History

Interview: The Modi Government’s Recipe for Historical Writing and Research

‘The BJP lacks the intellectual resources to offer an alternative view of Indian history that will meet even minimum disciplinary standards of historical research so is attempting to produce a new past by administrative fiat,’ says Gopinath Ravindran, former member secretary of the ICHR.

The ICHR logo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ICHR logo. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

An interview with historian Gopinath Ravindran about the Modi government’s agenda for historical research. Ravindran was member secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research till he resigned halfway through his term in 2015.

Would you recall the sequence of events that led you to quit the ICHR?

In October 2013, I went on secondment to the ICHR as the member secretary or the chief executive of the research body with a three-year tenure. I entered ICHR at a time when the council had begun to focus – after a long gap – on promoting historical research, putting in place transparent rules and procedures. The chairperson and most members of that council were well-regarded professional historians. They were nominated by the government of the day after the chairperson and member secretary sent a list of names. The government made very few changes. But though the then chairperson’s tenure was coming to an end, the Congress government did nothing – either in terms of giving him a second term to which he was entitled, or by appointing a fresh chairperson. UPA-2 appeared to have thrown in the towel much before their electoral debacle.

The council worked without a chairperson till the end of May when the modest and soft-spoken Professor Y. Sudershan Rao was appointed. Rao, though not well known to the community of historians, had been a member of the council of the ICHR during the earlier period of NDA rule. Immediately after his appointment, he gave a series of interviews to the press in which he appears to have honestly spoken his mind and outlined his agenda for Indian history. This is important, as it suggests the view of history that the BJP wants to popularise.

During NDA I, Rao claims, he was awarded a UGC National Fellowship to work on the “Proposed Application of Pendulum Theory of Oscillation between Spirituality and Materialism based on the Cosmic Phenomenon and Indian Yuga (Epoch) Systemic Approach, of the deterioration of Dharma to the Historical process”. He also mentioned that his academic work included research on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata project aimed to establish an exact date for the epic. In an interview published in Outlook, he said:

“Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.”

Similarly, Rao supported the theory of a greater India: “The ICHR should encourage research about India and Greater India – from South-East Asia all the way to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. There is enough archaeological evidence to show the connect of our civilisation there.”

Despite the fact that topics such as religion and caste have been subjects of philosophical discussions and debates for many years, and the fact that innumerable academic works of repute have been published on these subjects, Sudershan Rao’s views on such topics bear an unpolished, uninformed colour. For example, to a question on the accusation that he may try to foreground a simplistic religious interpretation of history, he said:

“Religions are recent manifestations. I feel there’s only Sanatana Dharma. There was no conflict between communities or on religious lines as there was only one Sanatana Dharma. Now there are several reasons for conflict to take place. Besides, Muslims are the only ones who have retained their distinct culture. Can Christians or Muslims say all religions are one? A Hindu can say that. There was no conflict when there was Sanatana Dharma. Conflict or contests came about when temples were destroyed and mosques built on the sites in medieval times.”

His view is very simple: Indian history, with Sanatana Dharma as its prime mover and guiding force, was harmonious till the coming of the Muslims. They introduced conflict and distorted the caste system. It logically follows that to rediscover the past of India, we should go back to the Vedas and sources from a period uncontaminated by contacts between Muslims and Hindus.

gopinath ravindran (1)

Gopinath Ravindran. Credit: Facebook

When Rao took over, he still had to work with the old council members. The new chairperson expressed his views on history in public lectures and newspaper interviews; but, wisely, he did not initiate any major changes, fully aware of possible resistance from the Council. It took the new government another three months to make nominations to the new council. Past practice has been that the chairperson and the member secretary send a list of names to the ministry, and these are approved with minor or no changes. After many reminders, the chairperson asked me to draw up a list of possible names. There was no discussion between us on the list that I had given him. Finally, he said that he had sent the names to the ministry. None of my names was on the list, and I am not sure how many of the chairman’s names were finally considered for membership to the council. For weeks, the Delhi press speculated on the names of the new council members on the basis of unofficial information from the ministry. Finally, when the new council was officially announced, none of the eight earlier members who could have been given a second term, found a place. The 18 historians on the council, except for three or four, were affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Itihaasa Yojana, the RSS’s Kerala based Bharatiya Vichara Kendra, the BJP, or think-tanks supportive of the BJP.

Indian historians criticised the government for selecting a chairperson and members who were largely unknown to their peers. The press emphasised the political motives of the ministry.

Months after the notification, when the new council met for the first time at the end of March 2014, a routine meeting turned out to be a prolonged outpouring of anger and venom against the council – notwithstanding the fact that many on this council had received funds or had contributed to the output of the ICHR. The venomous anger was also directed against history writing and the historians of India. With one or two exceptions, the members loudly demanded the rewriting of history. They debunked earlier research, which they condemned as based on Leftist and Western views of history that consistently denied Indian approaches to historical research.

The newly constituted ICHR emphatically reiterated that the task at hand is to remove distortions from Indian historiography by resorting to an Indian approach that emphasises ancient Indian history. Inspired by this academic goal, they also want to change the constitution of the ICHR that states, inter alia, that the ICHR should promote the writing of scientific history shorn of superstition, and promote secularism and the plural identity of India.

