Academic institutions

A quiet invasion

Print edition : July 21, 2017

Y. Sudershan Rao, Chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

Clay figurines found during excavations at Naushero and Mehargarh, Harappan sites in Pakistan. In 2016, the ICHR brought out “Itihaas”, a biannual Hindi journal. Writing on the archaeology of the Vedic culture in it, a retired professor from Banaras Hindu University claimed that the clay figurines had vermilion in their hair partings thereby proving that Harappan women used vermilion and so they were Hindus. At another place, the same writer, in order to bolster his claim that the Harappan and the Vedic/Aryan civilisation were one and the same, described the dancing girl of Mohenjodaro as Parvati.

The interpretation of history, the demonising of communities and historical periods, and the appointment of pro-Hindutva persons to key academic positions form part of the project to use academic institutionsfor indoctrination.

Among the many tools available for indoctrination, education has been among the most trusted and tried ones. While appointments to key academic positions can be managed to an extent by subtle manipulation of the selection process, more overt forms of indoctrination can be done through intellectual activities in the selection of topics for seminars, workshops and research. More direct forms of intervention have been there in the university system, be it Hyderabad Central University or Jawaharlal Nehru University, with students and teachers getting caught in a nationalist versus anti-national binary. But what has been most consistent and of special interest to the proponents of a Hindu Rashtra is the reiteration of the antiquity of India. To that extent, the teaching and content of history and historical research have been of paramount importance.

The four-and-a-half-decade-old Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) is a case in point. Its objective was to “give a proper direction to historical research and of encouraging and fostering objective and scientific writing of history”. In his message published in the “Aims and Objects” document of the ICHR, the then President of India, V.V. Giri, observed that a “proper historical perspective was necessary”. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, said in her message: “Sometimes mere chauvinism and blind acceptance of past passes off as re-interpretation of history.”

Significantly, for the first time, the prestigious research organisation does not include a single medievalist on the list of historians. It was clearly not an oversight. In 2014, soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government took charge, Y. Sudershan Rao was appointed Chairperson for a three-year term. Sudershan Rao headed the Andhra chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihaas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), an organisation associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The ABISY’s main objective, according to itihasbharati.org, is to write “Bharatheeya history from a national perspective”.

One of the first things that the new Chairperson did on assuming charge was to remove from the ICHR office walls all pictorial representations of the First War of Indian Independence of 1857. The pictorial representations featuring Tantia Tope, Rani Laxmi Bai and Bahadur Shah Zafar, the “last Mughal” emperor, were put up in 2007 to commemorate the 150th year of the War for Independence. “That 35 per cent of the soldiers in the imperial army and who participated and died in the First War of Independence were Muslims is perhaps not palatable to the new government,” said a former ICHR official. Likewise, in 2007, the Ministry of Culture sanctioned funds for the publication of a “Dictionary of Martyrs” spanning the period from 1857 to 1947. Four volumes were printed but two others, one pertaining to martyrs from the southern States and the other to those from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and some north-eastern States, are pending publication even though the manuscripts were submitted. A historian told Frontline that it was possible that the government was uncomfortable with the fact that of the 15,000 martyrs, some 20-25 per cent were Muslims, which would be damaging to the “Muslims are anti-national” theory.

A study of some of the quarterly newsletters published by the ICHR since the BJP came to power reveal a certain pattern in the ideas promoted through seminars, workshops, lectures and projects. For instance, the booklet on the ICHR list of publications, 2016, makes no mention of pending projects, such as Towards Freedom or Dictionary of Martyrs. The Towards Freedomproject, initiated in 1975-76, was designed as a series of 10 volumes covering the 10-year period from 1937 to 1947, documenting the Independence movement. It is learnt that the volumes pertaining to 1941 (Part II), 1942 (Part II) and 1947 (Part III), have not been published even though the manuscripts were submitted long ago. “The problem is that in every volume, there is some reference to the participation of the Hindu Mahasabha on the basis of documents collected from the Mahasabha itself. The Towards Freedomvolumes negate the peaceful ‘transfer of power’ theory and hence are very important. Why the government is sitting on the remaining volumes is a mystery,” said a former ICHR official.

