History Lessons

The appointment of a new chief at the Indian Council of Historical Research reignites old battles over who controls ideas of India

A BJP campaign rally in Hyderabad in 2009. The party promised to redress supposed historical wrongs. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / Getty Images
Elections 2024
01 August, 2014

THE RECENT CONTROVERSY over Y Sudershan Rao’s appointment as the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research has once again made history-writing news. Historians described variously as Marxist, Hindutva, secular and communal have lined up on opposing sides, and a familiar war of words has commenced in the media. The historian Romila Thapar set the terms of engagement in an India Today opinion piece focused on public statements made by Rao that indicate a complete disregard for historical method and the vast body of existing research in his areas of interest (such as fixing dates for the events in the Ramayana and Mahabharata). According to Thapar, Rao’s appointment suggests the ICHR “may now turn the clock back” on historical scholarship. Rao has gamely defended his academic interests and his research methodology, on television and in newspaper interviews. But he remains an easy target—one that distracts from deeper issues connected to his appointment.

The ICHR has always been political. The council was created in 1972, when the historian, diplomat and politician Nurul Hasan was education minister. That was the twenty-fifth year of India’s independence, and the ICHR’s activities then—primarily commemorative research projects on the freedom movement and political martyrs, and surveys “to locate the lacunae in historical study”—set the tone for its functioning over time. The council was mostly a funding body, sponsoring conferences and dispensing scholarships, travel bursaries and other grants to graduate students and scholars. More significantly, it was part of a system of academic patronage that was of a piece with a larger culture of patronage created by successive Congress governments. The council’s chairman was—and has always been—selected by the government of the day. (In all these years, historians have not tried to change this basic arrangement.)

The important projects the ICHR funded were concerned with the anti-colonial struggle and the formation of the nation. The most ambitious of these, approved in the council’s first year, was Towards Freedom, which set out to document the regionally complex, contentious and varied resistance to British rule after 1937. The time frame was fixed by a government committee that considered the Indian National Congress’s victory in provincial elections held between 1936 and 1937 as the event that finally made Independence inevitable. The project was conceived as a response to the Transfer of Power series, twelve volumes of official British documents published by the UK government between 1970 and 1983. But, despite spending nearly Rs 2 crore and co-opting tens of graduate students, only three of Towards Freedom’s twenty projected volumes had been published by the year 2000.

During the first quarter century of the ICHR’s existence, the chairmanship passed from one historian to another within a small and largely friendly group. Although they were not all from the same ideological stream and had varied scholarly interests, they regarded each other as peers. Their common enemies were colonialism and colonial historiography. By and large, these men—and they were mostly men—accommodated the interests of their overlapping circles of patronage. They seemed satisfied so long as the appointments excluded people they considered philistines and fantasists. The dominance of the Congress in politics, and of Left-linked historians in academia, underpinned this peculiar equilibrium.

But this consensus soon found itself competing against another type of history, as the Bharatiya Janata Party gained prominence during the late 1980s and 1990s on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Together with its ideological anchor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP advanced an alternative history in which the Indian nation had enjoyed a Vedic golden age that was catastrophically interrupted by the arrival of Muslims. The country had not yet recovered from this supposed historical wrong, which the BJP promised to redress.

The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which was presented as a demand for such a remedy, made history an electoral issue. Many historians, including several former chairmen of the ICHR, actively opposed the campaign on historical grounds. They pitted their professional expertise against the BJP’s political rhetoric. But their arguments had very little impact outside university seminars, historical societies and the living rooms of the intelligentsia. For every piece of evidence an anti-BJP historian produced, a BJP-friendly historian produced a counter. Ancient texts, potsherds and pillars piled up on both sides. In this milieu, arguments about intellectual rigour and academic qualifications made little difference.

For the first time, perhaps, a spotlight fell on the limited role that academic historians, mostly cloistered in universities, played in defining what history was for ordinary Indians. As the historian Neeladri Bhattacharya wrote about a controversy over changes to school history textbooks that followed the formation of a BJP-led government, “Historians could try and shape popular imagination, countering inherited opinions and sedimented stereotypes, but they could not deny the right of the citizens to express themselves in public, operating with their own sense of history. It is this right that defines the limits of the historian’s territory and the historian’s anxieties about such limits.”

