The fear of history


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OF all the social sciences, it is history which rouses the greatest interest in the minds of the politicians. There are various reasons for this. It has always had an inventive and purposive use. The line between history and mythology is thought to be thin; the past can be used to lend legitimacy to any aspect of the present and, especially in the years of resistance to imperialism, history could be utilized to strengthen the forces of cultural nationalism.

But, the use of history did not depart with the foreigner, though the nature of the problem changed. In the first place, the discipline of historical analysis has itself been transformed. In the last thirty years the study of the past has become scientific, and is as different from mythology as astronomy is from astrology and chemistry from alchemy. It goes without saying that history is not, and cannot hope to be, a science in the sense of experimentation and recreation of the conditions which are being examined. No precise laws which can be checked are possible. But the study of history can be scientific in the sense of rational approaches and analyses and the careful and methodical scrutiny of source material. It has moved away from the projection of the historian’s identity and from the search in the past for current aspirations, and is a specialized discipline with a recognized and verifiable methodology and proper use of evidence. The historian, of course, is still aware of the present and on this basis formulates the questions which he poses to the past; but he would regard it as a betrayal of his task if he utilized his present requirements to secure the answers which he seeks from the past.



However, this in itself worries the politician who, even in a free country, hopes to utilize history in the interest of his ideology and, especially if the latter is retrograde and backward-looking, finds that scientific history is of no use to him. He would seem, indeed, to be even more than worried by the fact that the ‘new’ history is an obstinate discipline. Unlike the other social sciences, such as economics and sociology which are, in a sense, reactive studies and seek to solve problems rather than be content with assessing them, history seems to stand apart, as a kind of judge; and the discipline is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it cannot be ignored.

This explains why all totalitarian regimes seek to harness history in their support and have it rewritten according to their needs. Hitler secured the elimination of the Jewish element and contribution in the German past. An almost exact parallel with what is happening in India today happened in Germany in the early twentieth century. Gustav Kossinna argued for the primacy of German prehistory in a study published in 1912 where the German people were described as the most superior and the cradle of world civilization. The 1941 edition quotes Hitler at length and Kossinna’s chauvinism was a deliberate support of racism. Himmler used these arguments to back Nazi policy and stated that, ‘Prehistory is the doctrine of the eminence of the Germans at the dawn of civilization.’ Mussolini ordered the revision of Italian history to serve as a precedent for his own foreign policy. Historiography in the early phase of communist societies also distorted events and personalities on the ground that the new history represented the aspirations of a new class whose role had not been considered before. History to dictation is a natural ally of authoritarianism.

There is, alongside this desire to exploit history, a widespread fear of scientific history. This is not peculiar to India. In recent months we have had in Britain, academic mugging of Marxist historians and in Greece invective poured on French scholars who dared to minimize the glory of ancient Athens. But what is novel and particularly alarming in our country is the manner in which non-historians have decided to intervene in what should, at best, be historiographical polemics amongst professionals. One can ignore presumptuous editors who publish in their dailies lists stating which historians should be given what jobs. But the situation becomes more serious when politicians, especially those in authority, decide to pronounce on purely academic matters.



The Janata Party has been swept into power primarily to safeguard civil liberties. Manifestly, one of these liberties most to be cherished is the right of scholars to free thought, unimpeded research and the untrammelled expression of their conclusions. But this academic prerogative is the first to be challenged by the Janata Party, or at least a section of that party, the Jan Sangh and its ally, the RSS (members of which have publicly defended the move to ban certain books on history). The Janata government would appear to be providing official sanction to this assault, and, as was perhaps to be expected, the historian is the first of the social scientists to come under fire. Those among the economists, political scientists and other academics who publicly supported the Emergency have either clambered on to the new bandwagon or been forgotten; but even the historians who declined to support Mrs Gandhi in her last two years of power have now to deal with fresh onslaughts both on themselves and, even more seriously, on their discipline.



