New Delhi: While Hindu-right organisations, under the patronage of the Narendra Modi government, are claiming spaces within the spectrum of associations with instrumental roles to play in the India’s nationalist movement, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) – the primary government-sponsored institution for funding historical research and publications – has found itself in the dock for allegedly trying to bury historical work that looks into the counter-productive role played by the Sangh parivar during the freedom struggle.
Renowned Indian historian Arjun Dev has alleged that the ICHR, probably under the influence of the Modi government, has been sitting on a manuscript that he submitted two years ago on August 1, 2015. The manuscript is part of the ICHR’s Towards Freedom series, which was conceived as a project to compile records and documents from the last ten years of the freedom struggle (1938-1947).
The manuscript, edited by Dev, is a compilation of documents on political developments in the year 1941. Speaking to The Wire, Dev said that it is divided into three parts – the nature of the nationalist movement in princely states of colonial India, the role of communal politics and labour and peasant movements during the period.
Dev suspects that the second part, which includes original sources that portray Hindu nationalist organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS in poor light, may have been the reason for the delay in the manuscript’s publication.
He added that the ICHR has not sent the manuscript to print despite the fact that the volume has already been approved by the general editor of the the project, Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who is also an eminent historian. “As is the norm for publication, the general editor has already approved the manuscript and has sent his letter of approval to the member-secretary of the ICHR. Despite this, the ICHR unprecedentedly referred the manuscript to an expert panel, which raised objections to some portions of the book,” he said.
News18 had earlier reported that the expert panel, whose names have not been disclosed by the ICHR, has cast doubts over the credibility of the some documents related to some speeches of Hindu Mahasabha leader, and later Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
“The other objections pertain to mention of a particular community for disturbances in Dacca on March 17, 1941, too much emphasis on farmers and labour movements and the overall communist tone of the volume,” the report noted.
The manuscript contains important speeches made by and quotes from Hindu-right leaders like Mookerjee, V.D. Savarkar and B.S. Moonje, a possible reason the ICHR has deliberately delayed publication.
In June this year, Dev wrote to the ICHR chairman Y. Sudershan Rao seeking an explanation on the council’s delay in forwarding the manuscript to the Oxford University Press and also asking why his manuscript was sent to another expert panel after it was approved by the general editor.
“You see,” said Dev, “seeking the opinions of unknown experts is a departure from the convention, from the already laid down procedures. Moreover, the so-called experts’ comments had no academic value. The comments betrayed a complete lack of literacy in reviewing a manuscript.”
“My manuscript is a mere compilation of documents written by political parties, the government and different leaders in 1941. None of it is my analysis. By delaying the publication, the ICHR is keeping important information outside public domain,” added Dev.
He further said that the second part, which may have rubbed the ICHR the wrong way, does not single out only Hindu nationalists but also contains detailed documents about the Muslim League and other associations. “Even if we leave that aside, there are significant details about the nationalist movement in princely states, an area which has not seen much historical research. The documents can create new areas of research for historians. It is a pity that the ICHR has not sent it to the press,” said Dev.
Responding to Dev’s allegation, member-secretary of the ICHR S.K. Aruni told The Wire, “Towards Freedom is a special project of the ICHR in collaboration with the Oxford University. The ICHR council, comprising 18 members, headed by the chairman decided this time that the manuscript should be sent to experts for opinions. The experts sent their comments and the same were communicated to Dev. We asked him to send his views on the experts’ opinions.”
“Once Dev responded, we sent it to the general editor along with the experts’ comments on the manuscript. One has to understand that the manuscript is more than 2000 pages long and to process it for printing takes a little time. We are now waiting for the general editor to respond so that we can proceed,” he added. He said the names of experts cannot be disclosed as it was confidential information.
On being asked why the manuscript was sent unprecedentedly to experts after the approval of the general editor, he said that the member council of the ICHR has the power to take such decisions.
However, the general editor, Bhattacharya, has come out strongly in support of Dev. “I wrote to both the chairman and the member-secretary objecting to the non-publication of the volume but they did not respond. I am now drafting another letter, addressing the commissary members of the ICHR,” he told The Wire.
He further said that he doesn’t want to take cognisance of the so-called experts’ comments. “If I respond to the comments made by the experts, it will legitimise the process of such referrals. We have to understand that such referrals are against convention and have never happened before.”
BJP tried to block the project before
It is not for the first time that this ICHR special project has landed into such troubles. When the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had come to power, it has stopped the project. It was only revived in 2005, when the UPA came to power.
Towards Freedom was conceptualised in the 1970s by professional historians, the planning commission and government officials as response to a similar project by the British government. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, the official public information service of the UK, had brought out a series of books called the ‘Transfer of Power’.
Speaking to The Wire, Dev said, “The British series, which was a compilation of only official records, presented Indian freedom merely as transfer of power, completely ignoring the role of the independence movement in British India. Thus, the historians, policy makers and the then government leaders felt that a proper response, which should focus on our nationalist struggle that forced this transfer of power, should be published. Our idea was to put together not only documents related to nationalist organisations but all material which brings out diverse facets of the political developments of that time – a kind of documentation which charts the ups and downs of the freedom struggle.”
Ten volumes of these books, encompassing the ten years leading up to Indian independence, were planned in collaboration with the University of Oxford. The ICHR appointed one historian as editor of each volume. Depending on the number of documents, the editors were free to divide each volume into parts and themes. The whole project was to be headed by one general editor, who had the power to approve each volume before it goes to print.
Dev is the editor of the two parts of the volume that dealt with the developments in the year 1941. The first part was published in 2011. It is the second part, which he submitted in 2015, which is being prevented from publication.
When the project was formally launched, S. Gopal, a prominent historian, was appointed as its general editor. The first two volumes came out in 1997. However, when the BJP government came to power, it withdrew two volumes which were in press.
“After the publication of the first two volumes, the BJP had realised that the documents related to the role of the Sangh parivar will not do it any good. Many of these documents actually expose its nationalist pretensions and show the communal role played by the Sangh during the nationalist movement,” said Dev.
Dev, whose four NCERT textbooks were also dropped from the CBSE curriculum by the Vajpayee government, added that apart from the contentious history rewriting project that the BJP initiated by the NCERT at that time, the BJP government’s other primary agenda was to shut down Towards Freedom.
Although the Modi government has not started any history rewriting at such a scale, several reports have surfaced in the last three years which show the BJP’s keen interest in saffronising history, even if it amounted to falsifying facts. The general knowledge booklet distributed in Uttar Pradesh recently, the introduction of a new book that portrays Rajput ruler Maharana Pratap as having defeated Akbar in Haldighati in Rajasthan University and the Maharashtra education’s board preposterous decision to erase all references to Mughals in school textbooks, all indicate the BJP’s predisposition to painting Indian history with a clear Hindutva slant.
Dev’s manuscript, which at the face of it is caught in a bureaucratic quagmire at the moment, appears to be another such attempt. The ICHR’s clampdown on editorial process appears both surreal and ironic at the same time, as Hindu-right ideologues, who have been so aggressive in their anti-colonial posturing of late, have emerged as the biggest adversary of the most ambitious documentation of the Indian freedom struggle.