The two questions posed to them [historians] were: What are the thing / things that they have learnt from history and found valuable in a personal sense, and if they were to narrate an event / events / episode / episodes from history which they think could bring peace / happiness / wisdom to humans, what would it / they be?

Satish Chandra

During my student days at the Allahabad University I learnt that nationalism could be a powerful phenomenon.

However, nationalism can also have types. The nationalism which I learnt of in my student days is now called secularism. For me secularism was nationalism. As students and individuals we did not view the Turks and the Mughals as blights. The reason for this was that we looked at the negatives and the positives of everything.

My close association with Prof Saiyid Nurul Hasan and Prof Mohammad Habib taught me to not look at history and the world through a keyhole, but to look at the big picture and to never judge people and things in absolute black and white. The other thing which needs to be emphasised is that history is a very changeable thing although it might appear totally factual and static. A thing that we once thought was positive may become negative after the passage of some time. So as time passes events might get “evened out” on their own due to change in perspectives.

Therefore we must seek history with neutrality and not seek it with a preconditioned mindset of negatives or positives, or an agenda that we would present a certain persona or phase as positive or negative. If we take the revolt of 1857, before 1947, the event was studied with comparative neutrality. Some people were looking at and highlighting its positives and some others were highlighting its negatives.

But after 1947 we predominantly sung of and hung on to the positives only. Incidentally, one of the greatest positives of the revolt was recognised much later, and it was that the feudal ruling class, which had dominated the political scene directly or indirectly and of course was highly exploitative, was finally pushed to the margins of the political picture and a new nationalist type of force grew, which eventually gained much strength in the future.

As far as learning from history is concerned, one of the greatest achievements which should be highlighted is Akbar’s attitude of Sulh-i-kul. It was a firm foundation of peace and happiness. His idea of associating closely with the Rajputs was a great move not only in the context of diplomacy of the times but that of acceptance of the Other.

I have divided this alliance into three phases. First, when the Rajputs were inducted as warriors. Second, when they became partners of the Mughals and the sword arm of the empire. This attitude persisted till the time of Aurangzeb, who tried his best to befriend them in the initial phase of his reign. However, after the death of Jai Singh and Jaswant Singh, his attitude changed. The third phase is marked by the beginning of the process of distancing, which ultimately matured into an almost negative attitude.

The second thing which I think needs to be essentially highlighted is the Bhakti Movement, and within that the dialogue between the Nirgun Bhakti trends and Islam. The liberals of all religions interacted very closely with each other in the course of this movement. They recognised that everything is a combination of positives and negatives. What is important is what dominates.

When we talk of recognising domination, it should not be limited to finding the positives and negatives in events; it is also about recognising the positives and negatives inside our own head and to consciously let the positive dominate.

Harbans Mukhia

It is hard to pinpoint one thing one learns from history; there are several lessons we imbibe both in our personal life as well as our understanding of the world around. The one big lesson history bestows upon us is how societies undergo drastic change over time and yet how old structures of political power, of social and cultural norms, of mindscapes retard the all-encompassing change.

Every age, indeed every moment is thus a moment of tension between continuity and change where the two often go hand in hand. There is, in other words, much change in continuity and much continuity in change. Greek philosopher Heraclitus (sixth–fifth century BCE) had sharply counter-posed continuity and change in asserting “you can never put your hand in the same river twice”. However, he failed to notice that even as the water in which you put your hand a moment ago has flowed away, the river still remains.

One has thus seen the world and humanity undergo humongous changes in every sphere: technology, economy, society, ecology, religions, political ideologies, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, absolutism, democracy, human rights...the list is unending. Several of these have come and gone, several others have remained alive. Above all, certain human cravings: for peace and love and for violence and war.

A crucial agency of change has been and still remains the State. In the midst of State-Society interaction, the State remains the driver of change even in the arena of religion. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam – all spread under the aegis of the State. Political, administrative, economic structures evolved under its aegis too.

On the other hand, all of these religions – and for that matter, the whole spectrum of religious or secular ideologies and cultures – arose at the ground level and gained momentum, sometimes in the form of social movements, and at others as movements against the currently established political and social regimes. It is thus that understanding the society of the present or the past can never be a simplistic either / or quest. It is always way too complex to be subject to sheer reduction.

At a personal level, history has taught me patience with change around me. And the enormous range of human achievements through history in all societies has left me with great admiration for the plurality of cultures around the world without either grandstanding any one culture or the slightest touch of animosity towards others. There should be acceptance, appreciation and admiration rather than mere tolerance. I love to be part of all of them by being part of one.

Let me first invert the question and go back to one major event in my life (or perhaps the lives of those of us who come from the pre–1947 era): The one event that has brought extreme suffering to humans and what does it tell us about avoidance of it? Of course wars between states have brought untold and incomparable suffering through human history and continue to do so. But the one great event I am talking about here is not war between states but conflict between “societies”: the Partition of India in 1947.

In some ways the events that followed in the wake of the Partition brought home the ugliest face of nationalism. Whether we accept the two-nation theory or not, the ground reality brought the “two nations” into their most brutal, most horrendous manifestation of inhumanity vis-à-vis ones who had been their neighbours and friends and co- workers in the fields and factories and offices for decades, even centuries; one with whom the relations were the most cordial.

Rabindranath Tagore was ideologically hostile to the very idea of nationalism, which for him signified dominance and subjugation of one segment of humanity by another. He visualised nationalism and humanism as one another’s negation. He was in some ways fortunate to have died before he could witness the rivers of human bloodshed by fellow humans who had for long, very long, been friends; for the establishment of two independent nations.

But the rivers of blood in 1947 also hid any number of humane acts of life saving kindness and help extended to one-another, if under the shadows of terror. Several graphic accounts of these acts have been unearthed and recorded, most recently by Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed of Stockholm University in his brilliant book, The Punjab: Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed. My own immediate family also happens to have been a recipient of such kindness and help at grave risk to the help giver.

What lesson does this “event” yield to us about peace / happiness for humans? That if humanity and humanism is the one value that both precedes and supersedes all ideological formations – religions, nationalism, socialism, etc – it is also the most fragile and fractures at the first sight of an adversarial assault. It is therefore all the more important for our happiness and peace to lend it all our strength.

If History Has Taught Us Anything

Excerpted with permission from If History Has Taught Us Anything, Farhat Nasreen, Rupa.