Monday, April 22, 2024

Writing our history


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By Ubahunlang Dkhar Tmar

The present discussion and exposition of opinions on the issue related to the Pnar dialect vis a vis the State Anthem has generated various opinions which have stirred the hornet’s nest about our origin, ethnicity and identity. In a sane civil society, we must try our best to provide a logical-rational argument free of emotions, and look at it from a constructive point of view. This article does not wish to state who is right and who is wrong but it attempts to deviate a bit from the point of contention on dialect/language, since this issue is also connected with the past. Hence this article will try to provide a few perspectives or a food for thought to further a gentlemanly debate or research on our past history. In this article I will address only a few points and conjectures that I feel are relevant.
After browsing and reading the articles and letters to editors, apart from social media discussions and allegations, some light has been shed on the blurry past and shows that we are part and parcel of the same tribe/ethnicity/community. In the context of the present issue, no one can deny the ‘fact’ that all of us at one point of time in the past are the products and offshoots of one source/centre of origin but due to the geographical, ecological, historical, political, administrative factors, circumstances and events we have come to callously consider ourselves as different (ethnicity/culture). If we consider how societies and cultures evolve through time and space, we will realise that the trends and patterns of the circumstances of history of any human group/race/ethnic is not linear; history is packed with the interplay of many factors. There are gaps in history (including pre-history and proto-history) waiting to be filled, examined and exposed to rigorous academic debates and discussion, but this deficiency does not give us licence or legitimacy to exploit history to propagate one’s agenda, ethnic and political ideology. This is what we see in this country; how history has been misused to propagate certain agenda that destroys and affects lives, destabilising the very social and cultural fabric of the republic. We have to be cautious that political opportunism should not be given space while we try to understand, unravel and construct our past.
The crux of disagreement and discontent:
As a State we are now cvassing, proposing and lobbying for the Khasi language to be recognised and included in the 8th schedule of our Constitution and here we are disagreeing with the State Anthem which I felt it is not the right moment to bring up this issue. Putting this present debate on dialect/ language aside, we have to ask ourselves, since when did this misunderstanding or discontent begin, for we know that this conflict of understanding didn’t just crop up overnight; it has been the undercurrent that has been waiting to surface. At this moment we can only hypothesise and prematurely identify the conditions that allow this to evolve and percolate into our socio-political psyche. We have to correct and alleviate the misunderstanding, conceptions and perceptions.
We know that the historical past of every nation or race comprises both positive and negative events and circumstances. We also have the tendency to uncritically and blindly glorify our past history and this has crept into our normal conversation and interactions; engaging in half-baked, ill-informed narratives, cherry picking parts of our history that fits a certain agenda or objective. This only promotes jingoistic feelings of nationalism and false ideas and understanding of nationhood/statehood, because history appeals to the emotions rather than the intellect. The past is not an absolute monothetic entity that can be read and displayed easily, it is a quagmire also filled with cul de sacs (blind alleys) that are yet to unfold and connect.
Further, whatever documented folk and ethno-history (including our local/state geography) we have, were not given equal importance as other subjects and topics in our school/college curriculum, which is crucial if we want to nurture a ‘sense of belonging’ as conscientious and erudite citizens. We must encourage our students to objectively appreciate the past. With the exception of the few scholarly works from this State, Assam etc, we also have books, booklet, stories of our past folk history in our vernacular languages that are yet to be examined and scrutinised by social-cultural theorists, linguistics, ethnographers, experts in historiography. Most of these narratives are based on ‘folk/collective memories’ which are prone to errors, mis-interpretation, mis-judgement, because apart from the philosophical underpinnings, writing history requires astute knowledge, understanding and appreciation of various methods of historical investigations.
An unbiased appreciation of the past:
Utilising and understanding history as a ‘body of information’ to help us with our present predicament (ethnicity, border issues, economy etc) that will guide us in building the foundations of our future is crucial. From an academic and scholarly point of view it is healthy to look at history from a constructive critical lens. We must never fall into the trap of “confirmation bias” (gathering only evidence that fit our beliefs, objective, narrative, hypothesis). This will distort history (facts, truth, reality). “Not every narrative of the past is valid history. Readings of the past have to be based on proven, reliable evidence and the causal connection they make have to be logical and to draw on rational argument. Misrepresenting the views of professional historians is another way of drawing the attention of the media to oneself” (Romila Thapar’s Dr D.C Deshmukh Memorial Lecture, India International Centre, New Delhi, 14th Jan 2023). Considering every correlation as causation or causal connection or relation is another misconception or fallacy.
Writing history is not only the obligation of scholars and historians, but it is also our collective responsibility. When occasions to relive and re-enact our past occur, we must make sure to try and propagate and communicate the right history without any bias. An awareness of history is important for any nation, community or race to be able to stay intact and bind itself as a unit.
Inquiring into our conditions:
I am referring here not only to the present debate but to the entire aspects of our history (pre, proto-history, history, palaeo-geography etc) culture, economy etc which requires scholarly investigations and analysis. Writing history is also an ongoing affair as new evidence that debunks earlier evidence emerges and the adoption of new methods of inquiry and analysis disrupt the established paradigm. From an anthropological perspective there is the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsider’ point of views; we also need to look at our past history and culture from the prism of our indigenous knowledge/thought/philosophy.
With the exception of the universities (where research topics are decided by scholars and their guides) and the Anthropological Survey of India (North East Regional Centre), we have seen steps being taken in 2023 by the KHADC which has initiated the task by providing funding to those who will engage in reviewing, researching, documentation on the various aspects of our culture, society etc., which will further bring light, knowledge, understanding and even critical questions and findings. The department of Arts and Culture Government of Meghalaya too have been taking initiatives to preserve, document, promote culture in its own capacity. There is also a State Tribal Research Institute at Mawlai Nongkwar but we don’t know what its predicament and state of affairs is. From a holistic and integrative perspective, the production of historical knowledge (including culture) and information requires the cohesive engagement of scholars, key-grassroots informants with local/folk knowledge, local/grassroot authors, government, research institutes, colleges and universities.


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