EH CARR'S famous query -- what is history? -- remains unanswered in the midst of the Government of India's renewed meddling with the historian's craft. Quite simply, Clio deserves better from the political class. The state interference with historiography, markedly manifest ever since the Babri Masjid came under the pickaxe on December 6, 1992, is palpable once more.
The appointment of Y.S. Rao as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research has been greeted with consternation in the academic circuit. On closer reflection, however, it need not have prompted almost a collective raising of the eyebrows by the secular fundamentalists.
For the past two decades, the ICHR has been dominated as much by the saffronites as the Left's fellow-travellers, depending on the Delhi roulette and the party in power. For if the trend of the government-historian interface since the Nineties is any indication, the head of the ICHR has been a quasi-political appointment, with erudition and political predilection being accorded equal importance. Ditto, one must add, with its composition.
Truth to tell, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been equally culpable in the detoxification of history. Changes in texts and the syllabus, if effected by one dispensation, are almost invariably negated by the other. More than a mandir or a masjid, it is the discordant cacophony of facts and interpretation that has befuddled both the historian and the student ... when not the courts.
Whether or not ICHR deserves to be disbanded, as argued by a section of academics, need not detain us here. But considering that it selects the research projects that are eligible for state funding, it is fervently to be hoped that the born-again BJP government's edition of the ICHR will abjure what has on occasion been referred to as “manufactured history.”
History must of necessity be embedded in empirical evidence, and there can be no scope for playing around on this score ... determinant on the prejudices and preferences of the party in power. Yet, as with all social science disciplines, an event or a process is open to subjective interpretation. Truth to tell, history isn't a matter for the courts to decide.
Particularly distressing last week was the outcry in Parliament over the alleged “destruction of historical files,” pre-eminently on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and the contributions of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Rajendra Prasad, and Lord Mountbatten.
There was no indication in Rajnath Singh's feeble reply to vociferous Left and Congress MPs that the government has any inclination to institute an inquiry, most importantly the suspicion that “there is an RSS angle” to the reported “destruction.” Is the history of the freedom struggle set to be binned, if selectively? The answer needs to be more substantial than the home minister's cursory response.
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