Inaugural Remarks by Former Ambassador and Vice-Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, T.P.Sreenivasan, at the Kerala History Congress, Kozhikode, November 7, 2013.
I am glad to be invited to inaugurate the Golden Jubilee of the Govt. Arts and Science College, Kozhikode, and the Kerala History Congress today. It is a matter for celebration that the college has made a major contribution to higher education in Kerala for fifty years. We have different kinds of colleges in Kerala, but the Government colleges constitute the backbone of the system. You will be glad to know that the paradigm shift in funding of state colleges under RUSA of the Ministry of Human Resource Development will transform higher education in the country. I am sure the Government of Kerala will give special attention to Government colleges, which are particularly poor in infrastructure.
It is most appropriate that that you have organized a Kerala History Congress with the participation of scholars from India and abroad on this occasion. But I am at a loss, as a non-historian, as to what to say at this inaugural ceremony in the presence of erudite historians. I seek comfort in making these remarks, however, because every individual, in every profession, contributes to the making of history. Our personal histories and accomplishments do contribute to the history of our society, our country and the world. Journalists, they say, write the first draft of history. The celebrated journalist, B.G.Varghese, called his autobiography “The First Draft.”
Diplomats create history in their own way. They also record history. They provide the raw material of history when the archives are opened. Many countries open out even the most secret documents after thirty years to reveal the conversations and negotiations, which led to important international developments. For example, we now know the details of the discussions that took place in the White House during the Bangladesh war. India is still conservative in opening up the archives, but we have the memoirs of several diplomats, which throw light on history as it evolved.
There are different ways of looking at history. I remember that in the Soviet Union, it was believed that the past could always be changed. Only the future was certain! History was rewritten not to rectify errors, but to change it to suit the purposes of the Communist Party. For instance, Soviet history claimed that Soviet citizens made every important invention and discovery. They knew well that this did not happen, but they deliberately rewrote history to instill pride among the Soviet people. The aircraft, the steam engine and penicillin were first made in the Soviet Union, it was taught in schools.
The most important point about history is that if you do not learn it, you will repeat the mistakes of history. When history repeats itself, often the reason is the lack of awareness of what had happened in the past. By reading history, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, as we do not have time to make our own mistakes to correct them.
Of course, there is justification for reinterpreting and rewriting history as new facts come to light and such rewriting of history is a responsibility of historians. New biographers of historical personalities appear because different historians see them in different lights. As long as such rewriting is not to serve political or other purposes, it is legitimate and necessary. Very recently, the lives of Jinnah and Sardar Patel have been re-evaluated. New biographies of Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi keep appearing and all of them enrich history.
Study of history has seen a revival of late, because of the realization that the present cannot be managed without the knowledge f the past. History, it is said, is “carefully and critically constructed collective memory.” Just as personal memory is important for us to deal with others, collective memory is inevitable to deal with public and social choices. Absent or defective collective memory deprives us of the best available guide for public action. Without learning history, we face nasty surprises and frustrating failures. The dimensions of contemporary reality can be understood only if we have knowledge of the story of the human adventure on earth. Public memory need not be fixed. It can be rectified in the light of new facts. An issue, which may have appeared trivial years ago might assume new dimensions in the movement of history. With the wisdom of hindsight, we may be able to assess situations better. At the same time, we should refrain from condemning leaders who made their best judgment at a particular time in history.
Educationists around the globe agree that history should be part of any curriculum. History should be placed somewhere between humanities and social sciences. Historians like Ramachandra Guha focuses on contemporary life with the strength of his historic perspectives. The number of students who offer history and humanities and social sciences has increased in the colleges in Kerala, because avenues of employment such as the print and electronic media have increased. Many commercial companies have begun to appoint social scientists and not necessarily engineers and scientists at the helm, because what is needed at that level is a broad view rather than narrow specialization.
I am glad to see that this seminar will focus on Kerala history. A number of eminent historians like Prof. M.G.Narayanan will be presenting papers here. I noticed in an advance copy of his paper that he is demolishing the widely held belief that “Silappathikaram” was written by Ilangovadigal in the 2nd century. He has established that a Jain bhikshu composed it in the 9th century to propagate the tenets of Jainism. Such dispassionate studies will shake the foundations of false versions of history and lead us to new insights. I am happy to inaugurate the international seminar and wish your deliberations every success.