'It is a fear of history'

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with K.N. Panikkar.

K.N. Panikkar, Professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on his association with the ''Towards Freedom'' project and his perceptions of the current controversy over the ICHR' s decision to withdraw two volumes from publication. Excerpts from the interview:

Could you explain the background to your personal involvement in the "Towards Freedom" project?

I became part of this project in 1989, specifically because Professor S. Gopal was its chief editor. I was invited by the ICHR to edit the volume for 1940. I completed my work in 1995 and handed over the volume to Prof. Ravinder Kumar who was then chairm an of ICHR. A copy was also given to Prof. Gopal, who looked through the volume and suggested some changes which were incorporated. Throughout the period of work there were monthly meetings of the Editors and the chief editors in which both the contents and the format of the volumes were discussed. In 1998, I received a letter from the then chairman of ICHR, Prof S. Settar, that the volume has been forwarded to Oxford University Press for publication.

This began as a centralised effort within the ICHR and then became a collegial effort. As a work of compilation, "Towards Freedom" was essentially a non-ideological effort, though there would need to be certain criteria used in sifting through documents and bringing some to light and omitting others. What exactly were these?

One must understand the immense amount of work involved in this project. The sheer bulk of the documents received by each editor was very large. I do not know the exact count, but I think each editor would have had to study more than a lakh of pages. A s election now means actually reducing that to something like 2,000 or 3,000 pages. Obviously this is a selection in which certain criteria have to be used, of which the main one was that the volume should be fully representative - it should comprehend all that happened.

If you take one particular issue, say constitutional developments or the discussion on reforms, you cannot provide all the documents. But we tried to provide those documents which are most crucial for understanding the divergent views on this issue. As a n example, in my volume dealing with 1940 I have given the response of various political parties like the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Communists and others to the offer made by the British goverment for consti tutional reforms. Any student would find in the volume the essential details of what these diverse actors thought. From there he could follow up further. The whole volume is arranged thematically and within each theme, chronologically to enable easy acce ssibility.

How are the specific emphases in your volume different from the corresponding British production?

You see, the British were mainly looking at what they themselves did. Take constitutional reforms, for instance. The British emphasis was mainly on what the thinking of the Viceroy was or of the Secretary of State for India, not so much on the Indian sid e. But an Indian researcher would like to know what was the difference in approach between different Indian actors. More importantly, our treatment is sensitive to the complex character of the freedom movement and the participation of various social grou ps in it, like the peasants, workers, women, students and so on. Such a view is absent in the British volumes.

Is the manner in which you have approached the communalism question one of the reasons why the volumes have become the target of an ideological attack?

Could be. Since they do not know what these volumes contain they are afraid these documents might not bring them out in favourable light. The documents are not presented in order to project a particular party's or group's role and to undermine any other' s. It represents in a comprehensive manner what actually happened.

But do you think there is an apprehension in some circles that the ideological fallout of publishing your volume could be adverse for the Hindu Mahasabha and its affiliates?

It is quite possible. In my view this is an attack not only on the project, but on the individuals associated with it. The current attack is not only on Marxist historians but on liberal-secular historiography. This attack is essentially rooted in a fear of history. And that fear arises from the fact that these volumes present a documentary record, which cannot be denied. K.N. Panikkar can be accused of distorting history, but it is not so easy to refute the contents of a letter written by Savarkar. For this reason, they would like a documentary history to be stopped. This is a very real factor - the fear of the real, the fear of the authentic.

Does this point towards a reinvention of the past?

Yes, indeed. As evident from the ongoing efforts of the Sangh Parivar to rewrite history. A Hinduised past is being created. This is not an attack on us alone. What they are attempting is to discredit us, by calling into question our professional integri ty. The false, malicious and slanderous attack on historians by Arun Shourie is a good example of this attempt to discredit the secular scholars of this country. In the present case, they are accusing us of acting in an unethical manner by sending our vo lumes to the publisher. As I have said earlier, this is a false charge. We have observed all procedures expected of us. Still their spokespersons like M.G.S. Narayanan continue to spread lies without any intellectual honesty or compunction. Obviously, th ey are making these charges in the belief that some of them will stick.

When did you first get an inkling that some such thing is being planned?

I had no inkling. As someone who has followed proper procedure, I could not even think of any such thing. I was planning my work for the next six months with the intention of devoting sufficient time to this work, because there is a great deal of proof-r eading and checking left. Surprisingly, we came to know of it only from the publisher. I did not expect the ICHR to conduct itself in this manner, even under this government, because after all it is a body made up of professional historians.

