How do we come to know history? By the word “know” what I mean to impress is how a complete system of knowledge is generated, refined as well as circulated. I use a particular event: that of the events of 1857, well known to us to show how history is generated as a discipline and how it gets circulated among various interest groups.
To begin with: students of history – correction, school students of history – have their rote learning formulae which list down a point wise list of the causes of the revolt. The number of points learnt is directly proportionate to the number of “marks” to be earned by the student in an examination. What does history look like in such a rote learning formulaic structure? To go back to the events of 1857, there would be for these students, political causes, economic causes, religious causes, military causes, social causes and immediate causes – as if all were completely separate things and as if all events happened in order to fit into this paradigm.
There are other more intelligent ways of learning about past events – different ways of study, different methodologies among genuine scholars of history. Yet here too, there are divisions and “schools of thought” based on where one is located.
There would be, for instance, character-based models of study which would pin in a structure as formulaic – though different in approach and end – as the rote learning methodology. There would be a similar trope of the hero – Mangal Pandey, for instance – and a set of motives outlined to explain the way in which he enacted. There would be the formulaic villains – in this case, the British – and of course, certain side kicks, like the Muslim soldiers involved in the rebellion as well. This methodology gives itself most easily to narrative strategies, and no wonder that a film on our hero here (Mangal Pandey) was made starring Amir Khan!
There are other ways of studying the revolt – each carrying with it terminology that might seem like jargon to the outsider, but is actually based on certain modes of thinking, certain approaches to the events that unfolded. There are the older more respectable Marxist ways of study of the same, a feminist or more recent gender analysis of the same, a post structuralist analysis, and the very recent and very popular Subaltern method of study (which looks at history from below).
My point is not to say that these exercises are futile. Only the one involving the school children is. The rest are modes, modalities and methodologies at work that keep on getting refined. The way we study something also is a reflection of our times, more than anything else. There was once a masked philosopher who said something amounting to the fact that history is actually a history of the present. And that is a lesson worth awarding cent per cent mark to, don’t you think?