History is more than heroes and villains, time to get over binaries: Manu S Pillai

(Interview with Akchayaa Rajkumar of TheNewsMinute, December 08 2022)

Home Minister Amit Shah recently remarked how no one can stop the ‘rewriting’ of history to free it from ‘distortions’. He also encouraged writers and academicians to write about ‘Indian’ empires and warriors. As a historian, how do you look at this comment?

Fundamentally, history is an evolving field. As more evidence comes into play and as new perspectives emerge, historians revise outdated conclusions and received wisdom. A couple of generations ago, for example, not much attention was paid to the place of women in Indian history. Today, we avoid that error and proactively look at the past also through the lens of gender. To that extent, revision — or ‘rewriting’ — is not something anyone can quarrel with, because as a discipline, this is what history is about — trying to connect the dots in more compelling ways than before. However, the tone and tenor of the Home Minister’s remark suggests that he was speaking as a politician, from an ideological standpoint, and for political reasons. It is worrying for a simple reason — even if one accuses past historians of sinister ideological slants, the answer to that can hardly be the invention of fresh slants. If you claim history is skewed in one direction, skewing it in the opposite does not resolve the problem. If anything, it aggravates it and we remain stuck in the same accusatory game. So I think we can safely conclude that the Home Minister’s statement is part of political rhetoric, intended to reap dividends of a less-than-scholarly variety, not a sincere hope for better historical research. Good history has rarely come out of government directives, so I wouldn’t give the statement much currency.

Historical figures like Tipu Sultan and Aurangzeb have become polarising figures in the current political climate. Is there a way of looking at historical figures neutrally? How does one do that?

Historical figures were creatures of their time. Depending on where you stand, they look different. Tipu is a tedious example, so let me cite another. The 18th-century Travancore raja Martanda Varma can be viewed in various ways, based on sources and contexts. In the defeat he inflicted on the Dutch, we see an Indian standing up to a colonial power. In a Sanskrit play, the Balamartandavijaya, we see a courtly narrative, where he has noble intentions in all that he does. Yet in villupattus (bow songs) that certain marginalised communities sang, the same man comes across as a villain — a crooked person who uses bribery and treachery to destroy his enemies. He had no qualms selling his opponents’ women and children into slavery, nor did he hesitate to plunder temples. The Panayannarkavu temple, for example, has a story about how the raja’s men came to seize its gold, and it was divine power that forced them to retreat; in another temple, Brahmins beat back Martanda Varma’s troops with sticks. When fighting a Brahmin prince, seeing how Hindu soldiers were reluctant to spill Brahmin blood, Martanda Varma had Christians and Muslims do the job. Now what do we make of this side of the raja? Was he a ‘nationalist’ for fighting the Dutch? Was he a ‘tyrant’ for enslaving women? Was he a devout Hindu for celebrating his deity, Padmanabhaswamy? If so, what about the temples he attacked and the Brahmins he degraded? The fact is that we must not fall into that tiring trap of picking and choosing. Martanda Varma was a combination of all of the above. It is not an either/or situation. The same applies to rulers like Tipu. In some settings he looks like a villain, in others, he becomes the hero. But history is about more than just villains and heroes. It is time we got over such boring binaries. Our present is complex, and the past is not dissimilar.

In your books The Ivory Throne and Rebel Sultans, we see that different parts of India were diverse and multicultural over different periods. However, there is an attempt to paint India as a homogenous country where people in the past followed a single religion and had a uniform culture. Do you think this is a political move or is there a general lack of awareness about Indian history besides the dates of important battles and the independence struggle?

Given how diverse we are even now, such claims are somewhat odd. I am not sure who makes them, seriously. Islam in Kerala, for instance, had different cultural contours from Islam in Kashmir. Muslims in Tamil Nadu were patrilineal while many Muslims in Kerala were matrilineal. Hindu practices in the hills may vary from customs in the plains. Men, when entering Kerala temples, have to take off their shirts in general. In south Kerala, we do it when entering the inner yard (chuttambalam), while in parts of north Kerala you discard the shirt as soon as you enter the main gate. So diversity of practice is a lived experience in India. The emphasis on homogeneity and common threads, which you refer to, largely emerged in the colonial period, as Indian nationalism took shape. This is not to say that common threads did not exist before — I only mean that they received special emphasis in this time, because there was an urgent need to stress on what united Indians, instead of noting all that made us different. Instead of viewing ourselves as individual threads, we were encouraged to look at the wider fabric into which we are woven. When facing a foreign enemy, such aspects that helped build a more uniform, readily definable identity were highlighted and made more coherent in order to organise and resist. I repeat that these were not ‘invented’ — there was a picking and choosing of parts of our culture which best addressed political and social concerns. But for all that, the richness of being Indian is precisely that we have multiple identities. Having an overarching identity is fine, but it would be sad if this were pushed at the cost of everything else, as if it is the only thing that matters.

