Public history and India

 An examination of ‘public history’ in India – or rather, public history and India – has taken on a special urgency in recent years, not least because the Republic of India is in the middle of an unprecedented crisis of the relationship between the state, the public and the citizen. In this situation, it has become necessary to scrutinize not only Indian publics and their histories, but also the public’s uses of history, and the problems and possibilities of writing history for the public. At the core of the crisis is a breakdown of the alliance between liberalism and history without which the democratic nation-state becomes ethnocratic and, in some contexts, fascist. This breakdown has become inescapable in India, where a rampant and frequently violent majoritarianism – unchecked by the state, and increasingly inseparable from the state – has been feeding off, and feeding, narratives of bridges to Lanka, the pre-Mughal origins of the Taj Mahal, and alternative outcomes of the Battle of Haldighati. The problem cannot be pinned on any particular government; it is woven into the fabric of a public that has, by and large, fetishized sovereignty without liberalism since the inception of the Indian nation.

History, in this situation, is both the disease and the remedy, because the weakness of liberal institutions and principles of governance in India is compounded by readily identifiable political and discursive fallacies, such as allegation of ‘pseudo-secularism’ and the discourse of ‘Muslim appeasement.’ These fallacies are undergirded by a narrative of indigenes and invaders, tyrants and victims, that is not only reactionary in the context of a multi-ethnic society, but that has not been challenged consistently by liberal nationalists. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, the Congress Moderates and their Extremist challengers generally agreed that Aurangzeb was the devil. They differed mainly in what they wished to emphasize: whereas one historically-minded group dwelled on the diabolical, the other preferred to divert attention to the available angels (Akbar, Dara Shukoh, even benign Europeans).

In subsequent decades, when the Extremist/Moderate divide had become obsolete, two broad factions continued to mark nationalist politics, both overflowing the conventional boundary between the ‘secular’ and the ‘communal.’ One group saw the public project of the nation-state as historical revenge, the other emphasized the reconciliation of old enmities in a newly shared citizenship. They did not, however, disagree fundamentally about the content of the past, or about a dichotomy of options in the present between vengeance and forgetting. Since history tends to work against forgetting, it is not surprising that a nation founded on a history of conflict with a resident enemy has become more focused on vengeance, and more overtly majoritarian, as it has become more democratic. Also, since the illiberal state has typically functioned as the gatekeeper to public forums such as museums, archaeological sites, the cinema, and above all the school, the liberal historian – where she has existed – has had a limited and fiercely contested access to the public, especially that part of the public that has constituted itself as the ‘majority.’

What is public history, and can it mean the same thing in all contexts? Acknowledging that the concept of public history is notoriously hard to define, Robert Weible nevertheless suggested that it involves an attempt by scholars to bridge the gaps between academic and popular uses of historical discourse. He gave as his example the engagement of historians in the provision of texts that might accompany monuments and exhibits, those being sites where the public performs its public function. Such a conceptualization may be appropriate in the democratic states of the West, where even in the midst of intense disagreement about what history should inform public policy, there is a consensus of sorts about what history is, about what ‘the public’ is, about the public’s investment in history, and about the public’s claim upon the state, i.e., about the connections between public and policy. It is not adequate in the case of India, where no such consensus is apparent. R.K. Laxman and Arvind Kejriwal notwithstanding, the Indian ‘common man’ is a fragmented and contentious animal, and one cannot take for granted a notion of citizenship that is anchored either in popular sovereignty or in liberalism, which have become politically opposed to each other in India. Here, multiple publics – sometimes including the same people – vie to establish not only the content of history, but the contours and significance of history as a discipline with a privileged place in the nation-state. Academic history in India is only precariously located in the public. Its narratives are challenged constantly and effectively by those who claim the prestige of history as a discipline but are uninterested in its methods and unaware of its content, and it has no ready response to the argument that disciplinary prestige can have no assurance of authority in a democracy. ‘Sentiments’ can be as important as history in determining policy.

Under the circumstances, the ‘public history’ of the historical space that now includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh must be structured broadly and pursue multiple projects simultaneously. The structure should accommodate three main objectives: studying the formation of particular publics, studying public experiences, and writing for the public in a society at war with itself. These should be intertwined goals, but they can nevertheless be discrete enough to guide historians as they set out to define what they are trying to do.

We might begin with histories of becoming a public, or the processes and debates through which ‘people’ become a ‘public.’ These must contend with the layered nature of assertions of public identity in India since the early nineteenth century. Not only have specific politically mobilized identities (structured as ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, etc.) produced a multiplicity of publics, a new general identity (that of being a member of ‘the public’ as a concept equipped with entitlements and even obligations) has functioned as the glue holding these compartments together. The latter, however, is not universal, because while it is constructed with reference to global notions of being a public, it is also, invariably, limited by national citizenship. Exploring the tensions and resolutions between the particularity, generality, and universality of public-formation is critical to understanding the contextual and essentially federal practice of Indian nationhoods, in which there is a constant awareness of outsiders who are also insiders, and one learns to function in overlapping and not easily reconciled modes. These modes include the regional and the transregional, the Bengali and the Indian, the Baidya and the bhadra, the Indian and the modern. Each has its particular relationship to what can be either one state, carefully differentiated layers and segments of the state, or institutions below (or alongside) the state. In any case, the analysis must spotlight the development of a relationship with instituted authority. Without the relationship, which can be proprietorial or oppositional, there can be no public to speak of.

Such histories of becoming are also, necessarily, projects of distinguishing between private and public worlds, a task that includes the construction of the ‘private’ as an appropriate subject for public debate. Here, Partha Chatterjee indicated in The Nation and its Fragments and Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe, colonialism generated private and semi-private national domains that were fraught but also reassuringly conservative. It generated, in conjunction, a ferociously contested domain of public experiences, in which ‘private’ subjects locked out of the chambers of policy-making could not only articulate a public-hood grounded in the shared experience of powerlessness, but experience alternative modalities of power grounded in resistance or (more typically) indifference to formal authority, coupled with an intensely creative willingness to identify and defend alternative theaters of agency. These experiences are, indeed, key to our understanding of the public in a society that has, as often as not, bypassed civil society on the way to modernity, and in which civil society – where it exists –remains deeply ambivalent about liberalism. In other words, close examination of ‘being (in) public’ as a set of experiences and projects of self-making is essential to the study of not only nationalism without a nation-state, but also the post-1947 South Asian predicament of illiberal democracy.

That predicament is precisely what creates, for the ‘public historian,’ a space and a responsibility to speak across publics, as it were. It is not enough to dissect the public, although that task remains essential. It is important, also, to acknowledge that what is being dissected is not dead, is unlikely to be killed by academic historians, and is something of a killer in its own right. Academic historians must speak to it, about it, and (at least strategically) from within it: recovering from the past the alternatives to a public project of existential revenge and placing them within the lived realities of the present. It is, therefore, essential to address what the public itself considers important to public life: institutions and experiences like working, dining, sport, school, the cinema, the shop, the street, and the war zone. If the everyday world of the public citizen – the experiences that generate difference from some and commonality with some others – can be unpacked and explained in terms that are comprehensible to those who are arguably modern but not liberal, we may be able to recover, from the mob, a critical mass of citizens who recognize that lynching is a specific, and inferior, form of public action.

August 22, 2017