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Clio Is An Anarchist
Clio Is An Anarchist

Rudrangshu Mukherjee
The Telegraph
February 26, 2000

Title: Clio Is An Anarchist
Author: Rudrangshu Mukherjee
Publication: The Telegraph
Date: February 26, 2000

Two contending versions of Indian history and two sets of patrons are at war in the Indian Council for Historical Research. This is a polite way of saying that these two ways - in which the powers that control the Indian state want Indian history to be tailored - are fighting a battle by proxy. Those who control the ICHR today, and they are, needless to add, loyalists and clients of the most important patron in India today - the Bharatiya Janata Party - are arguing that historians who are in charge of the Towards Freedom project are hellbent on belittling the role of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha in the Indian national movement. Therefore, they want these volumes to come under closer scrutiny and not be published till they have been "properly'' reviewed.

The step is not without precedent. An earlier volume prepared by P.N. Chopra was withdrawn by the then president of the ICHR, Irfan Habib, because it had failed to meet the guidelines. This reason was an euphemism for the fact that Chopra did not have the approval of "secular'' historians.

It is being assumed in this controversy that there can be only one acceptable version of the Indian national movement. The version becomes acceptable because it has the stamp of approval of the ICHR or in other words the government of the day. Consider a scenario in which the Towards Freedom project, instead of lingering on for over 20 years, had been finished within a reasonable period of time. Then the volumes would have gone to the publisher well before the BJP came to power. And the volumes would have acquired the status of the standard and accepted version in much the same way as The Transfer of Power volumes published by Her Majesty's government are considered the standard basis by most Anglo-Saxon historians who work on the endgame of empire. The names of the two projects reveal the approach that is implicit. The delay has meant that the BJP has got a chance to get in its own version.

The very idea that there can be a version of the Indian national movement (or for that matter any other period) which is conceived and sponsored by the state is inevitably fraught with difficulties. The general editor of the Towards Freedom volumes, S. Gopal, noted in his preface to the only volume to be published that documents drawn from regional languages would not be prominent in most of the volumes. He added, "A fully comprehensive selection from these sources merits a separate project".

There is the glint of a recognition here that the movements towards freedom in the various regions that make up India could have had different trajectories and rhythms than the ones traced in the volumes under preparation. Indeed, a project like the one Gopal mentions could throw up a completely different perspective from one emanating out of London (as incorporated in the Transfer of Power volumes) and New Delhi (the ICHR volumes).

An example can perhaps be given here of the way a different perspective can radically alter the understanding of the national movement. Sumit Sarkar, who is an editor of a volume in the Towards Freedom series, showed in a celebrated essay that in the mid-Forties the Congress leadership was under pressure from a series of mass movements outside its control. Many of these movements were violent and the mobilization was not along Gandhian lines. Their aims and aspirations were not similar to those of the Congress. Sarkar showed how the decisions taken by the Congress leadership in that period were influenced by these protest movements. Over the negotiations between the Congress and the British fell the shadow of these protest movements. It appeared from this analysis that the Congress, the putative champion of the Indian national movement, greedy for power, had been more than enthusiastic about a negotiated and a truncated transfer of power.

Documents in regional languages might make it necessary to rethink the significance of events and the whole idea of one unified national movement striving towards one unified goal might itself be open to doubt and negotiation. The idea of India might itself become a chimera. It is significant that a government-sponsored body, based in New Delhi and existing on Central government funds does not think of a collection of documents which might in fact upset a unified and national perspective.

This is not surprising since an attempt to impose its own version of history is part of the will to power that lies at the heart of nation-states. The national always gets precedence over the confederal. The narrative of the freedom movement becomes one of "nation in the making". All the features of a diverse and rich resistance against alien domination are scripted to fit into the emergence of a modern nation-state. There might be debates about the heroes of the script between those who call themselves "secular" historians and their rivals in the saffron brigade but there are no differences in the basic teleology. Control over an independent nation- state and its instruments of domination and intellectual apparatus is seen as the goal of the freedom struggle.

The great communal-secular divide therefore does not appear to be a divide at all, but the opposite sides of the same coin. Both sides are concerned with using state power and its perquisites. Hence, the battle over a seat of patronage and over the use of history. The question about the need for a body like the ICHR to monitor research in history is hardly ever raised.

The principal problem with this kind of history which carries on it an official stamp of approval is that it applies a closure by blocking off - in fact by erasing - alternative ways of imagining the nation. Whatever is unconnected with the making of a nation-state gets relegated to the margins; they become local, fragmentary, insufficient and inadequate. It is assumed that there were two ways of imagining India. One came forth full-bloomed, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, out of the vision of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the other in a similar manner from V.V. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar. (The Gandhi-Nehru version always deliberately underplays that there were crucial differences between Gandhi and his protégé about state power and its nature.)

There is an even more profound question lurking behind all these issues. It relates to the possibility of an Indian historiography of India. Both the terms Indian and India are open to contest and continuous negotiations. There is no easy definition of either in a society as rich and as plural as the geographical land mass called India. One thing is obvious that such a historiography allows for no official version of the kind that governments try to project and sponsor. Imagining a nation is free and ought to be so. Such an anarchic idea - and I use the word anarchic advisedly - runs against Clio's grain. Clio, since the time of chronicles to the development of more sophisticated analytical narratives, has always ridden piggy-back on power. The king of the chronicles has been replaced by the modern state. At the root of an Indian historiography of India is a critique of the academic discipline of history. History can only emerge stronger and richer from such a review. Are Indian historians open to this challenge instead of signing self-serving petitions against this or that clique ruling the roost in the ICHR?

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