A scathing indictment

Print edition : February 11, 2005

The exoneration of the historians involved with the "Towards Freedom Project" in the interim report of the Bandopadhyay Committee is evidence of the BJP-led government's communal agenda.

in New Delhi


THE interim report submitted by D. Bandopadhyay, a former Secretary to the Government of India inquiring into the affairs of the Indian ICHR of Historical Research (ICHR), has exonerated the General Editor and Editors of the two volumes of the "Towards Freedom Project" of the charge levelled against them by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government. The charge was that the volumes were sent to press without the knowledge of the ICHR. The interim report, based on the evidence unearthed by the one-man committee, is bound to cause some discomfort to the BJP, more specifically to former Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister and senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi.

The report, in an obtuse reference to the previous regime, observes: "It is unfortunate that it [the project] got unduly delayed due to various exogenous and endogenous circumstances and attracted criticism from various quarters."

The committee was appointed on September 6, 2004, by the Department of Secondary and Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development. It was given six months to submit a report to the government covering five broad areas: the administrative and financial functioning of the ICHR in relation to the aims and objectives as laid down in the Memorandum of Association; the non-publication/stoppage of volumes of the "Towards the Freedom Project"; and the non-submission of research work by scholars who were given fellowship by the ICHR during 1995-96 - 2000-2001, as highlighted in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General 2002-03. The committee was also mandated to give recommendations and suggest remedial measures to improve the functioning of the ICHR and ensure its autonomy.

One of the controversies that the ICHR got dragged into, and for which the interim inquiry committee was set up, was the tendentious but prestigious "Towards Freedom Project". During the tenure of the BJP-led government, the HRD Ministry took a serious view of some of the volumes of the project and did not allow them to be published on some procedural pretext. The reasons were far from procedural; they were more ideological, as the interim report has established. The interim report focuses almost entirely on the "Towards Freedom Project" and reflects the meticulous and objective work of the inquiry committee. The final report will be submitted in March.

At the outset, the committee was hamstrung by the non-availability of the main file of the ICHR relating to the "Towards Freedom Project". It was informed that the file had been requisitioned by Murli Manohar Joshi. It transpired that even before the committee made a request for the main file, former member-secretaries of the ICHR, R.C. Aggarwal and A.K. Ambasht had written, in August 2002 and July 2004 respectively, to Joshi's personal secrertary Alok Tandon requesting him to trace the file and send it back to the ICHR. Even Bandopadhyay wrote to the Ministry to return the file. "The file remains untraceable in both the personal office of the Minister of HRD and in the Ministry of HRD. Obviously, someone in the previous HRD Minister's office wilfully removed the file from the public domain with some ulterior motive," the interim report states. It adds: "Unless these important files were retrieved, much of the materials relating to the non-publication/stoppage of Towards Freedom Project would never be unearthed."

The Bandopadhyay Committee had to depend on the annual reports of the ICHR, agenda papers and minutes of the ICHR's meetings, press clippings and articles in magazines regarding the controversy, Parliament questions, status papers and the draft White Paper prepared by the ICHR, and so on. It was evident that the inquiry committee faced considerable difficulty in collecting all the relevant material in the absence of the main file.

The Towards Freedom Project was initially with the National Archives of India (NAI). After the setting up of the ICHR, it was made the executing agency of the project. The primary objective of the unique project was to collect material from official and private sources, news reports and other contemporary sources that dealt with the social and economic dimensions of the Indian National Movement for the decade preceding Independence, that is, from 1937 to 1947. The volumes were meant also to reflect the aspirations of the masses, apart from the struggles and the sacrifices made by people who led the movement against the imperial power.

