In my assessment, one crucial defect in many Canadians’ world-view is that they don’t know enough of world history. This makes them vulnerable to manipulative narratives that paint Canada’s past as uniquely evil.
A TEACHING MOMENT
In the early part of 2021, I came across an interesting post by a teacher on Twitter. It said, in relation to the curriculum for history in Alberta schools for Grade 2:
“I want to know WHY this is essential knowledge for my grade 2 students, aged 7-8, to know – over their own perspective and the world they currently exist in.”
Apart from the question as to whether children in the 7-8 years age-group have what can be validly called ‘perspectives’, let alone their own, what struck me as particularly interesting was this teacher’s dismissal of knowledge of history as being relevant. Perhaps my thinking is skewed on this matter, but in fairness, I have observed that when I weave in episodes of history from other parts of the world in my articles, most of my readers appreciate the different-from-usual prism that I use for viewing current events in Canada.
I believe that this multi-dimensional approach has its value, as it helps us to understand our society and current trends in a wider context of what took place elsewhere, in other times, and what the consequences were in those episodes.
This is especially important when forming opinions about crucial matters such as race-relations, social justice and the like. This is because the obsessive focus of the ‘progressive Left’ with the negative aspects of Canadian history needs to be tempered with knowledge of similar weaknesses of other humans elsewhere. I believe that while there is lot that can be – and indeed needs to be – improved in Canada, our society is not uniquely suffering from that condition; it is a common affliction across both geography and time.
At the root of the modern history – whether good or bad – of what we now call Canada is the fact that people from Europe made their way to this land. This was bound to create conflict with the local inhabitants – but also a degree of cooperation. In my view, ascertaining whether the good parts of this history outweigh the bad parts – or vice versa – is less important than making our society better and more equitable for all in the present. Unfortunately, there is a thriving – and perhaps growing – market for demonizing not just historical figures but also, by extension, the current Canadian population.
So the question to address is: Were the Europeans who created the country that we now call Canada uniquely bad? Asking this question does not mean that we excuse their acts of oppression and mistreatment of non-white people. The objective here is to arrive at a better understanding of human nature, so that we may be able to improve our own thoughts, words and actions vis-à-vis people of other races than our own.
WAVES OF GRIEF
A brief overview of world history shows us that humans have been sloshing around the planet for a very long time. In all these instances, they visited violence and oppression on others. In relation to the part of history that relates to the last couple of millennia, I have formed a theory: that certain groups spread out and conquered foreign lands over durations lasting four or five centuries in each episode. Here is a partial list of these ‘imperial expansions’:
- Some 2,300 years ago, Alexander the Great marched eastwards from Macedonia with his vast army, ultimately reaching the Punjab region in the Indian subcontinent. Soon after his death, his empire broke into two, but survived for centuries.
- Soon thereafter, the Romans conquered and colonized much of Europe and parts of North Africa. Their hold over these territories lasted for several centuries.
- In the 7th and 8th century AD, the Roman Empire had declined, and it was the turn of the Arabs to expand. Borrowing an expression from James A. Michener, they ‘burst out of the desert’, sweeping across North Africa and over to the Iberian Peninsula. In the latter place, their rule lasted roughly seven centuries. They also went eastwards, conquering Persia and places farther east. It is pertinent to note that barring Iberia, they flattened most local cultures, languages and religions, particularly in North Africa and areas in the immediate vicinity of their homelands.
- One specific point about the Arab expansion in the North American context is their engagement in slavery. Its vestigial effects still remain – the Arabic word for the dark-skinned descendants of former slaves, ‘abd’, means ‘slave’. (For an excellent overview of the Arab slave trade, see this article in Fair Planet).
- By the end of the first millennium AD, Turks (having converted to Islam) had expanded militarily in Central Asia and established their rule there. In terms of current political boundaries, these areas stretch from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Afghanistan and the traditional lands of the Uyghur people (which is why Uyghur nationalists refer to their land as East Turkestan).
- In the early 11th century AD, these Turkish kings in Central Asia started invading the Indian subcontinent in successive waves. By the end of the 12th century, one of them established the Delhi Sultanate (kingdom). Each dynasty was dethroned and replaced by another Central Asian invader. Each dynasty expanded the area under the control of the Sultanate. This went on for roughly three centuries. In chronological order, these dynasties were Mamluk (meaning ‘slave’), Khilji, Tughlaq, Sayyid and Lodhi. Finally, in 1526, the Mughals arrived. Their empire lasted for roughly two centuries before it began to crumble and disintegrate. Several contenders sought to fill this vacuum over the next decades. Some of these contenders were foreigners. Ultimately, the British prevailed. Their rule in the subcontinent lasted for just under two centuries.
Unbiased historical accounts of these chapters of human history routinely portray a picture of exploitation, oppression, brutalization and even outright extermination of entire peoples by foreigners. It may be unpopular to say so, but almost always, the subjugation of people by outsiders was made possible by active – sometimes enthusiastic – participation in the exercise by some of the locals.
But – and this is the main point of this article – our perception of events and history is colored by our biases. Given my greater familiarity with the history of the subcontinent, I will offer two examples from its history, and let you be the judge:
Soon after the British East India Company gained political control over the large and fertile territory of Bengal (presently split between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal), planting indigo (Indigofera Tinctoria) was commenced on a large scale, because the blue dye derived from the plant was useful in whitening the industrially produced cloth in England. Soon, the whole system degenerated into an exploitation scheme. Farmers were sucked into loans carrying exorbitantly high rates of interest, and effectively became debt-slaves. The price that they were paid for their produce was a tiny fraction of its real price. They were forced to plant indigo year after year, at the expense of food crops for their own consumption, leading to much starvation. Indigo is a demanding plant, so the practice of planting it successively caused depletion of soil, leading to lower yields as the years passed by. As a result, the farmers sank even deeper in debt and destitution.
