History is a jealous mistress. It does not automatically put countries and people in the deluxe coach. Even if she puts you in her bandwagon, make no mistake one could be either of the trains moving both ways. As the Cheshire cat told Alice in Alice in the Wonderland, where you go depends a great deal on where you want to.
If it does not matter which way you want to go, the society is bound to reach somewhere as it would walk long enough. But was that the desired direction, speed and destination? When the claim of historical decisions come so often, why do we feel them to be exaggerated claims? If being historical is so ubiquitous, why are the impacts mostly damp squibs? It all depends which part of historicity one is looking at.
You can be in the wrong side of history and thereby, run a good chance of becoming history regressed. Mohammed bin Tughlaq’s shift of capital to Daulatabad and back is part of history, but not of the glorified forward movement and progress with which we are used to in our mind. These were historical blunders which made history regress. A historical decision instead of creating history can become history sooner than expected.
History is not a one-way expressway, perhaps like a road forking out at a trijunction. One road could be leading to the potholed, slow moving path where you would take long time to reach your desired destination, leave alone the velocity of movement and the trajectory. It could be like Mad Hatter running in the same place to keep to the same place. There is activity and semblance of movement, but running at the same place does not mean traction.
Even if you accelerate the running at the same place, your direction does not change nor does the speed of the travel. For a drunken man who is not self-aware, it may appear that the vehicles are going past the lights. But the point is it is the lucidity of the driver rather than the physical phenomenon. Drunken driving can mystify distance, direction and time. One pathway could be taking you back in time, where the change slumps you back in time and takes you back in direction.
After all movements, you would find yourself moving really in the reverse direction. This direction is hardly the direction the society wanted or expected though the political narrative might have marketed as desired direction. Sometimes it would be part of design to go back in time to the hoary past which is consecrated in some people’s psyche. But it is hardly what the people understood to be things happening.
One can take a historical decision to that end of history which is dead and gone. You can move in the direction based on your assumed but flawed understanding of the glory involved. A land of milk and honey where everyone was educated until the colonial regime made everything a contrived scarcity. That may be exuberance of spinning yarn, often without evidence and often evidence being to the contrary.
If failures are like corrugated fold, this perception tries to iron out the folds. If the objective is to move in the desired direction of scientific development, prosperity for the people, better life for all, less of poverty and privation, history is more demanding. It requires adherence to discipline and coherence of action. You cannot afford to lose sight of the objective and you stay the course with necessary acceleration.
Declaring something as historical when it is not, could be taking you away from your objectives. It would be analogous to celebration of victory before the race started. Good decisions are the essence of forward movement but decisions must be backed by action and action requires preparedness. Without either of them, the movement forward will be more like Mad Hatter’s statement about the run at the same place.
The problem with a large machine like society is if one part is to move, other parts will have to move and for other parts to move, a particular part will have to move. If the other parts are not ready and have been left in the time warp like stubborn inequality, dysfunctional politics, broken banking system, discriminative societal system and exploitative economic system including no scientific approach with discount on evidence, no part will move appropriately despite dubbing announcements as historical.
Rather dysfunctionality can spread faster to other sub-units. It could create design flaws or sub- optimal outcomes may result. Conflation of history with legend can be a stubborn roadblock and a design flaw itself. In a society where Ramayan and Mahabharat are considered Itihaas, unquestioned belief in the allegorical simplicity and symmetry can become pathways to lose oneself in the leaving.
It is not a forward movement but loss in the labyrinthine fabulist world. Despite pronouncement from the roof top, reality can be completely different. It is better to take stock and see whether it is just walking or running in the same place or running at double the speed. You probably need to run as fast as you can to stay at the same place and to get somewhere else, a forward movement, you must run much faster and in the right direction.
Some may think that history is a set of lies agreed upon and narratives can be manipulated to give seemingly ordinary and even regressive decisions a historical tinge. But history is not written before it is crafted and it is time which only crafts it into a whole. The verdict may not be as effusive and kind as narratives in the present will lull us to believe while we would really be hurtling towards dustbins of history.
(The writer is former Secretary to the Govt. of India)