The problem

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THE provocation to put together this collection of essays came from the British establishment. In classic fashion, reminiscent of an age gone by, the political leadership of the UK, and the authorities of Oxford University, responded with haughtiness and arrogance to the demand by students to take down the Rhodes statue at Oriel College. The charge sheet against Rhodes, prepared by the Rhodes Must fall campaign (RMF), was long and persuasive. It deserved a hearing especially in the context of movements across the world, such as #me too and Black Lives Matter, for equality, respect and for the redressal of historical wrongs.

The British establishment, however, had other ideas. They did not think it reasonable to take note of the arguments of their students, unlike authorities across the Atlantic at universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, who adopted a more listening attitude. Students at Harvard demanded that the Law School drop its celebrated crest because a Harvard historian had discovered that it belonged to a slave owner. On investigation the university conceded the demand. A similar call was made at Yale where the name of an old college, Calhoun College, was changed to Grace Murray Hooper College because Calhoun’s past as a slave owner had become very toxic. Princeton too dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson, a former president, from their prestigious college, because of his racist views.

In the US colleges have responded more accommodatingly to the demand to right historical wrongs than has Oxford University. They set up committees, listened to arguments from all the parties who had a view and then arrived at recommendations that were implemented. The British establishment, in contrast, responded with disdain, as if nobody had told them that colonialism had ended. They displayed residues of an old imperial attitude, so anachronistic today but present nevertheless, that needs unpicking on many counts. It is devoid of merit. It raises, once again, the issue of the status of universities such as Oxford as bearers of truth because of their proximity to the establishment. They had remained largely silent during the dark days of colonialism and during the height of the slave trade. This collection of essays is an initial response to this silence of the establishment

While there are many aspects to the RMF campaign I cannot go into all of them here. I shall, however, confine myself to the attitude of the British establishment and examine its implications for the democratic futures we are all purportedly building. Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, saw the RMF campaign as an attempt to censure thought and told those who were protesting to ‘think about being educated elsewhere’, since they were ‘failing to face up to historical facts which they did not like, and (also face up to) …the values of a liberal, open society’.1 Will Hutton, Principal of Hereford College Oxford, thought that the campaigners did not have an ‘open mind’ and were uncommitted to the ‘freedom to debate’ and to support an ‘unobstructed access to the facts’.2 Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, accepted that Rhodes was a racist but asked minority students to look up at the statue and face it ‘with a cheery and self-confident sense of un-batterability’ because ‘history can’t be unwritten or hidden away, or erased when we change our minds’.3

In similar vein Louise Richardson, the Vice Chancellor of Oxford, suggested that the demand would change as we learned more about the society in which the controversial action was taken. Growing up in Ireland she saidCromwell to me was like Voldemort is to my children’, referring to the evil wizard in the Harry Potter novels. ‘But I went about learning more about how he was perceived very differently in Britain.’ She then pointedly asked, ‘do we use the ethics of today or do we use the morals and ethics of the time in which they lived?’ when looking at a controversial past.4 But the classic comment was made by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who said in response to the campaign, ‘We cannot now try to edit or censor our past’.5 His pithy statement has gifted us the title theme of this collection.

From the evidence available it is quite clear that the British edit history in very ingenuous ways. They do so by evading, suppressing, concealing, disparaging, insinuating and rubbishing counter narratives, by using high sounding phrases and philosophical adornments to cloak their class and national interest. We know that victors write history. And we also know that this results in race, gender, caste, slavery, colonial brutality, resource extraction, and cultural erasure receiving inadequate attention in official versions of history. We know that school textbooks get written, museums built, monuments installed, events commemorated, personalities valorized, biographies scripted, and the iconography of a nation constructed, all to serve the interests of the ruling establishment. In each instance history is being edited. What Britain does is no different from what all other former colonial powers also do. But I shall stay with Britain since it provides such a good illustration of my argument.

Our case for probing the issue of ‘editing history’ is being made at two levels. The first is the obvious one of challenging the knowledge asymmetry that exists in historical scholarship and thereby including the narratives that have been excluded and acknowledging the suppressed histories of groups that have also played their part. The second is at the more philosophical level of responding to the issue of defending objective scholarship, supporting evidence-based narratives, encouraging accounts that are not in the service of politics, or of ideology, but in the service of truth. This latter statement, definitely problematic in these post-modern times, relates to the entangled relationship between history and politics. Although it is problematic, we still carry the responsibility of trying to disentangle it. This multi-author collection of essays is such an attempt.