The prime minister has been reported to have said, at a widely publicized function in the capital, that a particular type of approach to our national past is the ‘correct’ type of history. As this report in the press has not been denied, we may take it that the prime minister did say this. The report raises many questions. There is, first of all, no such thing as ‘correct’ history. Information can be correct or incorrect but not history. There can only be views of the past, some of which approximate more clearly to the reality because of the evidence they draw upon and the quality of their logic and analysis.

Besides, while I have regard for Morarji Desai and respect for his achievements, I am not aware that he has any special qualifications for expressing a conclusive preference for a particular approach to history. I am sure that Morarji Desai would think may times before stepping forward, even in his newly acquired status as head of the government, to proclaim that Newtonian physics was superior to those of Einstein’s; it is odd then that he should venture into history, which is today as technical a branch of knowledge as physics.

It is said that on the same occasion, Dr. V.K.R.V. Rao called upon the new government to translate the history of India compiled by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan into all the Indian languages. Dr. Rao would rightly regard me as out of my mind if, in twenty years time, I, as an outworn academic and discarded careerist, ascended the platform to demand that the writings in economics of J.C. Coyajee be translated into our fourteen languages. I wonder if our politicians realize that when they deliberately trespass into specialist fields of scholarship and seek to lay down the law, they are, in the minds of all thinking persons, making fools of themselves.



Even worse, for who is he whom the prime minister and Dr. Rao are commending? Dr. R.C. Majumdar, who even thirty years ago was twenty years out of date and writing, at length and in profusion, traditional, blinkered history. His only claim today to our esteem is that he is 91 years of age. His longevity has earned him the right to be preserved in cotton wool by either the Janata government or the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (at times one feels that these days the Bhavan is becoming a part of the government).

But all this would be merely laughable were there not lurking behind it a serious danger. For, Dr. Majumdar is the doyen of a Hindu chauvinst view of Indian history. He and his followers see the history of our country only in terms of the achievements of the Hindus; and any questioning of their analysis of the medieval period or of the national movement in terms of ‘Hindu heroes’ is said to reflect a pro-Muslim communalism. Obviously there were some events which were closely related to Hindu-Muslim relations and have to be analysed as such. Religion as a factor in historical explanation is not to be ignored, and the existence of religious tensions at various times and places cannot be underplayed. But no historian would today regard religion (or any other element for that matter) as the sole factor in explanation. To interpret the history of medieval India or to study Indian nationalism only in terms of Hindu-Muslim relations leads into the blind alley of limited explanations based on communalism of either the Hindu or the Muslim variety.



Modern Indian historiography has been influenced by the context in which it has developed and, with the changing context, has passed through various phases. Initially, the modern study of Indian history, in the period of western imperialism, was dominated by British and European opinion as expressed through the interpretations of Orientalists, Indologists, Utilitarians, administrators, proclaimed imperialists and other camp-followers of the raj. The hangover of this type of interpretation of Indian history is still to be found, with varying degrees of subtlety, in a few lingering academic pockets in Britain with some less subtle echoes among Indians.

But, in India itself, parallel with the evolution of the national movement and influenced by it, Indian historians began to question the European interpretations. This healthy development was gradually a victim of some distortion under the pressures of cultural chauvinism and communal politics. With independence, these pressures lost much of their emotive force and Indian historians, in a sense, came into their own. They could adapt and apply the new methods of analysis which were increasingly coming into vogue in the world. They could question the prejudiced conclusions of imperialist historiography without succumbing to the narrowness of cultural nationalism or basking in its comfortable atrophy. They could do justice to the size and complexity of India and involve themselves in studies of its regional structures. But all this in itself has called forth the opposition of communal politicians who wish, for ideological reasons, to restore the outmoded and simplistic framework of cultural nationalism.

It would be bad enough if this group in the Janata Party was concerned only with fostering a species of unscientific history which was suited to its political activities. But in fact this group has mounted an offensive on independent practitioners of the discipline and thereby posed a threat to the foundations of our intellectual life. They have blundered into the position of assuming that historians who write as they will and with proficiency are in fact supporters of the former regime.



