The history project

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The reconstitution of the Indian Council of Historical Research points to a continuing drive to project a certain ideological agenda.

SINCE assuming charge of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1998, Murli Manohar Joshi has made little secret of his intent to isolate the Left and liberal strains of social science research from all positions of authority. Recent jibes about "intellectual terrorism" and genuflection before the right of religious leaders to censor history texts, have done little to bolster the confidence of the academic community in the man who once held the honorific title of professor despite a consistent record of abusing it in word and deed.

The good news about the recent reconstitution of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), observers wryly commented, was that no religious leaders had been coopted into the body to exercise the authority that Joshi and Co. have conferred on them. Things could not get much worse, the observers reasoned, since the ideological agenda had been set in 1998, when the ICHR was reconstituted with little regard for the convention of retaining a third of the incumbent membership to ensure an element of continuity.

A demonstration in New Delhi in February 2000, against the decision of the Indian Council of Historical Research to withdraw two volumes of the series entitled "Towards Freedom".-S. SUBRAMANIUM

As the details of the composition of the new council emerged, this element of resigned despair gave way to horror and the complacent were confronted with the reality that things had indeed just got worse. If the unwritten purpose of the 1998 reconstitution was to conquer the historical frontiers of Ayodhya, the HRD Ministry now seems to have shifted its sights further back in historical time - to the Harappan civilisation. And one of the new nominees to the ICHR is N.S. Rajaram, an engineer from Bangalore whose greatest distinction has been to engineer the presence of a horse in the Harappan civilisation through the ingenious use of modern digital techniques.

Since the character of his scholarship was exposed (see "Horseplay in Harappa," Frontline cover story, October 13, 2000), Rajaram has contrived one face-saving explanation after another, each less convincing than the previous one. He is currently credited with the insistence that the textual lacunae prevalent with the Harappan civilisation and the archaeological gaps pertaining to the Vedic period could be resolved quite simply by collapsing the two cultures into the same historical time-frame. This argument of convenience is, of course, dear to the heart of the Hindutva chauvinist view of history, though it has had the more serious scholars recoiling in horror.

Rajaram is also one of the principal contributors to an Internet-based forum ( that has set new standards in the concoction of facts and sectarian hate propaganda. A glowing account of his accomplishments on this website informs us that his most recent work "relates to the decipherment of the 5,000-year-old Indus script done jointly with the great Indian Vedic scholar Dr. Natwar Jha". "This is recognised," it continues, "as the most important breakthrough of our time in the study of Indian history and culture." But even this seemingly magnificent achievement has not quite exhausted his talents, since he is "regarded an authority on Christianity also, having authored a book on the early history of Christianity called The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Crisis of Christianity, published in England in 1997." He has also written two other books on like themes, titled in a manner that should make their purpose clear to the meanest intelligence: Christianity's Collapsing Empire and its Designs in India and Christianity's Scramble for India and the Failure of the Indian Elite.

In December 2000, well before Osama bin Laden had become a household name, Rajaram had memorably summoned up his malevolent presence to influence the debate over Ayodhya: "Can the terrorist warlord Osama bin Laden claim the ideological right to demolish the Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati or the Golden Temple in Amritsar and build something else in there to mark the triumph of his 'faith'? These, like Ram Janmabhumi, the Westminster Abbey and the Statue of Liberty, are not pieces of real estate that can be bartered - or forcibly occupied and demolished." And in the extravagance of this projection of modern religious bigotry into the medieval period, Rajaram summed up the founder of the Mughal empire in India with charming brevity: "Babar was as much a religious fanatic as bin Laden."

Rajaram's prodigious talents do not end with the Harappan civilisation, early Christianity and the medieval Mughal empire. In a June 2001 contribution to his Internet forum, he was displaying a remarkable acuity about contemporary history: "When a history is written of the last twenty years of Indian politics," he stated, "Sonia Gandhi's name is likely to be associated above all with the Bofors scandal." And from this insight, Rajaram went on to suggest that evidence has been found of criminal collusion between the Congress(I) leadership, international drug cartels, the Vatican and a money-laundering syndicate based in the Gulf region.

By any criterion, Rajaram's fulminations would qualify as "hate speech" warranting action under the applicable laws. But under the twisted priorities of the HRD Ministry, his reward is elevation to a higher pedestal from where his influence can presumably be more widely diffused.

