Equivocation and interpolation

Published : Mar 18, 2000 00:00 IST


MURLI MANOHAR JOSHI came to the Rajya Sabha on March 3 well armed with documents. It was a crucial day and the Minister for Human Resource Development had made meticulous preparations to deal with questions about the controversy surrounding the Indian Co uncil of Historical Research. Somewhere in the course of dredging up the quotations that would buttress his crumbling defences, however, Joshi slipped up rather badly. Today he faces the prospect of a privilege motion for misleading Parliament.

Joshi had a number of arguments to justify the ICHR's decision to withdraw two volumes of an ambitious documentary history of the Indian freedom struggle from press. Principal among these was the plea that the ICHR administration had only acted on a mand ate obtained from successive meetings of its apex Council. The Council had decided as far back as August 1998, said Joshi, to form a committee of eminent historians headed by Professor B.R. Nanda in order to "streamline and quicken" the pace of the proje ct entitled "Towards Freedom". "But unfortunately," he went on, "the committee was never allowed to meet."

This may have been construed as a tendentious assertion if not a deliberate effort to mislead, though the intervention by the then ICHR Chairman, Professor S. Settar does cast some doubt on the Minister's intent. Where Joshi strayed outrageously beyond t he norms of parliamentary debate was in quoting a letter that Settar had written to Professor S. Gopal, General Editor of the "Towards Freedom" project.

Written on February 1, 1999, Settar's letter was no more than an effort to recapitulate certain points that he had raised in the course of a fairly cordial meeting with Gopal a week earler. He reminded Gopal that the "Towards Freedom" project was coming under some pressure from certain political quarters. Efforts were on, he said, to ensure that all the volumes produced under the project were put through scrutiny by an expert committee. If certain "adverse comments" were made in the course of such scrut iny, then matters were likely to become "more complicated", he warned. Settar went on to assure Gopal of his highest personal regard: "I have great respect for you and all scholars who are involved in this project. I am trying my best to resist interfere nce of outside scholars in this project."

In the Rajya Sabha on March 3, Joshi chose to interpolate an observation of his own into this letter. Ostensibly quoting the contents of the letter written by Settar, he informed the Rajya Sabha that Settar failed to call a meeting of the B.R. Nanda com mittee owing to his apprehension that this would make things "more complicated" for the project. The insinuation was smuggled into the text of Settar's letter in a manner that only a full quotation would make explicit. "If the reviewers of these volumes were to make some adverse comments on the quality of the work," said Joshi quoting Settar, "things are likely to be difficult. That is the reason why Professor Nanda's committee was not allowed to meet for one full year. I have great respect for y ou and all scholars involved in this project. I am trying my best to resist interference of outside scholars."

Settar's own clarifications make it evident that there was no such design inherent in the committee's failure to meet. Still less was there any question of the committee reviewing the volumes that had already been completed and sent to the ICHR. The Minu tes of the Council meeting at which the Nanda committee was constituted record clearly that one volume of the "Towards Freedom" project had already been published while another one was at an advanced stage of printing. Still another, edited by Sumit Sark ar, had been sent to the publisher, while two completed manuscripts, edited by K.N. Panikkar and Bimal Prasad, had been received by the ICHR. If at all the Nanda committee had a function, it did not extend to these five volumes.

Joshi's indiscretions in the Rajya Sabha did not cease there. Recounting the tortuous course of obstruction that "Towards Freedom" has faced from the Council he appointed in June 1998, Joshi informed the House that still another committee was set up in J une 1999, to work on the modalities to be pursued "for the residuary work of the project." The three members of the committee, he claimed, were all historians working on modern India. This is a palpable untruth, since one of the members, Professor A.R. K han of Shimla University, is a historian of medieval India.

The Minister faced further discomfiture from the public statement by a member of the Council, Professor Pratipal Bhatia of Delhi University, that "Towards Freedom" was not listed on the agenda of the June 1999 meeting: "There is no reference to 'Towards Freedom' volumes in the agenda and Minutes of the said meeting signed by Professor S. Settar on 12th July 1999 and despatched by Dr. Sushil Kumar on July 16th, 1999."

