Speak easy: Legacies of futures foretold


Written by Pratik Kanjilal
Published:October 1, 2017 12:04 am

Read and tell: The forces behind the appropriation of history run so deep that they can sweep over even legitimate historians.

Last week, the Indian diplomatic community had a go at Pakistan at the United Nations. The brownie points were all high-score for a change, with our neighbour being dismissed as “Terroristan”, according to damaging indices — India has created IITs and IIMs, while Pakistan has created Lashkar, and so on. Of course, the tables would have been turned if some standard developmental indices were compared. Critics pointed out that the General Assembly was not a duck shooting gallery, but was intended for higher things. True, but in endless skirmishes, it’s always nice to have some brownie points stashed away, in case of emergencies.

Coincidentally, the day the verbal shrapnel was flying, I was reading Robert A Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, a science fiction classic (sounds illogically contradictory!). It is not his best — that honour must go to Stranger in a Strange Land — since the plot hinges on time travel, which violates the law of conservation of mass and energy. It is best read at an age which regards such inconveniences as minor. Older readers will find a few interesting asides, which reveal how Golden Age science fiction (following Robert Silverberg’s timeline) saw the evolution of geopolitics. In this future, India has been repeatedly balkanised, and Pakistan is hectoring and threatening it as always, presumably in multilateral fora, the successors of the UN.

The Door into Summer was serialised in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1956. At the time, progress in engineering and materials science had made the future seem imminent, while robotics, cybernetics and genomics were yet to advance the horizons of the imaginable. Authors of the period looked forward no more than a few decades, which would place the predicted balkanisation of India… well, about now.

When history, real and imagined, is central to politics, it is useful to read historical texts. Not just history books, which are obviously important — witness how much bile Audrey Trushke’s very plain-dealing monograph on Aurangzeb continues to generate, months after its release. It is also instructive to read fiction which has itself become part of the historical record, if only to see how accurately it read the future, which is our present.

Historians on history are also illuminating. In 1993, not long after the Babri Masjid was brought down, laying the foundations for the rise of Hindutva, Eric Hobsbawm delivered a lecture inaugurating the academic year at the Central European University, Budapest, in which he foretold the central role that historians would play in the politics of the 21st century. It appeared in 1997 as the essay ‘Outside and Inside History’ in the collection On History (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Its subject is not India, primarily, but rather the history of postwar eastern Europe, which was racing to catch up with the developed world using imported models — first socialism and then capitalism — and a nativist backlash was inevitable. When future historians look back on India in the first decades of the 21st century, they may see precisely this.

The modern age was created by a model combining parliamentary democracy with free-market capitalism. In postwar eastern Europe, Hobsbawm saw this as a reaction to its predecessor — under the umbrella of socialism, the Bolshevik project “modernising backward agrarian economies by planned industrial revolution.” But capitalism does not always fire on all six. It has its cycles and crashes. The countries of eastern and central Europe, he wrote, were “disappointed in their past, largely disappointed with their present, and uncertain about their future. This is a very dangerous situation. People will look for someone to blame for their failures and insecurities.” He looked ahead to “movements inspired by xenophobic nationalism and intolerance. The easiest is always to blame the strangers.” In contemporary India, this is how the day’s headlines read, and “intolerance” is part of the political lexicon.

Hobsbawm also predicted that historians would be embattled, “for history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction… If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented… The past legitimises. The past gives a more glorious background to a present that doesn’t have much to celebrate.”

A disparaging reference to a book on the Indus Valley civilisation titled Five Thousand Years of Pakistan (1950) follows, in which he observes that the very name dates from the 1930s, and that Mohenjo Daro and Islamabad have about as much in common as the heroes of the Trojan War do with the government in Ankara. History is commonly manipulated by nativists, but the book in question is by the renowned archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the father of stratigraphy and the driving force behind crucial excavations at Harappa and Arikamedu. It appears that the forces behind the appropriation of history run so deep that they can sweep over even legitimate historians.

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