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Control the present, to control the past

Control the present, to control the past

By Nazarul Islam

Let’s be honest to our own selves. We might not be the ones to change the world. We might not belong to the few that “put a ding in the universe.” And, we might not be something the whole world would celebrate. But…In the little corners that we live; in the lives that we’ve played a part in, we should be nothing but unforgettable.

Our legacies are like strange monsters. Some can be completely forgotten until they are remembered. In case some of us forgot, this planet had suffered brutally during the Spanish flu of 1918, killing more people in India than anywhere else; but now this fact is much deliberated as we are engulfed by another pandemic.

Sometimes these events make a permanent impact on human lives. Or at least influence the course of our personal or collective journeys through lifetime. Consider the Bengal famine of 1942-43, a tragic event in the lives of generation of our grandfathers, which represented the final erosion of whatever remained of the moral consensus that had sustained the British raj in India.

Our own legacy in the subcontinent of India remains to be one of administrative incompetence, combined with policy failures that created a vast human tragedy. From the point of impact created in history, I am presenting the legacies of two very different warriors, whose anniversaries fall this month. These have been refashioned, to suit the contemporary preoccupations.

Therefore, in the matter of a separate instance, in another part of our planet, the 200th death anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte had fallen on May 5. His charismatic domination of all the continental powers in Europe, till the moment he was finally worsted in Waterloo in 1815 by a concert led by Britain, should at least make him a hero for the French people.

Yet his legacy appears most hotly contested in France even as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has paid his tributes by laying a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb in Paris.  His recent remark is not out of context: “If his splendor resists the erosion of time, it is because his life carries in each of us an intimate echo,”

The headline following Macron’s speech was an evocative phrase he used — “Napoleon is a part of us.”

Also in this month of May, falls another important anniversary, not unrelated to Napoleon and equally controversial, but in India. On May 4, 1799, Tipu Sultan was killed while defending Srirangapatna against a British force. This defeat marked the beginning of a two-decade-long period in which the British overrode every power in peninsular and central India. Tipu Sultan had been a major adversary and his demonization in British accounts of the time and later was therefore of a correspondingly high order.

A Napoleon-led expedition to Egypt earlier in the 1790s had an obvious eye on undermining the British in India and Tipu would have played a key role in this, given his position on the eastern coast. The British remained alive to any power in India linking up with the French till Napoleon’s final defeat. The danger of a possible alliance between Tipu and the French was by the late 1790s perhaps more imagined than real, but it was enough to ensure his removal from the current scenario.

A single feature of history in particular has made this divisive legacy, even more controversial. In 1802, Napoleon had decreed the restoration of slavery in French territories in the Caribbean, reversing the abolition of slavery which the French Revolution had effected. This act made France the only country to abolish slavery and then restitute it.

Several supercharged debates about slavery and racism have engulfed Europe and North America in recent years, particularly in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ hashtag provide the context for this aspect of Napoleon’s legacy acquiring a larger-than-life character. And for many, President Macron’s wading into this terrain reflected the ongoing debate in France about colonialism, racism and about how to address the aspirations of its Muslim population following the Prophet cartoons and blasphemy-related issues.

This has left Napoleon’s legacy, even in France, to be divided and generated greater controversy to this day. Similar has been the case with Tipu Sultan in India. Two polarities define that public debate. In one, Tipu’s defiance of the British and the fact that he was prepared to fight to the end and not accept humiliating terms, as many other ruling princes of the time did, are his defining legacy. In the other, it is his bigotry and treatment of non-Muslims that stand out.

Here, the British provide much of the ammunition for the demonization and vilification by his contemporary adversaries. Both ends of the debate are influenced by current divides, although admittedly Tipu Sultan’s defiance and refusal to accept the humiliating terms the British offered for settlement have a much stronger evidential basis. But as memories of the conquest and domination of India by an outside power fade, it is our internal fissures, sometimes real but more often imagined that surface.

The portrayal of Tipu Sultan in contemporary British accounts, however, has other parallels. During the debate that followed the second Gulf War in the Middle East, with the invasion of Iraq led by the United States of America, at least one reputed historian had drawn parallels between Saddam Hussein, Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1950s Egypt, the Mahdi in Sudan in the 1890s and Tipu in Mysore in the 1790s.

If we use the contemporary jargon, in each of these cases there was the molding of discourse through power. Napoleon’s legacy and the contestations around it are of a different character, but here, too, there is more than a hint of France redefining itself both vis-à-vis Europe and its own citizens.

Also read:

Controlling the future is accompanied with controlling the Past; so is the present with controlling the past

Returning back to legacies, we do not know for certain whether Winston Churchill actually said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. But he certainly thought so. George Orwell, however, certainly did write, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. In what manner this pandemic will remain as a milestone in our history and memory, we cannot say. Will it be akin to the influenza a century ago — largely forgotten until forcibly recalled by a new and similar calamity?

Or will it be like Partition, the legacy of which is so alive in many quarters that it becomes part of the present? And … is it too early to say what the legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic on our own collective consciousness will be, but that for many of us it is a formative moment that is but incontestable? Yet, how the future will recall this present remains to be seen.

You my dear readers, become what your focus is. Next….Your focus becomes your mission, which again defines your work. Logically, work tends to become your life. What you do with your life, will become your legacy….


About the Author

Nazarul IslamThe Bengal-born writer Nazarul Islam is a senior educationist based in USA. He writes for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America. He is author of a recently published book ‘Chasing Hope’ – a compilation of his 119 articles.