Towards a shared understanding

And why it is important?

IN HIS introduction to The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt argues that history “is the distinctive element in the ceaseless, restless dynamic by means of which strategy and law live out their necessary relationship with each other. For law and strategy are not merely made in history—a sequence of events and culminating effects—they are made of history. It is the self-portrayal of a society that enables it to know its own identity. Without this knowledge a society cannot establish its rule by law because every system of laws depends upon the continuity of legitimacy, which is an attribute of identity. Furthermore, without such a self-portrayal, no society can pursue a rational strategy because it is the identity of the society that strategy seeks to promote, protect and preserve. One might say that without its own history, its self-understanding, no society can have either law or strategy, because it cannot be constituted as an independent entity”.


Mr Bobbitt then makes a profound conclusion: that together, history, strategy and law make possible legitimate governing institutions. He goes on to argue that “there is no state without strategy, law and history, and, to complicate matters, these are not merely interrelated elements,they are elements each composed at least partly of others. The precise nature of this composition defines a particular state and is the result of many choices…Law cannot come into being until the state achieves a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Similarly, a society must have a single legitimate government for its strategic designs to be laid; otherwise, the distinction between war and civil war collapses, and strategy degenerates into banditry. Until the governing institutions of a society can claim for themselves the sole right to determine the legitimate use of force at home and abroad, there can be no state. Without law, strategy cannot claim to be a legitimate act of state. Only if law prevails can it confer legitimacy on strategic choices and give them a purpose. Yet the legitimacy necessary for law and for strategy derives from history, the understanding of past practices that characterise a particular society.”

It follows that to the extent a state lacks a shared, cohesive understanding of its own history, its choice of geopolitical strategy and domestic public policies will be less than optimal. A state that, for example, conjures up a historical narrative that fits ideology, not fact, very often ends up as a threat to its neighbours and almost always to its own people. Yet, in the end, it is ideology that has to bow to history. Even the bloody depredations of Mao Zedong’s many revolutions failed to erase China’s past and today his successors are promoting Confucius Institutes around the world. Pakistan tried to build a nation using a selective reading of its past—the project failed once in 1971, but its sponsors did not correct course, leading to it being on the crossroads when it is not actually in crisis.

On the other hand, a shared understanding of history forms the basis for social reconciliation and sets the stage for policies that pursue the national interest—the happiness and well-being of the greatest number of its citizens. The more homogenous a society is, the easier it is to achieve such an understanding. Yet the less homogenous a society is, the more important it is to do so. In any case, the scientific method—that relies on evidence and enquiry—is without doubt the best known way to achieve that common understanding.

India’s rich civilisational history is a priceless asset—for instance, it cannot be a mere accident that India is the only country in the vast expanse between between Europe and Japan that has managed to sustain a liberal democracy.

Unfortunately contending views of the past have clouded contemporary national life. In politics, history is made an accomplice in the pursuit of increasingly violent ethnic and caste-based chauvinism. In public policy, economic freedom lies hostage to the dubious demands of social justice. In foreign affairs, the inability to completely jettison historical baggage impairs the pragmatic pursuit of the national interest. This is not to say that achieving a broad consensus on the past will miraculously solve the many problems India faces, but rather, that it will help clear the decks.
Modern history books in India were first written under the influence of British colonialism. While it is wrong to indiscriminately disparage historical narratives that were first thrown up in the colonial era, the fact that many survive without critical examination—and worse, in spite of being challenged by it—is unacceptable. Yet they do, not least because the Indian historical establishment in the hands of an intellectual oligopoly, which in turn, is sustained by chronic under-investment in the higher education system and the lack of career opportunities for students of social sciences.

The good news is that for the first time in decades, the intellectual oligopoly has begun to be challenged—by developments in the world of science and technology. For instance, a group of Indian researchers recently challenged the conventional wisdom on the nature of the yet-undeciphered Indus script using relatively simple computational methods that had never before been applied in the discipline. The availability of inexpensive images of the Earth has not only transformed the field, but has sprung an entire community of ‘armchair archaeologists’. Indeed, the wider application of genetic studies means that there is now a “DNA test” for historical theories. Like in the case of criminal investigations, these tests are conclusive and can embarrass some people.

So there are exciting times ahead and the clear stream of reason will eventually find its way out of the dreary desert sand of dead habit. In the end, science will triumph over ideology.

This piece was first published in June 2009 in Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.

Photo: Alejandro Polanko