Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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History and Past are about what happened in antiquity, but they are not the same

Why History and Past Must Not be Conflated to Mean the Same

As to how history has come to be considered an important legitimising factor for claims of nationhood can be seen in the frantic manner in which so many different communities are racing to “reconstruct” or in the jargon of many others, to “reclaim” their separate “histories”. All this is very well. The thirst for knowledge of roots is a natural instinct in everybody, and the very understanding of the term “roots” necessary has to involve an interrogation of the past. But the question is, must the “past” be treated as identical to “history”? Or more relevantly, must the past always be told in terms of “history”? Many seem to think so, and so this grand project of “reclaiming” history.

The fact also is, since “history” in its essence is about written records, wherever there are no such written records, a lot of this reconstruction process will have to involve speculations and interpretations of available evidences, primary, secondary and even tertiary records and circumstances. Often, these interpretations degenerate into convenient inventions too.

The problematic nature of this project is self-evident. But even written records need to be taken with a pinch of salt, for the record writers definitely would have picked and chosen according to their sensibilities, ideologies and not the least, vested interests. A royal chronicle for instance would not have recorded anything that would put the royalty concerned in unacceptably bad light. But here the challenge is much clearer, for at least “a pinch of salt” can balance out possible biases of the original compilers and editors to a good extent.

To re-emphasise a point, while there cannot be anybody without a past, must it always be treated as mandatory for this past to be told only in terms of “history” for it to be authentic? Surely there must be other ways different communities told of their pre-literate past before the notion of “history” dawned on them. What about the values of legends and myths in this endeavour? Why are all these being so recklessly sidelined?

Take the case of the Meiteis, alongside the royal chronicles of the literate period that recorded events of the days as they rolled by from the vantage of the palace, there are also numerous other narratives from the pre-literate past. Could we for once say that the legend of Khamba Thoibi, or the enchanting poetry of the fable of Ingelei have less value in giving the modern times a peep into its own past than the prosaic record book Cheitharol Kumbaba. They tell the same story, or different aspects of the same story, one in poetry and the other in prose.

Perhaps there can be a meeting point between history and memory, so too history and past. This difference between “history” as the world understands it and the “past” has been explained quite succinctly by E.H. Carr, in his essay “The Historian and His Facts”, where he argues history is the story of the Nation State, how it was built and the challenges it faced in the execution of this project. When Caesar crossed the insignificant stream Rubicon in 49 B.C., it was a historical event because that was the start of the insurrection against the Roman State. However, millions of farmers, sheep herders, playing children, boys running errands, who too would have crossed the same stream routinely in the course of their everyday activities, but none of these events count as history and would remain as unrecorded and insignificant realm of “past” to be relegated oblivion.

Though the effort must be to find a confluence, these two categories must not be confused to be identical. Unfortunately, this is precisely what tends to happen. So many are so keen to cram and straitjacket elements of collective memory preserved in legends and myths into so called unique “histories”, in the belief that only such a “history” can be the sanctifier of claims to nationhood.

Perhaps “histories” are (or at least were) as alien to the non-European world as the “nation state” is (was). Histories are indeed records of the genesis of the “nation state” which scholars now tell us is a uniquely European experience and are now being mimicked by the rest of the non-European world much of it was once colonised by the Europeans.

Obsession with “nation state” hence must understandably be accompanied by an equally passionate obsession with the project of “inventing” history. In this sense, “history” and “nation state” are both “post-colonial blues” of formerly colonised worlds. The query that follows must therefore be: cannot there be a more appropriate imagining of the “community” – an imagining that is more truthful to the instinctual understanding of the self by the particular community?

Cannot we acknowledge other narratives of the past other than as “history”, equally adequate or at least very important reflections on the sinews which built the character of the community concerned? Maybe it is too late to undo the notions of “history” and “nation state”, but at least the realisation that there can be alternate understandings of these ideas must become the moderating factors in the debate.

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