Take the episode of the time capsule. Mrs Gandhi’s government, for reasons best known to itself, decided to inter this capsule and to include in it, along with a very detailed list of personalities and a chronological catalogue of events, an assessment of the first twenty-five years of free India written by a non-official historian. The whole idea of a time capsule is a nonsensical gimmick and no historian would take seriously either the idea of placing in it an interpretation (apart from a catalogue) of history or giving any such draft serious consideration. It is a commonplace that each historian has his own interpretation and no two historians agree. The new government has taken what can only be termed a ridiculous decision to spend as much time, effort and money in lifting this capsule as had been spent in entombing it; and, in the bargain, seems to foist on one historian the responsibility for another historian’s analysis. Nor is the rank and file of the Janata Party short of bumptious bounders who cannot comprehend the professional ethic that one historian will not revise the viewpoint of another.

There are, however, more important issues than the time capsule to worry about. Three textbooks, Medieval India by Romila Thapar, Modern India by Bipan Chandra and Freedom Struggle by Bipan Chandra, Amales Tripathi and Barun De are under attack. The first two have been published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training and the third by the National Book Trust, both organizations financed by the Ministry of Education; and the withdrawal of these books is being seriously considered on the suggestion, it is believed, of the prime minister. A fourth book, brought out by a private publisher, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History by Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra, was being translated into some Indian languages by the Indian Council for Historical Research, and it is known that this project has also been put in abeyance.



It appears that these actions have been initiated on the basis of criticism from anonymous sources. The academic level of the criticisms is so low as to rouse the suspicion that the motivation is more personal and ideological than scholarly. Those who have written in support of the criticism have made such comments as to suggest that they have not even read the books in question.

Interestingly, three out of the five authors under attack are my colleagues at the Centre for Historical Studies in the Jawaharlal Nehru University; and this naturally rouses the thought that a concerted attack on the Centre, known from its inception for its independence and resistance to all forms of pressure, may be part of the strategy. It is paradoxical that a section of the Janata Party may be holding against the Centre for Historical Studies the very fact that most of its members publicly demonstrated their opposition to the Emergency and signed the representation protesting against the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution. If the objective is to give official recognition to one approach to our country’s history and to suggest that this approach is superior to all others, obviously the first step in such a monstrous strategy would be to weaken those departments of history which are likely to take an independent intellectual position.



Whatever its academic inadequacies and its long-term dangers, as a political act the attack is shrewd, for it seeks to stir both Hindu sensitivity and liberal fears. Quite apart from the questions of interpretation and emphasis, historical facts which go against a ‘Hindu’ view of history are brushed aside. No note is taken of the recent worldwide process which has seen a shift of interest in historical research from personalities to social and economic trends. The stress now is not on the roles and actions of individual rulers but on the wider context and background. Beneath the policies and day-to-day activities of men lie more significant, impersonal developments. So the inter-relations between religious sects and the social and economic conditions of the time become more pertinent, and it is shallow to explain any phase of Indian history in terms of a single theme – that of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims.

Those who wish to remain on this simplistic level of explanation are deliberately narrowing the focus of their vision and ignoring both the research and the methodology of the last thirty years. The Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University was started with the intent of taking these new trends in historical explanation into account and concentrating its attention on social and economic history. If, as part of this enthusiasm to block all new approaches to historical knowledge, this Centre be weakened, then we shall have in India only the occasional topic on social and economic themes in the traditional syllabus of dynastic history and no major drive to develop new forms of research in the discipline. In other sciences, new knowledge is welcomed; in history, it is feared and sought to be smothered. Obviously, in the long run, this cannot hope to succeed; but, in the process, a great amount of time would have been lost and considerable effort frustrated.



The specific flaws in the criticisms leveled at these textbooks rise from this approach. If historical analysis were as easy as this, everyone can claim professional expertise and happily make authoritative pronouncements. For example, that Aurangzeb was a bigoted and communal Muslim is thought to be beyond dispute, and scholars who do not describe him as such are blamed for secular partisanship. It is not grasped that the honest historian has to come to terms with documents of Aurangzeb’s reign referring to cash and land endowments made by him to individual Brahmins and to Hindu temples.