But the ICHR has itself been under attack for some time for this specific project, from people like Arun Shourie, who have been saying that it is an unproductive project.

This itself is very misleading, because when we started working in 1989, five years were generally accepted as a reasonable time to complete it. When we actually started working on it we found that the material already collected was thoroughly inadequate . In fact, documents had to be collected afresh in several areas. Mind you, this is not a full time job for any of us. Still I completed my manuscript in 1995, Partha Sarathy Gupta in 1993 and Sumit Sarkar in 1996. The delay and expenses on the project w ere actually before we took over. M.G.S. Narayanan says that Rs.1.2 crores had been "wasted" on this project when he took over as the Member Secretary in 1990. Obviously, it was spent before we were associated with the project, while Narayanan was a memb er of the Council. Was he remaining silent then because he was loyally discharging the orders of a supposedly "Marxist" chairman? Has he now discovered a sense of indignation since the BJP is in power? Since he had recognised the project as a "colossal w aste" of money even in 1990, he is guilty of dereliction of duty for not taking proper steps during his tenure as a member of the ICHR and later as Member-Secretary.

Charges of financial misdemeanours have also been levelled.

These are completely baseless and malicious. When Arun Shourie, who happens now to be a Minister in this government made these charges, I had said publicly that he should find out the true picture from the Ministry of Human Resource Development and after ascertaining the facts make an apology. Well, he only heaped further charges.

For Hindutva the arena of political contention is now history. Is that how you see this whole thing shaping up: that there is now a fresh offensive under way to efface the past and create a new record of nationalism as it were?

Very much so. That has always been their agenda and they have used history very effectively. I find a distinction, though. So far they have been using history in order to stigmatise Muslims. Their entire communal enterprise was based on that stigmatisati on. Now communalism has entered a new phase, in which aggressive steps are on to define India as a Hindu nation. As a part of this project, they have developed this concept of cultural nationalism, which is based on a reinterpretation of the past. Theref ore in the present circumstances, particularly in the context of the recent socio-economic developments, the reinterpretation of the past in religious terms has become more crucial. All secular voices have to be either marginalised or suppressed. So hist ory is going to be a major arena of contest. These are the forewarnings of greater attempts sponsored and supported by the state to change our notions of the past.

As a professional historian, how would you read the implications of this? We have had in the last ten years, when the contention for influence within civil society has been sharpening, several cases of archaeologists and historians trampling upon prof essional ethics. Many of them are now in the ICHR. Is the discipline strong enough to withstand this or are we going to witness a withering away of scientific history writing?

I think there are two or three levels at which we have to understand this. Historical scholarship in India is very strong and it has a very good record of adhering to the methods of the discipline. Now I feel that the discipline is in danger for two reas ons. One, though historians in this country are largely secular and have great regard for the methods of history writing, there has been a slow erosion. I was in one of the universities in Haryana the other day, which had a very good department of histor y at one time. But today an overwhelming majority of young historians who were very secular before, have gone over to a communal view. This is actually an indication of how this kind of ideology is creeping into the university departments.

More important, there is a popular history that is being created by Hindu communalists, which has nothing to do with the professional history being produced in the universities. I sometimes wonder whether this popular history will completely overwhelm th e professional strain.

Through what medium is this popular history disseminated?

There are popular books in all languages which are being circulated in a big way. And I understand there is a huge project undertaken by the RSS, through an organisation known as Itihas Sankalan Samiti, to write the history of each district of the countr y. So if these histories are published, they will become the accepted or the most easily accessible history for the mass of the people, which is going to influence the popular understanding. So this danger of popular history replacing professional histor y is really very strong. Once that happens, the historical consciousness in society might also be influenced. I have been told by some schoolteachers in Delhi that they cannot go to their classes and teach history, because the students come with certain communal notions already imbibed from their immedite surroundings. During the Ayodhya movement I have myself confronted this. Many have preferred to accept the communal construction of the history of Ayodhya over the verifiable history.

Does that mean there has to be a new idiom of popular history? When large-scale communalisation is exerting this kind of pressure on the professional discipline of history, how do you reverse that kind of process?

I think it is necessary to write local history from a perspective which conforms to professionally accepted norms of research. Professional history does not reach the people. A history of a village is very rarely written, but people are interested in wha t has happened in their locality. We always think of thematic histories or mega-histories. You may be interested in knowing that a very interesting move is on in Kerala. They have undertaken this big project of writing the history of each panchayat with the involvement of the people, with local historians, schoolteachers and college teachers trained to write local history. In fact only last month, there was a workshop for training and orientation of people who could write this kind of history. I think s omething on those lines could stop the threat that popular history of the RSS kind poses.

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