Ramachandra Guha "I wasn't asked if I wanted to be in on it...historians were perhaps added as an afterthought."
Shyam Benegal "While there's no problem in marking 1857, following events have been an uncomfortable chapter."
Bal Apte "Historians haven't done justice to Veer Savarkar. No celebrations could take off without acknowledging him."
For over a year the government has been poring over history books to map out a programme itinerary for the 150th anniversary celebrations of 1857. As it conjures up this moveable feast of history to mark the year India's freedom movement officially began, one in which it hopes to involve Pakistan and Bangladesh too, the last thing the government would have wanted is a controversy. But in an ironic twist, there is a mutiny of sorts brewing in the very expert committee instituted to chart the commemorative calendar.
Murmurs of dissent broke out just days after a Group of Ministers (GoM) cleared a budget of Rs 150 crore for a tableau of events beginning August 2007. The committee, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is a mish-mash of politicians, bureaucrats, academics and other public personages. The ones to raise the banner of revolt are the historians on the panel. They don't wish to be part of the sarkari celebrations. Noted historian Romila Thapar categorically told Outlook that she didn't want to be on this committee. "I don't like committees. I won't be able to make it on July 13, the date set for the PM's meeting," she says.
Historian Ramachandra Guha too wants nothing to do with the committee. He says he was surprised to see his name in the list announced in the May 2 Gazette of India. "I wasn't even asked if I wished to part of it," he says. Guha wants no part in the government-sponsored celebrations either. Accusing the government of being presumptuous in announcing the list without asking the members, he says: "Historical discussions and writings should be left to historians." Both Thapar and Guha have expressed reservations over the number of politicians on the panel. Says Guha: "With so many politicians in it, historians were perhaps added as an afterthought."
It is true that the committee looks like something created to please everyone. This, indeed, is the mother of all committees with 68 members under the PM—former PMs A.B. Vajpayee, I.K. Gujral, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda, V.P. Singh, upa chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Jyotiraditya Scindia, CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, CPI's A.B. Bardhan, cabinet ministers, CMs and governors and what have you.
While Guha had cried off a similar effort in 1992, filmmaker and parliamentarian Shyam Benegal says he wasn't aware his name was on the list. "I have not been informed and I don't think I will be able to make it to the meeting," he says. The filmmaker also has doubts about the wisdom of drawing Pakistan and Bangladesh into the celebrations. "While there is no problem in celebrating 1857, events thereafter, leading to Partition, have always been an uncomfortable chapter to deal with for the three countries," he says.
Others too have reservations. BJP vice-president Bal Apte says he has been wrongly identified as an RSS leader. Apte has written to the culture ministry asking them to make suitable corrections. He also has a problem with historians. "I do not think they have done justice to the revolutionaries. No celebrations could take off without acknowledging the debt to Veer Savarkar, one of the first Indians to call the revolt of 1857 the First War of Independence. I am going to suggest to the committee members to give Savarkar his rightful place in history," says Apte.
Asked if he would place his views before the committee at the July 13 meeting, Apte said yes. Whether his ideas will go down well with other members is yet to be seen. On his part, Benegal would like to dub 1857 as the last great gasp of the old feudal order, with sentiments now understood as nationalism coming only much later in the course of history.
Unmindful of the rumblings, however, various ministries are preparing in earnest to make a spectacular success of the programme calendar, which will extend well into 2008. The view that Pakistan and Bangladesh be roped in is likely to be formalised. "Once the panel gives its nod, we will ask these countries to send their suggestions," say culture ministry officials, justifying this in light of the shared history of the countries.
Incidentally, the culture ministry will have its hands full next year, involved as it is in preparing the roadmap for four anniversaries—the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence, the birth anniversary of Bhagat Singh; the 75th year of his martyrdom; and the centenary of Vande Mataram. There will be an attempt to synergise all these events.
One plan is to refurbish and renovate all the landmarks on the journey the mutineers/revolutionaries took in 1857—from Meerut to Delhi. A recreation of the march that the mutineers made is part of this proposal. Renovations of buildings identified by the asi as linked to the uprising are also part of the plan. The asi is in the process of identifying palaces and forts in Kanpur, Lucknow and Meerut for renovation. The Publications Division has been directed to bring out commemorative books and periodicals. Also, expect a lot of plays and patriotic songs from the i&b ministry next year. "The idea is to get out of the elitist mindset and involve people at the grassroots level," say officials.
Also being set in place is a museum on the Freedom Struggle—the location is yet to be decided. All this has obvious spinoffs vis-a-vis tourism with the West taking considerable interest in the world of Raj-era India. Though brimming with plans, to begin with, the government has to ensure some sort of consensus among the members of the committee before it meets next month under the PM.
If all goes well, starting August next year, the subcontinent will be taking an 'official' trip down memory lane—reliving the beginnings of the Freedom Struggle. As of now, merely staying free of recriminations seems like a struggle.