Pandemic or not, the past is prologue
TCA Raghavan | 25 Dec, 2020
An illustration from 1876 depicting the crowd beneath James Outram’s statue in Kolkata (Photo: Getty Images)
For the past few months, perhaps since earlier, there has been a multiplicity of voices bemoaning or celebrating the erosion of multilateralism. A process initiated by the global financial crisis of 2008 was consolidated by the pandemic. Brexit, ‘America First’, countries turning inward, all appeared to mark different aspects of this process. Within this larger envelope are other smaller, but reinforcing, sub-processes: the maverick disruptive presidency of Donald Trump, the schisms within Europe, the geopolitical assertion of China, etcetera. The picture is of an epidemic consolidating global centrifugal trends that weaken a liberal international order that came into itself from the late 1980s with the end of the Cold War, reached its climax during the global war on terror and then started losing its momentum with the financial crisis. The subtext of this narrative, of course, is that while the protagonist of the liberal order—that is, the West—was riveted on the global war on terror, a more fundamental churning in the form of the rise of China as an alternative global hegemon passed unnoticed till it became, over the past decade, too large an elephant in the room to miss.
This narrative logic has both supporters and detractors alike. Like all linear narratives, it seeks to restore an explanatory framework on a vast range of random events and processes, greatly aided and abetted by hindsight. As Hegel said, the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk—meaning that wisdom comes in hindsight, or even that by looking back, it is possible to decipher patterns and rhythms that would otherwise not be visible.
When we look back some years later will the Zeitgeist, or defining mood, of our times be this pandemic that currently engulfs us? Will the pandemic, in some distant future, be seen as the time when we reconciled ourselves to smaller closed worlds and universes and when our national borders and national economies acquired new values and meaning? Yet, the pandemic has also exposed a global moment in the true sense of the word. In every country and in every continent, the dominant narrative is singularly informed by the virus—how to keep safe, how to flatten the curve and, finally, when the vaccine will actually be available. A world united in its concerns, even if not in actions, is still a globalised world and possibly it will remain one even when the fog lifts.
Charles Rosenberg, a distinguished American historian of medicine, had once commented, “Disease does not exist until we have agreed that it does—by perceiving, naming and responding to it.” If diseases are socially constructed, how do they interface with the rest of our everyday experience? Do they accumulate existing anxieties and sharpen existing conflicts or do they simply coexist, on parallel tracks, with existing realities? There are no easy answers and howsoever tempting it may be to identify it as such, the coronavirus pandemic is by no means the sole factor or agent of our current set of issues. Older faultlines and geopolitical conflicts—the Azeris vs the Armenians, the Greeks vs the Turks, the tensions of South Asia, the cauldron of the South China Sea, US obsessions with Iran and Russia, amongst others, have continued to surface through the pandemic. In India itself, our portfolio of ‘legacy’ issues or the weight of our history and the consequential debates they generate—from the diet of the Harappans and the advent of the Aryans to the nature of the state in medieval India and the true causes of Mughal decline—stand and fall on their own, unrelated to and not influenced by the rest of our present condition. This is, of course, small consolation for those concerned about the polarisation such debates engender. Consolation, if that is the right word, in fact lies in the recognition that debates about the past are also a true mark of democracy and open societies.
How should we then address those parts of the past that we don’t particularly like? This is a perennial but inevitably inconclusive debate. Engrossed as we are by this debate in India, it is useful also to see such debates in larger contexts and in different times, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the temporality of our own times. Two largely unrelated sets of events illustrate this—the first in the US and the second in the UK, but really concerning India.
In the second half of 2019, the New York Times Magazine came out with a number of articles that it collectively called ‘The 1619 Project’. The central thesis of this ‘project’ is that US history begins not from 1776, when as a colony it articulated a ‘Declaration of Independence’ from Great Britain, but rather from 1619 when the first batch of slaves arrived in Virginia. This was a change in emphasis and shift of nuance seeking to make slavery and racism the spine of US history: slavery was not just an original sin, the introduction to this series said, ‘it is the country’s very origin’.
