Sunday April 14, 2024

A people’s history

By Mubarak Ali
September 06, 2018

The process of writing history by reflecting on political, social and economic factors has gone through different stages. In the first phase, it preserved partial elements of the past.

Two Greek historians focused their narratives on wars. Herodotus provided details of the Greco-Persian War and created the myth of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans died while fighting the Persians. Although there was no eyewitness account of this incident, Herodotus is the source of the entire story. Thucydides has written the history of the Peloponnesian War and pointed out how human nature changed in the event of war and pestilence.

In the second phase, history writing was patronised by rulers who employed historians to write royal chronicles. These historical accounts were confined to the activities of kings, the aristocracy and the royal court, and excluded the rest of society. These accounts were politicised and seldom mentioned the marginalised sections of society.

During the second stage, history became a tool for both classical and modern imperial powers that occupied countries to assert their hegemony. Romans and Arabs imperial powers changed the values of the vanquished countries, and absorbed their history into their imperial chronicles.

The same pattern was adopted by modern European powers. In the case of India, a useful example of this form of history writing can be found in James Mill’s book titled ‘The history of British India’. This book ‘colonises’ Indian history and includes the ancient and medieval periods as part of British India. When the resistance movement began in colonial countries, nationalism was adopted in writing history to create a sense of nationhood and combat the political domination of colonial powers.

With the emergence of nation-states, history writing was used to retrieve the lost history of the colonial period and rewrite it to create a united nationhood. The grand national narratives came into being and included everyone in one unit.

So far, history writing was dominated by politics as it was British historian John Seeley referred to it as “past politics”. Some historians challenged this technique and adopted different approaches to writing history. Some tried to emphasise the role of individuals while others pointed out the influence of social and economic forces. Some argued that intellectual ideas play an important role in shaping history writing while others focused on the people.

These approaches to history writing broadened its scope and included within its domain those forces of society that had so far been ignored and received no importance in shaping historical events. The Annales school of historians altered the process of writing history by including the history of sensibilities and mentalities.

French historian Lucien Febvre was the first to coin the term “history from below”. The theme of ‘people’s history’ was further popularised by E P Thompson who published a book titled ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ in 1963. This book provided a model approach on how to write the people’s history. In 1966, Thompson published his famous article ‘History from below’ in The Times Literary Supplement, which popularised the concept of ‘people’s history’.

This approach gradually became so popular that every country now has a people’s history. Some historians, like Chris Harman, have even written the people’s history of the world. This approach has also influenced archaeologists and many of them have excavated remains that can help them reconstruct the past. In the Subcontinent, the first historian who turned his attention to writing the people’s history was K M Ashraf. His book ‘Life and Conditions of the People of Hindustan’ was published in 1935.

There are two approaches to write a people’s history. The first is to write for the people and the second is to write about the people. After Independence, Ranajit Guha organised a group of historians in India known as the Subaltern Studies Group. This group is rewriting history from the people’s perspective. Historians at Aligarh University, under the leadership of Irfan Habib, interpreted history from a Marxist point of view. Recently, a series titled ‘A People’s History of India’ started to publish 40-minute volumes on Indian history.

Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg divided history into micro-history and macro-history. He emphasised that historians should shift their attention to micro-history and write about small towns as they have retained the purity of language and culture. This type of research would enrich history writing, and open new and forgotten avenues of life. As a result, we find that history writing has changed with time and expanded its scope from royal chronicles to the life and conditions of the people.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.