Past and prejudice

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

The cultural-political offensive launched by the Hindutva forces zeroes in on an academic project on the freedom struggle, targeting the works of two respected academics.


CULTURAL policing has for some years manifested itself in diverse forms in the political domain of Hindutva. Only recently did Varanasi witness a particularly noisy variant when guardians of orthodoxy descended upon the sets erected for a film and destro yed them in a frenzy of moral outrage. And as the smash and burn school temporarily receded into the background, the secret cabals took over.

On February 11, K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar, historians of some eminence based in Delhi, received identical letters from Oxford University Press (O.U.P.). With appropriate courtesy, though without great elaboration, they were told that the two volumes they had edited for the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) as part of an ambitious documentation project on the freedom struggle, were being withdrawn from press. The ICHR's decision to stop the publication of the volumes at an advanced stage , ostensibly to subject them to fresh "perusal", was communicated to O.U.P. through a letter dated February 3. Neither Panikkar nor Sarkar, nor indeed Professor S. Gopal, the general editor of the series entitled "Towards Freedom" , was told of this deci sion.

It took a few more days for the story to work its way into the newspapers. What followed was an unsavoury story of evasion and misrepresentation. The ICHR's first recourse was to seek justification for its decision in the supposedly poor quality of prede cessor volumes in the series. A "fact sheet" put out by the Council spoke of the volumes pertaining to the years 1943-44 and 1938, edited respectively by Partha Sarathy Gupta and Basudev Chatterji, as shoddy compilations premised upon a skewed understand ing of the freedom struggle.

One of the principal objections to the Gupta and Chatterji volumes, as summarised in the ICHR's rather abusively phrased fact-sheet, is that they reduced Gandhi to a "mere footnote" and needlessly highlighted the role of the Communist party, which had pl ayed a "traitorous role" in the freedom struggle. According to the ICHR, in this effort to sanitise the role of the Left parties, the volume editors "unscrupulously" deleted vital paragraphs from documents, "in utter disregard of the well-accepted norms of editing".

Further damage had been caused by the thematic arrangement of documents, said the ICHR. This was contrary to the original directives issued under the project, which insisted on a chronological arrangement. Moreover, it enabled the intrusion of "subjectiv ity", which was used to serve the specific purpose of "fabricating the past to a purpose, for propaganda of a particular ideology".

An academic review of the Gupta volume by Savyasachi Bhattacharya was also drafted into the mission: "Another major criticism of the volume by none other than Professor S. Bhattacharya who also toe (sic) the leftist line, that historical methodology is n ot properly followed resulting in wrong and unscientific citation of documents (sic)".

The ICHR's initial response to the burgeoning controversy did not remain confined to the level of ideological critique. A fairly damning indictment on procedural grounds was also handed out against the editors of the "Towards Freedom" project. Contrary t o a decision made as early as August 1998, said the ICHR, the editors of the project had not submitted their manuscripts for the scrutiny of the Council. Rather, they had sent them directly to the publisher.

P.K.V. Kaimal, the ICHR's Deputy Director for Publications, eagerly joined in with a statement to the media. The volume edited by Gupta, he said, lacked an index, which meant that its utility as a research and reference work was close to negligible.

After some initial disquiet occasioned by the tone of the official ICHR explanation - clearly a new low in academic exchanges - it was quickly called to account for a sequence of false and tendentious assertions. Scholars familiar with Gupta's work point ed out that the "calendar of documents" he had presented was a perfectly adequate substitute for an index. Moreover, the volume provided an entire chapter on Gandhi's role. More significantly, the ICHR's criticism reflected a basic incomprehension of the purpose of the documentation project, which was to present material that was otherwise not easily accessible. Since Gandhi's role is rather well appreciated and the entire body of his writings is available in a comprehensive compilation, "Towards Freedo m" as a project could afford to direct its attention towards some of the lesser known aspects of India's struggle against colonialism.

