Of unpersons and persons


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STALIN was not being original when he chose to make an unperson of Trotsky. It has been common practice since the most ancient times. Victors have attempted to erase the memory of an opponent if the contest has been a zero-sum game culminating in total victory rather than compromise. It seemed possible to do so in the days when record keeping was not reliable or lasting in the manner it has become in modern times. If eradicating all traces of the enemy was not practical, the next best was, and still is, to disfigure their memory and image to the point of denying it any hope of a resurrection, as with Durga plunging the trident into Mahisha’s decapitated torso or St George spearing the squirming dragon. Along with such enduring works of art, the record of any event in the past is eternally disputed as inadequate, distorted, or shamelessly mendacious, and not all the research we do seems to settle a single question.

It might be assumed that the chief perpetrators of such crimes of the intellect were and are historians. Historians have certainly played a heroic role in this game, but the entire world of scholarship and the creative arts have contributed in equal measure, with the greatest and most revered names painting their indelible pictures. Shakespeare has doubled as historian of not merely Julius Caesar and Henry V, but also of so many lesser figures in English and other histories. Thanks to him we may now imagine Richard III of England only as a hunchback with a limp, although he had neither deformity as has been well established by anthropologists and related specialists who have reconstructed his body from the skeletal remains. He had no more than a spine that curved sideward and not outward, a medical condition known as scoliosis; but we can never forget Laurence Olivier playing the limping and malevolent crookback with a shrivelled arm, wading through blood to the throne. In spite of the best efforts of the victors, the defeated do get their say, and ingenious scholars have been able to recover a surprising amount of detail and drastically alter the received image, far more than what was dreamt possible by those who performed the initial act of erasure and distortion.


One of the most intriguing examples of seeking to efface a past comes from thirty-five centuries ago. In the 14th century BCE, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Amenophis in Greek) is said to have instituted monotheism through worship of the Sun God Aten, and changed his own name to Akhenaten. As a true iconoclast, he tore down the old temples, toppled idols, scrubbed out images, and launched the new worship with a freshly built capital at Amarna. With Akhenaten’s death the dethroned gods and priests returned with a vengeance. Nearly every trace of Akhenaten was scratched out, his son Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun (yes, the same one), and the monotheistic revolution was forgotten until archaeologists dug out traces of it in the 19th century.

Jan Assmann has an ingenious thesis about the manner in which the trauma of the Amarna experience was conserved.1 The monotheistic religion was configured as a disease and what could have been more revolting in those ancient times than leprosy. To this was added the charge of madness or mental aberration. It was further ascribed to aliens, although it came from none other than Pharaoh himself. The most usable aliens then were the Hyskos, a people from the eastern Mediterranean who had ruled over Egypt from 1630 to 1523 BCE and had been eventually expelled. Leprous and lunatic immigrants, the subversive religion of monotheism, and an expulsion (we call it deportation in modern legalese), all spread over several centuries, were fused in due course into a single legend. The legend then reappeared on the other side of the divide as the Biblical account of the Exodus in which Moses leads his people from polytheism to monolatry, from idolatry to aniconism or the prohibition of idols and icons, and from bondage to freedom. Akhenaten and Amarna were never forgotten in Egypt in spite of the most venomous efforts to ensure that they were; it survived through the myth of a crazed leader of a leper colony!


The past cannot be lost however much it might be edited. But the exercise of power requires it, political leaders demand it, and faithful ideologues comply, often claiming nonetheless that they are speaking truth to power. Since the past cannot be erased, we are told we must not knock down statues, rename public spaces, and do much else of that order. But the past is not being erased by these forms of action. Nobody today expects history to be forgotten or rubbed out in any serious sense of the term. In effect they demand that it must not be commemorated or memorialized in the manner that it had been until then. This is entirely justified and necessary, for it is impossible for us to memorialize persons or events that are irrelevant or hateful to us. Hitler can never be forgotten; but other than Nazis or neo-Nazis few would want to commemorate him with statues, events, and buildings. In London there has been a demand for the statues of the empire builders, Napier and Havelock, to be removed from Trafalgar Square on the ground that they were unknown figures. This complaint came from no ordinary member of the public, but from a mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. But, to the British right, this would be an outrageous suggestion, for empire is Britain and vice versa.

Yet it is impossible to think of British history from the 18th century without empire, both for those who are not Tories, and even for the victims. To all the territories of the former empire, Britain means only empire, not the archipelago off the western shores of Europe. How do we decide and who would decide whether Napier and Havelock are worthy of remembrance or not? The answer is clear. Those who wish to celebrate the Empire would want to retain memorials to Napier, Havelock, or General Dyer, and to a host of others like Cecil Rhodes, Gordon, or Livingstone (David, not Ken); but those who wish to do no more than study and understand the Empire would preserve the records and even the memorials as historical or archeological specimens, but not as living memorials. Hitler’s Mein Kampf was republished in 2016 in a fine academic edition with the most extensive annotations very much in that spirit.


