History, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”. In the social media age somehow, thanks to self-proclaimed historians, history has become the process of judging past events and personalities with a modern-day lens rather than studying them. Since the full-blown controversy over Raja Rammohun Roy, it seems that despite ample historical rebuttal and debunking of online rhetoric, the same suspects have once again stirred a hornet’s nest with an unwarranted criticism of Bal Gangadhar Tilak for his theory on the origin of Aryans.

This problem, however, is not limited to Tilak or Rammohun Roy. It reflects a bigger malaise of interpreting the history and making attempts to connect it with an ideological perspective rather than an impartial analysis. This has led to a rise of reactionary politics as well as unwarranted hero-worship of historical figures. The past should be a source of inspiration and learning with a view to improving the future while ensuring the mistakes of the past are not repeated. History can be an invigorating subject which can enhance a person’s view of the world. It can also help one learn about various cultures while accepting that the past will not always be rosy. Biases in narration — both during the recording of history and subsequent interpretations — will exist. Hence, having an open yet sceptical mind is rather important. However, interpreting past events with a worldview of today based on current knowledge is a dangerous trend. The end result is not only undermining historical studies but at the same time misleading the public and creating unwarranted divisions.

Tilak and the Aryan controversy

Bal Gangadhar Tilak is best known for his role in the Indian Independence movement as a fierce proponent of Swarajya or self-rule. Tilak was a polymath and mathematician by training. He had a wide range of interests including philosophy, religion and history. He, like many others from that era, was drawn to the past with general curiosity about the origins of ancient Indians. Tilak used his depth of medieval historical knowledge to use figures such as Shivaji as a source of inspiration for freedom fighters. One of the books written by Tilak was The Arctic Home in the Vedas, in which he proposes the home of the ancient Indian Aryan people to be in the Arctics. The Aryans are supposed to have migrated from the Arctics towards northern Europe and Asia in search of homelands following the Great Ice Age (10,000 BC). Tilak’s book was published in 1903 and, at that point of time, was considered a scholarly work as he had consulted with leading Indologists of that era including Max Mueller.

In his book, Tilak demonstrated his knowledge and readings of various religious texts including the Vedas and Zend Avesta to arrive at his conclusions. One must keep in mind that Tilak died before the excavation of the Indus valley civilisation had been completed which put huge question marks on the Aryan Invasion Theory promoted by the British education system. Whether Aryans migrated from Central Asia to India or India to Europe are topics of heated debate even today, but such debates have come up after extensive genetic studies, archaeological evidence, satellite imagery and countless new information which have developed since 1903. In light of such evidence, it is immature and demeaning to pass comments on a topic that isn’t exactly a definitive conclusion like the earth revolves around the sun. This trend is particularly observed among people who themselves have not undergone rigorous historical training. A classic case is that of certain self-proclaimed Indologists who critique the work of those who have studied Sanskrit without themselves having any proficiency in the language. Their lack of background in history would be acceptable if they understood that the study of the past is to interpret the events as they happened during that era. That critical objectivity is missing in the current discourse on history and has become a worrying trend.

Social media spreading conspiracy theories, false narratives

“Unless the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” This famous African proverb has summed up how history was narrated since antiquity. Written by the victors, demonising — often trivialising — the enemy and exaggerating the achievements of the conquerors fearing that a lack of flattery may cost them a livelihood or worse their lives. In the modern era, the objectivity increased in the case of world history. However, in India, there was always an angle of catering to the ruling political class and their ideologies. Hence, when you do an objective analysis of the Independence movement, much of the focus has stayed on the Indian National Congress and its leaders while armed revolutionaries were squeezed into smaller sections without a proper analysis of their successes and failures.

Even currently, many historians and historical writers would tend to portray any armed struggle against the British as a foolhardy romantic notion of a bunch of ragtag men who were never going to succeed against a much superior imperial force. Strangely, some of the very critics of Indian armed revolutionaries are big admirers of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam struggle where a ragtag force did oust a much larger imperial power. One should keep in mind that Vietnam is much smaller than India and the US much larger than Britain. Even in the case of the US, it should be noted that the British imperialist forces were defeated not once (Revolutionary War, also known as the American War of Independence) but twice (War of 1812) by a far less equipped and organised army. When these questions are posed to historians and history teachers, they seldom have convincing answers. Without going into too much detail about analysing the role of armed revolt against the British, it should be noted that the point being made here is that there is a definitive bias in the dominant narratives with respect to Indian history.