There are four analytical ways in which we can probe the claim by the British establishment that ‘we do not edit history’. The first is to look at it empirically and find whether this is in fact the case. The second is to ascertain who the ‘we’ in the statement refers to. The third is to recognize that editing history, both as historical scholarship and as narratives of state power, has been going on from the earliest times. We need therefore to determine which acts of editing are permissible, according to contemporary ethical standards, and which are not. And the fourth is to grapple, once again, with the perennial relationship between truth and politics. Hannah Arendt’s essay ‘Truth and Politics’, in her collection Between Past and Present, issued this stark warning:

‘The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being manoeuvred out of the world not only for a time but, potentially, forever. Facts and events are infinitely more fragile things than axioms, discoveries, theories – even the most speculative one – produced by the human mind; …Once they are lost, no rational effort will ever bring them back.’ (p. 227)

Our first task therefore is cut out for us. We must record the facts. There are at least seven ways in which the British establishment has edited history. In my brief discussion of each way I shall provide only one illustrative case but one that is characteristic of the system. Destroying archives is the first of the ways adopted by the British establishment to edit history. ‘Operation Legacy’ was a policy of the British state to burn files pertaining to their misdeeds during colonial rule. They did not want their record of villainy, such as the brutal torture of the Mau Mau fighters in Kenya, to be publicly revealed and thereby embarrass the British government and delegitimize its specious narrative of enlightened rule. Orders were given by the Home Office to destroy documents in the colonies that were to soon become independent. These were to be either burnt, or dumped at sea, or transferred to the UK over a 20-year period, from 1950 to 1970. The book by Ian Cobain, and published by Granta, detailing this destruction of historical evidence is telling titled ‘The History Thieves’.

The second way by which the establishment tries to edit the past is through a strategy of amnesia. Michael Safi, writing in The Guardian of 29 March 2019, reports on the view emerging from scientific studies that Churchill’s ‘cabinet was warned repeatedly that the exhaustive use of Indian resources for the war effort could result in famine, but it opted to continue exporting rice from India to elsewhere in the empire.’ The famine that resulted killed three million people. This decision is not recorded as a historical crime, as other similar crimes are, for which the establishment must atone. Churchill is remembered and valorized as a war hero and not as the villain whose decisions led to millions dying of starvation. Amnesia is a strategy often used by the ruling class to edit history and make it more palatable.

Suppression or concealing of evidence is the third strategy used by the establishment. Dan Hicks, Professor of contemporary archaeology at Oxford asks in The Guardian, 31 March 2021 that ‘If the Queen has nothing to hide, she should tell us what artefacts she owns.’ He asks the question while making the general point about the looting of cultural artefacts from across the world. There is now a growing demand for their return to the countries from which they were stolen. The history of such theft is a history that is unfortunately hidden in the inaccessible archives of museums, private art collections, auction houses, and art dealers. ‘Unobstructed access to the facts’ of how the cultural objects were acquired, which Principal Hutton of Hereford college recommends, in response to RMF, is of course not going to be granted. History here is not just not written. Worse, it is not allowed to be written.

The fourth way of editing history is to use the power of the state to privilege some historical narratives over others. As a result the civilizing mission of colonialism, the trope of the white man’s burden referred to by Kipling, gets coverage and the fact that much of the wealth of the traditional elite in the UK, the manor houses, universities such as Glasgow and Cambridge, the City of London came from the slave trade, is inadequately acknowledged. It has taken the historian David Olusoga years of research at University College London, and a revealing TV series on BBC, to expose the extent of the slave trade and its beneficiaries. Many perhaps do not know that till 2015 the British Government was paying off a loan (equivalent to GBP 300 billion today) to compensate the slave owners whose slaves had been freed. The history of this perverse logic, where the slaves and their descendants were given no reparation but slave owners were compensated from public taxes, needs considerable more research. It is a small mercy that Lloyds of London has only recently acknowledged its role in the slave trade and agreed to some form of reparation.

Non-acknowledgment of other histories is the fifth way by which the establishment displaces historical episodes that, given the contemporary concern with human rights, should be at the centre of our ethical concerns and at the forefront of our public discourse. The trauma of the Wind rush survivors, or of the Chagos islanders who were forcibly taken from their islands and dumped in Mauritius is bad enough but pales in comparison to the British atomic testing in the lands of the Maralinga Tjarutja people in Australia whose lands even today remain radioactive.6 Who will write the histories of these events one wonders especially since today, six decades after the atomic blasts, the records still remain confidential. Apparently these are inaccessible on grounds of national security.

