A coarsening debate

Print edition : January 19, 2002

The 62nd session of the Indian History Congress held in Bhopal marked a milestone in the consolidation of the resistance to the ongoing offensive against the discipline of history.

LIKE many such winter-time gatherings, the Indian History Congress (IHC) is an occasion above all for professional bonding. And in the midst of the annual rituals of the guild, there is also, as the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyan recently observed rather superciliously, the occasional concession to scholarly activity.

In its inclusiveness, the IHC often runs the dual risk of losing focus and diluting standards of scholarship. It provides a platform for a wide spectrum of practitioners of the discipline, irrespective of ideological motivation and scholarly orientation. But it is to the credit of the institution that in spite of its inclusiveness, it has functioned as an effective watchdog against the intrusion of chauvinism and mythology into the profession. Its function of playing conscience keeper for the discipline was much in evidence at the 62nd session of the IHC, which concluded in Bhopal on December 30. In this respect, this session was an important event in the consolidation of the resistance to the ongoing offensive against the discipline of history.

One of the resolutions passed by the conclave took note of the October 23 directive from the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) requiring that certain textbooks published under the imprint of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) be purged of contents deemed offensive (Frontline, October 26, 2001). It observed that the Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) had, with a fervour suggesting his personal involvement, been defending the decision against the generalised sense of outrage it provoked. The resolution also drew attention to the Minister's characterisation of historians he did not agree with as "intellectual terrorists" who represented a greater danger than "trans-border terrorism". "It cannot be overlooked," it continued, "that the Ministry of HRD is encouraging a narrative of history which is at best speculative and often invokes mere belief and mythology rather than valid historical evidence."

This resolution, one among four adopted, followed three days of deliberations during which the plenary session of the IHC was addressed by eminent historians such as R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, K.N. Panikkar and R. Champakalakshmi. Predictably, a concern that all of them articulated related to the growing intrusion of partisan politics into the writing and teaching of history. A message from President K.R. Narayanan arrived on the second day of the Congress, representing an unexpected intervention in the proceedings.

In a brief message packed with scholarly citations, the President commended the Congress for its "rich traditions" in "deepening our understanding of history". He reminded the gathering of Jawaharlal Nehru's observation that "history is a living process". And he cited the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, who has ominously warned of the possibility of history books turning into "bomb factories" - a prospect that imposes upon the practitioner of the discipline an unavoidable "responsibility to historical facts" and the commitment to prevent the "politico-ideological abuse of history".

The President also said that the politician who looks at history as a quarry from which to dig up grievances for contemporary redress needs to be reminded of the German statesman Otto von Bismarck's remark: "The politician has not to avenge what has happened but to ensure that it does not happen again." To round off his case for a rational and scientific approach to history, the President quoted a "remarkable judgment" by the Bombay High Court from as far back as 1967: "It is the right and privilege of every thinker to express his judgment on historical events in a fearless manner. Otherwise, we will not get a true and faithful history of our country. History is not to serve as a hand-maid of a particular school of thought. History must be impartial and objective. To rewrite history according to the views which are popular or which are necessary for bolstering nationalistic egoism or jingoism is a perversion of history."

The President's intervention in the history conclave is an undisguised rebuke to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its many coalition partners at the Centre. Despite their own misgivings, the parties that find themselves in alliance with the BJP have been mute spectators to the programme unleashed by HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, to the loud applause of the Hindutva family, to subvert the institutional foundations of historical research and instruction.

Harkishan Singh Surjeet, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took up this issue in a letter that he addressed to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in late December, castigating him for condoning Joshi's "provocative actions and vituperative outbursts".

Apart from his menacing characterisation of some of India's best scholars, Joshi had also urged the youth wing of the BJP to counter "intellectual terrorism" effectively. This was an undisguised overture to the rule of the mob, an indication of "fascist intolerance", as Surjeet put it.

It is unlikely that Joshi and his fraternity will be deflected off course by the growing tide of public opinion, or by the IHC intervention. Some of the ire that the Hindutva school of history writing harbours towards the IHC was apparent in a letter written by one of its leading lights, the late B.R. Grover, in March 1999, while he was a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). With little regard for the autonomy of the scholarly body, Grover made a case for cutting off all governmental and quasi-governmental assistance to the IHC on the grounds of its alleged partiality towards a certain political perspective.

The coarsening of the discourse on history, of course, derives its ultimate inspiration from the political leadership. The resistance to the new communal revisionism in history is perhaps a key intellectual development of the day and the IHC resolution on the issue, a document of considerable importance.

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