Some decades ago I quoted Santayana’s dictum that a people who cannot remember its past is doomed to repeat it. I cannot remember the exact words. Shortly thereafter President Jayewardene repeated the quotation, and it was much in vogue for some years. Now, in writings on July ’83, the idea that a people who cannot remember its past is doomed to repeat it has been powerfully revived, though the quotation has been forgotten. A convenient and convincing illustration for that idea has been found in the ongoing racist anti-Muslim hate campaign and anti-Muslim action, which some weeks ago led to widespread fears of a repetition of the July ’83 pogrom, this time against the Muslims. All that can be seen as the consequence of a failure to remember the past, specifically the horrors brought to us by racist anti-Tamil action, particularly in July ’83.
I now want to make what seems to me a crucially important clarification of what Santayana probably, or almost certainly, had in mind in making his dictum. An erudite philosopher, Santayana could hardly have been unaware of the fact that a people often remembers its past selectively and with distortions to suit its present and future interests. I suppose that is what Henry Ford had in mind in declaring, “History is bunk”. Some would argue that all history is purposive, not an unbiased record of what really happened but future-oriented interpretations meant to serve the interests of a people. However, it is incontrovertible that some things did actually happen in the past, and commonsense tells us that our interpretations can be right or wrong to varying degrees. So, what is important is not just to remember the past, but to try to remember it as it actually was, not as we would like it to have been.