Resistance to demands, the sixth way, is of course the common strategy used by the establishment to edit history. While non-acknowledgment diminishes the importance of the event, resistance does not allow it to be placed on the discussion table. The Rhodes statue at Oriel College is a prime example of the deployment of this strategy. Deny the other narrative significance and by doing so keep the public discourse engaged only with the issues one chooses to foreground. If one maps the various stages of the Rhodes Must fall controversy at Oriel College one can see it moving from disparaging the demand, to a grudging acceptance of its import though not its merit, to existentially wearing out the movement, to finally making a small concession like constituting a committee. This was formed several years after the original demand was made. In the meantime the establishment closed its ranks and mocked the demand. The tweet by the education secretary Gavin Williamson, on 20 May 2021 after Oriel College had rejected the recommendation of their own committee to take down the statue, that ‘we should learn from our past, rather than censoring history, and continue focusing on reducing inequality’ is an example of such a haughty attitude.

The final strategy of editing history is what I shall call ‘Speaking English’. I use it as a metaphor to refer to a mindset, well understood in the post-colonial world, that conveys the superiority of the establishment in contrast to the inferiority of the petitioner. ‘Speaking English’ refers not just to grammar and vocabulary but to attitude and idiom. George Orwell in his much quoted essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ discusses how language is used by the establishment to hide its evil deeds. It is a brilliant account of how language obscures, diminishes the severity of the misdeed, and builds a protective barrier around the accused. ‘Speaking English’ has been elevated to an art form by the establishment that allows it to get away lightly from the charge of villainy. Recall the 1986 reply of the British Cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, in an Australian court when he was accused of lying. ‘No Sir,’ he replied, ‘I was only being economical with the truth’.

‘Speaking English’ is how the colonial state responded to demands that other histories also need to be heard. George Orwell’s description of this deployment of euphemism bears quoting at some length to show the ingenuous ways by which the establishment has been disingenuous.

‘Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.’7

I suppose Mary Beard’s ‘with a cheery and self-confident sense of un-batterability’ belongs to this ‘Speaking English’ class of editing History. The British Government has still not apologised for the massacre, by British troops, of innocent civilians picnicking at Jallianwalla Bagh. After decades of demanding an apology the victims and their heirs could only extract a ‘regret’ from the government. There is still no apology. The hegemonic power of ‘Speaking English’ must, therefore, be challenged and dispersed. One way to do so is to expand the reservoir of concepts available from languages other than English. These should preferably be from the languages of the erstwhile colonies. Speaking Tamil must be the response to Speaking English. A new lexicon needs to be built. The book Keywords for India, reviewed here is a start in this direction.

The six cases, briefly discussed above, offer ignored facts on how the British Establishment edits history. My discussion recognizes that facts, in themselves, do not make the case. They need to be embedded in an interpretative frame for them to acquire epistemic power. Interpretation of the facts, which involves selection, organization, sequencing, presentation, provides the basis for the counter narrative. The facts offered provide only the starting point for such a narrative. I offered them here as six ways in which the British edit history because I took at face value the statement of the Chancellor of Oxford University that we must not fail to ‘face up to historical facts which they did not like’. He was speaking English.

From demonstrating the falseness of the claim that ‘we do not edit history’ let me now move to the second analytic path which is to determine who is the ‘we’ in the statement. If it is the British establishment then, as I have just shown above, the statement is merely being economical with the truth. If, however, it is the British public then it betrays an ignorance of the changing nature and philosophies of a changing British public. The more appropriate term is British publics not in the singular but in the plural. New migrants have come to Britain from the colonies and settled in the country and made it their own. They have become citizens, are British although not English. They make political and cultural claims on the constitutional order pluralizing its identity markers. They are an integral part of the ‘we’. In addition the young people in Britain draw on cultural elements from all over and develop their own cosmopolitan philosophies creating a different iconography of the state making it more representative of the diversity of the population. The ‘we’ in Johnson’s statement hence appears to be very narrowly conceived. Perhaps it is the plaintive call of a fading establishment under siege from modernity.

