Freedom Issue 2017

Dispatches from History

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The lesser known sites of pivotal relevance to our national experience

NO MATTER HOW OBJECTIVE any effort to look at the past may be, there is at least one crucial way in which history shall always be an art: the significance of what’s left of it lies in the eyes of the beholder. What looks like a mud-encrusted bone from an excavation site at first glance could set off a synaptic sizzle in the brain of a genetic lineage researcher. One needs no expertise, of course, to experience the buzz of such a stimulus from times long gone. Even natural sights like salty sediments on a beach might evoke a rush of images and emotions, just as an otherwise unremarkable well in the corner of a walled garden can turn everything sombre.

With freedom on one’s mind, even a rock can be an artefact loaded with meaning. History itself can be traced to early man’s first act of picking one of these up, but this post-neolithic object placed in front of us to marvel at back in college was historic for quite another reason: grey and mortarish, it was touted as part of the Berlin Wall’s debris. No one could verify this, though its colour and consistency matched pictures of the Wall’s fall on November 9th, 1989 (the ‘original 9/11’), just weeks earlier. A few of us undergrads in Mumbai took it as a cue for celebration, exultant that an editorial plea we’d made as high-schoolers in 1988 had been fulfilled, even if the ‘Berlin Wall’ we actually wanted demolished was in Dehradun: it was campus code for a heavily floodlit and hideously barb-wired separator of the boys’ school from the girls’. All the same, our cheer over that German rock got us into some heady canteen arguments: not about the liberation in Europe that it held solid evidence of, which was obvious, but over ‘concrete conditions’ in India which now called for market forces to be freed of failed ideas and given a chance to relieve mass misery. This could have made for a hearty debate anyway, but it was a thump on the table of this lump of brick-and-mortar that gave the pow-wow its spunk.

The lore of liberty can be a bolt out of the blue, too. This happened to me in the US just this summer on a Google Maps-misguided drive in search of Harvard Square, where my folks reportedly first met. One wrong exit off a highway in Boston, and an overhead sign for Concord up ahead zoomed large upon the car’s windscreen at over 100 kmph. My reflexes froze for a perilous fraction of a moment, not so much in the loud howls of protest from my wife and kids, but in the adrenaline surge of that being the very town where America’s own fight for freedom began. By some accounts, it was the Concord revolt against British rule that spurred Thomas Paine to write Common Sense, his fiery 1776 argument in favour of republican govenance that reduced the idea of monarchy to ashes on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, his work incinerated the authority of ‘Mad’ King George III of England, and over in France a few years later, of King Louis XVI. It’s not often that a signboard conjures a guillotine in a flash, but it does happen.

In India, our colonial nightmare has no one narrative that can readily be whatsapped for a round of thumbs-up emojis. Its status will always be ‘complicated’. This is just as well. For, it means there is that much more to pique our interest, stir up wonder and provoke questions, and so many more sites of pivotal relevance to fit in before the sum of its parts can form a greater whole. In this Freedom Issue of Open, we publish dispatches from places with pasts so remarkable, they might as well be open-air museums today. In the south, there is the principality of Arcot, which served as a test crucible for the British policy of divide-and-rule. There is also the former kingdom of Sivaganga, whose Rani Velu Nachiyar staged the country’s first rebellion against the East India Company, almost a century before the Uprising of 1857. In the west, there are the maidans of August Kranti and Azad, whose current patterns of usage make a mockery of the momentous events they hosted in Mahatma Gandhi’s time. In the north, there’s the seminary of Damdami Taksal, from where Bhindranwale cast a religious spell that would combine with invidious politics to throw Punjab into secessionist turmoil. Slightly east, there is a university in Aligarh set up by Syed Ahmad Khan, a 19th century exponent of Indian unity-in-diversity whose influence on minorities some allege set the course for Partition.

Each of these dispatches from history on the pages that follow deserves a close read. Please do.