A shade of saffron

Published : Oct 13, 2001 00:00 IST

The Congress(I)-led government in Kerala wields the axe against a nascent historical research institution.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

THE Congress(I)-led United Demo-cratic Front (UDF) government has decided to do away with the Kerala Council for Historical Research (KCHR), an institution that represented perhaps the first serious attempt in Kerala to promote scientific historical research. The KCHR was established in March 17, 2001, towards the end of the term of the previous Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), by transforming the Kerala Gazetteers Department into an autonomous organisation to "promote historical research" and act as a "nodal agency for the generation of historical knowledge and its dissemination".

The order dissolving the Council was issued on September 22, disregarding the fact that the KCHR was an autonomous council formed under the Travancore-Cochin Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act, XII of 1955, with clear legal provisions governing its dissolution, even though it was only a government department in its earlier avatar.

Chief Minister A.K. Antony, who announced the Cabinet decision a few days earlier, said that the KCHR was being dissolved because there were complaints about "procedural and financial irregularities" and about its "approach to the writing of history".

The majority of the Council members, including its Chairman K.N. Panikkar, renowned historian and Vice-Chancellor of the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady, and Director P.J. Cheriyan, had no inkling about the government's move. In a statement to the press the next day, Panikkar said that the government had decided to dissolve the Council without even observing the elementary courtesy of informing the Chairman and that the reason appeared to be "political, rather than academic and administrative". The government, he said, had succumbed to the campaign by some historians and history teachers "working in collaboration with the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh)" and that it was regrettable that "the government of Kerala, led by the Indian National Congress, which has a legacy of great secular tradition, has chosen to go by the dictates of communal interests. Communal forces are engaged in appropriating history for defining the nation in religious terms. Secular history, which the Council advocates, is understandably targeted by those historians who have chosen to serve the interests of the communal forces".

Panikkar also criticised the government's decision to re-establish the Gazetteers Department. "The Gazetteers was a creation of the colonial administration as part of its strategy to acquire knowledge about its subjects. That is the reason why the Gazetteers Department was progressively abolished by most States after 1947. Strangely, we in Kerala seem to be going back in time, jeopardising in the process the possibility of furthering historical knowledge," he said.

In a separate statement, a majority of the Council members (except the government nominees) denounced the State government's decision as "blatantly unjust, academically, ethically and legally". The members - M.R. Raghava Varrier, Rajan Gurukkal, K.S. Mathew, Kesavan Veluthatt, K.K.N. Kurup, S.M. Muhammed Koya and K.N. Ganesh - said that the decision infringed on the autonomy of a registered society of professional historians and raises the all-important question regarding the relationship between autonomous organisations and the government. "We consider that the dissolution is the result of unfounded charges and false propaganda by a handful of people of communal political persuasion and with certain vested interests," the statement said.

The members said that the Council was dissolved for imaginary reasons rather than on the basis of well-founded facts. "It is claimed that the Council is guilty of extravagant spending. The Council has been in existence only for six months, a period when certain steps were taken to create the minimum infrastructural facilities and to initiate some preliminary academic activities for which a very small amount has been spent so far," the statement said.

While the government and Congress(I) leaders maintained a studied silence, the reaction came, significantly, from M.G.S. Narayanan, Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), who is known for his proximity to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and P. Parameswaran, the director of the Bharateeya Vichara Kendram. In a statement published in a section of the media, Narayanan said that the formation of the Council was "a Marxist party conspiracy to hijack history for its destructive, sectarian purpose of party propaganda" and welcomed the government's move to dissolve it. Narayanan alleged that the KCHR was "hastily established" by the CPI(M)-led Ministry on the eve of the elections and was "packed with party followers" and that "if the Marxist-led government had a right to form a research council purely on party lines, the UDF government was certainly within its rights in dismantling a camouflaged party machine".

In his press statement, Parameswaran welcomed the government's move as a "signal service" to the people. According to him, the real objective of the LDF government's projects such as the KCHR was "to perpetuate cultural and intellectual domination of the Marxist party in Kerala".

Parameswaran alleged that if the KCHR was allowed to function, "it would have been converted as a centre for Marxist studies of Kerala History". Though there was nothing wrong in Kerala's history being studied through the lens of historical materialism, it "need not, and should not be done by officially founded and government-supported institutions", he said. Alleging that there was no scope for free intellectual discourse in the universities in Kerala as they have "Marxist Vice-Chancellors and Leftist-dominated ruling bodies imposed on them by the previous government", Parameswaran said that "the Marxists wanted the KCHR to be a super academic body to guide and patronise" the universities. In response to the criticism that the concept of Gazetteers is a legacy of the colonial past, Parameswaran said that "after the collapse of the communist empire, Marxist historiography is also just a legacy of outdated communist imperialism and there is not much to choose between the two".

Narayanan said that though the Gazetteers Department was "not meant exclusively for history, historians who can recognise that history does not mean merely political or party history will appreciate the need for such publication (Gazetteers) in this democratic age". According to him, only those who are "allergic to the sharing of information with the public at large" would decry the decision of the government.

