Looking back

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

Dancing girl INDUS VALLEY.-

Dancing girl INDUS VALLEY.-

AN important component of Frontlines news agenda over the past 25 years has been coverage of history. Going well beyond a report-it-as-news approach to this social science discipline, the magazine adopted from the start a considered editorial policy that recognised the importance of history to serious journalism in a country that has an ongoing engagement with its past and where politics and society are constantly being shaped by the filtered hist ory of 5,000 years. Political upheaval and social change in India over the past 25 years have more often than not been underpinned by contending visions of history. As a chronicler and commentator of its times, Frontline has sought to reflect this interaction accurately and fairly.

For its correspondents covering history, this editorial philosophy was most stimulating, and the beat (to use a term more appropriate to daily journalism) was enlarged to include many issues that fell within the larger framework of history. Broadly, history reportage comprised the following four categories: reporting new advances in historical research; educating the reader on Indias historical heritage in all its variety, colour and geographical spread; investigating and exposing lapses in the conservation and maintenance of heritage; and proactively defending the case for a scientific and secular history. The magazine covered these issues in depth and from a progressive standpoint.

Frontline has diligently covered major new research developments in the discipline, presenting the significance of the findings in a popular and accessible way. This was achieved without oversimplifying the disciplines methodologies and conclusions an approach that has won it many supporters among historians and scholars. More significantly, it created a class of loyal readers across age groups, occupations and class backgrounds who yearned for new, factual information and fresh perspectives in history at a time of deep social churn.

The range of such reporting was wide: from exciting ground-breaking research into the Indus Valley script (Frontline, February 20, 1987), to an entire package by leading historians on the significance of the 1857 Uprising on the occasion of its 150th anniversary (The Call of 1857, Frontline, June 29, 2007).

Frontlines insightful coverage of historical heritage was aimed at creating awareness and disseminating knowledge of the subcontinents vast material legacy. Over the years Frontline has covered, among other areas, most of the major archaeological sites and historical monuments; libraries, archives, museums and other repositories of historical source material; and some of the major historical sites in other countries (for example, the work of the Archaeological Survey of India on the Angkor Wat cluster of monuments in Cambodia and Vietnam).

Frontlines heritage reportage was marked by a generous use of photographs. Indeed, the magazines use of high-quality colour pictures, effectively harnessed for heritage reporting, set new standards in Indian journalism. Not infrequently, it would be a set of telling photographs that would be the starting point for a story on a particular theme. The magazine has provided a platform for several leading photographers to publish their work. The late photographer and writer Raghubir Singh was a regular contributor until his untimely death in 1999.

The neglect of monuments because of shoddy conservation practices or short-sighted or narrow-minded official policy was and continues to be an area of focus for Frontline. For example, in 2002-03 the Mayawati governments plans to develop a Taj corridor near the Taj Mahal, a project that was later shelved under public pressure, was an issue that Frontline covered in some detail. T.S. Subramanians reports on the destruction of heritage are fine examples of this genre of reporting. In July 2009, he reported that illegal quarrying near the Tiruvadavur caves in Madurai district had endangered the site where thousands of ancient Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been cut into rocks and on cave walls (Frontline, July 17, 2009). In August 2008 he exposed a scandal involving the destruction of a 500-year-old structure built by the Vijayanagara rulers in the Varadaraja Perumal temple complex in Kancheepuram. The destruction was carried out under the orders of the temple authorities, who claimed that they were only dismantling it for later reconstruction (Frontline, August 1, 2008).

Frontline made the defence of secular and scientific history an important focus of its reportage. By the late 1980s, not long after the magazine was launched, the militant Ayodhya movement had started using historical symbols as tools of popular political mobilisation. As history slipped out of the confines of classrooms, research libraries and seminar halls and into the public domain, professional historians working on India found themselves politically and ideologically polarised.

The Ayodhya movement, which emphasised myth and history and rested on the dangerous notion of historical retribution, breathed fresh life into the long-discredited and marginalised school of communal history. Historians of this persuasion packaged their versions of ancient, medieval and modern history as ready ammunition for use in the Ayodhya campaign. Across the battle lines, secular historians marshalled their resources against this attack on history and its misuse, and took the fight to public platforms and the media.

Frontline did not merely report on this clash of ideas. It provided a forum for historians to present new arguments and hone their interpretations in defence of scientific history. Frontline reported extensively on the saffronisation of history during the regime of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre (1998-2004) when scientific history came under official attack; when school history textbooks brought out by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) were replaced by communal textbooks; when historians of standing were hounded and prevented from doing their research because they did not toe the line; and when professional bodies such as the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) were subverted to suit the requirements of the new dispensation.

