A A recent article by Hilal Ahmed on not treating evidence-based history and emotion-based history as necessary binaries is part of the evidence for long-standing academic opposition to the discipline of history oral.
Academic historians have traditionally despised oral histories as a lesser and unreliable form of building the past. Their emphasis on so-called hard evidence like primary archival documents and archaeological artifacts often underestimate the importance of intangible history. As if this hard evidence offered definitive stories. British historian John Hugh Arnold once said: “History is above all a argument. “
One of the first things I learned in my museology class was that history is not a set of facts but a set of interpretations. Thus, none of the currents – university historians or public historians – has a moral and monopoly right over history disguised as truth. Oral histories also belong to the National Archives of India.
Even though Hilal Ahmed wrote the article for the National Archives of India, the argument he makes goes beyond the immediate destruction and construction involved in the Central Vista project, which is underway at the core. of the New Lutyens of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Tangible stories scholars often fear that if people’s emotion and memories are included in historiography, then majority communities, or those who can harness power, will harness this emotional capital. In algorithmic democracies, this is a real risk. But the solution is not to watch them or dismiss them as unreliable or emotional. There are also standards and controls that shape this discipline.
“Oral history is not just what people say on tape or on camera” wrote American public historian Jason Steinhauer. “Oral history (as a methodology) does not exist in disciplinary isolation.”
Read also : Emotion or evidence – liberals claiming the National Archives just don’t understand the history of Hindutva
What Oral History Can Do
Let’s imagine what it would be like if academic historians all agreed to enlist collective memories and emotions in writing stories, as Ahmed recommends.
First of all, a kind of hegemony would be broken. I don’t mean to say that hard, cold facts will no longer determine historical research. But a sort of arrogant academic claim to be the sole seeker and purveyor of truth will come undone.
The other result of this action would be that the story becomes more inclusive and accessible. She will also become what she was always meant to be: fluid, changeable and open, which admits that there are many ways to look at and interpret history. Finally, it would be to recognize that the study of history is, at best, interpretative.
This is not a liberal or conservative approach to history – or secular stories against Hindutva. It’s about recognizing and dismantling an almost century-old wall that has existed in campus history departments around the world.
Investing energy in resisting the reconstruction of Central Vista is now futile. This ship has sailed. There are two things we can do, however: continue to demand transparency in how archives are managed and maintained during the interim period until they find a new home, and continue to push for a new scope and a new definition of archives. Adversity is the best time to reconfigure the old ways. The Teen Murti Library has a rich collection of oral histories. The Delhi government is building oral history archive of the city by recording the “memories and perceptions” of 100 individuals through individual interviews. It is time that we also take them to the new headquarters of the National Archives of India, as in other countries.
Read also : Modi’s Central Vista project has a story hole
Make archives richer
While the building of the National Archives of India is demolished (not the archives themselves, just the building. And that too, the annex, a sarkari term for PWD extensions performed over the past two decades), there is much to be concerned about the condition of fragile files; but there is also an opportunity to imagine a better and more inclusive archive. The one who doesn’t drive people away in order to keep the story impermeable. We need the National Archives of India to include oral histories which are now stored in colleges, advocacy groups, and personal collections. Oral histories are primary sources that belong to the archives.
There is an impressive collection of oral histories of Narmada Bachao Andolan voices on which Nandini Oza worked; there is another one from Pramod Kumar Srivastava on militant freedom fighters who were sent to Kala Pani; CS Lakshmi Women’s Movement Archives; Godrej Archives managed by Vrunda Pathare; Oral Stories of Indira Chaudhury from Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) and Tata Basic Research Institute.
There will, of course, be mind-boggling stories pouring in, or what John Dower scornfully called “Historiography of July 4. But there will also be those that go against state-transmitted narratives, such as anti-caste oral histories, stories of Dalits and indigenous peoples, and the rights of people with disabilities. The place must be made for all. The archives will be richer for it.
Read also : Should we wake up museums? Europe’s war on “negativity”
From unity to uniformity
Hilal Ahmed quotes Jawaharlal Nehru to show how he has adapted to the national imagination and framework for collecting historical evidence. He also quotes Modi and his emphasis on “feelings” in writing the story. Both use history to serve their nation-building motivations. If Nehruvian’s India experienced the first era of nation-building, then Modi’s India is going through a third phase of nation-building; 1991 was the second phase of nation building. Whether some grimace or not, old India is changing.
Nehru’s basic model for historiography was unity, and Modi’s is uniformity. And public history – with all its fluidity, diversity, and autonomy – is a stronger antidote to uniformity than frozen academic histories.
All over the world, the great dominant narratives have been defeated not by what is in the history books, but by the voices of the people.
Rama Lakshmi, museologist and oral historian, is the opinion writer for ThePrint. After working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Missouri History Museum, she established the “Remember Bhopal Museum” commemorating the Bhopal gas tragedy. She did her graduate program in African American Museum Studies and Civil Rights Movement from the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Opinions are personal.
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