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Opinion

We would all be better off if politicians left history alone

Teaching the past is best left to professionals

| India
Indian and Pakistani flags are lowered during a daily retreat ceremony at the India-Pakistan joint border check post of Attari-Wagah in July 2015: if this colorful spectacle does not come back to life, that may be no bad thing.   © AP

Andrew North is a journalist based in Tbilisi and a regular commentator on Asian affairs. He has reported widely from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

One of the more obscure casualties of the pandemic has been a decades-old, daily military parade on the India-Pakistan border where the two neighbors express their rivalry with pantomime rather than bombs and bullets.

Every sundown since 1959, troops of Indian and Pakistani soldiers, specially chosen for their giant stature, have performed what you could call a "march-off," competing to kick the highest goose steps on either side of the borderline before lowering their respective national flags.

Then came COVID-19, closing off the show to the thousands of spectators who used to come and watch each day.

If this colorful spectacle does not come back to life, though, that may be no bad thing. Farther north from the Wagah-Atari crossing, their counterparts in Kashmir still trade real bullets -- with the prospect of another full-blown war never off the cards.

What the daily march-off actually shows is the two countries' inability to move on from the traumas of partition and instead build on the many things they have in common. Before you even get to food, film and music, start with language -- Hindi and Urdu speakers understand each other just fine.

Yes, it is complicated. But one thing that would help is if India and Pakistan could process their history without interference from politicians and political influencers. "What's past is prologue," as Shakespeare said. But far too often it is politicians, backed up by their media cheerleaders, who control the prologue. It is a lesson that applies worldwide.

Pick a conflict anywhere in Asia, and history will be bound up in it. Take South Korea and Japan, for instance -- two countries with matching postwar success narratives and both close U.S. allies with many shared interests and regional concerns, but locked in a bitter standoff over the past.

This is not to minimize the issues at the heart of this divide: the treatment of thousands of so-called comfort women during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula.

But does it make sense that today's Japanese and Korean leaders -- who were not even born then -- have the deciding say in how the issue is handled? The rancor it generates becomes self-fulfilling -- making resolution ever harder. Past compensation deals have fallen apart largely because Korean and Japanese leaders are now constrained by political pressures that both sides helped to fuel.

Politics also tend to skew how events are treated so that one historical atrocity is elevated into relation-breaking -- or mending -- significance, while events involving greater suffering are ignored.

The way Britain handles its colonial past with India is a case in point. "We gave them railways and law and order" is the preferred establishment line. If pressed, there is always the "Well, the Belgians and French were worse" standby. Occasionally it has proved useful for British officials to acknowledge the violence that was used to enforce colonial rule.

In 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron traveled to India's Punjab to pay respects at Jallianwala Bagh, where British troops massacred hundreds of people in 1919, but it was a selective non-apology. Not only was there no mention of colonial rule in general or the 1943 famine, which resulted in up to 3 million deaths, but underlying Cameron's visit was the desire to shore up support from the many British voters with Punjabi origins.

David Cameron places a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar in February 2013: it was a selective non-apology.   © Reuters

While every country has dark chapters in its past, it would be better if politicians let historians play the lead role in defining the narrative. Some efforts are underway.

A small group of progressive Japanese, South Korean and Chinese historians have cooperated on writing a joint history of their countries. In faraway Finland, an organization called Historians without Borders has been trying to make history a more central part of peace-building and conflict-resolution initiatives worldwide. "We want to stop politicians and the media misusing history," said its founder, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja.

If this all sounds hopelessly utopian, look at Germany, which has made a conscious choice to let its terrible recent history be told. The German words for this official policy roughly translate as "coping, dealing and coming to terms with the past."

Germany cemented that record last month by admitting to carrying out genocide during its early 20th-century colonial rule of what is now Namibia, in southern Africa -- pledging some $1.3 billion in reparations. South Africa, with its post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has been another more recent example.

Both cases are in sharp contrast to Recep Tayyip Erdogan's refusal to accept that Turkey's Ottoman-era rulers committed genocide against its Armenian minority. U.S. President Joe Biden's recent affirmation of the term was in itself a political gesture -- but it is the behavior of the perpetrator that matters most in such cases.

Tuomioja has been working with various international organizations on ways to build on these examples and give historians a greater role in peace initiatives. Asian conflicts were due to be a centerpiece of History without Borders' next major conference until the pandemic intervened. The goal, he says, is to make sure that all aspects of a country's history are aired.

Still, having a grip on the past is too useful for most politicians to let go. "No myth, no nation," wrote Gore Vidal. And it is Asia's big powers -- China and India -- that are among the worst offenders in trying to rewrite or repress aspects of their histories as they push their preferred narratives.

Selling the idea of India as a Hindu-first nation has helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi win two elections. In power, his government has helped enshrine that view -- deleting chapters from national textbooks that clash with their worldview and promoting invented versions of the past. Indian historians who have tried to challenge such efforts have been dismissed as "anti-nationals" and subjected to vicious harassment.

China's efforts to suppress any mention of Beijing's crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is just one of many examples of its institutionalized obsession with rewriting its own history. Russia's Vladimir Putin has presided over the rehabilitation of Josef Stalin. Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" was Shakespearean in insight if not inspiration, demonstrating the power of conjuring up the past without even needing to say when the country had last been 'great'.

The power of social media certainly helped him. And that, combined with a growing deficit in historical teaching worldwide, makes us more vulnerable to such manipulations today, Tuomioja argues. "We live in an a-historical age," he says. "That means people are more easily misled."

Even more reason to make sure politicians are not the arbiters of history.

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