Particularly offensive to the community of historians was the posthumous denunciation of Partha Sarathy Gupta, who taught with distinction at Delhi University and died shortly after retirement last year. Despite a debilitating stroke he suffered in 1990, he had laboured hard to complete his volume by 1993.

Savyasachi Bhatta-charya weighed in with a statement deploring the political exploitation of his academic review. "I learn with surprise and dismay," he said, "that a review article I wrote two years ago... is being misused by the authorities of the ICHR to defend a questionable administrative action detrimental to academic values." Contrary to the construction that had been placed on his remarks, he had in fact expressed some admiration for Gupta's compilation. And then, whatever criticism may have bee n entered formed "a part of an academic discourse which should not be used for purposes of hindering the publication of historical documents". This variety of "politicking," Bhattacharya concluded, endangered "the reviewers' freedom as well as the author s' freedom to express their opinions."

S. Gopal's intervention imparted further clarity to the situation. In a statement issued on February 21, he expressed "surprise" at the allegation that Panikkar and Sarkar had sent their manuscripts directly to the publisher. "These volumes were submitte d to me by the editors and after incorporating the changes suggested were forwarded to Oxford University Press by the chairman of the ICHR," he said. This made the "unilateral decision" of the ICHR to withdraw the volumes without consulting either the ge neral editor or the volume editors, "a clear violation of the terms under which the project was conceived and executed". More seriously, it involved an "infringement of the academic rights and freedom" of the historians who had taken up the responsibilit y for the project on the invitation of the ICHR.

Authoritative confirmation came from S. Settar who was the ICHR chairman when the volumes were cleared for publication. "The two volumes were sent to press with my knowledge," he said in reply to an inquiry from Frontline: "This matter was duly re ported by me to the Council."

BESIEGED by a tide of adverse disclosures, ICHR chairman B.R. Grover - a stalwart of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's campaign to seek historical legitimacy for its Ayodhya campaign - issued a detailed clarification on February 22, with the promise to bring o ut a "white paper" on the "Towards Freedom" project at an early date.

Grover will clearly have a great deal to account for. Prithpal Bhatia, Professor of Ancient Indian History at Delhi University and a member of the ICHR, has already raised serious questions about the propriety of some of his recent actions. In Grover's n arration, the decision to subject all volumes of the "Towards Freedom" project to a review was taken at a meeting of the Council on December 20, 1999. Curiously, the minutes of this meeting were circulated to members only on February 14, well after the I CHR administration had put into effect its rather dubious agenda.

In a letter to Grover sent on February 18, Bhatia questioned this entire procedure. The discussion on the "Towards Freedom" project, she recalls, began with a statement by the chairman that "'Towards Freedom' has been wound up", in accordance with a deci sion supposedly taken by the Council on June 30, 1999. It was then brought to his attention that no such decision had been taken, that a number of volumes had been published and that a few more were awaiting publication. "To this", Bhatia writes, "the ch airman said that he was not aware of these facts of the 'Towards Freedom' project". There followed a lengthy discussion, following which it was decided that "there would be no withdrawal of any volume (or) manuscript which has already been published or s ubmitted to OUP and accepted by it for publication."

In other words, the ICHR administration has grossly overstepped the mandate it was given by the last full meeting of the Council. All that Grover can say in self-extenuation is that the decision to review the volumes before publication dates from Septemb er 1998. Yet, to this, Settar, who was then chairman, has the appropriate response: "I read from the newspapers that the August 31 and September 1, 1998 meetings of the council are supposed to have set up a committee to evaluate all volumes under the "T owards Freedom" project. I wish to clarify that the committee that was constituted was only to review manuscripts received after that date, not retrospectively." Since the Panikkar and Sarkar volumes had been sent for publication by that date, they were clearly outside the scope of the review.