Between 1984 and 1987, Frontlines history canvas was devoted largely to highlighting some of the best of the subcontinents monuments. The magazine was perhaps the first in India to use colour photographs so effectively and extensively, and its pages of art paper were often filled with a dazzling spread of colour photographs on a monument or cluster, accompanied by an essay.

The magazine carried photo features on the architecture of Somanathapura (July 11, 1986); Bijapur (September 5, 1986), and Golconda (April 3, 1987) to mention a few. There were other kinds of writing as well during this phase an insightful evaluation, accompanied by historical photographs, of 25 years of Goas integration into India (December 27, 1985); a special feature on 100 years of the Congress, with contributions by historians, journalists and political leaders (December 28, 1985-January 10, 1986); and interviews with two eminent non-Indian historians Noburu Karashima on his research on Chola land revenue systems (February 22, 1985) and Asko Parpola on his work on the Indus script (February 20, 1987).

By the late 1980s, in addition to articles on heritage and conservation, reports on the Ayodhya claims by the Sangh Parivar constructed around the proposition that the Babri Masjid was built on the remains of a temple that marked the spot where the god-king Ram was born appeared in some detail in Frontline. In the April 24, 1992, issue, the historian R. Champakalakshmi, then Chairperson of the Centre for Historical Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, was interviewed by Asha Krishnakumar and Vasanthi Devi on the Ayodhya evidence. The debate on the methods used by historians sympathetic to the Sangh Parivar in archaeological digs around the Babri Masjid, and their claims that these showed evidence of a demolished temple, continued through September, October and November of the same year. Significantly, Frontline also offered space to Sangh Parivar historians for their views.

On December 6, 1992, the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished by kar sevaks in an operation planned by the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Alongside the political coverage, Frontline continued reporting on the historicity of the claims by the Sangh Parivar with respect to the Babri Masjid, in interviews with historians and in its independent reportage. In the issue dated March 28, 1993, the magazine carried a detailed report on kar sevak archaeology by the historian Sushil Srivastava. Sukumar Muralidharan of Frontline covered the World Archaeological Congress held in New Delhi in December 1994 in two consecutive issues, reporting on the attempt by historians associated with the Ayodhya project to hijack the Congress and prevent a discussion on their archaeological digs in Ayodhya.

Frontlines Cover Story (November 29, 1996) by its Editor N. Ram and a team of reporters on a proposed auction in England of a set of letters written by Mahatma Gandhi put up for public scrutiny the entire sordid story of private profiteering of a national treasure. By the time the story appeared, the auction had been stopped, but the many-sided investigation into this complicated transnational deal was vintage Frontline.

After the NDA came to power, Frontline closely covered the rewriting of history textbooks and the drive to purge academic bodies such as the ICHR and the NCERT of distinguished scholars who opposed the saffronisation agenda. T.K. Rajalakshmi of Frontlines Delhi bureau reported extensively on the changes made in NCERT textbooks under the stewardship of Murli Manohar Joshi in the Human Resource Development Ministry. The coverage exposed the communal biases and shoddy scholarship on display in the rewritten textbooks, which were also replete with factual errors. Sukumar Muralidharan tracked the reconstitution of the ICHR by the NDA government and the targeting of the Towards Freedom research project and its authors who stood up to the saffronisation agenda.

Horseplay in Harappa, the title of Frontlines Cover Story (October 13, 2000) by Indologists Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer, laid to rest Hindutva claims that the Indus Valley was of Vedic vintage. They demonstrated as false the claims of the historians N.S. Rajaram and Natwar Jha that they had deciphered the Indus script and that its language was Vedic Sanskrit. The two claimed to have found a horse seal, which they said established the early Vedic origins of the Indus civilisation. Witzel and Farmer proved that the horse was actually a not-so-clever manipulation of a digital image of a broken Indus seal depicting a unicorn bull.

With the return to power of the Congress at the head of the United Progressive Alliance in 2004, Frontlines diligent record of the saffronisation agenda of the NDA and the damage it had caused could surely have been used to reverse the damage, if the UPA government had summoned the will to do so.

Since 2004, Frontlines history lens has refocussed on heritage restoration and conservation efforts in India. Several exposes by T.S. Subramanian have highlighted the wanton destruction of historical heritage, fuelled by the process of economic liberalisation. In recent years, heritage structures, in particular, have been exposed to the whimsical and destructive ways of private interest groups, even as the state slowly abdicates its responsibility as their prime custodian.

A survey of Frontlines coverage of history would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of the scholarly contributions of A.G. NOORANI, whom Frontline staffers rank amongst the magazines most valued columnists.

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