In October 1984, I got my first academic job at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata (then Calcutta). A week after I joined, a friend from Chennai (then Madras) sent me a petition on the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, which he hoped some of my colleagues would sign. The first person I asked was a senior historian of Northeast India, whose work I knew but with whom I had not yet spoken. He read the petition, and said: “As Marxists, the question you and I should be asking is whether taking up ethnic issues would deviate attention from the ongoing class struggle in Sri Lanka.”
My colleague was known to be a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet I was struck by the way in which he took it for granted that I must be a party man too. Although this was our first meeting, he immediately assumed that any new entrant to the Centre must, like him and almost all the other members of the faculty, be a Marxist as well.
In the 1980s, Marxism occupied a dominant place in the best institutes of historical research in India. There were three reasons for this. One was intellectual, the fact that Marxism had challenged the conventional emphasis on kings, empires and wars by writing well-researched histories of peasants and workers instead. Indian history-writing was shaped by British exemplars, among them such great names as E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Marxist pioneers of what was known as ‘history from below’.
The second reason for Marxism’s pre-eminence was ideological. In the 1960s and 1970s, anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa were led by Communist parties. Figures such as Ho Chi Minh and Samora Machel were icons in India (as in much of the Third World). These fighters for national freedom were supported by Soviet Russia and Communist China, but opposed by the United States of America and the capitalist world more generally. To be a Marxist while the Cold War raged, therefore, was to be seen as identifying with poor and oppressed people everywhere.
The third reason why there were so many Marxist historians in India was that they had access to State patronage. In 1969, the Congress split, and was reduced to a minority in the Lok Sabha. To continue in office, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought, and got, the support of MPs of the Communist Party of India. At the same time, several former Communists joined the Congress and were rewarded with cabinet positions. Now the ruling party began leaning strongly to the left in economic policy — as in the nationalization of banks, mines and oil companies —and in foreign policy, as in India’s ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with the Soviet Union.
In 1969, before the Congress and Mrs Gandhi had turned so sharply to the left, the government of India had established the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The ICSSR was meant to promote research on the profound social and economic transformations taking place in the country. The Council funded some first-rate institutions, such as the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune, and the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum.
History is both a social science and a branch of literature. In theory, historical research should also have been within the ICSSR’s brief. However, in 1972, the government established an Indian Council of Historical Research instead. The education minister at the time, Nurul Hasan, was himself a historian. Those who promoted and ran the ICHR were, in personal terms, close to Professor Hasan. In ideological terms, they were Marxists or fellow-travellers.
The two men responsible for establishing the ICSSR were the economist, D.R. Gadgil, and the educationist, J.P. Naik. Both were outstanding scholars, but neither was a Marxist. They were true liberals who promoted high-quality research regardless of ideology or personal connections. The ICHR, on the other hand, was from the beginning dominated by left-wing historians who favoured themselves and their friends in the distribution of funds for research, travel, and translation.
The control of Marxists over the ICHR weakened slightly in the 1980s, but was then re-established when Arjun Singh became education minister in 1991. He was persuaded that the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign could best be opposed by the State sponsoring ‘secular’ and ‘scientific’ history. Marxist historians flocked to his call, accepting projects and appointments within the minister’s favour.
In 1998, the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. The new education minister, Murli Manohar Joshi, was an ideologist of the right rather than left. Under him, the ICHR was handed over to academics charged with, among other things, diminishing the contributions of socialists to the freedom movement and discovering the origins of the river Saraswati.
In courting Marxist historians, Arjun Singh took inspiration from Nurul Hasan. In promoting Hindutva scholars, the current HRD minister is following in the tracks of M.M. Joshi. Hence the recent appointment of Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of the ICHR. I had never heard of Professor Rao before, and, nor, it appears, have most other historians. Since he belongs to Andhra Pradesh, I asked some historians in that state what they knew. They described Professor Rao as a “non-descript scholar who does not have any academic or intellectual pretensions”, but was known to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They added that despite his ideological bias and lack of scholarly distinction, he was an amiable and friendly man.
His personal charm notwithstanding, Professor Rao has not published a major book, nor a single scholarly essay in a professional journal. However, he has made known his belief in the essential goodness of the caste system, and the essential historicity of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. These may be among the reasons why he has been appointed chairman of the ICHR.
The Marxists who once ran the ICHR were partisan and nepotistic, but also professionally competent. The thought of Karl Marx — as distinct from the practice of Communist parties — provides a distinct analytical framework for understanding how human societies change and evolve. This privileges the role of technology and of social conflict between economic classes. Marxist historiography is a legitimate model of intellectual enquiry, albeit one which — with its insistence on materialist explanations — is of limited use when examining the role of culture and ideas, the influence of nature and natural processes, and the exercise of power and authority.
A sophisticated intellectual culture should have room for able right-wing scholars too. In the US, conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson are both credible and prominent. Their work celebrates the stabilizing role of family and community, and argues that technological dynamism and respect for individual rights are not evenly distributed across cultures. And where Marxist historians chastise capitalists for exploiting workers, right-wing historians celebrate them for creating jobs and generating wealth.
Why are there no Indian equivalents of Niall Ferguson? This is because the right-wing here is identified with Hindutva, a belief system which privileges myth and dogma over research and analysis. And no serious historian can be expected to assume a priori that Ram was a real character, that Hindus are the true and original inhabitants of India, that Muslims and Christians are foreigners, and that all that the British did in India was necessarily evil.
Contrary to what is sometimes claimed in the press, there are many fine historians in India. From my own generation of scholars, I can strongly recommend — to student and lay reader alike — the work of Upinder Singh on ancient India, of Nayanjot Lahiri on the history of archaeology, of Vijaya Ramaswamy on the bhakti movement, of Sanjay Subrahmanyam on the early history of European expansion, of Chetan Singh on the decline of the Mughal State, of Sumit Guha on the social history of Western India, of Seema Alavi on the social history of medicine, of Niraja Gopal Jayal on the history of citizenship, of Tirthankar Roy on the economic consequences of colonialism, of Mahesh Rangarajan on the history of forests and wildlife, and of A.R. Venkatachalapathy on South Indian cultural history.
The scholars named in the preceding paragraph have all written excellent books, on different themes and periods, in different stylistic registers.They have all read Karl Marx and digested his ideas. At the same time, they are not limited or constrained by his approach.They have been inspired by other thinkers, other models, in their reconstructions of human life and social behaviour.
Like their counterparts outside India, these scholars bring to the writing of history both primary research and the analytical insights of cognate disciplines such as anthropology, political theory, and linguistics. Their personal or political ideology is secondary (if not irrelevant) to their work, whose robustness rests rather on depth of research and subtlety of argument.
In the 42 years since the ICHR was founded, the historical profession has moved on. The economic and technological determinism of Marxism, once so appealing, has been found wanting in pushing the frontiers of research. If the HRD minister wanted a professional, non-partisan (and non-Marxist) scholar to head the ICHR, she had a wide field to choose from. But it appears that the minister wanted not a capable or respected historian, but a captive ideologue. And she has got one.