History has an utter bad reputation as a boring tale of past among school children, however as a discipline the subject has forged from a mere a narration of past conquers to studying about the changing patterns in the society with a long and close nexus with a brief study of time and space. It is not surprising as to why very often history educators are asked basic questions about the vitality of the subject and what not, the most common query being, why should we study history? why should we study about what has gone by?
These questions can have multiple answers, but in my view the best is, that the answer of future lie in the past. The past never gets redundant, not even for a second of time, the future along with the present has a strong relationship with the past. No wonder why doctors ask medical histories of patients before treating them for an ailment of the present. However, like any other discipline of social sciences, history is an essentially contested subject, and include a wide array of subjective realties of past. History is often termed as a saga of victors, of saviors, of the heroes.
If you have seen the Bollywood movie Padmawat, you would recall a scene from the movie where Alauddin Khalji is shown burning histories written by Amir Khusro, the court poet of his uncle Jalaluddin Khaji who he apparently assassinated to become the king. The dialogue which he spoke in the film is quite noteworthy as well, in which he says that ‘I’m going to ash all the papyrus of history which doesn’t have Alauddin’s name on it’. And this one cinematic experience reflects a lot about how medieval histories were distorted, not just in India but elsewhere.
Another questionable segment of history is regarding the blend of stories and factual history. Ever since the circulation of oral histories has been taking place, often ballads of poets and even personal accounts have been seen as sources of history which of course are in conflict with the objectivity of historical accounts. To define objectivity itself is a daunting task, however without going into it further, the bigger question in place is the possibility of the very existence of factual creativeness which is often seen as an important facet of objectivity. These sagas of past lie on the threshold of public scrutiny and questions on objectivity are bound to arise.
The answer to the question of whether history can be truly objective or not is a very risky terrain and falls more on the pessimistic side than on the optimistic one. It is common sensual to believe that monarchs have been historically very powerful people and must have distorted the past in ways quite often shown in cinematic expressions of historical past. Creativity was encouraged by rulers of most places on earth and these creations sometimes show the glimpse of reality in surreal ways, let’s take Malik Mohammad Jayasi’s Padmawati, one of his famous creations which tell us the tragic mass burning Johar performed by Rani Padmawati. However how much reliance one can have on poems as sources of history is a good pioneering question to ask. Also, the studies on The Indian partition of 1947-1948 take oral testimonies as historical accounts, which strongly support the idea that History is subjective rather than objective in more ways.
More recently the ambit of history also engulfed, the two giant Indian Epics into the manifold of history, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata as Itihas and not fiction! The marriage of History and Religion is a dangerous mix, and has the power to usher violence in a crowd which is increasingly having shorter and shorter attention spans to read histories and depend largely on listening narrations on new forms of media. Karl Marx defined ‘Religion as opium for masses’, and theology is largely based on fictions rather than realities or facts. These fictions are also claimed to be symbols of historical scientific advancements are often are used by believers to evidently prove the historical superiority of their cults.
This leads us to another recurrent and equally important theme out there, which is the existence of counter narratives which exist in history which can be or I should say which should be digged out to find out the truth about what happened in the past. History is often wrapped up with layers of truth, false and half-truths, the latter category being the most dangerous for ultranationalist societies ravaging the landscape of countries like a wild fire.
Let’s take Bairam Khan’s example, after the demise of Emperor Humayun in 1555 AD, 13-year-old Jalaluddin was made the Emperor of the Mughal Empire, who was constantly backed by Biaram Khan. Some sources reveal that He was killed by Akbar himself when he was leaving the country for hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage while other sources reveal that he was killed by Mahamanga’s Son. Which was also showcased in the movie Jodha Akbar. Same is the enigma about Akbar’s Rajput wife Jodha bai, for whom some sources reveal that her name was Hirabai and wasn’t Akbar’s first wife, but second after Ruqqaiya. One might ponder as to why, there are so much enigma’s about the reign of Akbar after all he was one of the greatest ruler of the Mughal Dynasty. In my view the reason why so many enigmas’ exist about his reign is because there was a serious attempt to restore, promote and preserve his image as a ruler, a secular ruler, a symbol of Hindu Muslim unity. It was thought tarnishing his image would bring no good to the public discourse, which led to a stage where he became a symbol of public admiration in decades and centuries to come. This also limited the scope to question his authority and rationality as a king. Akbar through Ain e Akbari written by court poet Abul Fazl has done a remarkable job in providing present day historians fodder to binge on. However, the 3 books on his kingdoms are too good to be true and of course do not reflect the drawbacks, human right violence and patriarchal violence that is bound to happen especially in his kingdom which almost had the entire northern Indian peninsula in its manifold.
Histories of many great people have been distorted for sectarian passions. There can be multiple instances like these which can be taken to accept the fact that while objectivity is a desired vendetta of history, subjectivity covers it like a morph in numerous ways.