Aurangzeb was obviously not a mere communalist but a careful manipulator of religious groups. So the problem spreads out from a narrow study of Aurangzeb’s religious convictions and policies, to a consideration of the politics, the economic necessities and the social groups accepting patronage from Aurangzeb. In attempting such a broader consideration of the forces and patterns of that time, historians are not trying to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony for non-academic reasons. They are only, in line with current professional thinking on the subject, extending the framework of analysis.

The effort to denounce these textbooks also aims at frightening people, who would otherwise instinctively take a liberal stand, by hinting both that these authors project the views of the former government and that these books are part of a widespread communist conspiracy to infiltrate educational institutions. There is no reason why Mrs. Gandhi’s regime should be given gratuitously a monopoly of scientific historical writing; it certainly does not merit this gift.

Work was started on the three NCERT books in 1964 at the invitation of the then editorial board consisting of Nilakantha Sastri, Muhammad Habib, Bisheshwar Prasad, B.P. Saxena and P.C. Gupta with Tara Chand as chairman. I took over the chairmanship in 1966 at the request of the then minister for education, M.C. Chagla; and the other members of the board were Nurul Hasan, Satish Chandra and Romila Thapar. All the three books were written and published by 1970; and the next year, when Nurul Hasan became minister and the board was reconstituted, I declined to continue as chairman and Romila Thapar gave up her membership.



These facts should indicate that the books had nothing to do with the Emergency. They also show that the books passed through a wide range of expertise, ensuring that the final text would be regarded as reliable by historians. Apart from the scrutiny provided by the two boards, the manuscripts were also sent to other historians for their comments and these were considered in detail by the authors and the editors, and the texts modified where necessary. Even after publication, when comments were received from scholars and educationists, changes were made in later editions. The purpose was to ensure that the textbooks did not express idiosyncratic or wholly subjective viewpoints but stated what might be termed a consensus of modern research and analysis.



For, the whole purpose of such textbooks is to provide schools and colleges, which are aiming at high academic norms, with books which are regarded by professionals in the discipline as maintaining a respectable level of quality, incorporating the most recent trends of research and comprehensible to the age group for which they are intended.

The basic structure of a text-book in history should have standard material acceptable to historians. Textbooks, which are after all the technical literature for teaching a particular subject, can only be written by experts, although their general comprehensibility can certainly be commented upon by other educationists. A proper textbook in history should not provide information to be memorized but indicate ways in which the past can be understood. It is therefore essential that historians involved in and familiar with ongoing research and current methodology should be made responsible for the preparation of textbooks.

Textbooks at one level are a public issue, but at a more important level they are the responsibility of those professionally involved in the subject since the general intellectual level of work in the subject is dependent upon the quality of textbooks used throughout the period of training. Not only teachers but the students themselves are interested in this, for the serious student today has a fuller awareness of intellectual requirements and makes greater demands on the academic framework of his life than his counterpart of an earlier generation.

Competition for a place in the sun adds to this. Today’s student cannot be lobbed off with sub-standard knowledge masquerading under various guises. So the writing of textbooks should not be left to those who are mere compilers of outdated and often incorrect information or money-rakers who are not historians but professional textbook writers. History textbooks are not intended primarily to teach the child patriotism, loyalty, morality, mythology or whatever; they are meant to teach the child history. Such virtues can be taught through other, preferably extra curricular, means.



The other allegation of communist infiltration can hardly be treated seriously. I have been attacked in Parliament by name from the government benches as a supporter of communist causes. Marxist fellow-historians will no doubt squirm to find me placed, however involuntarily, in their midst. The specific charge is that I had a share in recommending the purchase of the P.C. Joshi archive by the Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an invaluable collection for the study of international communism since the First World War, and very high bids were received for it from both Europe and the United States. Joshi himself gave priority to retaining these papers within India, although it meant financial loss; and I am proud of even the minor role I played in seeing to it that those papers were not lost to our country.