Shifts of emphasis are common in history writing and this interpretation in itself could be accepted as such even by those who disagree with the principal contention. The most contentious part of the ‘1619 Project’ was however elsewhere and that was not so much a question of interpretation but of fact, or rather what is perceived as a fact by some and denied by others. The first essay in this series thus posited that in 1776, the Declaration of Independence and the war with Britain that followed—the cluster of events collectively termed the American Revolution—were not a battle for freedom from colonial rule. The origins of the demand for independence for the American colonies were because modern America’s founding fathers ‘wanted to protect the institution of slavery’. The background to this, the argument went, was that as the abolitionist movement grew stronger in Britain, concerns grew among slave owners in the American colonies and the realisation crystallised that ‘independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue’. Thus the first 10 US presidents were all slaveholders and ‘some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy’. The US War of Independence in 1776 was not a battle for freedom but one of unfreedom.
That it was the New York Times articulating and standing by this view gave to the ‘1619 Project’ too much gravitas to be dismissed as a loony-fringe thesis. Indeed, the project itself was viewed by its protagonists as a pedagogical instrument for revising the history taught in US schools. Although this thesis came from a journalist, it quickly became also a debate with historians and among historians. The lines consequently drawn give to the outsider an insight into just how divisive an issue race and the history of race relations continue to be in the US. How much this debate extended into the national mainstream can be gauged by the fact that President Trump established, on November 2nd, a day before the presidential election, an ‘Advisory 1776 Commission’ to ‘better enable arising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and, through this, form a more perfect unison’. Why this commission is necessary is also spelt out in detail in the presidential order:
‘[I]n recent years, a series of polemics grounded in poor scholarship has vilified our Founders and our founding. Despite the virtues and accomplishments of this Nation, many students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains. This radicalized view of American history lacks perspective, obscures virtues, twists motives, ignores or distorts facts, and magnifies flaws, resulting in truth being concealed and history disfigured. Failing to identify, challenge, and correct this distorted perspective could fray and ultimately erase the bonds that knit our country and culture together.’
The vigorous debate on the ‘1619 Project’ thus went beyond the pages of the New York Times Magazine and in 2020 had firmly morphed with all the conflicts associated with the Trump presidency in an election year as equally with street-level protests against everyday racism and Black-white faultlines. These protests saw levels of participation that evoked comparisons with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and of the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 1970s.
How the Civil War is remembered became an intrinsic part of the debate generated by the ‘1619 project’ as equally of the anti-racism protests of 2020. In Britain, myth-making was both more sustained and more serious. Thus General Henry Havelock has made a strong comeback in his afterlife
The perceived regressions from a liberal democracy, the catalyst provided by incidents such as the killing of George Floyd by the police, focused also on one particular sensitive area of North American history—the Civil War. How the Civil War is remembered and what its legacy is for the US today became for many an intrinsic part of the debate generated by the ‘1619 Project’ as equally of the anti-racism protests of mid-2020. All these varied issues were animated by the question of statues, monuments and memorials honouring confederate leaders and generals who had led the Southern states in the Civil War so that a slave-based agrarian order could be preserved.
The Southern states were defeated after a long and bloody conflict leading to the emancipation from slavery of African-Americans in the South. The Confederate memorials and statues are, therefore, at first glance an oddity of history—the losing side commemorating its defeat? But reality is more complex, since these statues, plaques and obelisks reflected not so much the Civil War as changed power equations in the century that followed. The Civil War and the defeat of the secessionist Southern states were followed by a brief period termed the ‘Reconstruction’ which was one of a real effort to secure social progress and political rights for the recently freed slaves. The underlying objective reality was the presence of the US army—in effect a victorious army of occupation—but this could only be a finite entity as war exhaustion and fatigue would inevitably take their toll. By 1877, the emancipation period had ended with the withdrawal of the US army and a white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan-led counter-emancipation followed. This is known as the ‘Jim Crow’ phase of American history—repression and segregation of Blacks, denial to them of voting and other political rights. All of these actions were duly backed by Supreme Court rulings based on a ‘separate but equal’ legal doctrine. This Jim Crow phase extended well into the 1950s and was seriously challenged only by the Civil Rights movement.
