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Can India afford having so much of history?

Recently I had an intriguing exchange about the history of the erstwhile state of Kapurthala with a learned lady who was unhappy with my criticism of the conduct of its past rulers.

While my own displeasure was based on the immensely damaging role played by Kapurthala and Patiala during 1857 “mutiny of brown-skinned natives against Raj”, the learned lady felt that HRH Kapurthala did the right thing by siding the British Sarkar of the day.

As she and I are people of the same nation, the unpleasantness that crept in this disagreement about events that took place almost one hundred fifty years back has forced me to think.

The question that I find critical for future of our nation is “Can a nation afford to have so much history?”

India is an enigma because we are a large sovereign nation with everything in place. We have best of the natural resources and human capital but we are still one of the poorest nations on earth.

As nations with far less of either are galloping ahead, there is a need to figure out why are we still a third world underdeveloped country going almost nowhere.

As we are in a unique position, the likely reason should be unique to us. While we are comparable to other nations on all other counts, there is one quality that is unique to us. We have a clear USP and that is our antiquity.

We are an ancient nation going back for thousands of years. We find it really amusing when infant nations like the USA gush over 200 year old ruins of a church tower, as we have 2000-year-old temples still in use.

We enjoy the most impressive cultural continuity on Earth. We rightfully feel that we were living in stable civilised societies when Europe was still struggling with medieval chaos and USA was not even born. This makes us people with the richest, and possibly longest history on the planet.

We can surely feel that our history is our wealth, but what do we really gain from being stinking rich in history?

As we are a massive landmass densely populated by ancient races of diverse people with at least two to three thousand years of recorded history, we have what I consider a USP, i.e. a Unique Social Problem faced by no other nation.

Indian history has a superpower of offering reasons to hate. With so much of history, it is always possible to find one example of injustice or cruelty or oppression in interactions between any two sets of people.

If you are a Hindu/Muslim/Christian/Sikh/Dalit wanting to find justification to hate any other community or religion, Indian history is always ready to offer you suitable examples.

And, if there is any missing link where actual history fails to provide reasons to hate, it is always there for agenda-driven misinterpretations, from scholarly to rumour-based, to over-compensate the deficit.

So, history is maybe our wealth, but so much of it is surely not good for our health. In a practical sense, it is impossible for a nation to afford to have so much history without getting into regular spasms of debilitating conflicts that soon destroy it, as we can see across India.

As there are no Men In Black around the corner to zap the nation of its history, we have to get real with this problem.

Let us accept it that burdened by the multiplicity of history, India remains a country that is unable to become a nation.

It is not that this problem is not identified. National identity is a constant quest; but, all past attempts to build a nation out of India have been based on using the history, and hence doomed from inception.

The seriousness of this problem transcends all other issues face by us; so if there is a real intent of building a coherent India that can last another hundred years, we need to take an honest stock of ground realities.

It is unlikely that we will find a binding force overnight, so the practical need for this country is to survive and be there as a work in progress for forming a nation.

Our political class that is the greatest beneficiary of the exploitation of history needs to accept that the history card is overplayed. Dividing people can work only up to a point. Where they have taken India today is close to a tipping point, if not beyond.

As we head for one more election, we need a serious cognition of this problem and responsible dialogue between political parties regarding the issues they are going to take/rake up. And, this they should do for their own sake. If they want to rule a nation, they better ensure that India survives.

Let us appreciate that a massive and highly improbable freedom struggle has given us a free country that is a mandatory precursor to building a nation. We can be one if we can last long enough to find a cause.

So, the onus is on the political class. If they don’t recognise the need for shifting “national” narrative away from history, there is a very real possibility that India herself will become history.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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