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.