HISTORY is fundamental to the construction of the Hindu rashtra. "History is," says senior historian Bipan Chandra, "the main ideology of the RSS." If the final objective is to transform young minds into a permanently saffron votebank, then what other way to do it than mass produce textbooks extolling the greatness of the fair-skinned Aryans, fathers of glorious and ancient India.
If Golwalkar's idea that the real enemy of nationalism is the Muslim, not colonialism, is to be propagated then there is a need for historical research that 'proves' that India was plunged into 'darkness and decline' during the medieval period by 'murderous' Muslim invaders who, when not destroying temples and constructing mosques, were forcing Hindus to convert to Islam.
Thus, the relationship between the Sangh parivar and scientific—as opposed to 'Hindu'—history has always been a vexed one and once again History is the target of 'nation-building'. The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has been reconstituted—within only three months of the BJP-led government coming to power—with 18, aged, mostly retired pro-Ram Janmabhoomi historians. All of them have, in some form or another, lent public support to the existence of the temple at Ayodhya or written what has been described as 'communal' history. The new ICHR has no younger scholars and represents no new areas of research. However, a new appointee, Calcutta University's right-wing liberal historian Dr Amitabh Mukherjee, says he is not a supporter of the BJP. "I have received support from both Left and non-Left parties," he clarifies.
Fresh evidence available with Outlook reveals that not only has the ICHR been packed with 'sympathisers' but a new statement of objectives or resolution has been added, changing certain key words from the original Memorandum of Association of 1972, legitimised by an act of Parliament. While the original Memorandum of Association states that ICHR's aims would be to give a "rational" direction to historical research and foster "an objective and scientific writing of history", the new resolution, which will be included in the Gazette of India, states that ICHR now seeks to give a "national" direction to "an objective and national presentation of history". So, "rational" has been changed to "national" and "scientific" too has been changed to "national". This, says K.N. Panikkar, professor of history at JNU, amounts to a change in the stated objectives of the ICHR.
'National' history is a problematic concept, according to K.M. Shrimali, former head of history at Delhi University. Who is to define 'national'? "After all, we don't regard our historical work as anti-national," Shrimali says. But clearly the nationalism of the progressive historians might diverge a little from the officially-sanctioned nationalism of the HRD ministry.
Shrimali believes the ICHR move is part of a long campaign by the parivar. Significant numbers of textbooks have already been re-written in states like Rajasthan, UP and MP. In 1977 Jan Sangh ideologue Nanaji Deshmukh drew up a set of guidelines on the banning of textbooks. At this time the NCERT text by Prof. R.S. Sharma, which provided evidence that certain communities in ancient India may have been beef-eaters, was sought to be banned. The proceedings of the Indian History Congress (IHC)—the largest organi-sation of professional historians in India—were disrupted in 1991 during its Ujjain session when the BJP state government tried to capture it through bogus membership. In Dewas, MP, the NGO Eklavya has been repeatedly attacked by members of the VHP and Bajrang Dal for publishing textbooks that do not conform to the parivar's notion of history. In 1992, offices of Eklavya were raided and their textbooks burnt on the streets.
The only funding agency for professional historians in India apart from the UGC, the ICHR is important because it directs academic research and can lend scholarly legitimacy to certain historical surmises. Eminent historians like Ravindra Kumar, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar have been associated with it. "But at last," says B.P.
Sinha, former head of archaeology at Patna University, "the opposite side has got a chance." Earlier, say the right-wing historians, the ICHR was in the grip of "card-carrying communists". "These historians created an intellectual discourse which was dominated by the Left," says K.S. Lal, former head of department from the University of Hyderabad, a new appointee. Prof. Chandrashekhar of Bangalore University, another new councillor, believes that he has yet to come across a historian who totally agrees with a political party. "But I want to correct history," he says.
Chandra says the re-constitution of the ICHR is an attempt by the Sangh parivar to control the ideological instruments of society and create a malleable body which will direct historical research the way the ministry wants. "This is an attempt to penetrate the intelligentsia. The parivar has no historians of its own, so they are using the service of people who may have, for their own reasons, supported their cause at a certain time."