Settar is also disturbed that his correspondence with Gopal is being twisted to serve the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh clique within the ICHR. He recalls that at the first meeting of the council after its reconstitutio n in June 1998 by the BJP-led government, there was a four-hour long discussion on the "Towards Freedom" project. Although the BJP and RSS sympathisers insisted that the project be stopped, he was equally clear that it could not be: "I said that we could respond academically and if there is a feeling that there have been some omissions, then supplementary volumes could be brought out." The point was again raised at the next meeting and the compromise decision was to set up a committee to review all futu re volumes.

''TOWARDS FREEDOM'' began in 1972 as a project of the ICHR. Its basic purpose was to challenge the interpretation of Indian freedom that had been presented in a British compilation entitled "The Transfer of Power". Certain historians think retrospectivel y that the Indian nationalist response was perhaps a little exaggerated. But they went along with the project in the expectation that it would deepen both the scholarly and popular understanding of the freedom struggle.

The Hindutva propagandists within the ICHR seek to hold the entire team of editors responsible for the inordinate delay in getting the project off the ground. That is an evident falsehood since "Towards Freedom" was in essence an internal project of the ICHR until 1988. For most of this time, it was under the charge of a deputationist from the Gazetteers Department named P.N. Chopra.

A volume dealing with the year 1937 was published in 1985. Although found to be wanting in academic quality, it was put into circulation and is still available in many libraries. A second volume pertaining to 1938 was ready by 1987 but was not published on account of certain evident shortcomings. Chopra was shortly afterwards relieved of responsibility for the project.

Grover today seeks to make out a case that Chopra was the victim of intellectual censorship by Professor Irfan Habib, the eminent historian of medieval India who was then chairman of the ICHR. The charge has been answered by Habib himself: "The needs of the project made it necessary for the volumes to be prepared simultaneously, and accordingly steps in this direction were taken in 1988-89. It was very gratifying that, with Professor S. Gopal as general editor, eminent historians agreed to edit individu al volumes. The entire project was entrusted to the editorial committee... (which)... proceeded to scrutinise a huge pile of documents, classifying and selecting them."

An indication of the academic value of the project in its new format is available from the fact that Oxford University Press agreed to publish all its volumes without any subsidy from the ICHR. The thematic organisation which was preferred over a strict chronological ordering also had inherent merits in that it allowed for the presentation of a vast variety of material. Whereas the "Transfer of Power" documents had dealt with largely a single source and could hence be presented chronologically, "Towards Freedom" was conceived as a project that would go beyond those self-imposed limitations. "Towards Freedom" was supposed to include in its ambit official documentation from the lower levels of the administrative hierarchy, which had been preserved in the National Archives and the various State archives. Apart from this, material drawn from newspapers, pamphlets, private papers, and the documents of various political organisations were meant to be included.

This made a thematic arrangement unavoidable, since the alternative would be an unseemly melange of unconnected documents. Grouping diverse material together in chronological terms would in this context only cause total confusion, say historians familiar with source material on the freedom struggle.

THE ICHR administration has been tied up in agonising contortions in its effort to defuse the sense of outrage in the academic community over the developments. Equally picturesque has been the response of the Union Minister for Human Resource Development , Murli Manohar Joshi. Evidently not cognisant of the methods and purposes of a documentary history, yet eager to project an aura of modernity, Joshi is on record as saying that all books need to be reviewed and revised with the passage of time.

February 16 witnessed a gathering of historians and academics in New Delhi to protest against the ICHR action. A statement signed among others by three former chairpersons of the ICHR - R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib and Ravinder Kumar - denounced the withdraw al of the "Towards Freedom" volumes as the "grossest form of censorship" which was transparently linked up with the "plan to spread a distorted and fictitious history of the national movement".

A still larger protest action took place on February 25, when a resolution to "defeat the designs of the Bharatiya Taliban" was adopted to much acclaim. A core group plans to meet again soon to work out a strategy to confront the ongoing cultural offensi ve. "Towards Freedom" may have begun as an academic project and at various stages in its career seemed little more than an arena for abstruse scholarly disputation. Today, it seems more akin to the terrain where a battle to retrieve the authentic history of a nation's independence and the spirit of its democracy will be waged.

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