In 1972-73, the project was reorganised and an editorial board comprising eminent historians was set up, and in 1975 the late Professor S. Gopal was made the Honorary Chief Editor. The project, funded by the Ministry of Education, was to be completed by March 31, 1988. It was restructured in accordance with a decision taken by the ICHR's Advisory Committee in August 1987. Ten volumes were planned, and one volume was published before the restructuring of the project. Eminent historians were invited to edit them and Prof. Gopal was made the General Editor of the project. It was also decided during the restructuring that the documents would be classified on a thematic basis instead of a chronological order.

As 1988 was fast approaching, the ICHR sought an extension of the deadline . As no progress could be made, the government withdrew the project and gave it to the NIA and later decided to fund it until March 1992. It was decided that all volumes pertaining to the Project should be published by March 31, 1994. The deadline could not be met.

The project became a part of the ICHR's routine activity and came to be known as "Special Publication Programme". But the processing work continued, as revealed by the ICHR's Annual Report for 1995-96. The report states that volumes covering the years 1938, 1940, 1943-44 and 1946 were processed for publication. Two volumes covering the period 1943-44 edited by Professor P.S. Gupta, were sent to the Oxford University Press for publication. This volume was published in 1997.

The Annual Report for 1996-97 states that the volumes edited by Sumit Sarkar (1946) and K.N. Panikkar (1940) would be sent to the press in October 1997. Relying on the information from the Annual Reports for 1996-97 and 1998-99, the inquiry report concluded that the volumes edited by Panikkar and Sarkar were lying in the ICHR's custody for three and a half years for different stages of processing.

This has been a very crucial finding as it is instrumental in debunking the notion put forth by ICHR officials close to the previous government that the volumes of Panikkar and Sarkar were not looked at by the ICHR at all and sent straightaway for publication. It was on this ground that the two volumes were withdrawn from the press. It was strange, observed the interim report, that the Annual Report for 2000-01 did not mention anything further on the status of the project, which was the most important and direct publication programme of the ICHR. The Annual Reports of the subsequent years until 2003 also failed to mention anything about the project. Stated the inquiry report: "From such silence, it could be inferred that either the project had been completed prior to 2000-01 or it was abandoned. Having spent so much of public funds on the project and involved so many eminent historians and academics, such silence speaks of high degree of academic irresponsibility verging on grave dereliction of duty on the part of the authorities in general and of the then Chairman and Member Secretary in particular."

K.N. Panikkar-H. VIBHU

A perusal of the agenda notes and the minutes of the ICHR's meeting relating to the project by the inquiry committee revealed some interesting facts. The inquiry report has reserved some of the most scathing comments for the ICHR's demeanour in the case of the volumes edited by Panikkar and Sarkar. In the 43rd meeting of the ICHR on December 28, 1999, when B.R. Grover was the Chairperson, the ICHR decided that the "remaining volumes still to be published should not be sent for publication without having been read and reviewed by the Council/Review Committee".

In the same meeting, it was also decided that the publication of the two volumes should be stopped temporarily and their manuscripts sent to the ICHR/Review Committee.

The inquiry committee observed: "It was indeed a very strange decision to temporarily stop the publication of these two volumes." It added that the ICHR had not recorded any adverse remarks regarding the academic quality of the two volumes.

Further, it noted that "if all the proofs were not received by the Council from Oxford University Press, they should have asked for it. Non-receipt of some portion of proof cannot be a legitimate ground for temporary stoppage of publication". It stated that it was "indeed unusual" that while in the 41st meeting, the ICHR appreciated "the hard work" put in by the editors of the "Towards Freedom Project", the 43rd meeting of the ICHR decided to stop temporarily the printing of the manuscripts already in the press on some "puerile grounds". And more specifically, the report observed that "obviously, the Council did not take the decision on its own but did so on the basis of some direction or hint from somewhere else. To cover it up, they gave an inane reason of non-receipt of proof for stopping publication".

Prof. Sumit Sarkar-S. SUBRAMANIUM

After a perusal of the minutes of the 46th meeting of the ICHR, where the temporary suspension of the publication of the volumes was recorded and a review recommended by a committee of experts, the inquiry committee found that Grover had requested Professor Devendra Swaroop to prepare a status report. Swaroop was not a member of the ICHR at any time; neither did the minutes show the reasons for assigning the task to him, especially when he was not associated with the ICHR except as a special project holder.

