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The cultural-political offensive launched by the Hindutva forces zeroes in on an academic project on the freedom struggle, targeting the works of two respected academics.

in New Delhi

CULTURAL policing has for some years manifested itself in diverse forms in the political domain of Hindutva. Only recently did Varanasi witness a particularly noisy variant when guardians of orthodoxy descended upon the sets erected for a film and destro yed them in a frenzy of moral outrage. And as the smash and burn school temporarily receded into the background, the secret cabals took over.

Professor Sumit Sarkar of Delhi University addressing a protest demonstration against the ICHR move in New Delhi on February 25.

On February 11, K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar, historians of some eminence based in Delhi, received identical letters from Oxford University Press (O.U.P.). With appropriate courtesy, though without great elaboration, they were told that the two volumes they had edited for the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) as part of an ambitious documentation project on the freedom struggle, were being withdrawn from press. The ICHR's decision to stop the publication of the volumes at an advanced stage , ostensibly to subject them to fresh "perusal", was communicated to O.U.P. through a letter dated February 3. Neither Panikkar nor Sarkar, nor indeed Professor S. Gopal, the general editor of the series entitled "Towards Freedom" , was told of this deci sion.

It took a few more days for the story to work its way into the newspapers. What followed was an unsavoury story of evasion and misrepresentation. The ICHR's first recourse was to seek justification for its decision in the supposedly poor quality of prede cessor volumes in the series. A "fact sheet" put out by the Council spoke of the volumes pertaining to the years 1943-44 and 1938, edited respectively by Partha Sarathy Gupta and Basudev Chatterji, as shoddy compilations premised upon a skewed understand ing of the freedom struggle.

One of the principal objections to the Gupta and Chatterji volumes, as summarised in the ICHR's rather abusively phrased fact-sheet, is that they reduced Gandhi to a "mere footnote" and needlessly highlighted the role of the Communist party, which had pl ayed a "traitorous role" in the freedom struggle. According to the ICHR, in this effort to sanitise the role of the Left parties, the volume editors "unscrupulously" deleted vital paragraphs from documents, "in utter disregard of the well-accepted norms of editing".

Further damage had been caused by the thematic arrangement of documents, said the ICHR. This was contrary to the original directives issued under the project, which insisted on a chronological arrangement. Moreover, it enabled the intrusion of "subjectiv ity", which was used to serve the specific purpose of "fabricating the past to a purpose, for propaganda of a particular ideology".

An academic review of the Gupta volume by Savyasachi Bhattacharya was also drafted into the mission: "Another major criticism of the volume by none other than Professor S. Bhattacharya who also toe (sic) the leftist line, that historical methodology is n ot properly followed resulting in wrong and unscientific citation of documents (sic)".

The ICHR's initial response to the burgeoning controversy did not remain confined to the level of ideological critique. A fairly damning indictment on procedural grounds was also handed out against the editors of the "Towards Freedom" project. Contrary t o a decision made as early as August 1998, said the ICHR, the editors of the project had not submitted their manuscripts for the scrutiny of the Council. Rather, they had sent them directly to the publisher.

P.K.V. Kaimal, the ICHR's Deputy Director for Publications, eagerly joined in with a statement to the media. The volume edited by Gupta, he said, lacked an index, which meant that its utility as a research and reference work was close to negligible.

After some initial disquiet occasioned by the tone of the official ICHR explanation - clearly a new low in academic exchanges - it was quickly called to account for a sequence of false and tendentious assertions. Scholars familiar with Gupta's work point ed out that the "calendar of documents" he had presented was a perfectly adequate substitute for an index. Moreover, the volume provided an entire chapter on Gandhi's role. More significantly, the ICHR's criticism reflected a basic incomprehension of the purpose of the documentation project, which was to present material that was otherwise not easily accessible. Since Gandhi's role is rather well appreciated and the entire body of his writings is available in a comprehensive compilation, "Towards Freedo m" as a project could afford to direct its attention towards some of the lesser known aspects of India's struggle against colonialism.

