For all our collective apathy towards history, it is mind-boggling the centre stage history acquires in South Asia.
I say ‘collective apathy’ because compared to other more commercially viable degrees such as engineering, business, medicine and computer science, history as a formal discipline is hardly ever the top choice for students.
In the Pakistani context, at least, the popular perspective is that those who study history in government institutions do so to improve their chances in the civil service examination.
While history books remain one of the most popular genres sold at book stores, the limited outreach of books in both Pakistan and India has been much discussed over the years.
The state, too, depicts this apathy by allowing numerous historical monuments to gradually fade away due to lack of interest or funds.
Acts of vandalism by tourists in the form of names or numbers inscribed on monuments that are supposed to be protected can be seen everywhere.
On a side note, a friend of mine began calling many of these numbers to find out that almost all of them were fake.
However, despite the indifference towards our history, the subject is very so often invoked in political discussions.
Many a times the same students who overlook history in college and university for more commercial courses end up forming rigid dogmas about historical past that end up shaping our political discourse.
In Pakistan, Partition remains one of those subjects about which everyone has an opinion, but not many understand.
I remember once listening to Dr Ayesha Jalal at the Lahore Literary Festival, when an audience member rejected outright her thesis on Partition, for it challenged the conventional understanding of the creation of the country.
One finds similar comments on social media under her articles or interviews. Often, these comments are personalised attacks as opposed to counter arguments.
With these fixed, yet imaginary, notions of Partition colouring the perspective, the Hindu past of the country is also imagined.
In order to somehow justify the event, the Hindu history of the country was slowly filtered and whatever that survived was maintained to present a particular framework.
Thus Muslim rulers, particularly those who destroyed temples or defeated Hindu kings, became glorified heroes, the precursors of the Pakistan Movement — Muhammad Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznavi, Muhammad of Ghor, Babur, Aurangzeb, Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali.
A simplistic narrative of their history stripped of the social, political and cultural ethos of the time was broadcasted. It made perfect sense, therefore, to name our missiles after these ‘heroes’.
While these characters were celebrated, others were appropriated for the exact opposite reason.
One such example is Raja Dahir, believed to be the last Hindu ruler of Sindh, whose forces were defeated by the iconic Muhammad Bin Qasim.
In Pakistan, the king today symbolises a tyrant and is invoked occasionally by politicians to refer to their opponents.
For students, bureaucrats, politicians, journalists and others who grew up with this overarching framework of history, the Hindu heritage in their midst — in their cities, villages, towns and mohallas — came to be seen through this lens of perennial conflict and antagonism.
In a country that was now their own, a country that they had fought for and forcefully extracted from a ‘Hindu India’, how could they continue to live in localities that were still called Krishan Nagar or Ram Bagh?
Thus, Krishan Nagar in Lahore, a suburban residential locality founded in the 1930s, became Islampura after Partition, while Ram Bagh in Karachi, a historical ground that once used to host Ramlila and other Hindu religious celebrations, became Aram Bagh.
These are just two of the prominent examples out of a myriad others localities that experienced a rechristening, reflecting the changing political circumstances.
Ironically, while in this framework of history the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain’ remained contested, what were not challenged were the generalisations and the assumptions of this structure.
To the Hindu nationalists, those Muslim heroes became villains. Mahmud Ghaznavi, for example, became the reviled Muslim King who destroyed the greatest Hindu temple of Somnath, while Babur laid the foundation of the oppressive Mughal Empire over the ruins of a highly refined Hindu civilisation.
Both of these perspectives had internalised the categorisation of history into forced classifications of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh periods, bequeathed to them by a colonial state whose very survival was contingent upon the creation and the formalisation of these distinctions.
In this context, the recent renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj by the Uttar Pradesh government, led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, comes as no surprise.
It reflects the ideology espoused by Hindu nationalists of ‘correction’ of ‘historical injustices’ inflicted upon the Hindu population. There were signs of this in 2015 when Aurangzeb Road in Delhi was renamed to APJ Abdul Kalam Road.
While this may come across as a new phenomenon unleashed by a Hindu nationalist government, there have been traces of this right from the start.
Only a few years after the creation of India, the Somnath temple was reconstructed with the efforts of Congress leader Vallabhbhai Patel.
The temple, due to its central position in this antagonist framework between two nationalist groups, acquired a particular significance; hence, its reconstruction soon after 1947 was an important political statement representing the ‘revival’ of Hindu civilisation ‘oppressed’ by the long rule of Muslims.
No other historical rulers are at the heart of this contested history as Mahmud Ghaznavi and Aurangzeb. Both hold a special position in these nationalist interpretations.
One views them to be devoted Muslims bent upon spreading the ‘true’ message of Islam in a ‘pagan’ India, whereas the other imagines them to be reviled characters who brutally oppressed a majority of the population due to their fanaticism.
Both of these narratives are highly problematic, as are the inherent assumptions of this problematic framework — a legacy of colonial rule.
As long as this framework continues to exist, these historical battles will continue to be fought not in our classrooms, but rather in the streets, lanes and cities of India and Pakistan as they are named and renamed over and over again, while history classrooms remain empty and history books gather dust.
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