In a country like India, the line between mythology and history is often blurred. Historical narratives are often built around mythology. Is there a need to counter this practice?

‘Counter’ may be a strong word. Again, we must place this in context. We were not a very literate society until recently. Nor were we uniform, or prone to generalisable identities. Indians did not typically record history in the way that we do in the modern period, with accurate dates, footnotes, etc. Instead, a historical consciousness existed, which was transmitted through stories, myths, and legends. A grain of truth was typically present, but cladded with tales that made its circulation easier in the long run. Serious historians, therefore, always examine myths closely and try to understand what they are trying to communicate. There is value in this. But we must not hesitate to use a critical lens. For example, in Travancore, the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 was the culmination of a decades-long process spearheaded by the Ezhava community. In the 1930s, the local raja finally granted this lower-caste group temple entry because of a credible threat of mass conversion to another faith. He was responding to public pressure and was also anxious to consolidate all Hindus into a bloc. Interestingly, however, a story later emerged. In it, Sri Narayana Guru — the spiritual leader of the Ezhavas — prophesises around 1910 that a raja would soon be born in the royal family and he would ‘save’ the Ezhavas. (The raja was born in 1912.) Through this tale, the hard political battles fought by the Ezhavas were somewhat muted, and instead a romantic, ‘happier’ narrative constructed where the king appears as a saviour, rather than as a head of state compelled to concede rights to his people. The story was also a means to create a pleasant ending after years of tension — the king became a noble figure and the Ezhavas, loyal, ‘good’ subjects. But we know that things were more complicated in reality. Even so, the story has historical value — in its own way, it tells us about the motivations of the king and about the underlying trends of his day.

Most historical sources come from manuscripts, official documents, and accounts of people who were almost always in power. Do subaltern histories get left untold because of this? Can histories ever be read from an ‘unbiased’ perspective?

There is no such thing as perfectly ‘unbiased’. Historians are also born in certain contexts and have blind spots. As a man from an upper caste, upper class family, with facility in English (the language of access and power in our time), my work will feature certain blinkers that may not appear in the case of someone from a different background, gender, or caste position. How we look at the world and the topics that interest us are linked to our circumstances. However, training and experience help minimise bias and in doing one’s best to present an objective account of things. One can never entirely succeed, but one can make an effort in that direction. Any biases that may still creep in will be corrected by future scholars, who will not hesitate to distinguish between sloppy history and better quality work. As regards sources, I think historians now work through a diversity of sources, including oral narratives, myths, written documentary evidence, art, architecture, etc. Besides, sources also have to be interrogated. Just because something is in a written document made by powerful people, it cannot be painted as fully ‘problematic’. Similarly, just because something is in an oral narrative, it cannot automatically be presumed to reflect a reliable and unquestionable ‘people’s view’ of things. Everything offers something useful and historians can separate exaggerations and anachronisms from the historically relevant. In fact, even the exaggerations can pose interesting questions: why did the author of the text or song feel the need to stress this particular point? Ultimately history is not just about seeking answers, but also asking questions. The more questions we pose, the less likely we are to succumb to simplistic views, including those circulated by political leaders from campaign microphones.

Here is a question to end the interview on a lighter note. You seem to have a digital collection of paintings that are used as reactions to real life situations. Will your reactions using those paintings become a historical artefact in the distant future?

Well, my research involves working with a lot of images, ranging from centuries-old miniatures to more recent paintings and photographs. I sometimes use these to make Instagram ‘stories’ that reflect my own moods and situation. So even in the present, they are a window into what I am thinking. In the distant future, I doubt anyone will care. With social media, people have a laugh and then move on to the next person’s profile. What I am more concerned about is my recent capitulation to posting on Instagram about fitness and working-out. That may not be the best ‘look’ for a student of history. But then again, like those in the past, I too, as a human being, am more than a stereotype. I write books and also post lame selfies from the gym. Both are part of my world, in two different contexts. And both are real.