The present changes the past

January 17,2019

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What happened in the past cannot be altered but it can be interpreted from time to time on the basis of political, social and ideological perspectives.

This is how historical events and personalities are changed and appear in different shapes and colours. This approach transforms history as a dynamic tool to fulfil the aspirations and needs of particular groups and classes.

For example, the Renaissance scholars were eager to get rid of medieval heritage. Therefore, they call the Middle Ages ‘dark’, which was not good for the development of new ideas and thoughts. On the other hand, they revived and revitalised the classical past of the Greek and the Romans, for guidance to create new knowledge based on rationalism rather than faith.

The followers of the Romantic Movement rejected the arguments of the Renaissance scholars because the Romantics experienced the Industrial Revolution and degradation of natural environments. This influenced them into look back and romanticising the Middle Ages. They glorified the medieval past as an era of peace and harmony, which produced beautiful art, architecture and music.

These two contrary ideas are produced on the basis of the circumstances that scholars of both categories experienced differently, and who looked to the past according to their own present perspectives.

Similarly, in the medieval period, rulers, politicians and scholars highly admired the ancient Greek state of Sparta. They were very impressed by its military training, discipline and patience for war. Herodotus (d 425 BC) further strengthened their courage and fighting spirit when he narrated the event of the Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans died fighting against the Persians.

However, in the modern period, when the democratic institutions and traditions developed, Western societies appreciated the democracy of Athens which led to the freedom of expression and as a result produced great philosophers, dramatists, architects, artists, historians and politicians. The democratic society of Europe gave preference to Athens over Sparta. In fact, Spartan society was condemned as dictatorial and despotic, one that had blocked all creative activities and reduced its citizens to tools to fight war and die fighting in the name of Sparta.

In the age of democracy, the images and influences of many individuals have changed, and some were rehabilitated according to the traditions and norms of popular democratic ideas.

In the Roman history, the assassination of Caesar (d 44 BC) is regarded as an important event. Generally, Brutus (d 42 BC) and his friends who committed it are depicted by the Roman historians as enemies of the Roman State, who subverted its development by removing Caesar from the scene who was a great general and conqueror. He extended the boundaries of the Roman state and brought to it war booty and a large number of slaves.

The admiration for Caesar continued for a long time in historical narratives. However, democracy changed the outlook; Brutus and his associates are now portrayed as defenders of freedom – who wanted to restore the Roman republic.

In England, Cromwell (d 1658) whose army defeated Charles-I, (d 1649) the king of England, and executed him as a traitor of the country was condemned after the restoration so much so that his dead body was exhumed from his grave and hanged by the Royalists to show their hatred against him.

When Carlyle (d 1881) wrote a book on Cromwell, he rehabilitated him and restored his honour and prestige. Today, Cromwell’s statue stands outside the British parliament as a way to appreciate his services for democracy. As a result, British society also recognised his contribution to politics.

When history is written via local perspectives, it changes its central outlook. Akbar (r 1556-1605), who is seen as a great Mughal Emperor, became an invader and imperialist from the local Sindhi point of view due to his invasion and occupation of Sindh without any provocation.

The Jihad movement of Syed Ahmad Shaheed (d 1831) from the Pathans’ point of view is a violation when he and his followers interfered in their political affairs and established an Islamic state without their consent. It is wrong of traditional historians to criticise Pakhtun tribes who opposed him and resisted his movement.

When the East India Company accorded political power in India, in the first phase it tried to become the inheritor of the Mughal rule and emulated their ceremonies, customs and traditions. However, when the Company became politically powerful, it rejected the Mughal past and portrayed it as despotic and oppressive.

This is how the interpretation of the past constantly moves from one point of view to another. The question is: can the present perspective guide us truly to understand the past? Mostly we judge the past in the light of a present situation.

Take the example of Pakistan. In the present situation, when we are facing political chaos, social anarchy and economic inequality, we find our colonial past ideal. Same is the case when comparing the present to the earlier history of Pakistan; Ayub Khan’s rule looks peaceful and prosperous as compared to now. In fact, this assessment of the past is not correct because we ignore the exploitation of colonialism and the dictatorial policies of Ayub Khan’s era. In short, history should be analysed free from all prejudices and likes and dislikes.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.


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