Tipu Debate: Scholarship in history is about coming to terms with contradictions

There is hardly any 'historical fact' which has remained unchallenged and the remoter the event the greater the chances of an absence of consensus.
Tipu Debate: Scholarship in history is about coming to terms with contradictions
Tipu Debate: Scholarship in history is about coming to terms with contradictions

The brouhaha over Tipu Saheb simply refuses to die down. Every day we are treated to statements from differing quarters one portraying him as a hero and the other presenting him as a villain with comparable passion. 

The debate has taken deep political overtones and there is hardly any newspaper whose editorial and op-ed columns have not been saturated with the 'Tipu debate’ Additionally we have the television channels where Tipu detractors and Tipu protagonists have exercised their vocal chords to exhaustion.

My frustration over the issue is somewhat different - we seem to have simply forgotten what the squabbling is all about. We are debating over the merits and demerits of the character of someone who has been dead for over two centuries and extrapolating that as being relevant to the present day scenario.

Let us set aside our own perceptions about Tipu. That at least to me is simply irrelavant. Some may well see him as a hero while the others may see him as a villain. But is it a hallmark of wisdom to let a historical debate cloud the contemporary context which is any case is bound to be minimal? The answer is self-evident. But the surprising feature is that none of the newspapers have picked this up -neither have the television channels.

When I was working towards my doctorate in the history of medicine at Cambridge, Ludmilla Jordanova ,one of the leading historians of science spoke at a seminar and pointed out that scholarship in history is all about coming to terms with contradictions - both in terms of extrapolating the facts as well as analysing them. There is hardly any 'historical fact' which has remained unchallenged and the remoter the event the greater the chances of an absence of consensus.

And she was absolutely bang on. A few instances from modern history serve to illustrate her point.

About the same time as Tipu, France was going through the ravages of the French revolution. One of the prime figures in this revolution was Maximillian Isadore Robespierre who is credited with the dreadful Reign of Terror that had gripped Paris in which thousands lost their lives. Robespierre is generally regarded as one of the most despicable figures in European history. Yet there is a very strong Robespierre Society in Paris which views him as a hero of the first order. The two sides indulge in robust debates but the issue is perceived as a historical one and there has never been any violence.

Sticking to France, Napoleon Bonaparte (who incidentally had sent a handwritten letter to Tipu seeking his cooperation to drive out the British) evokes very strong passions but his supporters and detractors have never been known to indulge in violence in recent times.

Moving on to a figure more recent, consider Winston Churchill. He is widely regarded as a saviour of the United Kingdom but there is a very strong section in the country that has not yet forgiven him for his role in breaking up the worker's strike. Fierce debate rages between the two but I have not known any instance of violence. This very columnist has presented evidence of his racial instincts which lead to more than a million deaths in the Bengal famine-my British friends passionately disagree with me on that count.

Neville Chamberlain is a tragic figure who generally evokes derision for entering into a pact with Adolf Hitler. Some very eminent historians now believe that Chamberlain actually saved the country by buying time as Britain following the First World War was in no position to wage a battle with a better armed Third Reich.

And even more recent, disruptive 'historian' David Irving has spent his entire professional career attempting to deny that the holocaust ever existed which I am sure rankles the Jews, the Slovaks, the Russians and the other millions who lost their loved ones.

The price of democracy is learning to dismiss not just the likes of Irving but even those who hold a view of history that contrasts with ours while extending them their constitutional rights of expressing them without resorting to violence. It is deeply unfortunate that we seem to be forgetting this principle which is surely a sine qua non in any functioning democracy.

Let us recall the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, perhaps the best exponent of pristine judicial wisdom we have today in the landmark Texas vs. Johnson flag burning case:

For we are presented with a clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution. The outcome can be laid at no door but ours. The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like. We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result. And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision. This is one of those rare cases.Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

The ultimate tragedy of this unseemly saga is that two people lost their lives. I am sure their families did not partake in the Diwali festivities. All of us must shoulder some  blame for this monstrosity for not upholding the fundamental principles of democracy.

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