Inventing a past: Committee formed to study the origin and evolution of Indian culture

A committee formed by the Central government to study India’s ancient past draws criticism from scholars and politicians who raise doubts about the agenda it seems set to pursue.

Published : Oct 13, 2020 06:00 IST

Romila Thapar and D.N. Jha, both formidable scholars of ancient India, are not on the committee set up to study India’s ancient past. The committee, which does not have any historian of repute, is dominated by archaeologists.

Romila Thapar and D.N. Jha, both formidable scholars of ancient India, are not on the committee set up to study India’s ancient past. The committee, which does not have any historian of repute, is dominated by archaeologists.

BACK in October 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the (in)famous remark about Ganesha’s plastic surgery: “We all read about Karna in the Mahabharata. If we think a little more, we realise that the Mahabharata says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb.... We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery,” Modi told a gathering of doctors in Mumbai. Since then, the distinction between history and mythology has dimmed, and frequent attempts have been made to rewrite history.

Now a committee has been announced to study ancient Indian culture that might just blur the distinction between history and archaeology: it invests archaeologists with the responsibility of studying history. In a written reply in the Lok Sabha, Minister of State for Tourism and Culture Prahlad Patel revealed that “a 16-member committee has been set up for conducting a holistic study of origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface with other cultures of the world”. It includes K.N. Dikshit, Chairman, Indian Archaeological Society, New Delhi, and former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India; R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General of Archaeological Survey of India; B.R. Mani, former Director General of National Museum, Delhi; Santosh Shukla, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University; P.N. Shastry, Vice Chancellor of the Rashtriya Sankskrit Sansthan; M.R. Sharma, chairman of Sangmarg World Brahmin Federation; and Ramesh Kumar Pandey, Vice Chancellor, Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sankskrit Vidyapeeth.

There is no representative from South India, indicating an underplaying of the significance of Dravidian culture. There is also no woman on the committee. There are no representatives from minority communities such as Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. The committee, it is alleged, takes forward the ruling dispensation’s vision of one nation, one culture, one religion, effectively ruling out pluralism and diversity.

The noted political scientist Neera Chandhoke, whose book Rewriting Pluralism talked engagingly of India's shared cultural ethos, said: “It all depends on what the government means by culture. Has the committee been formed to study Indian culture or Hindu culture? It is a problematic exercise. More so with people without proper credentials of studying history, without reputed historians on board. It is a very risky enterprise. One nation, one culture is a very authoritarian concept. Why cannot we let people be? We are a multicultural, multireligious society. With not a single woman, no representative of South India or minorities, it is a very debatable exercise. It seems to be yet another nail in the coffin of secularism.”

Telling exclusions

Professor Romila Thapar said she had “not been told about the committee by the government or any of the authorised bodies”. “I am not aware of its brief even,” she added. The renowned historian D.N. Jha also said that he came to know of the committee “through newspaper reports”. He observed: “The committee consists of scholars not known for their balanced views but for promoting right-wing perceptions of India’s past. They are committed to glorifying a non-existent ‘Hindu’ India.”

The noted historian Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi of Aligarh Muslim University questioned the composition of the committee and its brief. He said: “The dates the government has put for the committee to study are problematic by themselves. One does not even know whether we existed at that time! They will study a period about which even historians are not sure.

Moreover, the committee has some suspect names. Forget a Dalit or a Muslim, even otherwise the committee has no scholar of irrefutable merit. They are all contentious figures. They have lopsided, one-sided scholarship. Whether it is B.R. Mani or anybody else, they all have a particular viewpoint. That is why they are on the committee. It seems to be an echo chamber. Nothing else.”

Prof. Rezavi drew attention to the inclusion in the committee of Prof. Makhan Lal, who had undertaken the task of rewriting history for textbooks when Murli Manohar Joshi was the Human Resource Development Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee Cabinet. “There are no Dalits, no minorities [in the committee]. Mostly archaeologists are there. Who are the historians? What are their credentials. There is Prof. Makhan Lal… He was the luminary who attempted to rewrite NCERT [National Council of Educational Training and Research] textbooks when Joshi was the Minister. What else can one say!”

Many academics have been vocal about the committee and its likely role in furthering the ruling party’s outlook. Even Members of Parliament, cutting across party lines, have taken objection and requested the President to disband the committee. According to media reports, as many as 32 Members of Parliament have written to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking his intervention and “advice” to disband the expert committee formed by the Central government to study the cultural history of India on the grounds that its members do not reflect the country’s pluralistic society. Among the signatories are K.P. Chidambaram, Kanimozhi, A.M. Ariff, S. Jothimani and T. Sumathy.

“We wish to bring to your kind attention that there is no reflection of such pluralistic society in the 16-member study group. There are no South Indians, Northeast Indians, minorities, Dalits and women. Almost all the members of the said committee belong to certain specific social groups which are in (on) top of the caste hierarchy of the Indian society,” the letter said. It added that the committee had “no researchers of South Indian languages, including Tamil, which has a glorious history and recognised as a classical language by the Central government”.

Reactions from women’s organisations and minority bodies were relatively muted. However, a federation of Dravidian forums demanded the dissolution of the committee for its failure to reflect the country’s diversity. More than a dozen organisations, including the Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, the Dravidar Kazhagam, the Social Democratic Party of India, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), have floated the Dravidian Culture Federation for this cause, making sure that the battle for supremacy in Indian culture does not go uncontested.

Historians owing ideological affiliation to the ruling dispensation have often contended that Aryans were natives of India and had not arrived from Central Asia, as is widely believed. As Prof. Thapar writes in A History of India , “Aryan is in fact a linguistic term indicating a speech group of Indo-European origin, and is not an ethnic term. It was against this background of peoples and cultures of Indian prehistory that the Aryan-speaking tribes arrived in the north, and made their contribution to Indian civilisation.”

Jamia Millia Islamia’s renowned historian Rizwan Qaiser said the formation of the committee was a public relations exercise to keep the government’s constituency happy. He said: “This is an old game which is being pursued. They want to give different interpretation to the latest findings in Rakhigarhi. They want to give a different interpretation to several other things, a different interpretation to Akbar, to the Taj. This kind of history will never carry any conviction. The report of such a committee will not survive historians’ scrutiny. It is a PR exercise by the government to tell their constituency that, look, even in terms of history, we are doing something very serious. And you will have something interesting to follow. I do not look at the committee with any sense of conviction. If they were serious, they would have had a historian… a serious one or two who had dedicated their life to history’s study. But the government keeps everything opaque; it formed a committee in the middle of a pandemic.

Tomorrow, when the report comes, people will be surprised. This government is not bothered about the pandemic or about the suffering of the people. They are not here to please anybody except themselves.”

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