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Mainstream, VOL LV No 8 New Delhi February 11, 2017

The Indian History Congress and its Cultural Intervention

Sunday 12 February 2017


by Suresh Jnaneswaran

The 77th session of the Indian History Congress took place at the University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram from December 28 to 30, 2016. The following article has been written against that backdrop by the Local Secretary of the session.

The coming of the Indian History Congress to the Kerala University has greater significance than meets the ordinary eye. In the present political ambience with the ruling front at the Centre going all out to reinforce and perpetuate the mandate it has received through myriad regotiations, the Indian History Congress is a cultural assertion of scientific history. Its interventions and resolutions attempt to stall the machinations of an ahistorical conspiracy to thrust mythology as history on the common citizens. This cultural weapon of ‘Myth as History’ not only robs the discipline of its scientific nature but negates and blasphemes it in the academia and public eye.

This cultural weapon, however, is precisely intended to generate a counter-hegemonic perception aimed at extirpating the scientific history disseminated by scholarship of post-Independent India. Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar inter-alia to be selective, representing the Modern, Medieval and Ancient periods, have in their lifetime of work taken scientific history to hegemonic proportions anchoring the thought and activity of secular India. This has to be deconstructed to take forward the agenda of the new dispensation. The ephemeral nature of political rule and loyalties of the electorate have to be embedded in a culture of the past that would not only be counter-hegemonic to secular and scientific history but also legitimise the present dispen-sation. Empirical evidence in support of this is not only scanty but invisible. It is here that myth as history comes in to play a dubious role. No amount of political harassment of scientific scholarship or its replacement by myth-mongers masquerading as historians can bridge the chasm to legitimacy.

Power no doubt legitimises knowledge and often power becomes knowledge but in the long run power loses out to scientific knowledge as history has often demonstrated. Herein lay the weakness of communal history and the strength of the Indian History Congress. Fallacious knowledge can do harm in the short run especially when directed at uncogitating young minds at the level of primary socialisation. Lack of rational secondary socialisations can do immense harm to scientific history and public perception in the long run. It is this that the religious fundamentalists of all genres are banking upon.

The interventions of the Indian History Congress since its origin have been playing a cardinal role in impeding irrationality especially during phases of growing communalism in the pre-independence and post-partition days. The first general President of the Indian History Congress and the founder of the Journal of Indian History (1921-22) set the standards for scripting a scientific history of India based on corroborated empirical evidence open to public verification. Shafaat Ahmed Khan along with his close associates, Pandit Ram Prasad Tripathi, Beni Prasad and Gurti Venkat Rao, took upon themselves the social responsibility of discovering, taking public custody of and preserving historical documents for the construction of the mansion of history. We must wend our way circumspectly, if we are not to rouse the suspicion of the moody custodians and indifferent owners of historical documents. (Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp. 104-05) Sir C.P. Ramaswami, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Travancore, who initiated the tryst, wrote in 1947 that it was a happy idea on the part of the University of Travancore to purchase the goodwill of the Journal of Indian History. The Journal had maintained the highest standards of research and specialised study and had been of high cultural and popular value. (Journal of Indian History, Foreword, April 1947, Vol. XXV, Part I, Serial No. 73) Shafaat Ahmed Khan had taken the initiative to demarcate the contours of the relationship between society and the production of academic history. (vide S.A. Khan, The History of Historiography of British India, Allahabad, Kitabistan, 1939) This demarcation is sought to be violated/vitiated by the forces of unscientific practice of history jeopardising the space of history in the public sphere.

The historians of the Indian History Congress have tirelessly endeavoured to preserve this space by inter-alia using documents and source materials verifiable by other investigators, strengthening the nexus and construction of the public sphere. Public custody and public perusal of evidence are the bedrock of scientific historical negotiations. The modern Archives represent this dictum of equal access to information. “Writing of history is very much the act of the Public man.” (Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, University of Chicago Press, 2015, p. 106) Through the years the Indian History Congress has demonstrated by its frantic search for scientific sources, often through the ICHR, that the discipline of history has the story and the telos of the public sphere built into it. (Ibid.)

The 77th session of the Indian History Congress came to Kerala at a historical juncture of sociological and political flux. The inroads of communalism, that negates the quintessence of India’s history and heritage, into the bastion of secular culture and progressive thought across the country was a matter of concern. Dalits are being marginalised and persecuted as never before; social division among religious groups have reached an inflammable point of no-return driving the aggrieved underground only to be hunted and annihilated. The panel on Dalit History and Politics sought to historically analyse the problem.

Delegates to the Congress lamented that spaces of liberal democratic thought and humaneness in political negotiations have shrunk dangerously. Callous acts of secrecy and surprise have brought the masses into economic discomfort reminiscent of warfare. The affluent, as in all ages of history, are tranquil and jubilant, but the misery of the penurious has quadrupled.

Around nine hundred research paper were presented at the three-day conference.

