Removing an irritant

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

The ouster of M.G.S. Narayanan as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research is a part of the HRD Ministry's scheme to saffronise the agenda in academia.

THE tenure of the Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) would have expired only in July 2004, but the Union government, specifically the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), hastened the departure from the Council of M.G.S Narayanan, the incumbent, seven months in advance. On December 10, Narayanan, who was away in Kozhikode, Kerala, was informed by his personal secretary that the government had decided to withdraw his nomination as Chairman with immediate effect. In his place, an Additional Secretary of the government was appointed as a temporary measure, pending the nomination of a regular Chairman.

The question now is: Why was the government so keen to get rid of Narayanan? The answer is simple: Narayanan made known his displeasure over the manner in which the Ministry had appointed Kapil Kumar, a Professor of History, as the Member-Secretary of the Council. He had not been consulted about the appointment, although, as Chairman, he was the appointing authority and the controlling authority for the post under the Rules and Service Regulations of the ICHR. He registered his objections and gave detailed reasons as to why the appointment was unacceptable to him (Frontline, December 5).

This was the immediate reason, though Narayanan had, by taking certain unpopular stands, especially in the context of the new National Centre for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, also upset the mandarins in the HRD Ministry. The Member-Secretary's appointment was the spark. The controversy that it caused kept raging, with the Ministry bent on creating a crisis for the Chairman and the Council. And Narayanan, despite being nominated by the HRD Ministry, stuck to his guns. The impasse, which continued over the last three months, finally ended with Narayanan's exit.

In fact, matters had been heading in this direction ever since Narayanan took over as Chairman in July 2001. It was least expected that a person hand-picked by the HRD Ministry would be made to exit in such an unceremonious manner. And it is even more surprising that no official explanation was given in the terse government notification. Mediapersons were told, vaguely, of some financial irregularities that the Chairperson allegedly indulged in.

Strangely, the notification was completely silent about a charge as serious as financial impropriety. The charge was difficult to sustain as the paragraphs relating to audit objections regarding the "misuse of powers by the Hon. Chairman" and the one relating to an irregular expenditure of Rs.2,33,113 for the purchase of a computer at the office-cum-residence of the Chairman in Kozhikode were dropped by the office of the Director-General of Audit, Central Revenues, after the Chairman responded to them.

Narayanan told Frontline that if he was removed from the position for financial irregularities, then it ought to have been stated. "That no reason has been given implies that there is no reason. Even hypothetically, if there were such irregularities committed, they should have asked me for an explanation. They cannot take action without giving me a chance to explain," he said. Regarding the objections relating to his "home office", Narayanan said that the Administrative Committee of the Council, which is the competent authority, had cleared its creation.

The ICHR Chairperson did not take his ouster lying down. In a strongly worded press statement, he charged the HRD Ministry with promoting a communal agenda. He has accused the "Minister and his sycophants" of squandering public funds for promoting their communal schemes in the field of historical research. He has decided against challenging the order as he considers a hostile act by the "present corrupt Ministry" as an honour rather than otherwise. "I take pride in the fact that I have been able to stand for the cause of historical research with dignity and autonomy as far as possible," he stated. (Narayanan had criticised some of the new NCERT history textbooks. He had given the impression of a no-nonsense academic as far as history was concerned, which may have become too difficult for the Ministry to handle. Several important publications were brought out during his tenure, including six volumes on the Labour Movement in India - 1928-30 edited by A.R. Desai.)

In the press note, Narayanan stated that there was no provision for withdrawing a nomination as ICHR Chairman, and that too without assigning a reason. He said all his troubles started when the Council initiated disciplinary proceedings against two persons, one a woman Assistant Director and the other a research assistant who had been appointed temporarily. The services of these two, who were reportedly close to the powers that be, were terminated. Officials in the HRD Ministry allegedly adopted obstructionist tactics during his tenure but had to withdraw some of their actions after he protested. Narayanan also alleged that a conspiracy was hatched between some Ministry officials, certain ICHR officials and the Comptroller and Auditor-Genral's (CAG) office, which was discovered from their correspondence. When this was exposed, it resulted in the suspension of a Director in the Council and the transfer of a Joint Director in the Ministry.

Terming as "highly questionable" the actions of the Ministry, Narayanan said that the ICHR had in his term begun to function properly with good academic achievements. It had activated two regional centres, one in south India and the other in northeastern India. Research funding rules were codified and published, and the publishing of a newsletter had brought increased transparency and accessibility to the functioning of the Council. These developments "were evidently not to the liking of the Ministry", he stated.

