Reader Mail

A faulty reading of history

I enjoy Brahma Chellaney’s perspectives: They are often fresh and thought-provoking. However, judging by his “The shackles of history in a democracy” Opinion piece in the Feb. 5 edition, he should find a new history teacher.

To say that India has had a “static” historical debate ignores the rich and varied views of Indian historians on the consequences of colonialism, wars and independence, thanks in part to its wholesome (British) tradition that teachers — not government-approved textbooks — substantially determine what is taught. For the best historians that usually means recognizing the complexity of alternatives and Indian agency rather than simple victimhood. Balance requires noting that (unlike most Europeans) Indians who fought in the war — on both the British and Japanese sides — were volunteers, not conscripts; that Patnaik’s estimate of the costs of imperialism is much higher than others; and that the rush to Indian independence in 1947 was not a purely British objective.

These may partly be matters of taste or emphasis, but there is a limit to acceptable manipulation of historical facts. Chellaney may correctly assert that war was nasty, that Churchill was almost invariably wrong about India and that government choices contributed to the 6 to 7 million deaths in the Bengal famine of 1942-1945.

Yet his equation of this ghastly collateral damage with Hitler’s planned, industrialized mass murder suggests a faulty moral compass. His arithmetic is no better. Holocaust deaths cannot — for obvious reasons — be precisely counted, but no serious historian would support Chellaney’s statement that the number killed was “far greater” in the Bengal famine, and some would argue the opposite.

Stick to geopolitics or read more history.

LESLIE HANNAH
PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF HISTORY, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS KUNITACHI TOKYO

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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