As the circumstances were intriguing, the inquiry committee concludes that "one can reasonably presume that the Council took this unusual decision on some extraneous consideration unrelated to serious academic issue". The report also observed that despite the status report never being prepared, secretarial assistance was provided to Swaroop. "Thus the money spent on providing secretarial assistance to Dr. Devendra Swaroop was totally wasted."

The inquiry report has unearthed enough evidence to establish that both the Chairman (Professor S. Settar) and the ICHR were under outside pressure to sabotage the "Towards Freedom Project". Settar, in an interview to Frontline in March 2000, had said that "two volumes were sent to the press with my knowledge" and that the matter was duly reported by him to the ICHR (Frontline, March 17, 2000). But a status paper was produced by the ICHR, which was completely contrary to the facts present in the Annual Reports.

The inquiry report has described as a "perfidious lie" the claims in the status paper regarding Prof. P.S. Gupta's volume that it was sent to the press without the knowledge of the publication section of the ICHR. This claim has been debunked in the Annual Report for 1995-96. "It continued to harp on this deceit when it mentioned `the two volumes prepared by Prof. K.N. Panikkar and Prof. Sumit Sarkar covering 1940 and 1946 respectively had already been sent to the press (OUP) without any scrutiny'."

B.R. Grover-S. ARNEJA

Relying almost entirely on information present in the Annual Reports, the inquiry committee observes: "Obviously, the authorities of ICHR were deliberately and wilfully fabricating lies after lies, ignoring their own factual statements mentioned in the Annual Reports submitted to Parliament. This was done obviously with an ulterior motive of defaming, maligning and tarnishing the academic image of distinguished historians like Professor Sumit Sarkar, Professor K.N. Panikkar and above all the late Professor S. Gopal and to find out some justification for their utterly unreasonable and unethical action of withdrawing the volumes under print." A scathing indictment indeed.

The report states that "as the Chairman of the ICHR, [the] late B.R. Grover played a dubious role in the withdrawal of the two volumes from the press". A typed but unsigned note on "Facts about Toward Freedom Project" was recovered from the cupboard of Grover, in which criticisms were levelled against the work of P.S. Gupta and Basudev Chatterjee. The main points in the note were that Mahatma Gandhi had been reduced to a mere footnote; that the Communist Party, "which had played a traitorous role" in the freedom struggle, had been highlighted out of proportion; that the thematic arrangements allowed for subjectivity with the specific objective of fabricating a past to a purpose of propaganda for a particular ideology; and that the volumes were unusually bulky resulting in a high cost of production and unaffordable prices.

Rejecting all the criticisms made in the note, the inquiry committee found that the charge that the historians attempted to hide "the traitorous role" of the Communist Party of India was untenable and baseless. "As honest historians, they revealed the truth as it appeared in the contemporary documents," stated the inquiry report, adding that both the volumes by P.S. Gupta and Basudev Chatterjee contained a large number of documents relating to the Hindu Mahasabha, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and Hindu communalism and the Muslim League. In fact, the eagerness of the Hindu Mahasabha in forging links with the allied powers has been revealed in the volumes. "The volumes of Dr. Basudev Chatterjee (1938) and Professor P.S. Gupta (1942-43) which contain objective documents relating to all political parties, social groups and individuals somehow traced the raw nerves of some people who reacted rather violently to scuttle the whole project. The ICHR should act very fast to complete the project before another assault is mounted to subvert it," observed the inquiry report.

Sixty-five per cent of the work still remains to be done. The report recommends the immediate revival of the project with a separate fund allocation from the government; completion of the project in the next 24 months; appointment of an eminent historian as general editor; constitution of an editorial board; appointment of volume editors, and so on.

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