More drama from the Indian History Congress

Rajiv Lochan

The Indian History Congress is the voluntary association of historians in India. The IHC became the venue for ideological struggles of the left and the right in the late 1960s, when a number of younger historians pointed out that the papers read at the IHC were essentially promoting hatred against Muslims of India by pointing out the valorous defense put up against Muslim invaders by Indian rulers in centuries gone past. The younger historians argued that much of the communal violence in the country was fuelled by such an understanding of history which they called was the ‘communal’ understanding of history. These historians received considerable government patronage when Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister and began to lean towards socialism. One of the outputs of such government patronage was a small pamphlet called ‘Communalism in the Writing of Indian History’ which was based on lectures broadcast by the All India Radio. The authors in this pamphlet were Bipan Chandra, Harbans Mukhia and Romila Thapar. Another output was the re-writing of the textbooks of history by the NCERT and an insistence by the Central government that these textbooks be taught in all centrally funded schools. Later the insistence would be that all schools should teach from these textbooks. Even the competitive exams of India came to be based on these textbooks. The authors of these textbooks included R S Sharma, Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra. The textbooks produced by the NCERT were criticised for being biased towards the left and being hostile to Hindus. The first non-Congress government in India, in 1977, tried to change these textbooks. A small group of historians, led by Devahuti and Lokesh Chandra, also floated an alternate forum for historical research and tried to take over the Indian History Congress. S Gopal, the son of Dr. Radhakrishnan and the biographer of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the President of the Indian History Congress at this juncture, in his address to historians urged them to fight and destroy the ideas of those promoting alternate versions of history with the greatest aggression possible. The return of Indira Gandhi as prime minister effectively brought government patronage back to the left historians and sidelined the efforts of Devahuti and Lokesh Chandra. In the meanwhile the left historians also came to dominate the Indian Council for Historical Research, the government appointed council for disbursing funds for historical research in India. The journal of the ICHR became the place for the left leaning historians to express their views. Funds were given only to projects that overtly found approval with the ideology of the left. This effectively meant that projects for researching the history of the Ram Setu that was supposed to link India with Sri Lanka was not approved for, the fear was that it would provide a historical basis for the story of prince Rama fighting king Ravana. The project on researching the origins of the mythical river Saraswati was disapproved and rejected. Any project to do with the history of the RSS was rejected unless it specifically said that it would prove that the RSS was a communal organisation. But, more interestingly, as the historians of the left began to age, they also began to let out their ‘method’ of history. In one interesting interview that Irfan Habib gave to the Rajya Sabha TV during the session of the IHC at JNU, Habib told the interviewer that historians only choose a handful of facts to write their history and reject all those facts that do not fit their narrative. In another interview, this time by Harbans Mukhia, given to the BBC, Hindi, on the controversy around whether Maharana Pratap was great or not, Harbans Mukhia said that only that history needs to be written and researched that promoted the approved sort of political objectives and ideology. Romila Thapar in the revision of her famous book on Ancient India, this time called ‘Early India’, explained why only historians should write history and no one else and confessed that as the domain of knowledge grew the historian was increasingly clueless and yet willing to pass judgements. These two interviews, and Romila Thapar’s confession, by three of the greatest historians of India, give a clue as to why history writing in India, from history departments of India, is so poorly researched and, unreadable.

Rajiv Lochan is an eminent academician, scholar and historian.

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