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Is India Headed Towards a Simplification and Dumbing Down of Its History?

By ATUL DEV | July 6, 2015

Atul Dev: At what point did you decide that your presence in the ICHR as member secretary had become redundant?
Gopinath Ravindran: The immediate reason for my resignation was that I disagreed with the change in the Advisory Committee and that I was not being allowed to put this disagreement on paper. I knew, very well, that institutions such as the ICHR would be undergoing changes with the change in the central government. This was pretty clear to everybody. However, I thought that by remaining there I would at least be able to record my dissent—if the event arose and the protocols of historical research were deliberately breached—in the public domain, as the minutes of all the meetings held by the ICHR Council are put up on the website. With that episode, it became clear that they would not allow me to hold a contrary view even formally. So, I decided that there was no point in continuing anymore.

AD: Was the decision to disband the advisory committee unanimous? Were you the only person in the council meeting to voice any opposition?
GR: I was the only person in that meeting who disagreed. This is also available in the draft minutes, which the chairperson did not sign.  He said that I couldn’t disagree with a decision taken by the committee. During the meeting of the council, when I asked for the reason behind taking such a decision, I was not given a satisfactory answer. Various epithets such as “elitists” and “goondas” were used with reference to the former members of the advisory committee. This was clearly unacceptable.

AD: Was your discontentment with the working of the ICHR, building even before the meeting at which the council took the decision to disband the editorial board and the advisory committee?
GR: It was building from the very beginning. You see, the ICHR is run by a council of 18 historians, who are nominated by the government of India. The council members generally hold office for two terms, and eight members of the outgoing council were eligible for a second term. However, they were not offered a second term. This, according to the constitution of the ICHR, is well within the rights of the government. In July, a couple months after the retirement of Basudev Chatterji (the former chairperson of the ICHR), the government appointed Y. Sudershan Rao—a person who was not very well known among historians. Later that year, I had informed Rao that a list of names for a new council would have to be sent to the Ministry. He asked me to suggest the names of some historians, which I did. He never discussed that list with me. I do not even know if that list was sent to the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (HRD). He may have compiled a new list by himself, or the ministry may have appointed people on its own accord. The process wasn’t transparent, so I don’t know. Either way, the member secretary had no role whatsoever to play in the selection of a new council.

The next instance was during one of our annual lectures. The ICHR invited Professor SN Balgangadhara, who teaches philosophy at the Ghent University in Belgium. Inviting a non-historian for the annual lecture, despite there being many eminent historians both in India and abroad, was a clear departure from the earlier practice of the ICHR. Balgangadhara came and badmouthed Indian history and historians—he dismissed their research and said that they had failed to capture the essence of India, which according to him could only be found in Hindu epics and ancient texts.

But even that wasn’t the problem. What was disheartening to see was that when one of our council members—Rajan Gurukkal—was commenting on Balgangadhara’s lecture, he was booed and heckled by a group of about two dozen people, among whom I could clearly identify some RSS (Rasthra Swayamsevak Sangh) ideologues and people close to the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party)—it was the first such incident. The funny thing was that during his comment, Gurukkal was quoting Sanskrit texts at length; these people didn’t have any problem with that. They only got hassled when Romila Thapar’s (a member of the advisory panel that the ICHR dissolved) name came up; that’s when I think they realised what Gurukkal was saying.

This was repeated again at the Foundation Day Lecture—in March 2015—when outsiders heckled me when I commented on the lecture David Frawley—an American scholar who promotes yoga, Ayurveda and vedic astrology—delivered during the event.

AD: What is the role of the 18 historians in the working of the ICHR?
GR: These 18 historians are in essence the governing body of the ICHR. All major decisions have to be ratified by this body. The council comprises these historians, the chairperson, the member secretary, and representatives of the government from bodies such as the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, and the University Grants Commission. The two statutory committees formed to oversee administrative and research projects, are formed by nominating members from among the council members.

