Home >Opinion >The selective memory of nations

Bias in history is usually seen as a supply-side process. As something that seeps into historical truth as history is committed to paper, e-book screen, documentary footage or whatever other format it is published in. This is, of course, true. All historians make choices as they put together a work of academic or popular scholarship. They have to choose from an abundance of sources, perspectives, and even conclusions. The sheer number of permutations and combinations involved in such choices is one reason why we are still able to see so many wonderful books each year on topics that have been researched exhaustively for decades.

Then there are the analytical and other biases that historians themselves infuse into their work. You could give three brilliant historians exactly the same set of papers on, say, Jawaharlal Nehru at the UN, and all three could arrive at strikingly different conclusions.

Indeed, even the choice of cover design can be a form of “bias". If you’ve written a history of the state of Gujarat, do you go with a picture of Gandhi, the Godhra riots or just a map of the state on the cover? Or some combination of those three?

What about demand-side bias? What if communities, or nations, choose to remember some aspects of their history and overlook or diminish others? For instance, why does Bhagat Singh seem to get so much more popular attention than Rajguru, Sukhdev or even Batukeshwar Dutt, who was tried along with Bhagat Singh and then imprisoned in the Cellular Jail in the Andamans? (Dutt died in 1965 and by then, by many accounts, was a broken, forgotten man).

There is often much furore about supply-side biases. About historians who favour particular historical personalities or political entities. Or institutional biases in history where universities and colleges tend to have a liberal or leftist bias in the research they sponsor.

But demand-side biases are at least as hard to counter. What do you do if nations and communities only want to remember what they want to remember? What happens, for instance, to the histories shared by nations that don’t fit in either nation’s current notions of their historical selves?

In the latest issue of the Indian Historical Review, Chinese historian Cao Yin tells one such fascinating story of 1927 Shanghai in a paper titled Kill Buddha Singh.

Cao Yin writes: “On 23 March 1927… two Chinese workers visited the Gurdwara in North Szechuen Road. A letter, which was written in Gurmukhi language and was probably penned by an Indian agent of the Comintern in Shanghai, was shown to Gurbaksh Singh, a local Ghadarite who lived in the Gurdwara. After a short while, Gajjan Singh, the leader of the Ghadar Party’s Shanghai branch, appeared and led the two Chinese into the temple library. In the ensuing meeting, the Chinese presented a .32 calibre Browning automatic pistol to the Sikhs. A shooting was tried and a bullet hole in the corrugated iron roof was left. After handing over the pistol to the Sikhs, the Chinese left."

That one single paragraph intertwines so many threads of history. The Comintern had an Indian agent in Shanghai? The Ghadar Party had a Shanghai branch? And what happened to the pistol?

In the paper, Cao Yin tells a riveting story that unfolded at the fringes of the independence movement of two countries. So much so that the story finds no space in the popular national freedom narratives of both countries. What the Chinese did for the Indian freedom movement, and what the Indians did for the Chinese freedom movement are aspects of national history that neither country is interested in. It is something they have chosen not to remember.

The Shanghai of 1927 was a roiling pot of Asian nationalism, Communist machinations, anti-imperialism and Chinese internecine tension. And trying to maintain order over this morass of hostility was the British administration’s Shanghai Municipal Police or the SMP. The Sikh branch was an important part of the SMP’s muscle power and this branch was run by the Buddha Singh of the paper’s title. For years, Chinese and Indian nationalists in Shanghai had sought to undermine the SMP by trying to win over the loyalties of the Sikh Branch and induce them into a strike. Buddha Singh, however, remained the main obstacle to this plan. Singh was not only fiercely loyal to the British administration, but also maintained powerful links with the Sikh community in Shanghai. However, if they could somehow get Buddha Singh out of the way, perhaps the loyalties of the other Sikhs in the SMP would falter, thus weakening the police force.

The day after the Chinese delegation visited the gurdwara, an ex-policeman named Harbant Singh, who perhaps worked in the langar kitchens, volunteered to assassinate Buddha Singh. On 6 April 1927, Harbant Singh walked up to Buddha Singh and shot the highest-ranking Indian policeman in Shanghai thrice. Buddha Singh died shortly thereafter. The assassin was hanged two months later.

Cao Yin’s paper richly describes how anti-imperialist propaganda and mobilization took place not just within China and India but internationally, with activists from different nationalist causes working in tandem, often at the risk of life, for joint benefit. Many of these efforts may have been futile. But they illustrate how the history of nations is not as exclusive as national histories often lead us to believe. As Cao Yin brilliantly summarizes at the end: “There is no national history but a lot of shared history."

You can read Cao Yin’s paper here.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com. Read Sidin’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

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