The section on Modern India saw the presentation of over 300 papers. Interestingly most papers at the Congress were on secular themes. Even in the section on Ancient India and Medieval India, themes on religion, faith and ritual were in a conspicuous minority. In the former session themes on Historical Geography, Economic History, Society and Culture, Women’s History, Language and Literature, Health and Medicine, Architecture and Culture dominated. Research papers on Expression of Eroticism by Women in the Valmiki Ramayana, Position of Royal Women, Woman and Public Utility, Political Status of Ganikas (Courtesans) in Ancient India, Subaltern representation in the Mahabharata, Female Mendicant in Buddhist Philosophy, et al., added a touch of iconoclasm to the presentations. The participants were unambiguously asserting their preferences and priorities. In the latter session, generally categorised as the dark ages dominated by faith and superstition, the preferences were clearly for material problems and secular perceptions. Agriculture, Irrigation, Agrarian Relations, Industrial Crafts, Commercial Relations, Growth of Towns and Cities, Formation of States, Warfare, Administration, Colonial Intrusion and Resistance, Women’s History, Family and Household, Literature, Culture, Elephants, etc., dominated the session.

The Section on Modern India saw thematic presentations on the Revolt of 1857, British Administration, Revolutionary Movements, the Left Movement, Women in Society, Caste, Dalits: Thought and Movement, Colonial Economy, Agrarian Conditions, Mining and Industry, Technology, Migration, Famines, Culture, Education, Health and Medicine, Communalism, et al. Clearly the shift from the traditional themes of historical engagements were discernable.

In the Section on countries other than India, papers were presented on Comfort Women and Korea during World War-II, Whiteman Diseases and Whiteman Cures, Language and Nation, Women’s Political Participation in Bangladesh, Kargil war, Modern Markets in Europe and South Asia, etc.

In the Section on Contemporary History of India, presided over by Professor Amiya Kumar Bagchi, papers were presented on various facets of Administration, Power Relations, Human Rights, Cities, Culture, Dalits, Education, Development, Environment, Health, Nationalism and Regionalism, States, Tribes, etc.

Panel discussions and Symposiums were largely attended general sessions addressed by eminent social scientists. Prabhat Patnaik, Rajan Gurukkal, Kunal Chakrabarti, Kesavan Veluthat, Ranabhir Chakravarti, Sanal Mohan, K.N. Panikkar, Romila Thapar, etc. participated. Dutch, German, Irish and scholars from neighbouring Asian countries also participated. The delegates and their preferences in presentation underscored the scientific perceptions of doing history and the processes of identifying its causative trajectories.

The Indian History Congress had stood steadfast for unbiased and prejudice-free history that would be truly scientific, employing tools of methodical verification, scientific analysis and interpretation within the framework of social science concepts and theories. In consonance with its proclaimed position, the concluding Section passed the following resolutions.

The first resolution expressed anguish at the Archaeological Survey of India handing over work of preservation and conservation of the country’s heritage to private organisations. The well-laid-out rules on preservation are being contravened and attempts to restore the monu-ments to their supposedly original appearance are taking place. This is tantamount to destroying the national heritage. The Congress resolved to appeal to the authorities concerned to meticulously follow the conservation policy laid down by Sir John Marshall to preserve the authenticity of the monuments and prevent future damage.

The second resolution of the IHC expressed its displeasure over the Indian Council of Historical Research ‘going slow’ on some volumes of the ‘Towards Freedom Project’ which are yet to be published. Among these is Volume-II of 1941 compiled by historian Arjun Dev and Volume-III of 1947 compiled by historian Sucheta Mahajan. Interestingly, the project aims at bringing out the documents of the period leading up to the freedom of the country. This has been in harmony with the quest of the IHC to bring to public scrutiny evidences of the past strengthening the nexus between history and the public sphere. The IHC expects that the volumes will be brought out at the earliest.

The third resolution of the Indian History Congress came up in favour of Bipan Chandra’s popular book India’s Struggle for Independence that the Delhi University had interdicted claiming that it denigrated revolutionary freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh as “terrorists”. The resolution underscored that Bhagat Singh himself chose to be called a “revolutionary terrorist”, a term that did not have any pejorative meaning in those days. The resolution demanded the revoking of the ‘virtual ban’ on the book and added that such stifling of scholarly works should not be allowed in future. This scientific posture only reaffirms the subtle metamorphosis that occurs in the meaning and popular usage of words in tune with time and space. Ignorance of the nature of societal evolution and its literary concomitants, conscious or unwitting, would be detrimental to historical scholarship and the making of a rational public sphere.

The Congress demonstrated that cogitating minds in the country, engaged in historical and social science research and study, were very clear that when there was an intervention of power, scholarship would suffer. When power begins to muzzle and intimidate, scholarship recedes. A conspiracy of expropriating leaders and heroes of the freedom struggle and the nation has been set in place. Vivekananda, Sardar Patel, Bhagat Singh and even Gandhiji are being commandeered. Power seldom cares for the truth, it grows and legitimises on appropriation. However, a section of the delegates was of the view that appropriation would also lead to perpetuation of the legacy and can come to good if the masses get to know of the true nature of the leaders. This is a risk power is taking. An atmosphere for scientific scholarship to flourish seems to be receding in the country. The knowledge domain in the public sphere is not being exploited by those in authority for academic or non-academic services obfuscating optimum intellectual resource utilisation.

Professor Suresh Jnaneswaran, who was the Local Secretary, 77th session of the Indian History Congress, is the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Director of the School of Social Sciences, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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