16 Aug 2015 16:07 IST

Conflict, cooperation and conciliation

Noted historian Bipan Chandra’s description of the communal virus in "India’s Struggle for Independence" is identical to what we are witnessing today

We were all strangers to each other as we sat together in a history class. There were around 30 students, some ambled in and out as they tried to complete last minute formalities. With us were three teachers, each of whom would go on to play a role in our lives in the years to come. Two of them introduced themselves, gave plastic smiles and excused themselves – their roles subsequently were as brief. One of them with short hair, a sleeveless blouse to go with her cotton sari stayed on. She was to teach us about medieval India and warmly recommended reading Irfan Habib’s book on early medieval India. We happily jotted down the name. It took us another year to realise what an insightful book she had recommended. Habib talked of qasbahs and villages, old names for new townships and the like.

Realising that the first day was not the best time to start the syllabus, she decided to relate a story to students on the brink of leaving teenage. It was a lesson that has lasted with me to this day.

“Our history is like an unreserved railway compartment. You could call it a sleeper coach too. The moment a train arrives at the railway station, there is commotion. People rush in to grab a seat while those already inside try to defend their territory. There is a conflict and competition for the limited space available. As the train starts from the station, this conflict is replaced by an element of cooperation as new passengers request the earlier ones to please ‘adjust’. First a little edge of the seat is conceded, then a little more.

A few minutes of stony silence, then the conversation starts. By the time the train arrives at the next station, these passengers would have opened their tiffins, asked each other to taste their food, exchanged notes on families and festivals. Conflict is replaced by conciliation and cooperation. Before getting down, they would have exchanged phone numbers! It is the same with our history. First the Aryans invaded. The Indus Valley people opposed, then conceded. Soon elements of the Indus Valley civilisation brimmed over to the Vedic civilization. Then came Ghaznavi, the Ghoris. Conflict again. Resolved soon after with the setting up of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206. Then the Mughals attacked. The Lodis resisted. The Mughal prevailed. Again a period of hostility replaced by one of peace and progress.”

It was a new way of looking at history, something our school teachers had totally missed in their quest for finishing all the chapters. We were advised to read Romila Thapar for ancient India and Bipan Chandra’s “India Struggle for Independence” for modern India. Today, I seldom lose sight of Thapar’s book with its invitingly yellow pages. The pages of Bipan Chandra’s book though have yellowed only around the edges and do not always make the crackling sound I would like to get from my old, familiar, favourite book. Never mind. The loss is minor.

Like my lecturer, Chandra too opened a completely new window of looking at the past. Until I read Chandra in college, modern history was all about black and white compartments – Moderates, Extremists, Gandhiji, the British. It is here that I discovered the vast passages of grey. Nobody was perfect. Not even Gandhi. Not Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Not Netaji.

Today as I read the book, certain passages seem to have contemporary ring to them. It is like they were written yesterday with tomorrow in mind. Sample this: “The liberal communalist argues that India consisted of distinct religion-based communities which had their own separate and special interests which often came into mutual conflict….Extreme communalism was based on the politics of hatred, fear psychosis and irrationality. The motifs of domination and suppression, always present in communal propaganda, became the dominant theme of communal propaganda. A campaign of hatred against the followers of other religions was unleashed….Phrases like oppression, suppression, domination, being crushed, even physical extermination and extinction were used. The communalists increasingly operated on the principle: the bigger the lie the better. They poured venom on the National Congress and Gandhiji.”

Chandra was writing about the 1930s. He could as well have been writing about 2015.

Or sample this: “Ironically, communalism in India got its initial start in the 1880s when Syed Ahmed Khan counterposed it to the national movement initiated by the National Congress….He and his followers gradually laid down the foundation of all the basic themes of the communal ideology as it was propagated in the first half of the 20th Century….Simultaneously, Hindu communalism was also being born. The Punjab Hindu Sabha was founded in 1909. Its leaders, U.N. Mukerji and Lal Chand, were to lay down the foundations of Hindu communal ideology and politics. They directed their anger primarily against the Congress for trying to unite Indians into a single nation and for “sacrificing Hindu interests” to appease Muslims…. “A Hindu,’ Lal Chand declared, “should not only believe but make it a part and parcel of his organism, of his life and of his conduct, that he is a Hindu first and an Indian after.” Chandra goes on to talk about action-reaction theory subscribed to by proponents of competitive communalism.

Again, Chandra was talking of the days well before India kept its tryst with destiny. But such is the power of his skills as a historian – and of history as a subject – that he could be talking of today.

We all know history repeats itself, but Chandra had alerted us decades ago.

What we are witnessing today could do a soothsayer proud, if it were not so dismaying and disappointing. It seems the names of the players have changed, their dialogues, their drama, indeed, their actions remain starkly similar. Replace a Chand with a Shah, a Khan with an Owaisi and it could well be playback time!

Ah! Those early lessons in history. Conflict, cooperation, conciliation... then some more conflict.

By the way, who was that lecturer who recommended Thapar, Habib, Chandra and brought into our classroom the dynamics of a railway station? Natasha Raina Kanwar. Seldom short of words. Never low on humour. They have not made many like her. Long may she live.

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