A resolution passed at the Indian History Congress (IHC) held in Thiruvananthapuram in December 2016 appealed to the ICHR to publish the remaining volumes of the pending projects. Interestingly, according to Sudershan Rao (Newsletter, April-June 2016), in June 2016 the ICHR took “decisions on far-reaching research proposals”. One of them was a “major ICHR project”, the preparation of a “Historical Encyclopedia of Towns and Villages of Bharath”, which, he said, could be treated as a “national project”. The silence on the pending projects continued. The quarterly newsletters give details of the ICHR’s activities through a designated column titled the “Chairman’s Column”. Among the activities detailed in the newsletter for the period January-March 2017 were several conferences that underpinned the glory of ancient India. One such national conference, on “The Bhagavata Purana: History, Philosophy and Culture”, was held in Chennai in January where the Chairperson, in his inaugural address, stated that Puranic literature, which was described as “mythical by Western scholars”, actually gave a “corpus of information about lineages of kings and sages and major events in the long history of human kind which is Bharat-centric”.

A three-day seminar was organised as part of the 45th anniversary celebrations of the ICHR on March 27 on the theme of “Antiquity, Continuity and Development of Civilisation and Culture in Bharat (India) up to the 1st Millennium B.C.” B.B. Lal, former Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India, was the chief guest. (Lal has been a consistent supporter of the theory of Ram Janmabhoomi.) David Frawley, a Padma Bhushan awardee and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, was the guest of honour. Frawley is known as Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, and for his support of the “myth of the Aryan invasion” theory. The objective of the seminar was “to kick-start a multidisciplinary approach to understand the major problems in constructing the true ancient history of Bharat that is presently called India”, Sudershan Rao wrote in the newsletter.

Gurukul-Shishya fellowship

The ICHR instituted an ICHR-Gurukul Fellowship in 2016. According to the newsletter (July-December 2016), the fellowship is “in keeping with the Indian tradition of education system”, and will be awarded to senior historians and their disciples. The first fellowship was awarded to two “gurus” , Lal and Dr R. Nagaswamy. Each “guru” will be given a “shishya” each, both of whom will be entitled to some payment. The aim of the fellowship is to “promote the traditional guru-shishya parampara education system”. Further, the “knowledge of the gurus will influence the research abilities of their disciples and thus the heritage of knowledge will be passed on to coming generations”. Historians Frontline spoke to said that it was a one-way form of learning, a form of regimented education leaving little scope for free interaction and critical inquiry between teacher and student.

In 2016, a retired professor of history from Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gorakhpur University delivered the annual Maulana Azad Memorial lecture. He rejected the Aryan invasion theory by saying that its supporters had “created and perpetuated this falsehood against all available evidence”. The falsehood was that “the Aryans had invaded India, destroyed the cities of the Indus Valley and killed, converted and drove away its inhabitants, the Dravidians, to south India”, that “Vedic is a rural culture while the Harappan is an urban civilisation; that Vedic society was illiterate while Harappan society was literate, that the Harappans did not domesticate horses while the Vedic Aryans domesticated and used them extensively”. All these assertions, he said, were proved wrong thanks to the clear and decisive rediscovery of the lost river, Sarasvati, with the majority of the Harappan sites in its valley. The Harappan civilisation, he said, should be designated as the Sarasvati civilisation. Many scholars, he said, who earlier believed in the Vedic-Harappan dichotomy and shared the view of Aryan arrival in India now accept the Vedic-Harappan identity. The retired professor of history was articulating what the Sangh Parivar has always believed, that Aryans were indigenous while the actual invaders were Muslims.

A somewhat insular approach to the study of history runs like a common thread in almost all the lectures and speeches of the ICHR Chairperson. Ideas repeatedly glorifying India, with the implication that the rest of the world had little civilisational value, find resonance in the content of most of the texts. At a national seminar on “Does history breathe? Some perceptions”, organised by the history department of a Delhi college, he said Indian history was deprived of “Bharteeyata”, or Indianness. Indian perspectives of history, he said, had been demonstrated in ancient literature, the epics and the Puranas. “The Chairperson is a Modern India specialist and he says he has great interest in the Puranas and epics. Nothing wrong in studying the Vedas but historians should not indulge in myth making,” said B.P. Sahu, a professor of history from the University of Delhi.

The funds for the IHC were slashed in 2015 and as a result the proceedings of the 2016 IHC were not printed. The Aligarh Historians Society was not given funds last year for organising its annual seminar.

