Rewriting history has geographical perils

Students aren’t taught about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. But many young Chinese, eager to know more about their past, are learning about the country’s erased past online.

Published: 16th April 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th April 2023 10:27 AM   |  A+A-

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Image used for illustrative purposes only. (File Photo)

Erasure of history is as old as history. According to Roman historian Tacitus, “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, during their lifetime, out of dread—then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.”

The History of the United States by Noah Webster published in 1832 gets Alzheimer’s when it comes to mentioning slavery. Many textbooks in the White-dominated, monocultural American South carry no references to the lynching of Blacks, which continued well into the 1960s.

Though the South lost the Civil War, schools in Bible Belt America taught sanitised history in ‘mint julep’ textbooks published by Confederate historians, who contradict true accounts of the American Civil War. These books even ignored Abraham Lincoln’s assassination altogether, since defeated Northerners saw the killer John Wilkes Booth as part of a larger White majority conspiracy. School authorities in Texas have dropped words like ‘nigger’ from American classics such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to cauterise old biases.

The Soviet Union adopted forceful forgetting by ideologically interpreting its past to suit its present, using the Secret Police. Both Lenin and Stalin rewrote history by downplaying the number of Russians they had ordered murdered: at the height of ‘purification,’ 1,500 individuals were being shot dead daily by KGB execution squads. Stalin had even established a quota for commissars to turn in imagined ‘enemies of the state’ or face death themselves—it condemned millions of innocent people to death or prison. He standardised Russian history; only the government had the authority to publish anything.

“History has ever been a harbour for dishonest writing—a home for forgers, the insane or even ‘history-killers’ who write so dully they neutralise their subjects,” writes Richard Cohen in his Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past. Vladimir Putin, whose papa was a cook for both Lenin and Stalin, continued the tradition of lies by whitewashing Russia’s peace deal with the Nazis in schoolbooks, which also deny the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

The Nazis created the myth of an Aryan Jesus and a Bible sans the Old Testament to obliterate Christ’s Jewish origins. China’s Mao eliminated the intellectual and academic class with the Cultural Revolution, which was a spree of state-sponsored mass murders; he destroyed all monuments and textbooks mentioning anything about pre-Communist China. An entire generation of Chinese grew up without learning about Mao’s bloodbaths. In some towns and cities, however, old names of streets and gates persist as baffling tokens of a lost geography.

Students aren’t taught about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. But many young Chinese, eager to know more about their past, are learning about the country’s erased past online. Recently one such young man protested at Tiananmen Square alone, but was soon joined by others like him. All were jailed. In an Orwellian twist of fate, they found that their arrests too were deleted from official records. Robbing a generation of memory is robbing a country of its identity.

In spite of the best intentions of Right-wing scholars, however, Indian history cannot be erased nationwide. In federal India, which teems with opposing ideologies, different castes and religions, and eclectic educational systems, state governments like Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha etc. abjure teaching partial versions of history. A crisis of confusion will arise when the two worlds collide: a generation that knows and one that is in the dark.

Democracy encourages multiple knowledge streams. It thrives on an argumentative ethos of doubting and questioning. A youth robbed of knowledge is a youth without memory. When the blinkers fall, they may not be as unforgiving as the editors and authors of reimagined history.

Ravi Shankar


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