Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Romila Thapar and her critique of Y Sudershan, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research

A look at the world of politics, statecraft, diplomacy and books

In his, My Quest for the Middle Ages, Jacques Le Goff the celebrated French historian writes: History emerges from the questions posed by historians.  Unfortunately, Indian historiography is so caught in the trap of personalities that even the most celebrated historians of India, and Professor Romila Thapar is undoubtedly one in the galaxy, is not able to come out of that trap. Even since 1969 when India Gandhi and her regime decided to create a "secular" history for India, the writing of Indian history has degenerated into a never ending game of name calling and label sticking: Communal, Reactionary, Obscurantist, Ultra Nationalist etc are some of the label bandies about and a great historian like Romila Thapar is not expected to lend her authority to this charade. The fact is that India became a Nation in a historical process that is both complex and controversial. It was with an air of misguided triumphalism that Nehru declared in his speech that that at the "stroke of the mid night hour when the world sleeps India will wake to life and freedom". In reality India awoke to the most horrendous nightmare of violence on both sides of the border and the triumphalist rhetoric of Nehru has become the credo under which two generations of post Independence historians wrote history and taught a Nation centric history to their innocent acolytes in Universities such as JNU and Delhi University. Anyone who questioned the wisdom of the ruling paradigm was dismissed as a communal RSS tainted pseudo scholar. Therefore sensible questions about Indian's march to freedom were not asked and it was left to a Western scholar, perry Anderson to expose the "communal" politics inherent in the politics of the Congress party. Therefore instead of blaming the so called Communal forces, is it not possible to view the Congress  politics especially after 1939 as being fraught with dangerous consequences for the future of Indian nation, making Partition a possibility.

Romila Thapar has in a recent issue of India Today (July 21st 2014) criticized the appointment of Prof Y Sudershan Rao to the post of Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. If she addresses the larger issue, whether the State should be in the trade and business of funding History, I might say that there is merit in her critique. However, her criticism is directed at the present Chairman at a personal level. She says that he is not "visible" in terms of research. The fact is that "highly" visible historians converted ICHR into a bailiwick of historians who in the name of :secular" history only wrote history that upheld the political settlement of 1947. The fact that India's freedom came with a fatal flaw was conveniently ignored. The attack mounted by Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Harbans Mukhia nearly 45 years back in a little pamphlet, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History is still the battle cry under which these historians gather the usual suspects. It is tragic that after six decades of Indian Independence  historians still bicker over the very idea of India. Y Sudershan Rao apparently has an interest in the textual basis of Indian history and this is sufficient for the scholar to declare his interest trivial and irrelevant. In her book, The Past Before Us, Thapar herself has used literary text for the purpose of reconstructing the different configurations of historical consciousness in early India. Of course, every historian has the right to ask the questions he or she chooses to ask and I do not think that the questions posed by one set of historians can be dismissed tout court.

Another criticism launched against the present Chairman is that he seeks archaeological validation to the epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana. In fact it was during the regime of Nurul Hasan that the Archaeological Survey of India started a project of identifying and excavating sites associated with the so called epics. The discovery of the Painted Grey Ware Culture and the Northern Black Polished Ware was taken to represent some sort of archaeological horizon of the cultures represented by the epics. In any event, these historians remain silent when regional cultures such as Tamil region start using literary sources and in this case the historically promiscuous Sangam Texts for the purpose of historical reconstruction. There is no place for apocalyptic rhetoric like "turning the clock back" etc when all that is being done is to appoint the administrative head of a Government of India body.

Indian historiography has come a long way inspite of the shenanigans of some historians. And the house of History has several rooms and there is place for everyone in that mansion. I do not know why there is attempt made to stifle voices of dissent. Of course, History is a serious endeavour and unless there is attempt at denying or falsifying the past, no historian should be declared an exile from mthe sacred land.  

1 comment:

HemaKumari Botlagudur said...

well said and well written. you hit the nail on the head!!