Public History: Towards A Credible Engagement With the Past

Without any exposure to the historical method, how can the public be expected to distinguish between credible and not-so-credible narratives about the past?

“In India,” wrote historian William Dalrymple in The New York Review of Books in 2005, “a passionately contested battle is taking place over the interpretation of Indian history.” He observed that “the sort of arguments that anywhere else would be heard at scholarly conferences have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots.” Nearly two decades later, this battle continues, intensified by the ascendance of religion-based political mobilisation in the present. This “war over history”, as Dalrymple calls it, might be better understood not as taking place on a proverbial battlefield, but in the metaphorical marketplace.

In this market can be found conflicting narratives about various aspects of the past competing against one another. They are derived from partisan priorities, such as the creation of a vote bank, and are designed to achieve partisan goals such as the winning of elections. Repetition across a variety of media – from print to social, and everything in between – ensures that the narratives come to appear truer to the targeted communities than the rest of the public. The prize in this market is not profit, but monopoly over public opinion, which can then be weaponised for deployment towards achieving ideological, and ultimately partisan, ends.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid. Photograph by Ayman Aumi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement demonstrated the modus operandi of this market. The movement, led by the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar, managed to raise a local narrative about a mythical past, namely that the Hindu deity Rama was born on the site of the sixteenth century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, to the status of a widely held article of faith. This narrative was then deployed to demolish the mosque, win multiple state and national elections, and even secure the site of the demolished mosque from the Supreme Court of India for the building of a Ram Mandir.

To put it bluntly, the market for the past is little more than a morass of partisan propaganda masquerading as history.

In the face of such an assault on the discipline, what should its practitioners do? “The historian has to intervene,” declared the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS) at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in a widely published pamphlet rebutting the Hindutva propaganda in 1989. Led by Sarvepalli Gopal, Romila Thapar, and Bipan Chandra, the pamphlet went on to say that “the historian has to attempt a demarcation between the limits of belief and historical evidence,” especially “when communal forces make claims to ‘historical evidence’ for the purposes of communal politics.”

In the thirty years since the pamphlet, the intervention has largely focussed on school textbooks to ensure that they remain free of partisan propaganda. While this is a critical intervention, it is worth noting that the public, whose opinion partisan propaganda tries to monopolise, does not encounter the past in textbooks. In fact, where they encounter it has never been the subject of any systematic research. One can surmise, though, that heritage sites and history museums are important spaces in this regard, especially given the thousands of visitors they receive across the country. In both of these spaces, however, the complexities of the past are neatly curated for public consumption. They may be presented as text that appears at the entrance of a heritage site or next to a gallery or an exhibit in the museum. In some of these places, they may even be presented through guided tours, either led by a person or an audio recording. In none of these sites or museums, however, is the public likely to learn how this narrative was constructed by the historian and why that narrative is more credible than the partisan ones with which they may have been inundated elsewhere. The public is unlikely to learn anything about either the scrutiny or the synthesis of sources, both being prerequisites for any credible and cogent narrative about the past capable of surviving scholarly scrutiny. In other words, the historian’s work and the historian’s methods are hidden from the public, their view restricted to the historian’s seamless narrative alone, one among many that they may have encountered. Without any exposure to the historical method, how can the public be expected to distinguish between credible and not-so-credible narratives about the past? Is it surprising then that many of them are unable to?

Daria Daulat Bagh. Photograph by Ahmad Faiz Mustafa. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A case in point is the eighteenth-century ruler of Mysuru, Tipu Sultan. In Srirangapatna alone, the capital of his sultanate, there are eight heritage sites deemed to be of “national importance” and protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). One of the sites, a palace called the Daria Daulat Bagh, even houses a museum curated by ASI that is dedicated to the life of Tipu Sultan. A visitor to the Daria Daulat Bagh and the Tipu Sultan Museum within it will encounter a board at the entrance providing them a brief description of the Bagh, a well-curated series of exhibits inside full of rare artefacts around the life of Tipu, and an accessible audio tour that weaves everything at the site and in the museum into a compelling narrative. They will leave with some knowledge about this renowned eighteenth-century ruler, but they will also leave without any understanding of why that ruler remains such a contentious figure in the twenty-first century. And, more importantly, they will leave without any tools to determine for themselves the credibility of any narrative about Tipu that they encounter. They will not understand, for instance, why the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been deploying conflicting narratives about him for decades, exemplified in the INC’s Government of Karnataka (GoK) instituting Tipu Jayanti in 2015 and the BJP’s GoK scrapping it in 2019. Critically, though, they will be without the tools required to ascertain the credibility of either narrative or any of the others that are on offer in the marketplace of the past.

This is how the historian can meaningfully intervene in the market – by equipping the public with the historian’s tools. Such an intervention might allow a visitor to the Daria Daulat Bagh or the Tipu Sultan Museum to learn about the centrality of evaluating sources to the historian’s work, for example, through an interactive exhibit about the unsuccessful petition in the Bombay High Court against The Sword of Tipu Sultan, a popular television adaptation from 1990 of a well-researched historical novel of the same name. The petitioners had sought a ban on the show’s broadcast because of its supposedly “deliberate distortion, fabrication, and suppression of recorded facts of history,” which makes the case suitable for such an exhibit because it would allow visitors to see the continuing contestations over the historical interpretation of a figure like Tipu Sultan. The visitor could learn from the exhibit how to examine the evidence offered by the petitioners – mostly excerpts from the Kerala District Gazetteers of 1962 and the Mysore District Gazetteer of 1930, which become suspect sources for studying Tipu since they were published more than a century after Tipu’s death in 1799. This is especially so because of the abundance of sources easily available on Tipu from his own lifetime and immediately after. But, this is also because gazetteers, as geographical dictionaries, are not themselves based on primary sources either. Such an exhibit could ensure that the visitor leaves not only with some understanding of the contentious claims made about Tipu Sultan in the present, but also, consequentially, with some sense of how to credibly evaluate these claims.

The historian’s task in such a scenario would not simply be to add to the existing set of conflicting narratives already vying for the public’s attention. It would be to act as an amicus publicae, or friend of the public, whose principal role would be to provide the public with, and train the public in, a toolkit that they could use for themselves. The toolkit would allow any ordinary persons to evaluate the narratives about the past that they encounter in the market and, thereby, protect themselves from the pernicious effects of the partisan propaganda prevalent there. For that to happen, though, heritage sites and history museums have to do more than present seamless narratives about the past by making the historian’s methods visible to the public.

Even if the historian were to thus intervene in the market, it may still not counteract the potency of propaganda prevalent about the past. But, it might at least ensure that propaganda does not go wholly unchallenged even when it does prevail. And in the post-truth era that we are apparently living through, that is no mean feat.

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