Dr. Markus Daechsel
Reader, Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London
ABSTRACT: South Asia and the Uses of History
History was once upon a time seen as the single most powerful foundation of ideological positioning in South Asia, including of national identity itself. No one was clearer about this than Qa’id-e Azam M.A. Jinnah, who famously remarked that the most reliable measurement of what it meant to be Pakistani was not simple religious or cultural difference, but a collective view of the past – a sense of what ‘episodes’ and ‘epics’ mattered to its people, and who was their ‘hero’ or their ‘enemy’. How one interpreted events like the 1857 uprising against the British, or whether Aurangzeb or Akbar was one’s most favoured Mughal Emperor defined one’s political subjectivity. This widely recognised entanglement has not led to a corresponding interest in public history, however. Instead of arguing with and about history, South Asian politics has increasingly been guided by a desire to by-pass or even undo history. This tendency has been perhaps most visible in the field of heritage destruction and architecture, but can also be observed elsewhere, in debates about school curricula, for instance, or simply in the relatively low prestige enjoyed by history as compared to the social or natural sciences. The death or even ‘murder’ of History - as one well-known publication once alleged – long seemed to be more characteristic of Pakistan than of India. But recent developments have relativized such differences, for instance, ongoing attempts to institute Hindu worship in the Taj Mahal, or a conscious policy of downgrading internationally recognised centres of historical scholarship like JNU.
What is at stake here is not so much the question of ‘what history?’ or ‘whose history?’ which has long been on the radar of South Asia scholarship, but rather the nature and value of history itself, the ‘politics of time’, to borrow Peter Osborne’s phrase. The keynote address will offer reflections on a number of interconnected themes that are all related to this larger question: What does South Asian ‘politics of time’ mean for our ability to write a history of post-colonial South Asia? Why have debates about ‘decolonising’ history like ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in South Africa and the UK found so little echo in Pakistan and beyond? Why has a fetishization of heritage become such a dominant feature in the self-identity of a beleaguered ‘liberal’ minority? Why have social scientific approaches to history – or even the replacement of history by social science – been so widespread in South Asian academic culture? Do we need an alternative way of ‘doing history’ in South Asia, and what could it look like? Such explorations have barely begun, but will acquire increasing importance in an arguably less ‘historical’ future when many of the old certainties of 19th and 20th century modernity will be replaced or superseded.