I now move the discussion to the third analytic option that emerges from the statement ‘we do not edit history’. This takes us beyond Britain and into the realm of global history. When are acts of editing history commendable and when are they condemnable? Is there a principle that will help us decide? After all we are striving to build a decent and just society and editing history is a key part of the tool kit that will take us there. But not all acts of editing history are praiseworthy. The challenge is to determine which ones are and also why they merit that praise. The truism that history has always been edited by those in power was recently on spectacular display in Rome when the Torlonia collection of Roman and Greek statues was unveiled. According to BBC’s David Willey who covered the exhibition ‘It was common practice in the ancient world to erase the names and images of a disgraced person from the public record – in Latin this was called Damnatio Memoriae. Dozens of the portraits (had) …smashed noses and gouged eyes indicating they had been officially deleted from history.’8

This tangled relationship between history and politics therefore requires us to do two things. The first is to recognize that editing history is not an act of deviance and is practiced by all societies, both autocratic and democratic, as they strive to build images of themselves which they would like to trumpet. The second is to go beyond this recognition and examine which of our acts of editing history are consistent with the goal of building a decent society and which are not. My credo stated upfront is that the former must be encouraged and the latter discouraged. While this seems quite straightforward, at least the principle of endorsing some acts of editing history, translating it into practice is not so clear. For example where does the demand to take down the Rhodes statue at Oriel College belong?

The value of the RMF movement lies in the fact that it has compelled us to go beyond the editing/not editing binary and confront the complex issue of which histories further emancipatory and inclusive futures and which do not. One could, if one wishes to be broad minded, consider that histories, even of oppression, where the oppressor is commemorated, are necessary for a people and a nation to appreciate its tortured journey into the present. There is a sound case for keeping such oppression in the public eye. But it must not lead to celebrating the villains of history, as is happening in the case of the Rhodes statue, but of commemorating their victims, those who have suffered from the consequences of the villain’s ideology. History must, therefore, be edited accordingly. The villains and villainy of history must be called out. As usual, once one is committed to an open discussion, the decision gets complicated as we move into a zone of contestation and ambivalence. This is not to be decried. A zone of ambivalence is a creative zone. It contributes cultural and intellectual resources to build a public sphere that will be drawn upon as we work to negotiate our way out of the contestation. But we must be committed to listening. There will be moral conundrums in determining what constitutes an emancipatory future that we must patiently explore. This is not an easy path and I do not want to offer a guidebook other than to say that we must enrich the zone of ambivalence and contestation with many counter-narratives. Suppression and arrogance are not an option.

The case of Marshal Ivan Konev, the general of the Red Army who liberated Prague from the Nazis in 1945 but who also played a role in suppressing the Prague Spring in 1968, illustrates this ambivalence. His statue was erected in 1980, during the communist dictatorship, to commemorate his contribution to the liberation of Prague from the Nazis. It was removed in April 2020, under democracy, because of his role in the suppression of the Prague Spring. Was it the right thing to do? Answering the question will give us the fine arguments we require when we face similar demands, to rename or restore or remove, in the future.

This brings the discussion to the final analytic issue in the statement, the relationship between truth and history. There is no satisfactory way I can even begin to set out the contours of this most complicated of relationships, covering the whole spectrum of issues from fact to interpretation, objectivity to constructivism, so let me, instead, in an unsatisfactory way, list at least three of issues we need to consider. The first of these is recognizing that we must make a philosophical distinction between fact and fiction if the discipline of history is to survive and not fold away into literature. Although this is a contested distinction, – should the epic The Mahabharata be regarded as Itihas, Kavya or as the founding myth of India, remains a perennially debated issue – it is still one we have to grapple with. We must, therefore, at the very least commit ourselves to encouraging the articulation of counterfactuals to the dominant narrative of the establishment since, backed by state power, it tends to acquire a facticity that must not remain unquestioned. It needs to be challenged by the facts that have long been ignored, suppressed, derided, discounted. This search for inconvenient facts is an easy task.

The second interesting set of issues on historical truth are those that emerged during the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. The TRC, grappling with the question of ‘whose truth?’ offered ‘four notions of truth: factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or dialogue truth and healing or restorative truth. Albie Sachs, a judge of the Constitutional Court described ‘social truth as the ‘truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion, and debate’. Deborah Posel a sociologist who has looked at the thousands of pages of the TRC report, in a review of the issues that have emerged in the South African and other TRCs, captures this relationship between history and truth very aptly in the title of her essay, ‘History as Confession’.

An essay such as this, of course, cannot conclude without acknowledging the implications of the post-Truth turn in the Humanities. I thought that I could side-step the emerging consensus that what passes for truth is in fact an ideological construct, by endorsing the value of truthfulness as the commitment of a scholar, believing that it would enable me to continue with my goal of exposing falsehood. Endorsing truthfulness, I believe, is a commitment to acting and speaking in good faith. This means that the facts one presents, and the arguments one makes, are done with integrity and with honesty and without the intention to deceive. A commitment to truthfulness, I thought, was a defensible detour. Bernard Williams in his seminal book Truth and Truthfulness, undermines the belief that the ‘demand for truthfulness and the rejection of truth …can happily co-exist’. Oh… well.




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