It is not clear whether Rajaram will be inconvenienced by having to share space with individuals who do not quite accept his magnificent scholarly achievements. Known principally for his excavations of the Harappan site of Dholavira, R.S. Bisht, Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, is one of the new nominees to the ICHR. Bisht is also the principal author of the text that accompanies the exhibits at the Harappan Gallery in the National Museum in Delhi. Opened in 2000 after major refurbishment, the Harappan Gallery is introduced to the visitor with a textual panel that states quite definitively that the script is yet to be deciphered.

Observers today do not rule out the possibility that this panel will be altered in the near future to reflect Rajaram's newly acquired status as a member of the ICHR. Bisht for his part has shown sufficient malleability in the past in his interpretation of the Harappan script. Departing from the accepted consensus, which dates from B.B. Lal's proposals in the 1960s, subsequently reaffirmed by all scholars, the introductory panel to the Harappan Gallery states that the script was written from "left to right".

When contacted by Frontline in November 2000, Bisht accepted principal responsibility for the authorship of the panel, but insisted that the text he had submitted to the National Museum had been in conformity with the consensus that the script was written from "right to left". He had not, he conceded, seen the final version of the panel as it was put up in the Gallery, and did not rule out the possibility that a typographical error could have crept in after the text went out of his hands.

This plea was contested then by D.P. Sharma, Keeper in the National Museum, who collaborated with Bisht in putting up the Harappan Gallery (Frontline, November 24, 2000). Sharma indeed went public with his grievance over the excision of certain sections of his book on Harappa, done with the seeming intent of bringing it in conformity with the ideological slant of the HRD Ministry. Among the excised portions, he claimed, was one that upheld the scholarly consensus on the script.

The panel continues to be displayed at the Harappan Gallery, despite the violence it does to historical understanding. This points to political design rather than innocent typographical error as the determining factor. As various scholars have pointed out, the effort to read the Harappan script from left to right is a transparent effort to "force-fit" it into the mould of the subsequently evolved Sanskrit script. It is part of the Hindutva programme of drawing a direct line of descent between the Harappan and Vedic civilisations, akin to Rajaram's pathetic effort to engineer a horse image on a Harappan seal.

If Rajaram qualified by virtue of deceit and Bisht by virtue of his malleability, there have been few quarrels over the scholarly accomplishments of Bombay University art historian Devangana Desai, who also figures as one of the 12 new members of the ICHR. An active engagement with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad campaign on Ayodhya has earned Makhan Lal of the Institute of Archaeology, Delhi, nomination to the council. And a similar commitment has been evident in several of the six incumbent members who have been retained, notably B.B. Lal, K.S. Lal, Satish Mittal and Hari Om.

A political design is evident in not merely the new inclusions and the retained membership, but also in some of the omissions. A case in point is Delhi University historian Prithpal Bhatia, a principled dissenter against the ICHR's decision in February 2000 to withdraw two volumes of the "Towards Freedom" project when they were at an advanced stage of publication. Joshi had then argued that the decision was consistent with the outcome of deliberations at an ICHR meeting held in June 1999. He suffered the mortification of being publicly reminded by Bhatia that "Towards Freedom" had neither been listed on the agenda of the said meeting nor discussed. It did not help Joshi's cause that the statement Bhatia contradicted had been made during the course of a parliamentary debate, leaving him vulnerable to breach of privilege action.

In line with the clandestine and dishonourable procedure it has adopted in undermining the most comprehensive documentation yet attempted of the climactic years of India's freedom struggle, the ICHR recently appointed a three-member committee to review the two volumes that were withdrawn from publication in early-2000. This followed the failure of arbitration efforts between the council and its publisher, Oxford University Press. Neither of the editors of the two volumes concerned - K.N. Panikkar, Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala, nor Sumit Sarkar of the Department of History, Delhi University - was consulted over this decision. The ICHR's official spokesperson, P.K.V. Kaimal, also declined to comment on the issue, pleading that he was not authorised to do so.

In early February, the editors of the two volumes sent their first official communication to the ICHR since the controversy over the "Towards Freedom" project erupted. The two volumes, said Panikkar and Sarkar, had been assembled after appropriate consultations within the editorial board of the project. They had also gone through the scrutiny of the General Editor of the project, the eminent historian S. Gopal. After they had run this entire gauntlet of scholarly peer review, there was no occasion for further appraisal of the volumes. Though legal action was not specifically threatened, there was sufficient indication that Panikkar and Sarkar would contemplate this option if the integrity of their work was impugned in any manner by the ICHR's newly initiated review. In its next phase, the battle against the Hindutva assault on scholarship could well shift to the legal arena.

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