Such attacks are facilitated, and confusion in the public mind made easier, by the denunciation of the ‘new’ history as Marxist. It is, indeed, incredible how easily the bogey of communism is raised and what a wide multitude of thought and concept is covered at the popular level by the label of Marxism. A serious consideration of social and economic factors, which the scientific approach to history entails, is seen as the thin end of the Marxist wedge. The fact that some of the world’s leading anti-Marxist historians are economic historians is clearly beyond the comprehension of these self-styled saviours of the discipline in our country.



This sense of insecurity is so acute that all trace of Marxist thought is sought to be wiped out. There is obviously no justification for a crude and vulgar Marxism of a populist variety; but of this even serious Marxists would be ashamed and they can be left to deal with it. But Marxism in itself is a major intellectual influence in the world and throwing a cordon sanitaire round the Indian mind is not the answer. We need to have a dialogue with Marxism and not to suppress it. Na•ve Marxism will have to be out-argued and not smothered by unbridled authoritarianism. Without some Indian scholars writing serious Marxist history, Indian historiography would be much the poorer. It is worth remembering that the richness of the French intellectual tradition of recent years, in contrast even to the Anglo-Saxon one, is explicable to some extent by the need to formulate an intellectual attitude to Marxism.

There must be many in the Janata Party, among both the leaders and rank-and-file, who are disconcerted by this whole string of events concerning history and historians, and the mental outlook which it denotes. Not merely are textbooks denounced, but a book which has been privately published is recommended for withdrawal, and it is stated that the prime minister desires a review of similar books from a similar viewpoint. This leaves it open to the government to secure withdrawal on a large scale of books which do not meet with official approval.

There is in fact, underneath this whole controversy, a general principle involved, namely, the academic rights of the academic community. The government’s actions and threats indicate a contempt for scholars. Withdrawal of serious, prepared literature is considered by ministers and bureaucrats on the basis of anonymous complaints without any explanation being offered or any known process being followed.



It has been said that a decision is pending. It is mystifying as to why the whole matter is being treated as strictly confidential. To this day neither the authors nor the editorial board have been informed that their books have been criticized or what is the nature of the criticism. The minister for education has stated that some historians are examining these books but nothing has been disclosed as to who these historians are. Such secrecy suggests that the proposed withdrawal of these textbooks is no mere academic matter.

If textbooks can be arbitrarily condemned and their withdrawal considered because they do not happen to suit the ideology of a particular political group within the ruling party, the same can happen to other publications; and one is well set on the road to the indiscriminate banning of all kinds of books. Freedom of expression is as much an issue as academic freedom in this whole affair. Independent thought is not a hang-up from the past but the life blood of a democratic society. It is frightening that one should even need to say this.

In developed countries, where universities have access to private affluence and research is supported to a considerable extent by non-official foundations, the academic community can keep away from government. This is not so in India, and scholars, academics and research workers are heavily dependent on official support for their employment, salaries and most other requirements for their work. This makes it all the more incumbent on our government to ensure that their control of the financial levers is not exploited to restrict the independence of the academic community and, what is even more reprehensible, to interfere with the processes of thought and the conclusions of research. So the issues raised by this attack on a few historical works are very wide and concern not only the authors of those books and other historians but all members of the academic community; and indeed every person interested in the maintenance of civil liberties and in the free play of the mind.



Unimpressed by shabby authority and refusing to bow to social and economic pressures, the Indian academic community has, on the whole in recent years, a fairly commendable record; and no doubt it will resist this latest onslaught by a few Janata extremists till wiser counsels prevail in the Janata Party as a whole. There is certainly no possibility that the large majority of practicing historians will surrender their understanding of their discipline. If history is to be a rational study of the past, historiography must break away from its own past. This has happened in India as elsewhere in the world; and there is no scope for retracing these steps. The new trends and insights in historical analysis transcend differences in politics and environment. The demarcation today is not between American and Soviet historians but between scientific hostorians in every country on the one hand and the old type historians on the other. Of such scientific history our politicians, save those with a distorted outlook, have nothing to fear.


* Reproduced from ‘India 1977’, Seminar 221, January 1978.