Let us learn the importance of dates in history. There was a time when historians were fascinated with dates. There were heated debates about the dates on which rulers were crowned or battles were fought. In the common-sense notion, history was synonymous with dates. History is certainly about changes that occur over time. It is about finding out how things were in the past and how things have changed. As soon as we compare the past with the present we refer to time, we talk of “before” and “after”.
Sometimes it is actually incorrect to fix precise dates to processes that happen over a period of time. People in India did not begin drinking tea one fine day; they developed a taste for it over time. There can be no one clear date for a process such as this. Similarly, we cannot fix one single date on which British rule was established, or the national movement started, or changes that took place within the economy and society.
All these things happened over a stretch of time. We can only refer to a span of time, an approximate period over which particular changes became visible. Why, then, do we continue to associate history with a string of dates? This association has a reason.
There was a time when history was an account of battles and big events. It was about rulers and their policies. Historians wrote about the year a king was crowned, the year he married, the year he had a child, the year he fought a particular war, the year he died, and the year the next ruler succeeded to the throne. For events such as these, specific dates can be determined, and in histories such as these, debates about dates continue to be important. Let us dig deeper into the importance of dates in history.
By what criteria do we choose a set of dates as important? The dates we select, the dates around which we compose our story of the past, are not important on their own. They become vital because we focus on a particular set of events as important. If our focus of study changes, if we begin to look at new issues, a new set of dates will appear significant.
How do we periodize?
In 1817, James Mill, a Scottish economist and political philosopher published a massive three-volume work, A History of British India. In this, he divided Indian history into three periods – Hindu, Muslim, and British. This periodization came to be widely accepted. Can you think of any problem with this way of looking at Indian history?
Why do we try and divide history into different periods? We do so in an attempt to capture the characteristics of a time, its central features as they appear to us. So the terms through which we periodize – that is, demarcate the difference between periods – become important. They reflect our ideas about the past. They show how we see the significance of the change from one period to the next.