Nehru's Word: It’s hard to find a detached approach to history
"Both these approaches were limited and both failed to look at the picture in a broad way. The nationalist approach and the imperialist approach distort history. They sometimes suppress history."
The recent advice to the NCERT to replace ‘India’ with ‘Bharat’ in all its school textbooks has yet again highlighted the persistent revisionist zeal of the BJP-RSS. In view of such a skewed hyper-nationalist approach to history, it is refreshing to come across Jawaharlal Nehru’s broad-minded approach to the study of history and his ability to ask questions free of any narrow sectarian bias. Below are excerpts from Nehru’s inaugural address to the Asian History Congress delivered on 9 December 1961, which demonstrates this in ample measure.
I never studied history in the formal way, but informally I have been greatly interested in history, chiefly because of my seeking to understand the past rather in terms of the present and even of the future. I have approached it as a developing drama, leading up to the present and making me wonder where it will lead to in the future.
I never got into the habit of trying to learn the names of kings, dates, etc. And I confess I am singularly ignorant of names and dates except for those I could not help picking up.
The whole course of history has fascinated me. Being an Indian, facts relating to the past of India interested me more. Being an Asian, facts relating to Asia also interested me. But on the whole, what has interested me really is the story of man developing himself wherever he lived It is from that point of view I have tried to coordinate such little knowledge of history as I possess.
More than 40 years ago, H. G. Wells’s Outline of History— one of the earliest books dealing with world history—came out. It is very easy to criticise Wells, but his was a new approach, and it was a great success. He did try to bring in one compass the tremendous story of man.
He also did something that was new for most European leaders, that is, he paid some attention to what was happening in Asia. His world was not merely the Mediterranean world in ancient times, as had been imagined in Europe. China came in, and India, the Middle East and other countries.
Since then, this type of history has become more common. Other forms of history—social histories and the like—have been written, and they attract much more attention than political histories.
So far as Asia is concerned, we have been grossly maltreated by most historians from other countries. And as a reaction to that, sometimes our own historians have perhaps gone too far. I suppose it is difficult for any person with strongly held ideas to write what might be called an impartial history.
Sometimes I have wondered if impartiality was not the quality of a weak mind. There must be a positive quality in a human being. If there is this positive quality, that aspect of the mind impresses itself on the subject which it deals with, and perhaps slightly distorts it.
I do not know how we can get over this difficulty. On the one side, there is the nationalist history that—starting from a strong nationalist bias—praises everything that is national at the expense of other things, and on the other side there is the reverse of this.
In India’s case, a Western scholar, especially from the United Kingdom, inevitably tended to look at the history of India as if the past few thousand years were a kind of a preparation for the coming British dominion in India. And there was the nationalist reaction to it. It seems to me that our historians burrow too much into details and thereby lose sight of the main theme.
Both these approaches were limited and both failed to look at the picture in a broad way. In the main, the nationalist approach and the imperialist approach distort history. They sometimes suppress history.
We have had examples of some kind of an organised approach or a philosophy of history, and this has led to curious results. One of the books that I had occasion to read in the leisure moments of my prison life was Spengler’s Decline of the West. I was rather fascinated by it, as one is fascinated by some evil thing. I dislike intensely its sweeping approach.
It seems to me that as soon as we start looking at history with any preconceived approach, it turns us away from some patent facts which do not fit in with our theory.
And we select things which agree with our own thinking. It does not do any harm provided we can get the main currents of history right, and if stress is placed on one aspect in order to draw attention to it. The stress on the social aspect has certainly been very helpful in balancing one’s approach to history.
The old idea of writing a history of any one country has become progressively out of date. It is impossible today to think of the history of a country isolated from the rest of the world. The world is getting integrated. We have really to consider history today in a world perspective.
What is the basic philosophy of history? I try to think of history as a process that leads man to higher and better stages of progress. Then I find to my surprise that those higher stages have been represented by great men in the long past. Having been fascinated by the scientific and technological civilisation which has been built up in Europe and in America, I gradually come to a stage when it seems to me to have stopped.
I begin seeking for something deeper than merely the physical aspect of civilisation. I find that my mind is more interested in what Plato or the Buddha said, which has a timelessness about it. So I wonder if our present-day history, having fulfilled its destiny in so far as science and technology are concerned, is at all moving on to a higher plane of human existence.
I do not presume that the average historian will be able to answer such a question unless he himself becomes a great seer who can pierce the veil of the future. But he can help in putting things in proper perspective.
The immediate object of the History Congress should of course be to straighten out all the twists which the Asian history has received at the hands of Europeans. While some of them are very fine historians, their approach has nevertheless been based on Europe being the centre of the world, and naturally that affects their appreciation of the histories of Asian countries.
(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.)