Status Quo vs The Resisted Truth

Students of history would be aware that at least over the past decade, India has been intensely engaged in self-contemplation with a view to rediscovering and reasserting the beauty and might of her civilisational identity and role. Going deep into her soul, examining her true nature as well as the character of the distortions wrought by a repressed and thwarted identity, shedding the dross accumulated over centuries of powerlessness – it has not been an easy journey. Nor is it by any means complete.

At our mundane level of existence, such a course invariably manifests as an asymmetry in the political, economic, intellectual, social, cultural, and spiritual life of the nation. As the process seemingly involves moving into uncharted territory, it causes misgivings even in those who believe that the spiritual-meta-physical tradition(s) born and nurtured in this land is central to its character and historical destiny. To those whose intellectual proclivities have imprisoned them in a sterile attachment to forms that have passed away, the apparent instability engendered by the movement away from familiar moorings is nothing short of catastrophe.

It is thus understandable that a flood of invective and innuendo has followed recent appointments to the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) by the BJP-led Government. Disguised in the familiar rhetoric of secular versus saffron, what is at stake is the revelation of a resisted truth, and hence, a major challenge to the entrenched intellectual status quo, which has hitherto determined how this country shall conceive of, and define, itself. Unfortunately, sections of the media have agreed to serve as insentient and faithful servants of those who have defiled the country spiritually and intellectually, and are striving to annul a profound metamorphosis that they mercifully cannot undo.

The columns of verbiage essentially boil down to the allegation that a handful of the 25 persons nominated to this august body have supported the sangh parivar’s “divisive stand on Ayodhya.” Leftist intellectual KM Shirimali pontificated that “an institution such as the ICHR should have been kept free from ideo­logical or party affiliations… if historians be­gin getting politicized that will spell the end of all objective historical writing and research in the country.”

This is akin to the pot calling the kettle black, although I hold no brief for the im­pugned historians and archaeologists ap­pointed to the ICHR. Those following the con­trived moral outrage over the issue will be fa­miliar with the impeccable academic cre­dentials and stature of men like BB Lal, BR Grover, KS Lal and BP Sinha. Some of them were nominated to the ICHR by previous regimes, which debunks the charge that they lack merit and have made it on the basis of a “saffron” alignment.

The reasons for the slander lie elsewhere. There is the loss of control over substan­tial research funds and all-India patronage. But the crit­ical issue is the loss of pow­er over the direction of his­torical research and writing, power over what generations of Indians would learn, and be taught to think and believe about the country and them­selves. A veritable thought police! Dispossession from this intellectual empire has hit Marxists hard, as they thrived on the dis­tortion of Indian history and its divorce from its civilisational moorings.

Serious historians have had misgivings about the Marxist-determined ICHR-sponsored history as it has dodged the issue of civilisational striving, which has occupied the Hindu psyche for over a millennium. The Marxists reinterpreted medieval history (the Mughal period) in terms of economic forces and class­es, such as the land revenue and taxation systems, and the interests of the peasants, arti­sans, and landed nobility. They obfuscated the civilizational issues between the political leadership and the people, even the fact that for the first time in Indian history, the rulers had foreign origins as well as a different religion.

Even under the “liberal” Akbar, as much as 70 per cent of the ruling elite was of foreign origin. This could not have had a small im­pact upon the Hindu subjects, and can in no way be compared with the ancient Indo-Greek, Shaka, Indo-Parthian, and Kushan dynasties that made India their spiritual home and con­tributed to the enrichment of Buddhism and Hinduism. As Marshall GS Hodgson observed of the Islamic advent, even in moments of rapprochement, “on neither side…was the deci­sive difference in religion ever forgotten” (The Venture of Islam, University of Chicago Press).

The Subaltern School continued this fash­ion of circumventing mainstream perceptions by presenting the freedom struggle in terms of the “con­tributions” of non-elite groups such as tribals and little known peasant rebels. This was also the genesis of the twenty five year-old multi-crore rupee Towards Freedom Project that is still struggling for a finale. One of its Leftist editors explained that its purpose was to doc­ument the events that con­tributed to freedom, to bring out ideological strands as committed as the Congress, and en­sure that “credit” was given to the Left move­ment, trade unions, peasant movements.

Now, while one can believe that Birsa Munda, who asked his followers to face the white man’s bullets with their primitive bows and arrows, can even today inspire Bihar trib­als, it is difficult to see how he made a mean­ingful contribution to the events leading to 1947. It is true that Swami Sahajanand Saraswati ran a powerful movement for so­cial change that continues to inspire backward peasant castes. What is more, he did this with­out denigrating the Hindu tradition, as was the case with reformers like Rammohan Roy and even Dayanand Saraswati. But it is also undeniable that he was not part of the mainstream political movement for freedom. So how do such studies fit into the 1937-1947 pe­riod, which is the subject of the study? Little wonder that the promised 10 volumes have failed to see the light of day, and the issue threatens to spiral into a major academic scam.

Ideological considerations have dominated history writing since the ICHR’s very inception, and it is therefore natural that ideology should figure at the heart of the current con­troversy. This has fittingly concretized in the form of the Ayodhya dispute, which is also the defining axis of India’s search for her spirit and true identity.

This is why distinguished scholars, who ex­cavated and established that there is a dis­tinct genre of “Ramayana sites” that cannot be wished away, and that medieval revenue records list the Ayodhya monument as “Masjid-e-Janmasthan” are being lampooned as RSS agents. Another historian had enjoyed two consecutive terms in the ICHR, but quit in dismay when he found Chairman Irfan Habib converting it into a virtual camp office of the Babri Masjid Action Committee. Habib, it may be recalled, was a member of the Expert Committee constituted by the BMAC to examine the authenticity of Hindu claims to the Ram Janmabhoomi.

Prominent Leftist historians, notably RS Sharma, DN Jha, Suraj Bhan and M Athar Ali, even represented the BMAC in the Government-sponsored dialogue with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In the on-going Allahabad High Court case over the title suit, as many as 16 Leftist historians, including Irfan Habib, Sumit Sarkar, KM Shrimali, DN Jha, and Suraj Bhan, are witnesses on behalf of the Sunni Wakf Board.

These very historians now have the temer­ity to claim that despite such pointed ideo­logical affiliations, they have heaven’s mandate to be eternally represented on the ICHR. In fairness, they should drop the vilification cam­paign and join the debate in terms of the civilisational issues that can no longer be brushed under the carpet.

The Pioneer, 9 July 1998

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