Neither in India nor in Britain is the Raj forgotten or likely to be forgotten, but it is recalled in different ways in either country. In India the statues of Victoria and her descendants have been removed, names of colonial officials have been substituted with those of Indians on roads and buildings, and the government of India is busy altering the skyline of the processional avenue of central New Delhi which the colonial state had constructed to celebrate its empire. In no way is all this an erasure of history, and much of it must obviously be done. The Indian state can claim some credit for having carried out the alteration in a ‘civilized’ manner, to employ an antiquated concept. It may have been so civilized because the class structure remained unaltered and those who served the colonial regime remained at the top of the pyramid, as the Left would argue; or it could be because Mahatma Gandhi had insisted throughout his thirty years of mobilization that there was to be no abuse or vengeance, whatever the provocation. Even Patel concurred, upbraiding officials on one occasion for being fixated on statues and names instead of attending to more important business at hand.2

The British state has followed the good example of the Indian nationalists by installing in Parliament Square a statue of Gandhi, the man most responsible (along with Hitler!) for the unravelling of Empire. Perhaps it was possible for them to do so thanks to Gandhi deploring all forms of triumphalism and telling the British that we must part as friends. It is a singular irony of history that the British have unpersoned the hapless Bahadur Shah II whom they defeated, dethroned, humiliated, exiled to Rangoon, and lowered into an unmarked grave, and whose descendants have vanished unrecorded, but they have honoured their nemesis with a monument alongside Churchill’s.


Memorialization and commemoration, not memory, lie at the core of the endless polemic about Nehru having turned the spotlight on himself at the expense of his supposed rivals, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel. To correct that imbalance with regard to Patel, the government of India has erected his statue, designed as the largest in the world, to ensure that his role in Indian history can never be forgotten. Pharaohs followed the same logic: the larger the monument, the longer the memory of its subject. Akhenaten however met his end rapidly, within a generation of his death, and he had to make do with what many might consider the consolation prize of the subterranean legend of the expulsion of a leper colony of a heretical monotheistic cult. Memorialization is more lasting than the physical monument even if the latter has survived the ravages of time. There are many gigantic structures scattered in the most unlikely locations of the world with no living legend about them. On the other hand, there was no monument to Moses, not even a historical record, but few memories are more vivid and lasting, thanks to the nature of the commemoration to this day. To return to Patel then, if his memory is to fit the proportions of the statue, it entails the hard labour of sustained commemoration through a cult. That may not be to the taste of even Nehru’s critics, for there are competitors to cultic status; and Patel and his statue would have to take their place according to an ideological warrant of precedence or otherwise suffer the fate of Ozymandias or of the Bamiyan Buddhas.


Another form of commemoration which depends on historical research without being history is the conservation of heritage. This has become a global passion, especially with UNESCO giving the lead to conserving all types of heritage, including the ‘intangible’ forms of it. But it is utterly selective and is necessarily ideological, however innocent and earnest the agents, and it is by no means obvious whether a suppressed voice is being heard or another is being silenced in the course of such an exercise. The act of conservation must decide what is to be conserved and how conserved, and it at once raises an intractable problem.

Chandni Chowk is now being restored or conserved or reconstructed, it is not quite clear which. There is an apparent choice between the Chandni Chowk of Shahjahan, of colonial times, and of Independent India. Recovering the aristocratic grace of Shahjahan’s Chandni Chowk may be fanciful; restoring the colonial disfigurement of Shahjahanabad is an offence to nationalist sensibility; and conserving the clutter of the Chandni Chowk of Independent India is an assault on the olfactory, auditory, and visual nerves. An ideological choice has to be made. In all probability it will be none of these. And history would have been violently shredded in the course of conserving it.


If Pharaonic potentates have been made into unpersons, or nearly so, the reverse has also happened and continues to happen with remarkable frequency. Persons who have not existed have come into being. Epics from all over the world have been read, recited, and studied with such diligence and enthusiasm generation after generation; but we have no idea who the authors were. The Old Testament does not even record an author, and other epics are little better off. Often, the name of a single author is assigned, leading to the jest that the Iliad was composed not by Homer but by somebody else called Homer. Have the original authors been unpersoned, or has one author usurped the position of the authors’ collective, or has a single name been arbitrarily assigned to the work by some editor? In each case a person who did not create the work in question or who did not exist or probably existed only as a marginal individual in a collective enterprise has acquired the credit for the greatest masterpieces of human creativity.

Going beyond the author’s identity, it is too often forgotten that any literary composition or work of art required substantial team work, beginning with a mentor to inspire and stimulate the author, others (famously often the wife) to prepare a clean copy, whether by writing it out several times or typing it all, family members and friends to tolerate the great mind at work and suffer its tantrums, agents to find a publisher, editors to improve the text, artists to illustrate it, publishers to issue it, critics to appraise the work, and a public to consume it. Through acts of great injustice, the patron or the consumer is often imagined as the author of a masterpiece, of Shahjahan as the creator of the Taj Mahal, Ivan the Terrible of St Basil’s Cathedral, or Khufu of the Great Pyramid; rather more appropriately, the ‘people’ are said to be the authors of folk songs.

