History and the Enterprise of Knowledge
In an often-quoted remark, Henry Ford, the great captain of industry, said, "History is more or less bunk." As a general statement about history, this is perhaps not an assessment of compelling delicacy. And yet Henry Ford would have been right to think, if that is what he meant, that history could easily become "bunk" through motivated manipulation.
This is especially so if the writing of history is manoeuvred to suit a slanted agenda in contemporary politics. There are organized attempts in our country, at this time, to do just that, with arbitrary augmentation of a narrowly sectarian view of India's past, along with undermining its magnificently multireligious and heterodox history. Among other distortions, there is also a systematic confounding here of mythology with history. An extraordinary example of this has been the interpretation of the Ramayana, not as a great epic, but as documentary history, which can be invoked to establish property rights over places and sites possessed and owned by others.1 The Ramayana, which Rabindranath Tagore had seen as a wonderful legend ("the story of the Ramayana" is to be interpreted, as Tagore put it, not as "a matter of historical fact" but "in the plane of ideas") and in fact as a marvellous parable of "reconciliation"2 is now made into a legally authentic account that gives some members of one community an alleged entitlement to particular sites and land, amounting to a license to tear down the religious places of other communities. Thomas de Quincey has an interesting essay called "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts." Rewriting of history for bellicose use can also, presumably, be a very fine art.
I note the contemporary confounding of historical studies in India as the starting point of this lecture, even though I shall not be directly