But the row over the appointment of Kapil Kumar as Member-Secretary by the Ministry, which could have been resolved administratively, was blown out of proportion as the Ministry refused to reason with Narayanan on the procedure of appointment. The crisis started when the post of Member-Secretary fell vacant. As the procedure to appoint a regular Member-Secretary was under way, Narayanan gave additional charge of the Member-Secretary to P.K. Shukla, a Deputy Director in the Council, for carrying out the day-to-day functions pending the regular appointment. Shukla was to receive no additional remuneration, and he was aware that that was a temporary arrangement. But the Ministry decided suddenly to appoint Kapil Kumar, without consulting Narayanan.

According to a Council member, for the able functioning of the Council, a healthy working relationship was necessary between the Chairman and the Member-Secretary, which was impossible because of the standoff.

As the impasse prolonged, the Ministry probably decided to do away with the Chairman rather than the Member-Secretary. It was learnt that Narayanan had met HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and had been assured that a workable solution to the crisis would be found without jeopardising the autonomy of the Council and without causing embarrassment to the Chairman. But that was not to be.

THE ICHR came into existence in 1972 and never in its 30-year-old history had any Chairman been treated so shabbily. Said the eminent historian R.S. Sharma, who was also the founder-chairman of the Council: "The HRD Ministry is deliberately trying to kill creativity and destroy historical and other types of knowledge by spreading religious superstition based on saffronism. It opposes rational, objective and scientific approach not only to historical problems but also to all social science and other problems. It is in pursuit of this policy that the HRD Minister has removed M.G.S. Narayanan from the chairmanship of an autonomous body. In recent years, MGS had turned out to be a very competent Chairman. Nearly 40 books were published during his tenure of nearly two and a half years."

Sharma also credits Narayanan with institution-building and for producing at least a dozen competent historians. "I am convinced that there will not be any progress in knowledge in educational institutions unless these are given autonomy and scholars are left free to carry out research and teaching. It is most unfortunate that more and more institutions are being brought under government control. Whatever the form of government, liberalism is essential for the progress of knowledge and creativity," he added.

Other historians too have termed Narayanan's unsavoury exit as unfortunate. S. Settar, former ICHR Chairman, told Frontline that the incident brought into question the nature of autonomy supposed to have been enjoyed by the Council. He said it was strange that this had happened for the third time. He cited the examples of M.L. Sondhi, the dismissed chairperson of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, K.S. Lal, former ICHR Chairman, and now Narayanan.

"I don't believe that the charges levelled at MGS are the real charges. More than anything else, what surfaces is that the status of a Chairman is a little more than an ordinary clerk. I am not worried about who comes or goes but am concerned about how the Council functions. If it gets redundant and gets caught in its own system, then there cannot be any future for it. And even if there is an agenda of the government, it cannot be fulfilled by such methods."

Echoing similar views was the Secretary of the Indian History Congress, Ramakrishna Chatterjee. While terming the removal of Narayanan as unfortunate, Chatterjee wondered as to why the HRD Ministry refused to clarify its position regarding Kapil Kumar's appointment. "There was a definite problem over the appointment of the Member-Secretary. The position of the HRD Ministry on this is not clear. I am also not certain about the charge of financial irregularity. But I know for sure that MGS had criticised the NCERT textbooks," said Chatterjee from Kolkata. He said that the ICHR, as an institution appeared to be under attack and it was not merely a question of an individual or individuals but of an institution. The ICHR was a prestigious organisation, he said, which was being brought into disrepute. The Indian History Congress, which would be meeting in Mysore towards the end of December, is likely to discuss these issues.

Most historians spoken to expressed deep concern about the fate of ongoing historical research and teaching. They were surprised that the government did not seem to be interested in any kind of historical work but was more keen on destroying historical research.

Said R.S. Sharma: "There is no doubt that MGS is an outstanding historian of our country. I first met him 40 years ago and visited his history department in Calicut (Kozhikode) several times. He has produced several valuable works on the history of South India. He has contributed substantially to the cause of historical research by building up a good departmental library in Calicut."

Evidently, historical research and teaching is the last thing on the mind of the HRD Ministry, whose main objective seems to be making people bow to its unreasonable diktats.

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