The list is long, and it sets at naught the notion of the solitary genius, whether seated at his desk, communing with nature, or meditating in remote wildernesses. Oscar Wilde adored his adoring audience and explored its indispensability in his dialogue on the critic as artist, of the critical public being as much creators as the artists themselves.3 Consistently enough, he faded away when he lost his audience and he died almost immediately thereafter. The British consider Nehru their gift to India, and the RSS would concur; but more jovially they might also claim the credit for having locked him up long enough for him to produce three hefty books. On the other hand, the tsarist government would wince at the thought of joint authorship with Lenin of his The Development of Capitalism in Russia, composed during a productive three year exile. Ideal conditions for creativity are sometimes generated in the most perverse fashion.


Dostoevsky was famously in debt all too often, and he was helped with commissions to produce his masterpieces one after the other. That support was essential; but we might be embarrassed by the name and the personality of the man responsible. He was one Mikhail Katkov, the editor of an extreme right wing newspaper and journal and one to whom words like ‘reactionary’ or ‘Great Russian chauvinist’ effortlessly stick. We remember Dostoevsky but not Katkov, although he was an immensely influential journalist and ideologue in his time. To add to our misery, he was further supported by the future Alexander III, that impossibly reactionary emperor.4 Should Katkov and Alexander III be commemorated for bringing Dostoevsky to us, or should their memory be buried deeper for their hateful politics? It is difficult to give a definitive answer.


Geographical names often follow this perverse logic. The name America is derived from that of a traveller and explorer, not from the usage of the original inhabitants of the continent, nor even from Columbus who ‘discovered’ what was already known for ten thousand years. The whole of Africa went through that round, but most of the colonial ‘persons’ have been duly unpersoned with decolonization. Mount Everest is called Sagarmatha in Nepal and Qomolangma in Tibet; but the colonial regime imposed the name of a Surveyor-General of India who had neither ‘discovered’ the peak nor even measured it.

Lest we forget, political leaders deliver speeches written for them by others and sign major state papers composed for them by their subordinates with Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War being substantially ghost written. The credit however goes to the official author. The examples are innumerable. How then would we judge these obvious instances of altering, distorting, or editing history? We are bound to champion one cause against another, but there is no ‘correct’ position, and ‘unpersoning’ and ‘personing’ in effect cancel each other out.


Yet we also expect historical research somehow to come up with the ‘truth’, whatever that might be, and we are always disappointed that it does not happen the way we might have hoped. But there is no ‘truth’ to be discovered; instead there are only arguments and evidence to support those arguments. The dispute always is whether the evidence has been used appropriately, whether any of it has been neglected or ignored, and whether the reasoning is valid. With argument and evidence an explanation may be convincing; but it is never the truth, for there is no truth about the past. This may be frustrating to face and impossible to accept, for everyone is an amateur historian, is passionate about the past, and nothing divides people so much as their respective accounts of history. Historians, like lawyers, present evidence for their case and prefer to claim it is the truth.

Is professional history writing nothing more than a sterile intellectual exercise with arguments and facts to fit the arguments? Many do argue that it is simple-minded antiquarianism and a waste of time; but the same persons obsessively engage with it and pounce on those who deviate from their own pet version. There is a purpose however, but it is not to learn from the past as many imagine it to be. Since the past is never repeated there is little question of learning from it. Instead, the study of the past is essential to the construction of the future. This may sound paradoxical, but a moment’s reflection would reveal why it is not so. As we decide on a future, as everyone of us ineluctably does, we must convince ourselves and others that it is possible. This is done by demonstrating that the past has prepared the future and made it possible, or better still, inevitable. Every future must have a past; without such a past, we would be seeking to make our future out of a void. Only the gods have managed that feat: but they must have regretted it ever since, for they have been descending to Earth with unfailing regularity to restore order.

We must arrange the past according to our intended future and make events lead into the future. But constructing a past is not an easy job. It requires evidence, all the available facts must be accounted for, however uncomfortable they might be, and there is no scope for falsehood and chicanery. This is called being ‘scientific’. That is one reason we find it so difficult to chart our future course, for the past is so confusing, a miasma of contradictions, and seldom heading into that ideal future or for that matter into any discernible future at all. If that be the case, and we study history in order to prepare our future, the entire exercise is profoundly ideological. This explains why there are such deep controversies about the past, and why the account of it varies according to ideological position. History is the learned discipline in which this takes place at the most advanced level: the popular ones are the familiar terrains of heritage, memory and commemoration, recovering lost or suppressed voices, and doing ‘justice’ to different communities or persons by uncovering the ‘truth’, or typically, Plain Tales from the Raj, which are not so plain after all. History is nothing to do with truth and justice but everything to do with pursuing an ideological commitment that is utterly futuristic and free of ‘false consciousness’ pace Karl Marx.5


* Madhavan K. Palat is the Editor, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru.


1. Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

2. Paul M. McGarr, ‘"The Viceroys are Disappearing from the Roundabouts in Delhi": British Symbols of Power in Post-Colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies 49(3), May 2015, pp. 800-801.

3. Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891, various editions.

4. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-1881. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2002.

5. See Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. Translated from the German and with an introduction by Keith Tribe; original German edn 1979.