& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

History is opinion?

Discussing history is always interesting because it bring forth varied views from different people.

Some views are well formed and well articulated because they are based on a thorough understanding of the past. Some that are not so well formed.

I realize that it isn’t necessary to be either well-read or well versed in history to have a point of view about the past. In fact, the less one knows of history and the less one has read history, the more interesting one’s views tend to be.

Such ignoramuses can be irritating, but as they say in Hindustani, Aur bhi gham hai zamane mein (There are other sorrows in this world).

In a free society, everyone has their opinions, and they have every right to hold them dear to their hearts and express them freely.

Living in a multicultural society now and being exposed to different people and their cultures, I also realize that they have an equally valid point of view, as valid as mine, perhaps more valid than mine.

When faced with such situations, I adhere to Voltaire’s aphorism on freedom of expression both in spirit and in letter.

He had said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

(Some disagree that Voltaire actually said this.)

Recently, I had the occasion to re-read some the essays I had written many years ago for an educational website that never used the content.

One of the most important sources that I had come to depend upon when I wrote those pieces was Bipin Chandra’s India’s Struggle for Independence. Subsequently, he also co-authored India After Independence.

In my opinion, India’s Struggle for Independence is one of the better books on the history of a tumultuous era that shaped not just the subcontinent, but postcolonial world.

Bipin Chandra’s approach is not didactic, not prejudicial, and the only message that he wishes to convey through his book is that India’s future will be secular.

I recently read extracts from an essay Empire for Sale by the British academic Niall Ferguson. Ferguson writes to provoke. And he succeeds.

Ferguson has a challenging point of view about the collapse of the British Empire. He contends that this happened because Britain fought with other European countries in the two world wars and not because of the nationalist freedom struggles.

At the height of World War II, Ferguson contends, “Events in India revealed the weakness of the nationalist movement and the resilience of the Raj. The Viceroy announced India’s entry into the war without a word of consultation with the leaders of Congress. 

The ‘Quit India’ Campaign launched in 1942 was snuffed out within six weeks by the simple expedients of arresting Gandhi and the campaign’s other leaders, censoring the press and reinforcing the police with troops. Congress split, with only a small minority egged on by Bose – a would be Indian Mussolini – electing to side with the Japanese.”

This is a statement unsubstantiated with any historical evidence. Even a cursory reading of the India’s freedom struggle would reveal that the ‘Quit India’ campaign was one of the most serious threats posed to the British Empire.

Along with the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 and Gandhi’s Salt Satyagrah (Dandi March) of 1930, the Quit India movement ranks as one of the most decisive moments of Indian history.

The reverberations of the Quit India movement were felt everywhere thanks to the involvement of the grassroots workers of the national movement.

“The great significance of this movement,” writes historian Bipin Chandra in India's Struggle for Independence, “was that it placed the demand for independence on the immediate agenda of the national movement. After Quit India, there could be no retreat. Any future negotiations with the British government could only be on the manner of the transfer of power. Independence was no longer a matter of bargain.”

The great Winston Churchill, who was on his way to becoming the toast of the ‘free’ world, was once again checkmated by the wily Mahatma, who launched one of his indefinite hunger fasts. Gandhi’s fast shook the British establishment in India.

Viceroy Linlithgow suggested to Prime Minister Churchill that Gandhi should be released from the prison. Churchill was angry. He wrote to the Viceroy, “...this our hour of triumph everywhere in the world was not the time to crawl before a miserable little old man who had always been our enemy.”


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