removed.
The lack of academic history being a part of everyday life has given rise to emotive narratives of the past- India was great in the past with no fault whatsoever then our great land was invaded and we lost advanced knowledge which has only been recently discovered in the west. I have heard the same being said in different African nations, of Africans living happily as one big technologically advanced continent, a social utopia till the colonisers came and took it all away. India was the same utopia depending on who tells the tale we never had wars or problems in the way women were treated and everyone was happy. All this is silly sounding of course except it is being taken seriously. What is forgotten is how India in its present form is very different spatially from the India of the past, borders have been drawn several times on this nation state.
Growing nationalism and xenophobia in postcolonial nations is not a laughing matter anymore. Growing up in India I was always told how great my history was, this was never substantiated with examples in history. Sentiment and adjectives were seen as sufficient when talking about history. It was a similar situation when it came to films or television, historical accuracy wasn’t of great concern as evidenced by haphazardly created costumes and sets. Yet our great and glorious history was mentioned over and over. It was more sentimental than factual. The love of all things past surpassed the knowledge of the past. It was in short an emotive history which told the tale of good and evil all too easily with a convenient happy ending. In this environment is it any surprise these narratives of ancient greatness emerged? These narratives are almost always tied to nationalism and are always dangerous as they position certain groups of people as bad for the nation. History is employed to alienate and demonise a group of people and it does so effectively. The narratives used to tell this history are constantly changing by people on either side of the argument.
History alone is not enough to frame laws in any nation; however history is very cleverly used to tell oppression and liberation myths of a nation. History must be studied without the trappings of an emotional drama and as a narrative that has neither good nor bad actors.
Sonia Soans @SoniaSoansPsy is a PhD researcher living in Manchester. Her research involves looking at how the phenomena of alcohol and drug consumption is gendered and also (mis)represented in Indian cinema. Her interests lie in examining how nationalism is used to create divisions in society.