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‘In history lies all the secrets of statecraft’

It is unusual, if not sacrilegious, to invite a person who does not have history bred in his bones to a conclave of men and women steeped in the intricacies of a much talked about but inadequately understood human pursuit that dwells on the past and seeks to enlighten or confound the present. I, therefore, deem it a great privilege to be invited by the Indian History Congress to inaugurate its 75th session.

My own academic discipline in the distant past was political science and I do recall Professor John Seeley’s jingle, well-known in my time and presumably not forgotten today, that “History without political science has no fruit and political science without history has no roots.”

In more recent times, and for professional reasons, I came to value Winston Churchill’s aphorism: “Study history, study history; in history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

Historians at all times have endeavoured, as Herodotus put it, “to preserve from decay the remembrance of what men have done.” Historians have dwelt on the facts of the past and sought to make implicit or explicit judgements about those facts. Not to be ignored is a mid-nineteenth century caution that historians “have been seduced from truth not by their imagination but by their reason” pursuant to the impulse of “distorting facts to suit general principles.”

Equally hazardous is the propensity to read the past into the present or the present into the past; so is the temptation to ignore the distinction between memory and history. Memory is based on identification with the past and is unavoidably egocentric, while history is based on its treatment as an external object and not a part of the self. History also cannot be faith-based. The domains of the two exist separately and conflation does not further the cause of either. To a lay person, a number of questions are unavoidable. What then is history, and with what does it deal? What is the task of the historian? Is history a science, or an art, or a bit of both?

A simple answer is that it is a method of inquiry, which deals with what has reportedly happened and not exactly as it happened. It is a narrative of change. It has been suggested that historical objectivity is seen to be not a single idea but rather sprawling sets of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations and antipathies. It is evident that on most if not all occasions, the narrative is contested. Such contestations nevertheless need to have a basis in facts, demonstrable and logically sustainable. As E H Carr put it, “the historian without facts is rootless and futile; facts without their historian are dead and meaningless.” He added that “the study of history is inescapably the study of causes.” This would exclude what has been called “counterfactuals” or the “what if” category and its simplistic assumptions and premises.

It is thus evident that methodology is critical to the study of history. Efforts to curb “intellectual efflorescence” through official dicta can only be viewed as undesirable. Furthermore, contestations over the historical past need civility of discourse to ensure that it does not cross the imperatives of ensuring social peace and societal cohesion. Carr also dwelt on history’s wider relevance: “an individual stripped of memory finds the world a confusing place: a society with no sense of history is unaware of where it has come from or where it is going.”

Is there a more practical relevance of history? To my mind, it helps us know and learn from the mistakes of the past. Those mistakes relate to frailties in judgement leading to mistakes in statecraft and governance. These as one historian has put it, could be due to tyranny or oppression, excessive ambition, incompetence or decadence, and folly or perversity. In each, the inability or the unwillingness of society or its ruling establishment to pay heed to reason and realism, to dissenting opinion and to alternative courses of policy or action, led to unfounded certitude resulting in mistakes. It is for this reason that in every period of the past, beginning perhaps with the 30th century BC Egyptian King Menes, codes for dispensing justice were enunciated. Alongside, manuals were penned for the guidance of rulers. Departures from these and the resulting consequences is what historians have dwelt upon.

History writing, and history teaching, has a contemporary relevance in a more evident sense. We live in a world of nation states but the idea of a homogenous nation state is clearly problematic. Diversity is identifiable even in the most homogeneous of societies today. The global scene in modern times has been replete with complexities and tensions of what has been called the national question.

In our own country the sheer diversity of identities, 4,635 communities according to the Anthropological Survey of India, is a terse reminder about the care that needs to be taken while putting together the profile of a national identity. It has of necessity to be liberal and accommodative; marked, to quote an eminent scholar, neither by complete homogenisation nor by the particularism of closed communities. Instead, it is a balance struck by “the mutual gravitational pull of disparate sections that make the whole.” Our sagacity in building pluralist structures that have stood the test for over six decades, stands in contrast to many strait-jacket edifices in other societies that came to grief. By the same token, these structures need constant nurturing.

It is no longer a matter of debate that history has to be more than narrowly political or economic. The imperative is to make it comprehensive and inclusive of neglected groups in society. These subaltern classes, as Gramsci had pointed out, are not unified and their history, therefore, has to be intertwined with that of civil society. It has challenged what has been called “the univocality of statist discourse.” It has sought to focus on Dalit and gender issues. The methodology of studying these opened up new and enriching vistas of study for historians.

The pasture of stupidity, said the great medieval historian Ibn Khaldun, is unwholesome for mankind. He warned historians not to succumb to the “temptation of sensationalism”, adding that “a hidden pitfall of historiography is disregard for the fact that conditions within nations and regions change with the change of period and the passage of time.”


Edited excerpts from Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari’s speech at the 75th session of the Indian History Congress, New Delhi, December 28, 2014

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