Does History Matter? Yes, for some very good reasons, and every nation must have a shared perspective of what has been the narrative for as long as one can look back! Those who don’t write their ‘own’ history, will have to gobble up what ‘others’ write about you! Sanjeev Sanyal, presently in the PM’s Economic Advisory Council, author and historian, shares his views at a recent AIMA annual convention in New Delhi.
First and foremost, as the old dictum goes, those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it. What this dictum does not mean is that history just is a repetition over and over again.
But there are patterns and in fact, as Mark Twain once scripted that while history may not repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. What he meant to say is that there are patterns in history.
And when you are talking about history, we usually mean national history or the history of a civilization or a city or something like that. So, think of it as data, long range data.
All of you, in your corporate life deal with data. You deal with annual data, you deal with quarterly data, and you try to work out certain patterns, presumably learning from these patterns to be able to improve into the future. This is important, but even in the life of a nation or a civilization, this is also true. And history really is data about the past. It is long-range data over hundreds of years or thousands of years, or whatever length of history you want to look at. And it is important to understand that, as I said, in order not to repeat the mistakes.
For a country like India, which has such a long history, and a lot of it is a very painful history of invasion, occupation, colonisation and so on. So, if you do not want to repeat those things, it is important to learn history.
Number two. It is important not only that some small group of specialists learn history, but there is a generalised understanding of at least the facts of history. You may interpret them in somewhat different ways at an individual level, a general understanding and acceptance of certain facts of history for any given people or country. Because again, the corollary to the first rule is the second. Because if only a very small group of people know the history, then the danger is that that small group will sit around and watch the rest of the people repeat history. So, it is no point in going through that, and therefore it is important that we teach this history on a wider basis to future generations. It is in some ways an accumulation of knowledge, and that, too, must be passed on.
There is a third rule to our understanding of history and which is this? And here we come to a more nuanced and complex point, which is that if you do not write your own history, and particularly when you are dealing with something as important as the future of a country or a civilization or something, a large project, then be clear that if you don’t write your history, somebody else will write it for you.
The history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. So, if you, as I said, do not have the time or energy or interest for writing or history, do not think you are going to be left alone. Somebody else is going to stand up there and deconstruct you and write your narrative for you.
And this is indeed that has happened to us many times in the past. Many Indians get very excited that the British, having colonised India, took such a great interest in our history. Well, of course they did. There is no better way to colonise the people thoroughly, then to take control of the way they think of themselves. This is why, even 75 years after independence, we still talk about decolonization because in some ways we ended up seeing ourselves from a framework of thinking that somebody else set for us.
Now, having set these three points down, let me now take this into the area of leadership, whether it is in the corporate leadership or a national political leadership and so on.
Why is this important to have this discussion for you as well? Not merely as stakeholders in this country, but even in your own, when you are trying to run your own companies or industries because in the end, remember that we live in such a complex, changing, uncertain world.
We need to have a framework or a narrative framework in which we get everybody to buy into, or to be able to pull in a certain direction. That narrative building, in a sense, is leadership.
This requires you to have a shared understanding of who you are, and that in some way, and one ingredient of that is a shared understanding of your history. I am not saying you have to agree at every little point, but a general shared understanding of that history is a part of the general shared values, the general shared culture that you want to have in order to get any group of people to pull in the same direction. So, in some ways, when you are doing leadership at every level, you are in some ways creating that framework.
And so, history is a very important part of doing that. And when you are dealing with a nation or even a state or even a city, the large masses of people have to have a shared understanding of who they are Now.
Given this broader context, let us come to the conversations that we are having today and into the future. I am going to start with something which is not history. Then I will come back to history. You see, history is not about just the past. We are ourselves living history. One day people will look back and what we thought, what we said, why we said, and that will also become a part of history.
And therefore, we need to think about how these narratives, these frameworks of understanding, are being generated as we speak. And in this context, let me show you how and I have been a part of this conversation, show you how, as we emerge as a major global power, how a large amount of effort will get put into setting the narrative for us so that we are guided into certain directions, pathways of growth.
So, for example, you may see there are all these suddenly this plethora of think tanks who are creating these indices – democracy index, happiness index, hunger index, et cetera, et cetera.
And in all of them, without fail, we do curiously badly. Have you noticed this?
You know, there was one of these major think tanks, global think tanks, I think it is called. It is a Sweden based think tank, it issued a few months ago an academic freedom index. And in that academic freedom index, not only are we below Pakistan, we are even below Afghanistan now, obviously, this is not even a pretence of trying to set any objective truth.
What they are trying to do is to frame us in a particular way in order to manipulate us.
And this is not something that is new today. This has been going on from the beginning of time.
What they are trying to do is that only if we behave in a particular pattern will we be accepted as a democracy.
Now, if you go and look at the Democracy index by the way. I have written several articles and working papers on this issue so you can get into the details, but it is quite interesting how it is set up. So, if you go and look at, say, the Democracy Index and look at the first four or five countries that the Democracy Index considers to be the best democracy in the world.
In that list, we are 108 out of 140. So the world’s largest democracy on the democracy index comes out at 108 of 140. But who are the first five first five democracies in the world are Kingdom of Norway, Kingdom of Denmark, Kingdom of Sweden, Kingdom of Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
In other words, being a republic is bad for democracy. That is the main finding of this report. So obviously there are certain ways in which it is set up and you will be told this story in a particular way. And by the way, this is not just about this perception based in this disease about happiness index and so on.
In fact, there is one tweet which I found specifically very interesting with a world map which was quite funny, in which we saw different countries coloured according to where they rank on the happiness index. And then it was also pointed out what were their suicide rates. There is an absolute perfect co-relation. So, the joke that went around is the best way of happiness. To reach happiness at a national scale is to allow the unhappy to kill themselves off. So, this is the absurdity with which these narratives are set.
So, you know, these are very often certain advocacy groups. These are basically non-government organisations of various kinds who will then impose on you certain norms for which in order to
grade you up or down, they will first of all charge money. But on a grander scale, they will actually use their data to manipulate you in a particular direction.
Many of you may be facing this already in your work. If you are dealing with, investments or trade in in places like Europe, we are under no illusion that this is a form of new colonisation, not very different from the way, for example, the British were writing our history. They were a small number of obviously different looking people, white people who had come and occupied a large and established country with a long history, and they needed to basically justify their rule.
So, what they said is that you guys have a long and established history, but that great civilization that you are proud of, do remember that it was given to you by other white people called the Aryans, who came and gave it, gifted it to you. So, all we are doing really is doing a software update, and therefore we have a right to rule over you. There has never been any sign in the archaeology, in the Vedic texts or other texts, or even in the genetics, of any such invasion. And yet, to this day, by the way, the Aryan invasion is hardwired in a lot of the textbooks and other conversations that we have.
So, the point I am making here is the narrative. Building it is important. It is important at the national level. It is important at the corporate level. Much of it is creating a convincing narrative, which is based on facts, is an important part of leadership. And most importantly, if you are not doing it, your enemies will do it for you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sanjeev Sanyal is a member of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. He has worked on several editions of the Economic Survey of the Ministry of Finance. He has authored several books, including ‘Revolutionaries’, that was recently released by Home Minister Amit Shah.