A case for historyHistorical project is critical in that it demands more from the past than the present is willing to concede
Sushil Koirala’s demise in February amidst the unfolding resolution of a regional crisis—the blockade—came as a reminder of the imminence of history or how the contemporary can so easily fold into the past. With Sushil da’s passing away, some of the mysteries of contemporary politics have become the matter of past. The narrative of his life can only be reconstructed through the newspaper reports, speeches, personal letters that he has left behind. The archival footsteps that Sushil Koirala has left behind, at least for now, are not terse.
It seems like it was only yesterday that the leader was under great criticism for giving his candidacy up for the role of prime minister following the promulgation of the constitution. It also seems like yesterday that he was commended for his attempts at reconciliatory politics with conflicting political factions in Nepal. His actions and his utterances are still close to us allowing us enough material for analysis, critique and understanding. It is this temporal nearness that makes it still possible to remember him with a balance of judgment, which historical figures of a more distant past are perhaps denied. While we may have our own opinions of Sushil Koirala, how his figure will be cast in the narratives of today’s politics 30 years later is something we do not know. However, if the narrative constructed around his cousin and political leader BP Koirala can tell us anything about Sushil Koirala’s fate a few decades later, it is this: Historical figures increasingly become obscure with the distance of time.
This obscurity of those who have passed away and are no longer with us is normal and warranted. It is justified but only to the extent that this obscurity is not the outcome of the manipulation of the sources of history. BP Koirala’s legacy after 1990 has been overwhelming. Major political leaders across the spectrum have claimed Koirala in some way or the other. Against this claim to the historical figure and an explosion of popular narratives about the leader, the material sources to his life seem to continually shrink.
One finds a growing dearth of close associates, colleagues and friends who are willing to talk about Koirala. The same set of neatly curated writings, personal letters, diaries, journals and speeches circulate the public sphere. These diaries and journals, written with a keen sense of audience, can tell us only so much about how Koirala wished to be perceived. BP Koirala, bifurcated into the socialist and the anarchist in most historical narratives has increasingly become illusive. A vast array of recordings, letters and writings remain locked within closets and drawers of those who wish to contain history within wraps. These traces from his life may be for those who hold on to them, the evidence of the un-sanitised, the messy and the less known Koirala. But they may equally be our ways to access a Koirala who could possibly be closer, less illusive and with more to offer to posterity.
Our imagination of history is filled with heroes and villains of epic proportions. The question however is: Do we want to be either heroes or villains? Or is our concern to understand contradictions, contrariness and issues that cannot be locked into singular narratives and categories? If our concern is the latter, we must stop looking at the past for ideal types. We must look for individuals who are as fallible as they are capable of great things. We must write narratives such that they bring our historical figures temporally closer to us. To write of historical figures in a way that locks in a time that is inaccessible to us only does us injustice. We must approach those who are no longer amongst us with our judgment and our scrutiny but also our empathy. The epic hero is too idealised and a locked-off figure who we cannot laugh at, cannot cry with. The hope is that we think of modern political figures of Nepal with a sense of contemporaneity so that they do not become inaccessible to us.
The historical project is critical in that it demands more from the past than the present is willing to concede. It demands that we not only look for a variety of sources to access the past but also read these sources with a critical sensibility. Historical research, which is becoming increasingly dear with the lack of institutional support to the humanities and social sciences across the globe, understands the importance of critical retrospective inquiry. While a call for institutional support for such research may be too much to ask for, it is perhaps not too much to ask that existing historical documents or archival sources that feed into historical research be preserved and made accessible. It is only through these sources that we can access the past in a way that we can see multiplicity, variations, and diversity. These sources may be our way to understand the possibilities of how those before us have lived with difference, with conflict, with contradictions. It is true that we must be aware of the wishes of those of the past to be remembered in particular ways. But to take them at face value is also to do injustice to complex textures of their lives and what they have to offer us in terms of the possibilities of how we can live.
Sharma is a research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University