Narayanan, however, said that on the eve of the elections he had been invited by the LDF government's Minister for Cultural Affairs to join the Council, but his letter asking for clarifications and information about its rules and regulations was ignored. "When I contacted the heads of departments of History in the Kerala and Calicut Universities, they also denied any knowledge of the scheme. There seems to have been a conspiracy to appropriate history by means of such hidden agenda and secret manoeuvres," he said.

THESE allegations, especially the one characterising the Council as a Marxist one, have been stoutly denied by the Council members. They said in a statement that taking resort to such allegations was a well-known rightwing ploy to win the sympathy of the liberals and that the assertions by people like Narayanan were "not only mischievous but also misleading".

Pointing out that a historian is known by the intellectual tools and the methodology he employs, they said even an elementary knowledge of historiography would convince anyone about the influence of Marxism in historical research and analysis in the 20th century. "Indeed some of the historians who are members of the Council have drawn upon Marxist methodology, more accurately methodologies, which, as M.G.S. Narayanan projects, is not the same as being the hatchet men of any party. To M.G.S. Narayanan and people of his ilk, 'Marxist' appears to be a metaphor for abuse. This is not a criticism of historiography but an attempt at slander," they said.

Denying the charge that the formation of the KCHR was part of the political agenda of the CPI(M), they said that the idea of the Council was first mooted in a workshop organised by the Gazetteers Department in 1989, in which several historians from Kerala, including Narayanan, were present. "The proposal, though submitted to the State Planning Board, did not materialise. About two years back the proposal found acceptance in the Governor's address to the State legislature. It is thus not an 'illegitimate child born in the Marxist cattle-shed' as Narayanan alleges, but in whose birth he himself had some responsibility. It is a different matter that when it actually materialised he chose to keep away by raising the Marxist bogey. By then, however, the BJP had come to power at the Centre and he had eventually become the Chairman of the ICHR."

Endorsing their statement, Cheriyan told Frontline: "The government could have been misled as well. I wish the Chief Minister read our Memorandum of Association and the Annual Action Plan of the Council. It is unfortunate that merely by raising the 'Marxist bogey' people can undo such noble ventures. The primary aim of the KCHR was to further the cause of first-class scholarship in historical research. But the mainstream media, in their over-enthusiasm to support the allegations made by one or two historians with Hindutva connections, interpreted it as the promotion of Marxist historiography, which the myopic political establishment took as the promotion of Marxist political interests. That seems to be the reason that ensured the death of the KCHR."

Cheriyan said that out of the nine historians to be included in the executive council, the original list had five who could not be described as "Marxist". Only one among them showed the courtesy to join, he said. "Narayanan asked for some details but he now refuses to acknowledge my e-mail and telephone calls offering to explain the nature of the council to him. It is very easy later to argue that the Council is full of Marxists. It is very unfortunate that the government should have gone ahead to order the dissolution of the Council without looking into the vision behind the KCHR, how it was constituted, or the nature of its activities," he said.

In their statement, KCHR members said that during the short period of its existence the Council had drawn up an academic programme that would considerably enrich the field of historical research in the State. It included an annual Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai memorial lecture (which was to be delivered this year by the British historian Lawrence Stone), in-service training for college teachers, a series of publications, a local history project for schoolchildren and the setting up of a resource centre by acquiring sources from institutions such as the India Office Library in London and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. According to Cheriyan, other programmes for the year included establishment of history societies across the State, an oral history project for school children on the ecological history of Kerala's villages, and a history colloquium in which a select group of social scientists, teachers and students would interact with prominent historians and discuss their methodology.

The Council and three of its members have challenged the government's decision in the Kerala High Court. The government decision, they have said, is without the authority of law and jurisdiction, apart from being arbitrary, illegal and void. The KCHR, according to them, is a society registered under the Charitable Societies Act and it can be dissolved only by the decision of three-fourths of its members. The government, they argue, has no power to dissolve the society registered under the Act or to take over its assets and properties. On September 25, the High Court ordered a one-month stay on the implementation of the Government Order.

THE Kerala government's decision has been criticised by prominent historians and social activists. Several well-known historians, including Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Satish Chandra, K.M. Shrimali, D.N. Jha, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Mushirul Hassan and Arjun Dev, issued a joint statement, urging the government to reconsider its decision. They said: "The production of historical research on scientific and unbiased lines is a very important task today. This is especially so for all State governments that do not subscribe to the anti-secular measures taken by the present BJP government at the Centre in the realm of education and research." The historians said that much was expected of the newly established Council. "No one can be convinced by the argument that its functions can be performed by the newly established Gazetteer Department. While no one can have any quarrel with the proposal to prepare and publish new editions of District Gazetteers, this work cannot possibly encompass the larger cause of promoting research in the history of Kerala as well as general history... We are also surprised that such a step should be taken when the Congress leadership itself has been highlighting the threat of saffronisation and stressing the need to foster the proper projection of history to our people."

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