Victors write history. But times change and the once defeated get back, through one or other vicissitude of fate, and regain the right to rewrite it. I am sure there are Mongolian historians who portray Genghis Khan as a hero who brought the wisdom of the East to the barbarians of the West.
The rest of the world knows him as a scavenger who killed more people than any other individual in history.
In India, the historians writing during the struggle for Independence from the Raj tended to overlook or minimise the inter-religious conflict or cruelty of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal dynasty. Of course it wasn’t uniformly so.
My generation, not quite midnight’s children but 11.55’s kids, knew that Aurangzeb, apart from being devoutly religious, wasn’t quite Mother Teresa. And emperors Ashoka and Akbar were every secularist’s heroes, despite the former’s pre-conversion butchery and the story of the women and children of Chittor.
History gives people the opportunity for revisions and reversals. This July, Britain celebrated the defeat of the tyrant Napoleon at Waterloo. French historians and even today’s French journalists seem to say ‘Water-who?’, unwilling to accept that the battle was the end of the line for the man who had forged their European empire, written a firm and just legal code, re-imposed slavery in the French Caribbean islands and occasioned the construction of planned streets and baroque buildings in many European capitals.
Today, Oxford students are agitating to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes in their town. They want him removed because Rhodes, a great coloniser and hero of the nation in his time was, quite openly, a racist and imperialist who believed in the superiority of the European races and set the template for apartheid in southern Africa.
The Oxonians won’t gather in the streets and pull his statue down with ropes and smash it with mallets as the peace-loving citizens of Iraq did to the statue of Saddam once his armies were beaten by the Anglo-American invaders. The Oxonians are demanding at most that the statue be removed to a museum with a placard round its neck saying ‘Here may you see the racist imperialist dog’.
I recall a trip to Hungary more than 10 years after the fall of Soviet hegemony there and taking a trip by bus to a dusty compound a few miles from Budapest in which, for an entrance fee, you could see the statues of Lenin, Stalin and other figures from Hungary’s communist era which had been exiled from the streets of the city. (I have often wondered where the statue of the black horse known as the ‘Kala Ghoda’ has been removed to from the south Mumbai crossroads that is still referred to by that name.)
Removing Rhodes’ statue from Oxford won’t do much to reverse history. It will mark the point in time when British people, not all of them by any means, acknowledged the injustices of their colonial past and wanted to make public statements about their regret. Something similar is happening in the United States where there is a move to ban the flying of the Confederate Flag in public because the Confederacy that lost the American Civil War stood for the perpetuation of black slavery.
These moves make some sense, as do perhaps the renaming of streets, which were named after colonial officials and rulers. I certainly welcomed the naming of what in my childhood was called Pune’s ‘Main Street’ as ‘Mahatma Gandhi Road’, though I am convinced there was no British colonialist called ‘Main’.
These are rewritings of history that are symbolic corrections. Though they eradicate or distance the memory of how things used to be, they are not rewritings of history, which are in any significant way harmful. Britain will not be denying India investment or diplomatic friendship because, say, Bonneville Place in Beejaypur may now be called N Godse Chowk.
There are of course changes in historical perspective that no modern country which does not want to become the laughing stock of the civilised world would countenance. Imagine some Greek idiot who believes that he can date the composition of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and further asserts that the ancient Greeks invented flying saucers and nuclear bombs, being treated not as a crank, but being appointed to lead the Greek Council of Historical Research (GCHR)?
Yes, nationalist movements get carried away. Today the Scottish Nationalists are demanding separation from Britain as a break with sub-colonialism. One still can’t imagine that they would appoint someone, who publicly professed that the Loch Ness monster was proof that pre-historic Scots could genetically modify lizards and turn them into giant marine creatures, to the post of professor of biology at Edinburgh University.
It couldn’t happen, you say! They’d be the prize idiots of the thinking world. When the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party goes out abroad to convince people to invest in Scotland, her audiences would start laughing and booing and point at the academic life of Scotland turning to superstition and going backwards.
Thank god that sort of thing can’t happen in India!
(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed are personal)