Concerns of history

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

The 64th session of the Indian History Congress in Mysore takes note of the widening gap between historical research and its popular presentation, particularly in school textbooks.

in Mysore

HISTORY is a robust and growing academic discipline in India despite the political and ideological pressures that it has been under in the last few years. An infusion of young and scholarly talent into the field, in addition to the work and contributions of the old guard, is pushing the frontiers of history in interesting new directions, though the hiatus between research and the presentation of history in school textbooks remains wide and unbridged.

This overview of the state of history and historical research emerged at the 64th session of the Indian History Congress (IHC), which concluded on December 30, 2003, in Mysore. The scale and quality of participation was quite high at the IHC, which is, incidentally, South Asia's largest forum of professional historians. The Mysore session saw record participation with over 1,200 delegates from small colleges, university departments and research institutions from all over the country attending. Over 640 academic papers were presented in five sections, five symposiums and several special lectures.

"The Indian History Congress does not subscribe to any political ideology. It is basically a professional body that reflects a multiplicity of voices and views in history and whose members believe that history should be left to historians," said Ramakrishna Chatterjee, Secretary of the IHC. "I believe it is for that reason that we have seen a steady growth in membership." There was participation from all parts of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern States from where a substantial number of members came.

Reacting to the criticism that the IHC does not accommodate those historians who subscribe to the Hindutva view of India's past and who have challenged some established theories of Indian history, Ramakrishna Chatterjee said: "The reason why you will not find that perception of our past acceptable here is because the majority of historians do not accept that it represents a `viewpoint' in history. Distortion of history and historical facts cannot constitute a `view' of history. We refuse to recognise it as history at all."

THERE appear to be two tendencies within the discipline of history in India. The first is the steady expansion of the discipline's vista at the level of serious research, with new sources, interpretations and methodologies giving it an internal vitality that is diverse and contentious. This was and continues to be an ongoing process and is reflected in the output of professional organisations such as the IHC and in the growing body of published academic literature. It is the second tendency, namely, the gap between new research findings and the popular representation of history, particularly in school textbooks, that has taken a new direction in recent times.

The writing of competent and up-to-date history textbooks for schools has always been an area of neglect in India. Barring the textbooks that were written for the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in the 1970s and 1980s, textbooks in general, and those written for the State board syllabi in particular, have tended to be outdated, inaccurate and, more seriously, compromised by chauvinist bias. In recent years, the attention of the IHC has been drawn to the need for modernising school textbooks, especially in the context of state-sponsored rewriting of history from a Hindu-chauvinist standpoint. It published History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and an Index of Errors in 2003, which listed the errors, distortions and biases that inform a recent set of textbooks brought out by the NCERT (Frontline, September 12, 2003). At the Mysore session, the IHC organised a special symposium on school textbooks, and it was attended by a large number of schoolteachers from Karnataka.

The tone of the Mysore session was set by Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna at the inaugural function. He called upon historians to "register indignation" at the "greatest danger to the Indian polity" posed by the present political dispensation, namely, the "pernicious attempts to twist facts in textbooks and brainwash children". He also said that the IHC must be united in opposing developments that harmed institutional autonomy. "All scientific institutions are in shackles," he said, and exhorted historians to engage in this sangharsh (battle). The address by S. Settar, general president of the session, entitled "Footprints in History: Some Reflections on Early Artisans of India", explored the world of the artisan during the Mauryan period. It was a theme that found resonance in a number of presentations that followed in the academic sessions. An IHC publication, Tribes, Forests and Social Formations in Indian History, edited by B.B. Chaudhuri and Arun Bandhopadhyay, was released at the inaugural function.

In keeping with the usual practice, papers were presented under the five categories of ancient, medieval and modern India; countries other than India; and archaeology. This session was also distinguished by the special panel discussions. The panel on "History of Information and Communication Technology in India" was sponsored by the Karnataka government's Directorate of Information Technology and Biotechnology, "History of Religion and Material Culture" by the Aligarh Historians Group and "History in School Education" by the Karnataka government's Department of School Education Research and Training (DSERT). A panel on "History of the Freedom Struggle in Karnataka" was also held. The symposium entitled "Imagined Communities" was addressed by the noted historians Mushirul Hasan, Bhaskar Chakraborty and M.G.S. Narayanan.

Professor Amiya Bagchi, Director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, delivered the keynote address at the session on Information Technology. Papers on the changing modes of communication and information technologies from pre-modern times to the present evoked much debate. Professor Utsa Patnaik's keynote address for the section on religion and material life analysed the economic basis for the growth of religious fundamentalism in India. The theme of the panel discussion accommodated a surprisingly wide range of scholarly concerns, including a study of the linguistic and social origins of religion and dharma by the distinguished historian of ancient India, D.P. Chattopadhyaya; an intellectual history of 19th century Andhra reformers by V. Ramakrishnan; and a critical re-examination of Foucault's views on modernity in the post-Enlightenment era by Farhat Hasan.

"Religious Ideologies, Institutions and Panths in Medieval India" was the subject of the S.C. Misra Memorial Lecture, delivered by J.S. Grewal, former Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University and a specialist on medieval religious movements, notably Sikhism. The Urban History Association of India organised a special lecture by Irfan Habib, former Professor and Head of the Department of History at the Aligarh Muslim University, entitled "The Town in Indian History".

While the Barpujari National Prize for 2003 was awarded to Partha Chatterjee, Professor of History at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, for his book Princely Imposter, Shereen Ratnagar, Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, received the Hira Lal Gupta Award for her book The End of the Great Harappan Tradition. Prizes were instituted in all five sections for the best paper.

The IHC passed three resolutions. The first was on the recent changes in the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). The IHC recorded its "profound regret" at the decision of the Ministry of Human Resource Development to remove the Chairman of the ICHR "in flagrant contravention of the rules of the ICHR". The government, it noted, failed to assign any reasons for its action, which can therefore only be construed "as an effort to convert the ICHR into a mere appendage of government... (from) an autonomous institution, with a past record of support for academically credible historical research".

In a second resolution, the IHC expressed deep concern over "reports, backed by photographic evidence, of the way in which the priceless national legacy that the Red Fort, Delhi, represents, has been irreparably damaged through an operation ostensibly designed to effect a large-scale restoration of the complex". It urged all people concerned with the restoration that "careful preservation and conservation, on the basis of strictly historical principles, must have precedence over the desire to create tourist attractions". The IHC was moved to pass this resolution after a lecture and slide show by the Delhi-based designer Rajeev Sethi on the damage caused to the priceless art and architectural features within the Red Fort complex by a clumsy and ill-informed conservation plan. Intervention by the Supreme Court has put the restoration plan on hold.

The third resolution dealt with the related issue of heritage conservation. It put on record the IHC's concern over the state of the excavated sites of Vikramshila and Bodh Gaya in Bihar. The resolution noted that while the remains of the Vikramshila Mahavihara suffered from "callous neglect and unscientific preservation", the site at Bodh Gaya was the victim of "excessive religious interference".

The energies that drive the discipline of history are as active and determined as they have ever been. "I think the message that has emerged from this congress is that history should be left to historians and should not be politicised," said Suvira Jaiswal, formerly Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Nevertheless, I don't see any reason for pessimism. Historians continue to be active in continuing the tradition of scientific exploration despite their concerns at the way history is being officially commissioned."

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