 The chronic bureaucratic lethargy of the ministry, combined with this government’s insistence on RSS-ratified research agendas for Indian history, is a foolproof recipe for undermining the fundamental objectives and functioning of the ICHR.

To accomplish the tasks the newly constituted ICHR set for itself, the first step was to invite scholars and gurus who by no stretch of imagination could be considered professional historians. One of these, a Belgian professor, rubbishes Indian historians; another, an American yoga guru, strongly feels we should return to the Vedas and “take the red out of Indian history”.

The second step was to dismiss a renowned historian who had, as editor, taken the council’s journal to unprecedented levels of international acceptance. The third step was to disband the entire advisory council of the journal that had some of the best historians from around the world – and by no means were they all Marxists. This is when I decided to register my disagreement. But this was not permitted, and I resigned as the member secretary of the ICHR less than half-way into my term.

Has anything changed since then? What do you think is in store for ICHR?

Within less than a year of my quitting the council, I heard that Rao had tendered his resignation and had stopped attending office. It is indeed very strange that the HRD ministry has neither accepted nor rejected Rao’s resignation. One can only speculate about the reasons why the ministry has not yet accepted his resignation and appointed another RSS historian. Is it administrative inefficiency, or intra-RSS disagreements, or a still continuing search for an RSS historian of repute?

Unfortunately, I am not hopeful of any positive developments in the council’s functioning as long as this government is in office. The chronic bureaucratic lethargy of the ministry, combined with this government’s insistence on RSS-ratified research agendas for Indian history, is a foolproof recipe for undermining the fundamental objectives and functioning of the ICHR.

Why is the discipline of history so important for the current establishment? 

Politically, the council is in the news every time the BJP is in the government. This is understandable. The BJP and the erstwhile Jana Sangh, the parliamentary fronts of the RSS, have continuously sought popular acceptance on the plea that they are the exclusive custodians of nationalism, based on a national identity that is unambiguously Hindu. Since they had no role in the anti-imperialist struggle (remember the repeated written apologies of Savarkar) they go back to a golden Hindu past of the Vedas. They claim the caste system worked well at that time. They claim we had the most advanced technology — speeches at the International Science Congress in Mumbai referred to airplanes, automated surface transport and plastic surgery in ancient India. Then what went wrong according to them? Foreigners in the form of Muslims conquered us. That is when, they say, these great institutions of caste, gender equality and improbably rapid technological advance came to a halt.

Tablet with an image of Aryan warriors. Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai/Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tablet with an image of Aryan warriors. Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai/Flickr CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Historical discourse in India has, by and large, emphasised the plural character of Indian society from the time of the in-migrations of Aryan-speaking peoples, varied cultural patterns and in modern history, and the limited role of the Hindu right in country’s anti-imperialist struggle.

Not surprisingly then, this history does not serve the BJP agenda of creating a Hindu nation. Hence, the need for a new history. This also explains the unending attempts to provide historical legitimacy to myths and legends. The historical record does not support the nationalism of the Sangh or their claim of Aryan-speaking peoples being indigenous. The Sangh’s simple solution to this hurdle is to rewrite history with scant regard for fact and logic.

The way things stand today, can anything be done about rewritten textbooks?

The earlier NDA government thought that by controlling the ICHR through appointments to its council, the country’s history could be re-written and offending research could be muzzled. That attempt failed miserably. They did succeed in recalling two volumes by Sumit Sarkar and K.N. Panikkar that were part of the Towards Freedom series from the press. Moneys were granted to once again start research on the Saraswati. But with the change in government, the recalled volumes were published; and the Saraswati research was censured for financial irregularities and academic deficiencies.

The ICHR under NDA-I failed to change the writing of Indian history.

The vastly more powerful present BJP government has overhauled the council, populating it with history teachers not known to their peers for their research (with one exception). However, about 15 of these 18 historian members have clear links to the RSS’ Akhil Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalan Yojana, or research organisations close to the BJP. The evidence is available in the public domain. This group of historians has not yet produced any research that has intellectually challenged the dominant academic discourse of the country. Academically, it is unlikely that the BJP has the intellectual resources to offer an alternative view of Indian history that will meet even minimum disciplinary standards of historical research. I think the current government realises this, and so there is an attempt to legislate what is national and who is anti-national. In other words, the attempt is to produce a new past for the country by administrative fiat.

Though historians will not accept the Sangh’s administratively prescribed history, the government can easily incorporate this into textbooks. It was tried earlier, and similar attempts have begun once again. Since history is a potent polarising weapon in the hands of a government bent on destroying the plural character of India, the only possible way of countering this rewriting of text books is by exposing misrepresentations and factual inaccuracies in every available popular forum. Selected myths and popular legends cannot be substituted for history. Such a sustained campaign against an agenda-driven writing of history is necessary to prevent what has become, by now, a predictable policy of BJP governments in India. Hopefully, once another political dispensation comes to power in the country that is serious about the autonomy of critical inquiry, safeguards will be put in place to insulate academic institutions from government interference in terms of appointments and the setting of research agendas.

This interview is republished with minor editorial changes from the Indian Cultural Forum, where it first appeared.