The RSS and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar, whose political campaigning was built on what they called “bhavana”—loosely, sentiment and belief—had these anxieties in reverse: they felt a need to put the justificatory stamp of scholarship on popular sentiment. This was, in a sense, legitimated by the fact that, since Independence, writing history had been part of the nation-making project. Taking over this practice was not hard, as the Congress–Left combine and the BJP shared the premise of a unitary nation state (even if they violently disagreed on its ideology), and the belief that the state should have a role in shaping understandings of history.

After coming to power in 1998, the BJP-led coalition government evicted the custodians of the ICHR and other research bodies. Suddenly, the political patrons had changed, and the idea of a secular nation that emerged from an anti-colonial struggle against the British was openly challenged. State institutions were now controlled by votaries of a rival history. If the old guard made room for historians of some calibre and, within limits, a contest of ideas, the new regime only had use for those who shared its vision. The ICHR’s new masters suspended Towards Freedom, and set up a committee to review the project. The Left organised demonstrations in protest, and newspapers carried fiery claims and counterclaims from each side.

But the ICHR was not where the real battle was fought. It was the National Council of Educational Research and Training, tasked with devising school curricula, syllabi and textbooks, where the most intense dispute over the idea of India took place. The BJP-led government commissioned new school textbooks to replace those in use since 1970. To lead this project, it picked historians with strong links to the RSS. Certain omissions in the resulting textbooks indicated that an effort had been made, among other things, to gloss over the RSS’s detachment from the anti-colonial movement and its role after Independence.

The exercise became a well-publicised shambles, embarrassing even those not unfriendly to the BJP or a Hindu-nationalist view of history. Unsurprisingly, the process was reversed in 2004, when the Congress returned to power. New chiefs were appointed to the NCERT and the ICHR, and the Towards Freedom project was revived. As a result of the NCERT debacle, there was a thoroughgoing discussion on the nature of school textbooks, and their control by timorous nationalists—whether from the Congress–Left or the RSS. The new NCERT director worked with a focus and speed never seen at the institution before to gather a group of fine scholars and teachers. They produced an entirely fresh set of textbooks on history and political science, which for the first time reflected modern pedagogy, remained open to changing ideas—including ideas of the nation—and, above all, encouraged critical thinking.

Ever since these textbooks were published, the RSS-affiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Nyas and Shiksha Bachao Andolan have been demanding changes to them via court petitions and public campaigns. They describe their work as a battle against “Marx, Macaulay, Madrassa (The Evil Three),” and a “mobilisation of all nationalistic and patriotic forces to preserve the true History of India so that the confidence of future generations is not emasculated by Communist distortions.” The NCERT has responded pragmatically, accepting tweaks so long as they do not entail major pedagogic changes or ideological intrusions.

Against this background, Rao’s appointment as the chief of the ICHR comes as little surprise. Replacing one set of political appointees with another marks a kind of continuity. Rao’s lack of scholarly credentials is also in keeping with a pattern: although obsessed with controlling ideas, the RSS and its various arms have always been anti-intellectual. Whatever its ideological predilections, the Left has always had the advantage of thorough scholarship—something even its arch critics, such as the journalist and BJP member Arun Shourie, concede.

Yet, in the current context, this distinction is moot—as is the question of who controls one or another research-funding body. The underlying problem is the extension of political control and patronage into ostensibly free intellectual spaces. Long before the BJP was a political force, universities felt the deadening weight of political interference in course design, syllabi and “essential reading” lists. Even in the best Indian universities, opportunities for intellectual work—jobs, promotions and research sabbaticals—were closely controlled, and handed out as discretionary prizes.

In the political melee, we often forget that historical research has moved away from grand statist narratives. The discipline has opened up to more imaginative and peopled renderings of the past, with thinking about gender, caste, the environment, culture and language offering new perspectives. This increasingly rich body of work has emerged, in the main, without the patronage of bodies such as the ICHR. A good deal of research on Indian and subcontinental history is now being done abroad. Graduate students and even established scholars from India are being drawn away, in the words of one young researcher, to “communities of scholars producing new research.” Defenders of independent historical research in India should be concerned less with individual appointments and more with how intellectual freedom and imagination are hampered by political patronage, how the production of historical knowledge continues to struggle against rigid ideologies and bureaucracies, and how politically dominant ideas of India still cast long shadows over historians and their craft.