February 22, 2020
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Red Tint To History

A book on the freedom struggle irks CPM. It wants it rewritten.

Red Tint To History

The state government's bid to bring out a book on the history of the freedom movement in Kerala ended up in a slanging match between the historian selected for the task and the Marxist establishment led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. The faceoff has spawned a state-wide debate on the niceties of history writing that has divided the intelligentsia along ideological lines.

It all began when the director of public relations (DPR) visited the residence of historian A. Sreedhara Menon in Thiruvananthapuram earlier this month. The DPR mission was to secure Menon's consent to write a book that would trace the course of the independence struggle in Kerala. Menon, who has authored 16 history books in an academic career spanning several decades, evinced interest in the project. But he set one condition: that the government must grant him total editorial independence.

The matter was clinched and Menon set to work on the book which opens with the arrival of the Portuguese on the shores of Kerala and culminates with the formation of the state in 1956. On the way, the author takes a cursory look at significant social movements and peasant uprisings and also highlights the reforms initiated by the Maharajas. Menon completed the mammoth project in three weeks.

When he was applying finishing touches to the book, a communication arrived from the public relations department, saying that Menon was part of a panel of distinguished historians who would collaborate in writing the book. Menon was most surprised with the clause accompanying the note: "The committee will write the book in consultation with E.M.S. Namboodiripad".

An agitated Menon shot off a terse reply opting out of the panel and swore to publish the book on his own. The incident was prominently splashed in all the local papers. Irked by Menon's remarks in the media, Marxist patriarch Namboodiripad now entered the fray and engaged him in a wordy duel on historical perspectives.

By now the feud had spilled out into the open. It soon became clear that this was the result of a faux pas on the part of the bureaucrats who handpicked Sreedhara Menon to write the book overlooking the fact that he is persona non grata to the Marxists. The formation of a panel to oversee the project was obviously meant to neutralise the indiscretion. The consensus conditions imposed by Namboodiripad were a means of ensuring that Menon's account of history would be tempered with a line closer to the Marxist one.

 This political compulsion was camouflaged by a facade of academic arguments. Namboodiripad faulted Menon for his urge to downplay the role of such peasant struggles as Pannapra Vayalar, a milestone in the history of the communists, which commemorates the martyrdom of the Left cadres. Namboodiripad also charged Menon with glossing over the role of resistance heroes such as Pazhassi Raja and Veluthampi Dalawa. In short, Menon was projected as a historian lacking in objectivity who was not open to the Marxist viewpoint at all. Therefore, the need for a con-sensual approach to history.

Menon dismisses the criticism and describes Namboodiripad as dabbling in illusions. "First, Namboodiripad has not seen my manuscript. I have not ignored the significance of Pannapra Vayalar or Pazhassi Raja. Second, consensus does not work in writing history. Most of the history books in the world are written by individuals," Menon told Outlook. He cites Toynbee, Wells and Gibbon as examples of individual historians who wrote with an integrated vision of history. He says even Marxist historians in India like Romila Thapar are known by their individual names and are not associated with any collective effort.

This statement was enough to draw flak from most Marxist quarters. P. Govinda Pillai, Marxist ideologue and chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation, was critical of Menon's viewpoint. Pillai, who figured on the committee but stepped down on the grounds that he is not a professional historian, is an advocate of the consensual approach. "History books by individuals are a thing of the past," he says. "Today, it is a collective effort. The world history volumes brought out by the United Nations and the history of India by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan are examples of this." But the real issue is something else. The Marxists were worried about an unflattering reference in Menon's book. They had reason to worry. The manuscript accuses the communists of adopting an unpatriotic stand during the freedom struggle to please the war-time Soviet regime—which advocated collaboration with the British.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar joined the fray by declaring that Sreedhara Menon is not the last word on history. However, it looks like Menon may have the last laugh in the matter. His book has been picked up by a leading private publisher while the controversy promises to boost sales. But the debate on history remains unresolved with both sides reluctant to accommodate the other's viewpoint.

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