The Jim Crow phase was the period when many of the monuments and memorials to the Confederate political leaders and generals came up. These were a glorification and romanticisation of the cause for which the war was fought and simultaneously an effort to rewrite its history. The Civil War was thus projected not so much as a defence of slavery but a gallant effort to preserve a different way of life by way of the rights of the constituent states of the US.
These issues have dominated historians’ debates about the causes of the US Civil War since. Statues and monuments, by constructing an alternative narrative of the Civil War, had also as their principal purpose political mobilisation for the intimidation of African-Americans. This ensured that a largely anachronistic system in the Southern states continued in a country in which the narratives of freedom and democracy otherwise made up so much of American self-esteem and occupied so large a space of its external and domestic policy.
In many senses then, 2020 may well look in the future as one long historical moment for the US as a whole—the failure of the most advanced scientific nation in the world to understand a pandemic, a narcissistic and regressive presidency that enjoyed, and still does, considerable support, the anti-racism protests, and a geopolitical churn with many outside wondering about future US capacities for leadership of a liberal international order. To many, the ‘1619 Project’ debate represented the spirit of this moment: it is a vindication of US strength that its foundation myths can be so strongly questioned and contested; but it is also a symptom of US weakness that it could be so blind for so long to its societal frailties.
In Britain, because it was the greatest imperial power of modern history, myth-making was both more sustained and more serious an exercise than elsewhere. To the first-time visitor Britain may still appear as a vast imperial heritage site of both contestation and celebration. Both motives also suggest, at least to discerning critics, a sense either of bewilderment or of entitlement more about the present than the past.
Thus General Henry Havelock has made a strong comeback in his afterlife, if only because his name had to be effaced. An island named after him in the Andamans chain was renamed by the Government as Swaraj island in December 2018 to recall Subhas Chandra Bose’s liberation of British-held Indian territory in December 1943. Havelock was associated with many of the milestones of British expansion in India in the first half of the 19th century. The Anglo-Burmese War, the Afghan War, the Sikh Wars, all led to rapid career progression but it was the events of 1857 that catapulted Havelock into the imperial myth-making project. The ‘Relief of Lucknow’ made him into the ‘hero of Lucknow’, as a force led by him was able to capture the city but only to be trapped inside it when the Indians counterattacked. He died, not in battle but of dysentery, before the second siege could be broken by superior force, but there was enough drama in the besiegers becoming the besieged for Havelock to pass into history. Alfred Tennyson, possibly Britain’s best-known poet laureate, eulogised Havelock into a statue at London’s Trafalgar Square:
All on a sudden the garrison utter a jubilant shout,
Havelock’s glorious Highlanders answer with conquering cheers,
Sick from the hospital echo them, women and children come out,
Bless the wholesome white faces of Havelock’s good fusileers,
Kissing the war-hardened hand of the Highlander wet with their tears!
Dance to the pibroch!—saved! we are saved!—is it you? is it you?
Saved by the valour of Havelock, saved by the blessing of Heaven!’
If Havelock’s statue remains largely undisturbed at Trafalgar Square, he has faced more resistance in the London borough of Southall. Here, part of a road named after him, which also has a large Gurudwara, has recently been renamed Guru Nanak Road. This Southall renaming came about because of local pressures from the Indian diaspora that has concentrated itself there for decades. But its larger context is provided by one of the most intense debates about memory, history and myth-making that the Anglo-Saxon world has seen in recent times. This happened, as noted above, primarily in the US amidst a pandemic, amidst a geopolitical churn that questions US supremacy and finally amidst a presidency that has both polarised and also forced the US to introspect deeply. But this debate is worth pausing over in India also, if only to revisit a long forgotten Calcutta controversy.
