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Locating Historical Figures within History

January 28, 2016

We often revere or admonish historical figures on the basis of what they said or did. An 18 year old boy – Khudiram Bose – becomes the young face of India’s struggle against the British colonial empire while Frantz Fanon becomes the poster of Black Pride on the basis of what they did (become one of the youngest Indian revolutionary to be hanged) or what they wrote (the bible against colonialism that shed light on the ‘colonized’ minds). However, somewhere down the line one discovers that our inspiring leaders and heros had a dark side too!

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A hero or a casteist? 

Raja Rammohan Roy, who fought for women’s right, championed the cause of widow remarriage and helped ban sati, was someone who took his Brahmin cook everywhere! M.K. Gandhi or Bapu worked with the Dalit community (or Harijans as he called them) and battled one of the world’s largest and most brutal empires non-violently was also a person who probably wasn’t the most progressive person when it came to the role of women. Moreover, recently a bulk of research has focused on Gandhi’s extremely racist stance against the Black South Africans who were suffering under an apartheid regimes (that carried on till the end of the Cold War). Ironically, Nelson Mandela turned to Gandhian ideology in order to fight against the oppressive regime.

I am sure many of you might have come across  and read the article on Winston Churchill by a scholar at Harvard University, titled – Winston Churchill: Britain’s Greatest Briton Left a Legacy of Global Conflict and Crimes Against Humanity. For the descendants of the empire upon whom the sun never sets Churchill is a hero; a man who led Briton’s war efforts against the tyranny of the Nazis. The hat, the obviously well-fed face, his equips have all become immortalized and embedded in the collective memory of Britain. And yet go to anyone, anywhere in the erstwhile empire and you will find nothing but contempt for the man who was nothing less than a pure racist. The Nazis believed in Aryan supremacy and in a way Churchill wasn’t very different. He believed that the ‘coloured’ population of the world were sub-humans, Indians were beasts, Arabs were hooligans and the list can go on forever.

This dichotomy is something that has always perplexed me, not because how can a champion for women’s rights indulge in caste segregation or how can a man fighting for freedom believe that one set of people deserve it while another set does not. Humans are complex creatures and hence the world will be filled with ironies, dichotomies and multiplicities. What left me perplexed was that given these greys in life and human character do we – a) Overlook the shortcomings and focus only on the good or b) Negate the good by focusing on the shortcomings.

Personally, I believe that it is imperative that while trying to evaluate historical figures it is important that we place them in history instead of judging them in vacuum. What this means is that we look at people and the winds of that particular time before judging them. If the positives are seen as views that proved to be breakthroughs in a particular time then the negatives must also be judged on the basis of ‘departures from the collective mindset of the prevailing times’. This does not mean that we ignore or justify or accept the prejudices of the past. It simply means that we place people of the past in the past. We must judge them not according to today’s norms or judge them in vacuum.

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Gandhi: A Non-Violent Liberator or a Racist Xenophobe?

 

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