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BEYOND THE HISTORIANS
- The ICHR’s project must be to depoliticize the liberal arts

Like most people I, too, had never heard of Professor Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, leave aside being familiar with his work, before he was appointed as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research last month.

This ignorance could be on two counts. First, even as a lapsed historian, the study of ancient Indian history has never been among my priorities. I blame the unimaginative ways of my teachers and my unfamiliarity with classical languages for my inability to get passionate over India’s supposed Golden Age. However, far more than my partiality for the modern India that emerged after the death of Aurangzeb, my unfamiliarity with the new ICHR chief had precious little to do with my formal detachment from academic institutions. It is among the quirks of national life that far too many of India’s historians have acquired their public reputations, not on account of path-breaking scholarship, but on the strength of their interventions in the political debates of the day. To the best of my knowledge, Rao hasn’t notched up any brownie points by appending his signature to the innumerable petitions that do the rounds of the academic circuit and are faithfully reproduced in the columns of Economic and Political Weekly and reported in The Hindu. To the extent that the petition-writers never even thought it worthwhile to even approach for his endorsement for any perceived injustice, he can hardly be said to fit into the category of those Arun Shourie sneeringly described as India’s “eminent historians.”

In her spirited intervention on the ICHR appointment by a human resource development minister who is apparently “unfamiliar with academia beyond the school level”, Professor Romila Thapar, arguably the diva of the community of Indian historians, has indicated another reason why Rao’s credentials are a matter of speculation. In an article in India Today, Thapar has argued that Rao “has published popular articles on the historicity of Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal, and the latter is now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level.”

The implication of Thapar’s assertion is quite interesting. She is, in effect, suggesting that the community of professional historians is akin to a private members’ club: to be acknowledged as a proper historian one must be acknowledged as such by those who have already secured recognition. In short, to be deemed a historian is to be part of a self-perpetuating cabal.

This reminds me so much of a conversation I once had with a tenured history professor who insisted that a book by Niall Ferguson — incidentally, a professor at Harvard and a Fellow of an Oxford college — could not be recommended to undergraduates because the writer wasn’t a “proper historian”. I presume the academic notable meant that just because Empire had stemmed from a TV series aimed at a popular audience, it lacked the necessary gravitas.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for a moment saying that a historian must necessarily add media presence to academic accomplishments in order to be regarded as a historian. It isn’t obligatory for every historian to be another A.J.P. Taylor whose TV and radio appearances, not to mention book reviews for the popular press, made him a celebrity. However, just as his popular touch became an issue among crusty Oxford dons and was a factor in his non-selection as Regius Professor (an appointment that, incidentally, is decided by the prime minister of Britain), Rao’s authorship of ‘popular’ articles on the epics doesn’t necessarily warrant condescending asides. Rao may or may not be an accomplished practitioner of the historians’ craft, but I don’t think there is any pre-determined criterion for being acknowledged as a historian. Certainly, if the judgment of publishers is solicited, it would seem that the best books on history have invariably been written by individuals outside academia.

In any case, the relative academic worth of an individual is extraneous to the present debate. The post of ICHR chairman is not akin to that of India’s chief historian or even a national professor of history. The ICHR is a completely redundant government body set up by the then education minister S. Nurul Hasan in the high noon of Indira Gandhi’s socialism to guide historical research through government patronage. Its purpose was out and out political: to redefine the contours of historical research.

In theory, at least, a determined government can appoint its chosen hatchet-persons as chairman and members of the council and thereby determine what subjects of research will get official funding and what would be deemed ideologically tainted. In the past, Congress ministers have frequently outsourced the management of history to those who have championed both “scientific” and “secular” history. Some members of the academic Praetorian Guard have been card-carrying Marxists while others have been less dogmatic. But the consequences of their sustained control over the levers of academic funding have resulted in a large measure of ideological regimentation and, more important, the transformation of history into an abstruse, peer-regulated discipline. Equally, there has been a definite shift from rigorous empirical research to purposeless and self-indulgent theorizing.

That the composition of the ICHR is politically determined is undeniable. In the past, Marxists and the so-called ‘secular’ historians ruled the roost, and now the Bharatiya Janata Party is desirous of controlling the body. However, this does not necessarily imply that the new dispensation must be a mirror image of the past. The answer to Left thought-control must not be a BJP version of the same. Nor must it mean that all official funding for historical research will be diverted to attempts to establish either the authenticity of the Ramayana and Mahabharata or to prove that all scientific wisdom had their origins in the ancient texts of India.

To my mind, there are two clear priorities for the ICHR (but not the ICHR alone). First, the study of Indian history has to be freed from ideological regimentation. There are multiple ways of looking at the past and this pluralism has to be officially upheld. This implies that the control of the Left on history departments must be broken. Such an exercise cannot be undertaken by replacing one set of over-politicized academics with another. The political project of the ICHR and, indeed, of the HRD ministry as a whole, must be to depoliticize the liberal arts.

Secondly, as repeated controversies have indicated, history is too serious a business to be left to the “eminent historians”. For the past few decades, India’s awareness of its own past has shrunk on account of the growing insularity of its historians. Judging by the dense and jargon-infested prose, India’s historians are no longer communicating with the wider world but engaging in closed-door conversations. This has to change. Even at the cost of offending those who believe that understanding the past first necessitates grasping their social systems and modes of production, the endeavour of the ICHR must be to make history accessible to an audience that extends well beyond the historians themselves. That means a conscious attempt must be made to re-embrace narrative history, if only as a means of telling a story.

In an increasingly globalized world, the government must give a leg-up to all attempts to promote enlightened nationalism. A debunking of the nation’s heritage is the democratic right accorded to a political minority. But surely the taxpayers’ money need not be used for this intellectualized self-flagellation. After all, there are perfectly decent and richly-endowed universities with post-modernist and neo-Marxist agendas on the other side of the Atlantic.