Widening fissures

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

As a sign of the deepening ideological fault lines within the ICHR, controversy surrounds the grant of a fellowship.

IN the midst of a raging academic debate on the rewriting and review of Indian history, M.G.S. Narayanan, Chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research and an eminent historian, wrote in his column in the ICHR newsletter of January-June, 2002 that it was fortunate that "a growing number of historians in India, especially among the younger generation, refuse to hold any philosophy or ideology of history, be it imperialist, nationalist or Marxist, as the last word, the final truth." He added that "certain historians professing the Marxist ideology have been in the habit of claiming infallibility and monopoly of wisdom, branding all other historians as reactionary and communal and treating them as untouchables. This intellectual fascism has to be discouraged."

Today, Narayanan is under attack - not from Marxist historians, but from sections that sympathise with the ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. It was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government that appointed Narayanan Chairperson of the ICHR. Prominent among Narayanan's critics is ICHR member Makkhan Lal, who authored the National Council for Educational Research and Training's (NCERT) history textbook on Ancient India for Class XI. Historian Vishwa Mohan Jha has alleged that several passages in the textbook were lifted from various sources without providing acknowledgment (Frontline, March 14, 2003). Makkhan Lal was appointed Director of the Delhi Institute of Heritage Research and Management, which came into existence during the tenure of former BJP Chief Minister Sahib Singh Verma. Makkhan Lal shot into prominence during the World Archaeology Congress held in 1994, when he tried to disrupt the passage of a resolution condemning the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

In September last year, at the ICHR's general council meeting in Bangalore, Makkhan Lal alleged that Ranjana Aggarwal, wife of Member Secretary R.C. Aggarwal, had been awarded a Junior Research Fellowship by a committee that included her husband. In a dissent note submitted to the council, Makkhan Lal stated that the Chairperson chose "to brush aside this highly immoral and illegal act of Dr. R.C. Aggarwal". He accused Narayanan of misleading Parliament and the Human Resource Development Ministry by giving an incorrect and vague reply on the matter. The minutes of the Bangalore meeting, Makkhan Lal stated, did not reflect the fact that some members had demanded the resignation of the Member Secretary.

On March 26 this year, another council member, Kapil Kumar, Dean of Social Sciences, Indira Gandhi National Open University, demanded Aggarwal's resignation. Kapil Kumar said that the list of experts for selecting Junior Research Fellows should have been circulated among the council members, especially because the Member Secretary had appointed them. Narayanan's inquiry report, he pointed out, did not divulge the names of the experts. Kapil Kumar, incidentally, is on the three-member committee constituted by the ICHR to scrutinise the two manuscripts prepared by historians K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar in the controversial `Towards Freedom' project (Frontline, March 31, 2000).

Apart from Makkhan Lal and Kapil Kumar, the 26 other council members have been silent on the issue. According to informed sources in the ICHR, there was nothing faulty in the application submitted by Ranjana Aggarwal and she had fulfilled all the fellowship requirements. She could not be considered ineligible merely because she was the spouse of the Member Secretary. There were 150 applicants, and she was among those who submitted research proposals that had the requisite "historical bias and content". Moreover, this was not the first time that the wife of an ICHR employee had been awarded a fellowship. It was pointed out that Aggarwal had not "lobbied" for the award and that Ranjana Aggarwal did not accept the fellowship.

In the inquiry report, Narayanan stated: "The Member Secretary did not attempt any manipulation or try to influence the council members in any way... he had not mentioned to me that his wife had applied. Perhaps he could have done that, announced it before the committee and withdrawn temporarily from the meeting. It was a mistake on his part, but it is possible that he did not see the item when it was taken up as he was engrossed in other files. At any rate, I do not notice anything irregular in the manner in which this application was handled or sanctioned."

He added that because one member had cast aspersions on the Member Secretary and the ICHR, he advised the Member Secretary to persuade his wife not to accept the fellowship. He termed the incident unfortunate "since she was not at fault, but it was only the prejudice on the part of a member/a certain reporter that led to the loud allegations." Narayanan said: "If the member honestly felt there was an anomaly, he could have quietly taken it up with me by giving it in writing and asking for investigation and reply."

Despite the majority of the council members not levelling any accusations at the Member Secretary and the Chairperson, it is not clear why Narayanan gave in to Makkhan Lal.

The confrontation between the two historians - one openly allied with the ruling BJP and the other doing a balancing act - should be seen in the context of the new history textbooks brought out by the NCERT. In a lecture delivered in Chennai last year and in an interview given to a national daily, Narayanan referred to several errors and lacunae in some of the history textbooks, including the one authored by Makkhan Lal. In the interview, he pointed out that South Indian history had been given the "short shrift", and that although the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were mentioned, Tamil epics such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai did not figure. In what was typical of North Indian historians, "Chola emperors have been misplaced in different periods of history", Narayanan said. According to a report in The Hindu (October 22, 2002), on the writing of history textbooks, Narayanan said: "The history of textbook writing shows that the idea of state-sponsored publications originated and flourished under totalitarian regimes - the Nazis, Fascists and Communists."

In response, Makkhan Lal brought out a booklet titled "The NCERT Social Science Books: False Propaganda, Political Agenda and the Eminent Historians" in November last year, in which he criticised historian Nayanjot Lahiri and also Narayanan. While Lahiri was lambasted for being "biased" and "ignorant", Narayanan was criticised for pointing out in public, lacunae in the textbooks authored by Makkhan Lal. Criticising Narayanan's style of functioning, Makkhan Lal stated that the ICHR functioned on the basis of personal equations and not on professional considerations.

Narayanan rejected allegations raised in certain quarters that grants were allocated disproportionately to the Indian Archaeological Society. He clarified that apart from the Archaelogical Survey of India, only two institutes, the Indian Archaeological Society and the Deccan College were considered because they were equipped infrastructurally. He said the council was taking steps to streamline the administration and conduct events in a broad-based manner.

Of late, the ICHR has been encouraging ideas and perspectives that could be antithetical to those subscribing to the BJP's position on Indian history. Recently, the ICHR brought out some of the 22 volumes on "Labour Movements in India - 1928-1930", edited by Marxist Sociologist A.R. Desai and Sunil Dighe. In a seminar held in Bangalore in February this year on "Dialogue with the Past - Trends in History writing in India", historians representing all schools of thought were invited.

In contrast with earlier writings in the newsletter, Narayanan's column in the June-December 2002 edition reveals a less strident tone on Marxist interpretations of history. "That we can have a virgin fact, uncontaminated by the mental image carried by the narrator, in this case the historian, seems to be a great illusion." The Marxist approach, he wrote, cannot be treated as sacrosanct; it is only one among the different possibilities of looking at the world.

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