Shahid Amin on Memory, Media and the Historian’s Practice

[We bring you this piece by well known historian of the Subaltern Studies group, on the media’s hyperactivity on the ‘disclosures’ made by Lady Pamela Mountbatten, as he reflects on the historian’s responsibility. This article was first published in Daily News and Analysis.]

Publishing hype and a contentious presidential election have fortuitously brought two very dissimilar lady residents of the Viceregal House to media attention in the last week. On the same day when we read the details about Pratibha Patil’s victory, an interview was televised with the youngest daughter of Lady and Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and Vicereine of Raisina Hill. Transcripts of the interview, occasioned by the publication of India Remembered: A Personal Account, co-authored by Lady Pamela Hicks, nee
Mountbatten and her daughter, have been carried in several newspapers.

Media-persons have been burning their phone lines trying to get sound bytes from historians about whether or not, ‘in actual fact’, the Edwina-Nehru intense, platonic relationship allowed the Last Viceroy to influence slyly our remarkable first PM. For there were moments, as the author recalls in the interview, when Panditji and the Lady were allowed by the Earl and his daughters to be left alone, “sitting on a sofa in the study or something”.

To be fair to Lady Pamela, she doesn’t quite say in the interview that her father used her mother to get his viewpoint across to Pandit Nehru to refer the Kashmir case to the UN; she only jogs the memory of her teenage-impressions of 1947 to offer such a surmise. And yet, every practicing historian and her next-door neighbour has been asked to “give their take” on this most important foundational issue of our nation-state: the self-goal that Pandit Nehru seemingly scored against his own Team India by taking Kashmir to the Security Council. A somewhat facetious response would be to ask the teenaged son or daughter of our top Congress politicians of that time, or even the son of a dead historian of Indian Independence, to recollect their impressions of what
their fathers might have thought about the political fallouts of the Nehru-Edwina relationship.

The TV and print hype about Lady Pamela’s memoirs raises interesting issues about the ways of our media. We have not quite reached the stage of ‘cheque-book journalism’, where persons engaged in an encounter — normally of the bodily kind — with a celebrity, are encouraged to offer exclusive
rights to their ‘kiss-and-tell’ story. If we carry on with our plus-eight per cent economic growth, soaking in a uniform globalised culture of anorexic femininity, North American accents, ersatz west-coast suburbanism, we may soon arrive at that as well. For the present, once an ‘event’ such as the
publication of a memoir makes a story happen, there is no respite for any of us constituting the ‘public sphere’.

Other stories can only be variations of different kinds on the same story: TV anchors, print journalists, tele-pollsters have either to offer their own views, or seek others out for their ‘expert opinion’. It is then that the mobile of psychologists or historians for that matter, rings, with the newsroom rather than the anonymous ‘telemarketer’ on the line! The public is
thereby kept informed.

Lady Pamela’s book, however, raises questions about the paucity of material for writing the history of contemporary India as well. We as a nation-state seem to be extremely miserly about allowing scholars access to the records of
recent policy decisions. As individuals living in communities, religious or social, we are also violently particular about disallowing views other than our own about what ‘we’ construe to be our ‘true’ pasts. With the state refusing to let go, and communities unwilling to concede, contemporary
history writing has been practically non-existent in India.

Every scholar who has worked in the National or Provincial Archives has his or her own horror story to tell: in the early ‘70s even the day’s research notes had to be submitted to a censor in the UP Archives! Scholarly biographies of Nehru or of independent India, for that matter, have been possible because of special access granted to select scholars, who’ve utilised their privilege well.

The Prime Minister himself had rued last April that “the best records we have of policy-making …at the highest levels in government are to be found in personal memoirs of distinguished men and women in public life. I do hope that we do not have to depend [for ever] only on memory … for a record of policy-making”, and promised “scholars free access to declassified official papers” after a lapse of 30-50 years. I would keep my fingers crossed and the mobile switched off till then!

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