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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 13, New Delhi, March 19, 2016

Why the Historians are under Attack

Sunday 20 March 2016


by Vivek Kumar Srivastava

There is onslaught from the cultural nationalists on the history books which are being taught in post-independent India. A demand for history rewriting will emerge again with more intensity in the post-JNU incident. The general thinking among several politicians is that most of these historians are inclined towards the communist ideology. They are anti-Hindu and mainly belong to JNU. Although these historians have emerged as a distinct school of history, and can be termed as the ‘JNU school of history’, they may include some eminent writers from other institutions as well. They are under attack for no reason, perhaps the other group thinks that they disseminate a particular ideology; but it is unscientific thinking with no substance.

There are different dimensions of the issue which can be briefly conceptualised here. History-writing is evidence-based and it is not the common people’s task. It depends upon certain sourcese; only then history in the real sense can be written. This makes history a research-based discipline. Historians have limitations as they have to write with the available facts. The interpretations, an important component of the knowledge, may differ but its core cannot be distorted.

Indian history-writing has followed this tradition. That is the reason that it is treated as more authentic than Pakistani history-writings where several interpretations and facts have been misjudged, leading to serious shortcomings in their writings. But it is not so in India where historians have produced serious works on the basis of the documented evidences. When Romila Thapar writes in her book ‘Asoka and the decline of the Mauryas’, that ‘for a woman life in Buddhist society was not so trying as life in brahminical society, since she was not regarded as a child-bearer’ (Horner, Women in Primitive Buddhism), she depends upon an authentic source. She also takes evidences directly from the primary sources as Arthasashtra, Indica, Asokan edicts etc. Bipan Chandra has also based his researches on documentary evidences. His article published in the EPW’s special number in August 1975, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the Capitalist Class, 1936’, is based on high quality research. He at one place notes that ‘they (15 leading businessmen of Bombay, who were all members of the Committee of the Indian Merchants Chamber) also asked him (Nehru) “to explain what he meant by socialism, when it would be achieved, and whether the merchants with their limitations could give their quota in the movement of socialism”. The evidence was based on a news item published in The Tribune, May 23, 1936; The Times of India, May 23, 1936.’

Bipan Chandra was analysing the events on the basis of the evidences; hence his writings on Indian nationalism, if criticised or underestimated, it in fact becomes an insult to the discipline of history and all social and natural sciences because all knowledge in any discipline is the result of the new researches, based on authentic sources. Therefore the writings of any true historian of any age depends upon the authentic sources, which are the raw material of historians for writing their works. Hence to say that history should be rewritten means to debunk what has been achieved by the researches and established as real knowledge.

I took a survey of fifty students on this issue in the city of Kanpur in February 2016. They belonged to different disciplines, some were NET qualified, three University toppers and a few preparing for the civil services examination, NET and provincial services examinations. I came to know that for them the names of Acharya D.D. Basu (Indian Constitution), Bipan Chandra, Romila Thpar even Sumit Sarkar were well known. They had read several writers including H.C. Verma, A.L. Srivastava on medieval Indian history but Satish Chandra and in ancient Indian history Ram Sharan Sharma were their favourites. One student, a university topper in Political Science (with a liberal- Right tilt) said that ‘Bipan Chandra is in our DNA’.

What does it mean? Can the rewriting of history change the mindsets of the young people? Perhaps not because they know well what actually is the quality of the work. This needs to be understood by the pro-changers for history writings, who do not know that changes in the history books during the previous NDA Government were not accepted by the students at large because the quality of history writing from the ‘JNU school of history’ has remained unmatched and is most acceptable and attractive for all students, the major group of readers of such works.

Another deep issue is related to it; this explains why historians from these institutions edged out many, in creating knowledge. The major reason is that historians with a research bent of mind were trained firstly at their own level in reading the economic history texts, mainly from Marx who wrote an article ‘The British rule in India’ in the New-York Daily Tribune, on June 25, 1853, which laid the basis of the economic history of India. Dadabhai Naoroji, Rajani Palme Dutt were analysing the impact of the British rule on India. They all concluded that it was exploitative. Hence their readers were influenced as well as their students themselves reached the same conclusion, from Tara Chandra to Bipan Chandra etc. The study of the marginalised, of the exploited ones, of poor farmers and the way events during the Indian freedom movement unfolded with the prominent roles of several Congress leaders, influenced their intellectual understanding, and in due course document-based research works were produced, albeit all appeared as taking a communist line but they only brought out the real character of modern Indian history. When you think about a poor person or think why some are so rich and how a poor is being exploited? Even if you have not read Marx or modern historians, somewhere the individual is a Marxist. On this ground every emotional and kind-hearted person is a Marxist. So to say that they are Marxist historians is a great fallacy at the intellectual level.

 The problem with several other organisations is that they have failed to produce real scholars. They have lagged in the intellectual discourses; better would have been if new researches would have come in the public domain from their side too but that has not taken place, suggesting that there is a huge dearth of research-based works in history. Scholars in JNU and other universities have worked to overcome this lacuna; hence they need to be recognised rather than be subjected to attacks and humiliations.

Dr Vivek Kumar Srivastava is the Vice-Chairman, CSSP, Kanpur. He can be contacted at e-mail: vpy1000[at]

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