Tennyson in his ‘The Relief of Lucknow’ had, along with Havelock and the ‘white faces’ of his ‘good fusileers’, also eulogised and evoked the courage of another popular imperial hero of the time:
Hark cannonade, fusillade! is it true what was told by the scout,
Outram and Havelock breaking their way through the fell mutineers?
Surely the pibroch of Europe is ringing again in our ears!
James Outram spent four decades in India with a career that spanned the First Afghan War, the conquest of Sindh and finally the repression of the Indian revolt of 1857. Possibly at one time his empire-wide reputation may have been even greater than Havelock’s, for one find roads, towns, ghats and parks bearing Outram’s name not just in the UK or in India and Pakistan but also in Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. After the events of 1857 and his subsequent retirement, a fine equestrian statue of his was commissioned from John Henry Foley, a leading British sculptor, and was finally erected in Park Street in Calcutta in the mid-1870s.
Post-1947, what was to be done with such statues, and there were hundreds across India, was much debated. These were, of course, deeply symbolic and political questions but there was also a practical aspect. Leaving them in the present locations would mean they would remain targets for desecration—with decolonisation they were without a supportive public narrative.
A process initiated by the financial crisis was consolidated by the pandemic. Brexit, ‘America First’, all appeared to mark different aspects of this process. The picture is of an epidemic consolidating global centrifugal trends
In 1951, we find the now aged historian Jadunath Sarkar, who in his prime was well known as an admirer of British rule, intervening in this debate after he found ‘a Bengali Babu encouraging some Muslim street boys to fling their shoes at the statue of Outram and when there was a hit he clapped his hands and rewarded them with some paisa’. For Sarkar ‘this kind of patriotic valour’ was ‘cheap and so safe at this distance of time’. The larger issue that bothered him was that ‘We cannot obliterate the past life story of our people by merely drawing the wet sponge over one page of our history’. But there was also a specific issue in that Outram was a ‘test case’: He had lived his entire life in India; spent years amongst the Bhils in Khandesh and, by raising a disciplined military contingent from amongst them, given them a new self-esteem; he had objected to the British conquest of Sind as morally unjustifiable; and in many other ways was sympathetic to Indians. Sarkar’s point was that while there were British officials in India for whom ‘all men would feel repugnance’, it is but ‘a curious type of patriotism to aver that the statue of all foreigners, merely because they are foreigners, are hateful to the patriotic Indian age’. Thus the statue of a man like Outram should be ‘publicly honoured’ as a ‘noble example held constantly before their children to contemplate and imitate’.
Sarkar was asked to join a government committee to advise on what was to be done with the numerous statues of British officials and soldiers that adorned Calcutta then. He first refused but then agreed to join at the special request of the then chief minister, Bidhan Chandra Roy, to place before the committee his own point of view that statues being of historical interest should be left as they were. With the passage of time it is possible to see clearly now that Sarkar was using too fine or thin a brush for the broad canvas that was being painted upon in the early years of freedom. Outram’s statue, like many others, were relocated to the Victoria Memorial where they remain.
Outram’s name, however, continues in many places in India, including in the capital city, as indeed does Havelock’s. Their persistence is largely perhaps only on account of inertia but these anachronistic remnants are useful to remind us that we are a product of our past troubles as much as of our present ones, and some traces of these divisions will live on with us. The present moment, when things appear so fragile because of a viral disease still largely without a cure, when the future appears therefore even farther away, even at this moment, the past remains with us. Simple but deeply symbolic acts of renaming and removal, or the contestation of such renaming and removal, are reminders that history becomes what it is not because of what happened once but because that happening continues up to our own times.