'A right-wing ploy'

Print edition : October 13, 2001
Interview with K.N. Panikkar.

Excerpts from an interview that Dr. K.N. Panikkar, who was the Chairman of the Kerala Council for Historical Research, gave R. Krishnakumar:

K.G. SANTOSH

How significant was the setting up of the KCHR and what are the implications of the decision to disband it?

The Council represented a very positive step towards the organisation of historical research in the State. Primarily, the Council intended to create the necessary infrastructure and facilities for researchers. In fact, at present even access to resources of Kerala history is very limited, apart from the rather poorly organised State Archives. There is nothing else we have and there is a lot of material on the subject at different places outside the State. From that point of view, the creation of a research resource centre which the Council would have attempted would have given a major fillip to historical research here.

This becomes important in that research facilities in the universities have declined, not only in Kerala but all over India. And most of the research support for social sciences, even for the sciences, is coming from organisations such as the Indian Council of Historical Research and the Indian Council for Social Science Research.

The universities are primarily centres for teaching. History teachers in colleges do not have exposure to the latest trends. The University Grants Commission had earlier conducted workshops and the academic staff colleges came into being but they did not really fulfil their role. So, if the teaching of history is to improve, then some sort of in-service training is necessary and the Council would have undertaken it.

There are so many such initiatives an organisation like this would have undertaken. So, from that point of view, the setting up of the Council was a very positive step.

The criticism against the Council has mainly come from ICHR Chairman M.G.S. Narayanan and Bharateeya Vichara Kendram director P. Parameswaran. You had said earlier that the decision appeared to be a "political" one.

My feeling is that the government's decision is a reflection of the campaign by these people, because this is mainly a right-wing ploy. It has come out as the result of an opposition to secular history which the Council was likely to pursue. And all those who have opposed the Council are those who have been linked with the RSS and the Sangh Parivar. So I think it is a communal attack. I feel that the government possibly succumbed to this false campaign for reasons that we do not know.

Your statement that the government's move to re-establish the State Gazetteers Department will be a retrograde step has also been criticised. One of the arguments advanced is that if the Gazetteers is a legacy of the colonial past, Marxist historiography is a legacy of "outdated communist imperialism" and that there is not much to choose between the two.

I don't think such critics are ignorant about Marxist historiography or post-modern historiography. Such statements do not deserve to be refuted. But about the Gazetteers, I think it is very important. You cannot really compare the Gazetteers with Marxist historiography. Marxist historiography the world over is still a very active academic pursuit where Marxism as a methodology is used. I think even today a fairly large number of historians in India and abroad use Marxist methodology. But the Gazetteers is an obsolete institution. It is not that the Gazetteers that had been produced are not useful, as some people have argued. That is not what I meant. I meant that the Gazetteers that were published in, say 1880, are a statement of that time. It is chronological information of that time, but it was undertaken under a particular context. Most Gazetteers were also known as manuals. I think one of the most outstanding Gazetteers is the Gazetteer of Malabar by William Logan, which is known as the Malabar Manual. They were all written for the use of the colonial administrators for administrative purpose, because they hardly knew the substance.

In the post-1947 period, use of the Gazetteers has gone down. Such information is now not necessary for the administrators. There are other ways by which they get such data. The historians here who are making comments on this are not very familiar with the sources of modern history. The Gazetteers are like the 'native newspaper reports', a series which were a summary of newspapers in Indian languages. They were published from the 1880s onwards but were stopped in 1936 because by then the Congress Ministries came into being and they didn't need the native newspaper reports. They knew what was happening. They could read the newspapers themselves. Similarly, in the post-1947 period, most of the States disbanded the Gazetteers. It is anachronistic. The Government of Kerala took a good step but retraced it.

As far as the Council is concerned, Kerala is not the first State to form such a council. I think 20 or 25 years ago the Tamil Nadu government formed a historical council and some outstanding historians have taken fellowships from there.

So the argument in favour of the Gazetteers is not whether the Gazetteers of the old type are useful or not. They are useful all right. But whether there is any relevance today for continuing such an institution is the question.

Critics say that the KCHR is packed with Marxists.

I was sounded accidentally when I met the then Culture Minister (of Kerala) in New Delhi. He told me that the Governor had made such an announcement and that he would like me to be associated with it. I was invited by the government. Therefore, courtesy demands that when they decide to disband it they should tell me and ask my opinion about it. I am not a paid employee. I don't receive any remuneration or any perks for being the Chairman. That it happened the way it did is very surprising in a democratic state.

When the Council members were invited, I think the majority of them were either non-Marxists or anti-Marxists, that is, those who did not use Marxism for their historical analysis. I think that is a cooked-up charge. Or perhaps those who were invited decided to keep away in order to make that charge.

And even now I think there are people in it who never used the Marxist method in historical analysis or who used a variety of methods, including the Marxist method. So I think this charge is either politically motivated or comes from sheer ignorance of the historian's craft and methods. Historians have come to be known, described and understood by the analytical tools that they use. That is not the same as party support.

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