After decades of exploitation, the farmers rose up in revolt in 1859. By this time, India had come under direct British rule as a consequence of the war of 1857 where a large number of Indian soldiers in the army of the British East India Company revolted. The British government appointed a Commission to investigate, and later passed the Indigo Act in 1862, thus putting an end to the exploitation of the farmers. This Wikipedia entry gives a good overview of these events, and this 1-hour movie tells the story in a masterful way.
One of the things that I was taught in history classes in school was that the rule of the Mughal Emperor Akbar was marked by religious tolerance. In popular literature, including movies, he is portrayed as a benevolent ruler, almost of the level of Plato’s ‘philosopher king’.
The reality, alas, is a tad more complex. But it was not until the emergence of social media that this reality – warts and all – could be made public in a widely accessible manner. In particular, I stumbled on to a Twitter account called ‘True Indology’. Till date, nobody knows who was operating this account (more on the use of past tense shortly). Whoever it was, they had an unbelievably deep and wide knowledge of the history of the subcontinent of thousands of years and of the vast trove of Hindu scriptures. More importantly, they had access to ALL the source literature on each topic. On Indian Twitter, obscure details of these two intertwined subjects of history and religion are debated daily – and hotly. The topics can range from the origin of fireworks, paneer (cottage cheese) and biryani to whether the concept of blasphemy exists in Hinduism, to the conquest of a Hindu kingdom by a Mughal Emperor.
The task of True Indology was to provide factual corrections to historically incorrect claims, including with images of the relevant parts of the literature and translation from Sanskrit and other languages. The speed with which TI (as the account is affectionately known) responded, with proof to any erroneous claim was nothing short of gob-smacking. In terms of the level of knowledge contained in those tweets, the word ‘stratosphere’ doesn’t begin to describe its level. I am tempted to believe that TI was a team of top-notch scholars working in tandem; one person can’t possibly know so much about so many things.
I usually don’t bother much with things going on in India, especially in the political arena. But I found this Twitter account hypnotizing. Due to the fact that in India, the term ‘secularism’ is often taken to mean demonizing the Hindu society, its past and its practices, and ascribing nearly all positive developments to the period of rule by Central Asian invaders, TI’s well-documented critique of many claims was hugely popular. It can be said, without exaggeration, that TI was the most popular and most respected Twitter account in India.
Then, sometime before May 2019, TI’s Twitter account was suspended. As far as I know, no reason was given for the suspension.
TI got around this by creating another account called TIinExile, and continued from where they had left off. Then, in November 2020, this account was also suspended. TI does not have a presence on Twitter anymore.
In one of the tweets of TIinExile, I saw documented evidence of a royal decree from Akbar, ordering the massacre of civilians after the Mughal army had defeated the Hindu kingdom of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan (or maybe Ranthambhore, also in Rajasthan – I am not sure, and since the account is gone, am unable to check).
As the reader, which depiction are you prepared to believe (or believe more) – the one showing mass exploitation of indigo farmers by Europeans, or the one showing a ‘benevolent’ Muslim ruler ordering the massacre of innocent Hindu civilians?
Going beyond the personal level, which of the two depictions is likely to attract furious objections in Canada? And which one is likely to attract knowing nods of acceptance?
As Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, humans are like a person standing in the middle of the Sahara desert; from the endless expanse of desert, we pick up a handful of sand, and call that the universe. I believe that the same applies to our understanding of history. The fact that what is in our hand is indeed sand, and therefore we are right to call it such, does not detract from the fact that there is a lot more sand out there. By the same token, acknowledging the existence of that ‘lot more sand’ is not tantamount to denying that what is in one’s hand is also sand. Unfortunately, in the polarized society that we have now, especially in the political sphere, it is considered impossible to have these two views at the same time by the same person. The two camps are, therefore, locked in perpetual opposition, which thwarts efforts to improve the current circumstances.
Who does this serve? I am of the view that polarization of society serves the polarizers, and ONLY the polarizers. Of course, this isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. But one current development exacerbates the already fraught situation.
Antagonists have held their opponents in low esteem throughout history. But now, there is a strong and spreading sentiment to remove the names and memories of long-dead people on account of their wrongful actions. To give just one recent example, students and faculty at the Ryerson University in Toronto have demanded that its name be changed, owing to the connection between Egerton Ryerson, after whom the university is named, with the Residential School system that traumatized the First Nations community for generations. Upon learning about this, I wondered how this would improve the lives of the FN. Sure, to the degree that the name is a reminder of the horrors of the Residential School system to members of the FN community, it could be helpful. But beyond that, what improvement is planned in their disadvantaged lives by those pushing for this change? This question brings us to the crux of the matter: erasing history is considered sufficient atonement for historical wrongs – no further action is deemed necessary. This allows politicians and others to get away with performative acts as opposed to concrete measures to bring about improvements.
To give just one example of this, let us look at the discovery of the remains of 215 First Nations children at one of the residential schools. Sadly, this is not the first time we have heard something like this. Have the earlier instances led to any notable efforts in alleviating the generational trauma in the community? Will the latest discovery finally lead to any such efforts? I think we know the answer.
In light of this chronic inaction, all that these bouts of self-flagellation (on a variety of issues) amount to is a political tactic to induce a guilt-trip among Canadians. The narrative merely serves to make Canadians feel bad about their history and their cultural ancestors. I believe that strength comes from not just acknowledging the historical wrongs but also taking meaningful steps to make Canada a better place for all. That would make us a nation of self-confident people, aware of our past wrongs but with a positive attitude. Perhaps that is why they are not doing it.