07 January 2008

History and interpretation

I’m not sure if conflicts in interpreting history are any less in number than the actual conflicts (i.e. wars, revolutions, civil unrests, etc.) history has recorded through the years. In both cases, conflicts have been – and still are – fought on establishing one’s right over another. Only one is less bloody than the other. But, it is true that differing interpretations have led to political, religious, racist and ethnic violence.

In India, we are no strangers to such conflicts. In fact, at times, this has been worrisome and even scary. And yet, interpreting history cannot be avoided. So, how should one approach the subject of history and its interpretation?

To find answers to this question, I turned to eminent Indian historian Irfan Habib. Here is an extract from one of his articles from The South Asia Citizens Web:

“That different views on medieval India should be influenced by the individual historian’s subjective views of the contemporary world is only to be expected; these must, however, first meet the criterion of support from historical evidence. In fact, so long as new views appear and provoke a fresh or extended exploration of the historical documentation, one can only welcome the tendency not to take the given history on trust. But historical evidence must always remain the touchstone.

A major problem today is that only a small and declining number of people in India have access to Persian, in which language so much of the source material of medieval India is to be found. Not only does this large body of material need to be studied, but the collection of documents in all languages has also to be encouraged, as well as local antiquarian and archaeological work.

With every passing day the evidence on paper, metal or brick or stone is being destroyed. If the hand of destruction is to be stayed, the people’s interest in the country’s past needs to be aroused. In this effort all those who, without necessarily being professional historians themselves, have yet a care for all aspects and phases of our heritage, can play a most crucial part.”

[Citation: Quote from History and interpretation – Communalism and problems of historiography in India by Irfan Habib; reproduced from The South Asia Citizens Web. Irfan Habib’s full article can be found here.]

No comments: