The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD).

The General Editor of the series, Sarvapelli Gopal — son of Dr S Radhakrishnan and a distinguished biographer and historian in his own right — clearly stated that this was “a violation of the terms under which the project was conceived and executed. It also amounts to an infringement of the academic rights and freedom of the authors who were invited by the ICHR to undertake this work. It is disturbing and unethical that a purely academic exercise should involve intervention by officials”.

While many of the historians and academics who led protests against the HRD and ICHR last week raised the cry of intellectual fascism and saffron authoritarianism, which are undoubtedly valid, there is a larger issue at stake. That is the tendency for more and more of our public institutions to be taken over by small coteries of extremists and sycophants, who are unaccountable to anyone, and into whose hands have fallen many of the most crucial aspects of our polity, public life and historical memory.

Rationality, Nationality, and Public Life

The ICHR was constituted by an Act of Parliament in 1972, with the objectives of giving a forum for historians to exchange views and promote and disseminate balanced and comprehensive historical research, “to give a national direction to an objective and rational presentation and interpretation of history.”

Arun Shourie, BJP MP, Union Minister, and otherwise known for his vitriolic and shoddy tracts attacking anyone opposed to Hindutva, has in a recent book alleged that the historians of ICHR often used the body for nepotistically advance their own academic profiles and publication agendas. Contrary to the lofty principles proclaimed in its charter, it was never a representative body nor was it run democratically, and the protests raised about saffronisation is nothing compared to the corrupt ways of the old Left intellectuals.

While Shourie’s is obviously a motivated attack, in 1998, when the BJP reconstituted the ICHR by appointing new members sympathetic to their communal version of history, a Marxist academic who lectured in Delhi for more than two decades commented to me despairingly that Shourie is in his own way correct. Since its inception, the historians of the ICHR were political sycophants of Indira Gandhi who used the slogan of socialism as an exoneration for crude personal patronage.

According to this lecturer, the real issue at stake is not just one of saffronisation, but of the how we can run our public institutions to avoid control by individuals and coteries who are unaccountable and undemocratic. The larger issue with the ICHR, as perhaps with much of our institutional structures, is of the authoritarian and manipulative habits that have been corroding our public life since Indira Gandhi’s attacks on democracy in the sixties and seventies.

A Battle for Ideology or for Institutions?

B R Grover, recently appointed ICHR Chairman by the BJP Government, has appeared as an advocate for the VHP, substantiating their claim to the site of the Babri Masjid and implicitly justifying the violence at Ayodhya in 1992. Like the previous regime, we can expect that the sycophants and coteries of the Sangh Parivar will use the ICHR for their own purposes of patronage and largesse, at the cost of further erosion of academic integrity, and the independence of our educational and research bodies.

Perhaps the biggest dilemma is one of formulating a public strategy to deal with this situation. Unfortunately, in opposing the new attempts at packing the ICHR, Left-liberal social scientists have raised a hue and cry over the meanings of rationality and nationality in history-writing, and by turning the issue into a battle for ideology. They seem to have avoided the longer-term issue of who controls our public institutions — the small bands of politicking saffronites or socialists, or the people at large.