This wasn’t restricted to the independence era alone, but it went all the way back to ancient India and the perennial discussion surrounding the Aryans and Indus Valley people. Partial representation of facts and biased narratives had created sufficient disgruntlement among academics and descendants of those who had survived to tell the tale. There were too many grey areas, frustrations, anger, inability to raise questions and lack of access. All of this changed with the advent of the internet and the age of information.

First came the discussion forums and blogs, which would require detailed analyses, counter analyses, questions and counter-questions. However, with the rise of social media, especially Twitter and WhatsApp, this form of discourse changed, too. People no longer had to write complex blogs quoting sources; one could simply send an unverified piece of information, which would be tweeted or forwarded by multiple people who were slowly organising themselves into groups. Taking advantage of this trend, political parties started floating their own IT cells that would play an important role in propaganda to suit their narratives, thus adding fuel to the fire. It became an information war; several groups were trying to control the narratives suited to them by peddling old wives’ tales and conspiracy theories. Instead of a back-and-forth between historians who necessarily wouldn’t agree but respected each other such as Mohammad Habib and RC Majumdar, it became an open playing field for propagandists and counter-propagandists.

“Tagore wrote the National Anthem for King George”, “Nehru started the IISC and HAL”, “Rana Pratap defeated Akbar at Haldighati” started going viral. It was rather strange that people didn’t even bother ‘Googling’ the basic facts before forwarding messages or re-tweeting. The battle lay not in facts but in controlling the narratives and starting movements, facts started taking a backseat. The other common trend which has arisen is posting out-of-context snippets. It’s always convenient to find a quote by a person without knowing what was the background and stitch a narrative.

As a classic example, consider the following statements:

Quote A

“Gandhi wrote in the Harijan that if the vast majority of Muslims want partition they must have Partition (1942)”

Quote B

“If the Congress wishes to accept partition it will be over my dead body. So long as I am alive, I will never agree to the partition of India. Nor will I, if I can help it allow Congress to accept it (1947)”

Now, a “snippet historian” (historian would be a misnomer) typically chooses the quote that best suits his ideology, which is premeditated. If he likes Gandhi, he will choose Quote B to promote the fact Gandhi was opposed to the Partition of India. If he abhors Gandhi, he chooses Quote A to promote the fact Gandhi caused the partition. Now, here is the bombshell, both the above quotes are taken from the same book, the same chapter written by the same historian: RC Majumdar’s History of Freedom Movement, Vol 3. He has explained in great detail the politics surrounding the power transfer by the British and subsequent partition of India.

So, what happens when we mass-forward either statement albeit the fact that both the quotations existed? The context is lost. We are left with a simplistic view of a complex person handling a complex situation. As cognitive bias is natural to human beings, we have our minds made up and are looking for something to support our narratives.

Unsurprisingly, such mass forwards, tweets etc come from anonymous, seemingly reliable accounts that are no longer bothered about even as much as writing an article explaining their stance because that would require some amount of work. It is always more convenient to look for quotes which support a narrative.

Challenging the status quo

With the host of conspiracy theories floating around and history being decided by social media movements, one may ask what the future of historical discourse is. First and foremost, when you receive any forwarded message or tweet, ask for the source and check if there is any historical commentary on the same. If you read a standard history book or even the works by non-historian writers on history such as Sanjeev Sanyal or Shashi Tharoor, they will quote multiple sources as references. Such works are more reliable even if you do not agree with them. You need not come to the same conclusions as they do, but you can respect them for putting the effort in rather than being lazy. What about historical articles?

A good idea is always to check the facts they have quoted and listen to both sides of the argument. One may come to an independent conclusion or side with one view that is a personal prerogative. Hearing out all the opinions will certainly be wiser than engaging in flame wars over Twitter.

Why would someone like Tilak do it?

Ask yourself, would Tilak, a man who fought all his life against the British rule, have intentions to glorify the Aryan race and seek pride in a European ancestry? Did the book even make such a claim? In this case, you need not even read the entire 500-page book to come to a conclusion. Chances are that people making such claims may not have read it either. One can simply use their common sense. A man whose enemy is a European imperialist power does not stand to benefit by glorifying them, given the fiery nature of his speeches, writings and staunch revolutionary activities. We have a different world view today than our ancestors in the 19th-20th century. Hence, we cannot view them from our prism. It is unwarranted and plain immature.

The democratisation of information and a forum for expressing opinions in front of a worldwide audience has its benefits as well as disadvantages. The onus is on the individual on how to best use it.