In April 2016, speaking at the annual day function of a Delhi college, Sudershan Rao said: “India’s achievements in its remote past were unparalleled and every Indian, thus, inherits equally their merits”. Then at a seminar on “Chauhan rulers of Sapadlaksha and Ajmer” organised by MDS University, Ajmer, he said there was a need for an “impartial presentation of the history of ancient and medieval periods” and that the contribution of Indian kingdoms in medieval times and native princes under British rule to “protect, preserve and promote our age-old culture should be given proper treatment in our historiography”. He painted them as protectors of “our culture” and the “valour of spirit and sacrifice as exemplified by rulers such as Prithviraj Chauhan and Rana Pratap Singh shall always linger fresh in our memory”.

At a symposium organised by the ABISY, he said “serious efforts should be made to trace Delhi’s antiquity and its past glory” as “its urban civilisation could be dated back to Mahabharat times”, while modern historians traced its history to early medieval times and its earliest monuments to the Slave dynasty, its glory to Mughal times, and sophistication and modernity to the British era. On March 28, 2015, delivering the valedictory speech at an international seminar on the Indus-Sarasvati (Harappan) civilisation vis a vis the Rgveda, he said that historical research was not the forte of professional historians alone. At the foundation-day lecture the previous day, he said the “Aryan invasion theory was a Western construct and that it was not backed by any archaeological source”.

A document titled “Some inputs for the draft national education policy” 2016 seems to have created the contours of the broad approach that is being adopted. K.M. Shrimali, former professor of history in the University of Delhi, told Frontline that the real intent of the document was visible in its eulogy of the “Vedic system of education” and the “Gurukul system” in the mission of “achieving cultural unity in the country” through the “teaching of Sanskrit at the school and university stages” (see interview on page 26). All non-Sanskritic traditions, he said, right from the Charvakas, the Buddha and Mahavira to Nanak, Kabir, Ramdas and more recently Jyotiba Phule, “Periyar” E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar that questioned the “Vedic” tradition and Vedic system of education were blacked out. “Don’t Akbar, Dara Shikoh and Shah Jahan deserve a place for patronising and nurturing different linguistic traditions?” he asked. Recent studies, he said, showed that the Mughal rule constituted a rich and creative phase of Sanskrit writing in varied genres. Akbar’s patronage of Persian translation of the epics and Dara Shikoh’s translations from Sanskrit to Persian of the Upanishads are cases in point.

The obvious tilt towards a certain kind of education that focusses on a selective and uncritical understanding of the past does not appear innocuous. The plurality of Indian history and Indian culture seldom resonates in official circles and there seems to be an unwritten compulsion to see India’s glorious past and contribution to the world uncritically in every sphere. That apart, appointments to decision-making bodies in universities and administrative posts have been contentious.

Academics in Central universities have pointed out that persons with known political leanings to the ruling party at the Centre were appointed on academic bodies. At JNU, there has been heartburning over the introduction of diploma courses by the Sanskrit centre (set up during the previous tenure of the National Democratic Alliance.) The centre offers one-year diploma courses in Indian culture, yoga and philosophy. Academics feel that this and measures to introduce management and engineering courses would alter the character of the university, which was conceived as a research institution.

The views on caste expressed by the Chairperson of the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR), Braj Bihari Kumar, have been cause for concern. Before his appointment in May 2017, he officiated as editor of two quarterly publications, Dialogue and Chintan Srijan (the Hindi version of Dialogue), published by Astha Bharati, a society to promote national integrity and unity. The society is aimed at “correcting and righting the distortions and colonial misinterpretations of India’s past and present, its traditions, culture, social structure and social institutions, racial interpretations of society, colonial myths of exploitation and hegemony”. One editorial (October-December 2015) authored by him was titled “In defence of Modi”; in another (July-September 2016), he said Marxists were responsible for colonial constructs such as the “Aryan Aggression Theory”. In the January-March 2016 volume of Dialogue, he wrote that “caste and untouchability, in its present form, is a recent and at best, a post-Turk phenomenon”, implying that there was no caste system in ancient India. “Caste in its present form, untouchability and intra-Hindu societal exploitation are entirely non Hindu factors,” he wrote. Some academics Frontline spoke to said that given the Chairperson’s views, they had reason to be apprehensive.

The interpretation of history, the demonising of communities and historical periods, and the appointment of persons with known connections to right-wing majoritarian ideologies to academic positions form part of an overall agenda. The construction of a mythical glorious past lies at the centre of this fissiparous project.

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