Most of the new ICHR councillors are specialists in ancient Indian history. Prof. B.R. Grover, formerly of Jamia Millia Islamia, was a representative of the VHP during talks with the Chandrashekhar government and the Babri Masjid Action Committee in 1990; B.B. Lal wrote a famous article in the RSS publication Manthan on the existence of a temple base at the disputed site. Prof. Satish Mittal of the Kurukshetra University and Prof. Hari Om of Jammu University have been described as "pracharaks" of the parivar; Prof. Dharmpal has written on the negative effects of English education and advocated a return to native systems.
Prof. Irfan Habib of Aligarh Muslim University—once described as India's best historian—says the politicisation of ICHR is a result of an attempt to popularise "pseudo-history". "The people who have been appointed are not historians, they are political appointees," says Habib, adding that there has been a complete indifference to academic norms in the attempt to propagate prejudice as history. Prof. Kancha Iliah of Osmania University agrees. "The very fact that the hardline Murli Manohar Joshi is the HRD minister shows that they are determined to succeed."
Yet K.S. Lal maintains that for several decades the Left-liberals in the history establishment have discriminated against people of differing views. "The ICHR was not politicised by the BJP but by the Marxists. Nurul Hasan, and Irfan Habib after him, packed the place with Leftists," Lal says, citing instructions by the NCERT in 1982 to "weed out undesirable textbooks in history" and the notification by the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education, which in 1989 said "Muslim rule should never attract any criticism. Destruction of temples by Muslim rulers and invaders should not be mentioned." As far as he's concerned, says K.S. Lal, this is an attempt to suppress facts. He also says the Congress has always promoted its brand of official history through agencies like the NCERT.
Panikkar, Shrimali and Chandra, however, all point out that liberal-Left historians have often been critical of mainstream politics. But Hindu historians have tended to support one particular party. In the obsession with the forcible conversions and other 'tyrannies' of Muslim rule, they have failed to develop a proper understanding of the political culture of the medieval era where Hindus and Muslim rulers often attacked temples as an assertion of political power. The struggle between the empire and powerful regional chieftains was political and territorial, not religious. "In any case," exclaims Chandra, "are we trying to replicate the culture of the medieval age in modern times?"
Progressive historians believe broadly that social and economic processes, rather than great people constitute history. The right wing believes the opposite. They identify Indian history with the fundamental theme of Muslim conquests; glorify "Hindu" heroes like Rana Pratap and Shivaji; posit the freedom struggle as primarily a struggle against Muslims and do not examine social or labour movements. Their history is old-fashioned and rather outdated.
The new ICHR," says Panikkar, "has instituted a gerontocracy which will take us back to the history of the 1930s." All advances in Indian historiography such as the writers of the Subaltern school or younger scholars who have been acclaimed abroad have been completely ignored.Prof. H.K. Barapujari, formerly of the Guwahati University and one of the appointees, is almost 90.
Beyond ICHR, the question is, does this government believe history is a system of inquiry in itself or is it a tool to secure the Hindu rashtra? In the earlier liberal traditions, the IHC had members ranging from the 'right-wing' G.H. Khare to the Marxist R.S. Sharma. Now the attempt seems to be to create a narrower, more mythologised history of 'heroes' and 'villains'. But it's the Congress, says M.G.S. Narayanan—formerly of the Calicut University—which is guilty of politicising liberal institutions."Nehru placed himself as head of the Sahitya Akademi and Indira Gandhi had her own reasons for setting up the ICHR." Narayanan believes the Left has been arrogant about religion and in India you can't separate religion from culture. Dr S.P. Gupta, museumologist and widely believed to be the person who has drawn up the ICHR list although he himself does not feature in it, is vituperative. "All these bogeys are being raised by those who are feeling left out!"
Yet the scientific historian is always the enemy of mass nationalism based on political constructions of the past. Scientific history challenges the heroic fighter cult of Hindus, the notion that ancient India was "great" and medieval India meant "decline"; that there ever was an entity called "Ram" and whether the history of India is one of Hindu vs Muslim by pointing instead to the competing ambitions of ruling elites. As re-written history shows , Hindu history can sometimes be absurd.
The speed with which the government has moved and the focus on entering the minds of the young," says Chandra, "is particularly disturbing." Both the Information and Broadcasting and HRD ministries that control popular attitudes are under BJP ministers both at the cabinet and state levels while other ministries have accommodated their allies at the state level. This reveals the importance the Sangh parivar places on the penetration of the popular mind.