This time, seven new members in the council are from front organisations of the RSS such as the Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana and the Bharathiya Vichara Kendra. Dilip Chakrabarti, one of the new members, is a well-known archaeologist; but there are also some people who are not even professional historians. They do not have a higher education degree in history. The council also has Michel Danino, who has written a book called the Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati, but he is not a professional historian. Similarly, there is a person who has authored a book on the life of Subhash Chandra Bose, arguing that Netaji died in the Soviet Union. Gangmumei Kamei, a historian from the north east, has produced a large number of historical works on that part of the country. He is currently a member of the North East Council—the nodal agency for the economic and social development of the northeast—appointed by the government of India.

Earlier, the ICHR used to have professional historians, but most of the new members—apart from a few exceptions—do not live up to those standards. The various committees that are formed by the ICHR consist of these people and they are in a position to take decisions on matters that include the interviewing of researchers for funding, sitting in judgement of research proposals and the publication of proposals.

In the very first meeting, the new members authorised the chairperson to revamp all the committees, and as a result, the editorial board of the Indian Historical Review (IHR) was changed. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, a former chairman of the ICHR—who had revived the IHR and turned it into a revenue generating publication—was unceremoniously removed from the position of the editor. The chairperson didn’t even send him a letter before the changes were notified on the council’s website.

AD: Romila Thapar has publicly questioned the selection procedure that was used to appoint Y Sudarshan Rao and his credentials. What opinion did you form of the new chair of ICHR during the short time in which you worked with him?
GR: At a personal level, we did not have any issues. He is a very soft-spoken person; but professionally, I haven’t read anything other than his personal blog. In this country, everyone is allowed to have a point of view on any given subject. However what I read on his blog does not, in my opinion qualify as history. Then, in his interviews, he spoke about the idea of a Greater India that would consist of Southeast Asia, all the way to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran; and he wants the ICHR to invest resources in this. He also said that there was no conflict in the ancient times when there was only Sanatan Dharma (eternal order), and that Muslims are the only ones to have maintained a distinct culture. Such assertions make the ideology of a person pretty clear.

They want to change the way history is written in India, but aren’t very sure of how to go about it. They want to study ancient texts again, but the questions have not changed. Also, there is a deep-rooted animosity towards recognised historians that most members of the new Council share, with a few exceptions. No historian in India has argued that we shouldn’t use Sanskrit texts as sources, and that we shouldn’t study the ancient texts of Hinduism. The initiation of new research that makes the use of Sanskrit sources, as its unique selling point does not in my view, seem terribly original.

AD: Is it reasonable to expect a rigorous and nuanced historical study from the new council?
GR: We have to wait and watch. The new council is yet to commission any major new research project.

AD: What are the projects that you think are going to be affected by the absence of seasoned historians in the ICHR?
GR: Before this council took over, it was decided that once the Towards Freedom project—initiated to document the freedom struggle of India—ßcomes to an end, the ICHR would begin a new project to document Indian history from 1947 to 1964 with Aditya Mukherjee from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Suranjan Das, the vice-chancellor of the University of Calcutta, as its coordinators. I had suggested a name for the project: The Early Years of the Republic. The idea was to document the formative years of the republic, the Nehruvian era. Now I do not know what the new council will do with the project, they might scrap it entirely or change the people who are going to write it; I can’t say. This, remember, is a very sensitive period in Indian history; especially now.

AD: The saffronisation of Indian culture and history has been a simmering concern among the academia through the past year; how does this look from inside an institution such as the ICHR?
GR: I am not really bothered about the saffronisation of history at an academic level, because I do not think that these people have the intellectual and disciplinary wherewithal to question and debunk all that has been written. Secondly, I also do not think that one institution or dispensation can drastically change Indian historiography. So, at the academic and research levels, I am not too concerned about saffronisation; what does concern me, however, is the changing of textbooks. The simplification and dumbing down of history in order to support many of the unfortunate stereotypes that circulate in society is something to be worried about.

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