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History as what the state states - The Times of India

Harsh Sethi ()
July 20, 1998

Title: History as what the state states
Author: Harsh Sethi
Publication: The Times of India
Date: July 20, 1998

The wrangle over the reconstitution of the Indian Council of
Historical Research (ICHR) is getting increasingly ugly. The
recent exchange between columnist Arun Shourie and historian K N
Panikkar in the pages of The Asian Age is unlikely to lift the
quality of public debate. Frequent references to virginity and
hymens, secular or Hindu, in what ostensibly is a serious concern
about the appropriation of History, is not just politically
incorrect, it is in rank bad taste.

Howl of Protest

The BJP-led government's decision to replace the existing
nominated members of the ICHR by 18 'historians', allegedly with
strong saffron sympathies, has raised howls of protest. The first
salvo was fired by Prof Panikkar in People's Democracy,. This was
followed by a feature in Outlook. The charge was not just that
the newly appointed members shared a common view on the Ayodhya
controversy, but that the basic memorandum of the ICHR had been
altered: the words ational' and 'scientific' in the governing
resolutions had been replaced by the term 'national'. The fear
was that, as in the controversy regarding NCERT textbooks in the
'70s, secular historiography would be replaced by a communal
rendering of our history.

It is not that this apprehension is without basis. The ruling BJP
combine has always held culture (including history) as a vital
resource for constructing its version of Indian nationalism. It
has consistently opposed the claims of its secularist
counterparts to a rational and scientific historiography. Such,
at least, is the message conveyed by the texts used in the
Saraswati Shishu Mandirs in the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan and
Madhya Pradesh.

The ICHR in many ways becomes central to this ongoing battle to
influence (if not control) the minds and memories of our people.
Barring the UGC, it is the sole official agency to promote
historical research. More than the minuscule funds and patronage
it doles out, inefficiently, and increasingly irregularly, the
ICHR seeks to confer the stamp of authenticity and legitimacy on
the output it supports. It is this power to legitimise the
reconstructions of our past and present that marks this move as
significant. Dismissing it as a 'routine' turnover in official
positions which accompany regime changes would be an error.

Unfortunately our secularist historians went in for an overkill,
that too without verifying their facts. Mr Shourie, by just
making a few telephone calls, found out that the charge that the
memorandum of the ICHR had been altered was a fabrication. He
pointed out that for the past two decades the memorandum had
remained unaltered. The replacement of 'rational' by ational'
had taken place as a result of a typographical error in 1978.
Incidentally, to date there has been no refutation of Mr
Shourie's charge.

We are all aware that there is no such thing as the true history.
Our reading of the past continuously changes, not only because of
fresh evidence or advances in methodology, but because current
concerns and fashions have a way of impinging on the writing of
history. Thus the proliferation of national, subaltern, feminist,
working class and what have you, histories. Appelations like
secular or communal do not take us very far.

Given the centrality of history to modem myth making, the
fficialising' of history demands more attention than the
puerile secular-communal debate. It is the control over the
legitimation function of the ICHR, sanctioned by the authority of
the Indian state, that is at the heart of the controversy. Let us
not forget the infamous episode of the time capsule whence
historians close to Indira Gandhi, not the currently stigmatised
communal ones, were in the eye of the storm. The fight over who
will dispense patronage in the form of research grants,
fellowships, or foreign travel is but a mere side show.

Sterile Debate

What the debate, to be purposive, should be focussing on is the
constitution and management of our official research promotion
agencies the ICHR, ICSSR and ICPR in the social sciences and
humanities. Can we not make a distinction between state funding
and state control? Why is it that the professional, disciplinary
associations do not have a greater say in the running of these
agencies? Even more, why is generating non-official financial
support ruled out? Clearly, as long as these agencies are seen as
a handmaiden of the HRD ministry, they will seek to appropriate
the authority to confer legitimacy, and will be stacked by the
political masters.

If only our historians, more so those long associated with the
running of the ICHR, had turned their attention to these deeper
institutional questions of how to marry resources to personnel
with a view to enriching the discipline, they might have enjoyed
larger public support. Their inability to be self-critical and to
address the institutional malaise leads them to be viewed as a
abal anxious to retain their privileged positions. Little
wonder that the current debate remains sterile, personalised and

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