Nilotpal Basu of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) pointedly asked Joshi whether it was a fact that a member of the Council had questioned the authenticity of the Minutes of the meeting as cited by him. By now under immense pressure, the Minister co uld only assure the House that he would look into the matter.

Finally, it seemed, Joshi's justification for the withdrawal of the two volumes edited by Panikkar and Sarkar hinged on a medieval notion of retribution. In response to Basu's query whether the ICHR's "surreptitious" move was in consonance with the spiri t of academic review, Joshi launched into a prolonged exegesis of a letter written in June 1987 by Professor Irfan Habib, then the Chairman of the ICHR. The context was a volume covering the year 1938, which had been submitted by P.N. Chopra, then Genera l Editor of "Towards Freedom".

With appropriate courtesy, Habib informed Chopra that the volume failed to meet many of the basic criteria that had been laid down for the project. Among the lacunae: the absence of an introduction, failure to annotate the documents and even to provide a broad description. "With regard to the despatch of the typed script to the printers," Habib concluded, "I should like it to be withheld until I have time to see the introduction and review the material once again."

Smugly seeking to reverse the onus of explanation, Joshi completed this citation of Habib's letter and then asked the House: "Is it academic?"

This has been a recurrent theme in the ICHR's recent explanations: that the guillotining of Chopra's effort in some ways justifies the fate that has been visited on the Panikkar and Sarkar volumes. Absent in the whole exercise is any objective assessment of academic and scholarly worth. Chopra served as General Editor of the project for seven years and his volume for the year 1937 was published by the ICHR in 1986. In an extended academic review of this work in 1986, the historian Amit Kumar Gupta was l ittle short of scathing in his evaluation: "Matching performances with professions is often a very difficult task, indeed, howsoever sincerely one tries for it. But has any semblance of sincere or at least serious endeavour been made in this volume to co me ever near the expectations? Disappointingly enough, after going through its 1,358 pages, weighing altogether 6 kilos, one is left with no other alternative but to answer in the negative (Mainstream, August 9, 1986, page 26)."

Having worked on the "Towards Freedom" project in the days of its initial conception, Gupta is presumably familiar with its basic objectives. The project owes its origin, he recalls, to a two-pronged effort to undermine the Indian independence movement t hat the community of historians confronted. On the one hand, Pakistani scholars had written up a "heavily coloured and subjective history", which sought to portray in its "full splendour" the triumph of so-called "Muslim nationalism". On the other, the B ritish had put together a compilation of documents entitled The Transfer of Power, which was all about British "sagacity in renouncing authority in as orderly a fashion as possible to the representatives of the quarrelsome Indians."

The perception of the Indian historical community, as also of the government, was that this called for a corrective, which would "put the transfer of power and the creation of two states in the sub-continent in their proper setting". This required that a portrayal of the last stages of the freedom struggle "should take into account the urge that most sections of (India's) population felt for independence, the price that the vast number of her people were willing to pay for it and the manner in which Ind ians and the Indian leaders forced the British into an irrevocable position of retreat."

Chopra's volume fell badly short on these counts, necessitating a drastic change of course in project execution. The norms have been recounted by S. Gopal in his introduction to the most recent volume in the series: the project editors worked on the gen eral principle that they would avoid "an exclusive preoccupation with 'high politics'." This meant that within the limits set by the sources, they would try to put together "documents relating to the activities, attitudes and ideas of the diverse classes and sections of Indian society", all of which had a role in the attainment of the peculiar conjunction of Independence and Partition that India went through. (Towards Freedom, 1938, edited by Basudev Chatterji, Oxford University Press, 1999).

It is precisely this notion of history as a mass phenomenon that the ideologues of Hindutva seem unable and unwilling to grapple with. As the Bharatiya Janata Party sinks deeper into a morass of its own creation, its fear of authenticity in history becom es increasingly evident. Equally, its aversion to scholarly creativity and distrust of all forms of mass politics except that of the mob, stands ruthlessly revealed. Now exposed on all flanks, partly on account of Joshi's parliamentary excesses, the BJP could soon be under pressure to execute another of its agonising retractions.

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