What is History?


Chetan Bhagat’s tweet questioning the contribution of historians is like a bullet that changes course

By Sujan Dutta

Sometimes a bullet changes course. Mister Bhagat, you did make me turn back from my daily visit to the ministry of defence in South Block with your tweet.


 At home, my copy of your Half-Girlfriend is leaning against the paperback of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun.You are angry that several historians have gone against the Modi government. Your anger is a tweet on history. One hundred and eighteen characters in digital media on why we are what we are.

I am a student of history. I studied in Bombay’s Elphinstone College and in Calcutta’s Jadavpur University. I wasn’t really a great student; an ordinary honours graduate. The work I do needs to be informed by what you debunk: history.

I cover military and strategic issues for The Telegraph. I have covered four wars. I have reported to my newspaper under fire. I was thrilled to. I will do it again and again and all of it because I am the child of history, a student of it and for the love of the story. The first two by compulsion and habit, the last out of choice.

Had it not been for the years learning history, I would have never known that Kargil, where I drove through a two-hour shelling zone day after day, is a legacy of Partition where even today our soldiers stand in the line of fire.

That Iraq was Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation; that the Baghdad Museum from where I was writing while leaning against the hot turret of an American M1A1 Abrams Tank is really a repository of knowledge on how men and women came to wear the dresses they do.That the Khyber Pass is a coveted dateline because for centuries thousands went across and never came back.

That the Safed Koh that overlooks Torkham was also probably the vantage from which Babur saw his soldiers through while the mountains on the other side of the turquoise Kabul river looked like they were cut from bricks of butter. They look the same today.

Had it not been for historians such as Susobhan Sarkar and his daughter Shipra Sarkar and Chittabrata Palit and Pranjal Kanti Bhattacharya and Rajat Ray and Rudrangshu Mukherjee and Bela Lahiri and Romila Thapar and, touch-your-feet, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi, I wouldn’t have known that the Bazargan border defined the boundary between the Persian and Ottoman Empires, present-day Iran and Kurdistan where the outfit called the Islamic State is erupting as we speak.

Or indeed that in 1757 there was in a place north of Calcutta, in a field called Palashi—Plassey—a battle that led to our subjugation, and a 100 years after that an uprising that shook the colonialist whose sun never set.

And in the interim there was the tragedy of the Black Hole in Fort William, on the banks of the Hooghly in Calcutta and even today it is the headquarters of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. It was from here that the 1971 war was waged. The war led to the sundering of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh.

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The English thought they’d discovered the brightest jewel in the Queen’s crown but Portuguese knew better. Vasco da Gama—yes, the beach and beachtown in Goa is named after him, not the other way round—reached Kerala first.

Let’s get closer to your home. The first railway? Between Bombay and Thane, right? A steam engine chugged over the Mahim Creek? Mountstuart Elphinstone, after whom my college was named, had a nepotist who led the English army in an Anglo-Afghan War. Afghanistan hasn’t been won over by any occupying force as yet. Last week American planes bombed a Doctors-Without-Borders hospital over there.Mister Bhagat, your prologue in Half-Girlfriend begins: “‘They are your journals, you read them’ I said to him”. Read what you write, Mister Bhagat. It is not only a tribute to history. It is also an ode to journalism.Kapusciinski, against whose paperback your worthy work was leaning, was reporting in The Shadow of the Sun from Africa, whose leaders Narendra Modi has been hosting among New Delhi’s traffic jams this week while blacking out a (Nehruvian) legacy (history, again).For 40 years, Kapuscinski reported from Africa. He wrote news. It is now history, its first rough drafts.

The chapter titled “The Anatomy of a Coup de’Etat” concludes with this para: “Today, a friend, a Nigerian student named Nizi Onyebuchi, told me: ‘Our new leader, General Ironsi, is a supernatural man. Someone was shooting at him and the bullet changed course, not so much as grazing the general’.”
Sometimes a bullet does change the course of others.
— The author is Strategic Affairs
Editor, The Telegraph