Particularly offensive to the community of historians was the posthumous denunciation of Partha Sarathy Gupta, who taught with distinction at Delhi University and died shortly after retirement last year. Despite a debilitating stroke he suffered in 1990, he had laboured hard to complete his volume by 1993.

Savyasachi Bhatta-charya weighed in with a statement deploring the political exploitation of his academic review. "I learn with surprise and dismay," he said, "that a review article I wrote two years ago... is being misused by the authorities of the ICHR to defend a questionable administrative action detrimental to academic values." Contrary to the construction that had been placed on his remarks, he had in fact expressed some admiration for Gupta's compilation. And then, whatever criticism may have bee n entered formed "a part of an academic discourse which should not be used for purposes of hindering the publication of historical documents". This variety of "politicking," Bhattacharya concluded, endangered "the reviewers' freedom as well as the author s' freedom to express their opinions."

S. Gopal's intervention imparted further clarity to the situation. In a statement issued on February 21, he expressed "surprise" at the allegation that Panikkar and Sarkar had sent their manuscripts directly to the publisher. "These volumes were submitte d to me by the editors and after incorporating the changes suggested were forwarded to Oxford University Press by the chairman of the ICHR," he said. This made the "unilateral decision" of the ICHR to withdraw the volumes without consulting either the ge neral editor or the volume editors, "a clear violation of the terms under which the project was conceived and executed". More seriously, it involved an "infringement of the academic rights and freedom" of the historians who had taken up the responsibilit y for the project on the invitation of the ICHR.

Authoritative confirmation came from S. Settar who was the ICHR chairman when the volumes were cleared for publication. "The two volumes were sent to press with my knowledge," he said in reply to an inquiry from Frontline: "This matter was duly re ported by me to the Council."

ICHR Chairman B.R. Grover.

BESIEGED by a tide of adverse disclosures, ICHR chairman B.R. Grover - a stalwart of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's campaign to seek historical legitimacy for its Ayodhya campaign - issued a detailed clarification on February 22, with the promise to bring o ut a "white paper" on the "Towards Freedom" project at an early date.

Grover will clearly have a great deal to account for. Prithpal Bhatia, Professor of Ancient Indian History at Delhi University and a member of the ICHR, has already raised serious questions about the propriety of some of his recent actions. In Grover's n arration, the decision to subject all volumes of the "Towards Freedom" project to a review was taken at a meeting of the Council on December 20, 1999. Curiously, the minutes of this meeting were circulated to members only on February 14, well after the I CHR administration had put into effect its rather dubious agenda.

In a letter to Grover sent on February 18, Bhatia questioned this entire procedure. The discussion on the "Towards Freedom" project, she recalls, began with a statement by the chairman that "'Towards Freedom' has been wound up", in accordance with a deci sion supposedly taken by the Council on June 30, 1999. It was then brought to his attention that no such decision had been taken, that a number of volumes had been published and that a few more were awaiting publication. "To this", Bhatia writes, "the ch airman said that he was not aware of these facts of the 'Towards Freedom' project". There followed a lengthy discussion, following which it was decided that "there would be no withdrawal of any volume (or) manuscript which has already been published or s ubmitted to OUP and accepted by it for publication."

In other words, the ICHR administration has grossly overstepped the mandate it was given by the last full meeting of the Council. All that Grover can say in self-extenuation is that the decision to review the volumes before publication dates from Septemb er 1998. Yet, to this, Settar, who was then chairman, has the appropriate response: "I read from the newspapers that the August 31 and September 1, 1998 meetings of the council are supposed to have set up a committee to evaluate all volumes under the "T owards Freedom" project. I wish to clarify that the committee that was constituted was only to review manuscripts received after that date, not retrospectively." Since the Panikkar and Sarkar volumes had been sent for publication by that date, they were clearly outside the scope of the review.

Settar is also disturbed that his correspondence with Gopal is being twisted to serve the agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh clique within the ICHR. He recalls that at the first meeting of the council after its reconstitutio n in June 1998 by the BJP-led government, there was a four-hour long discussion on the "Towards Freedom" project. Although the BJP and RSS sympathisers insisted that the project be stopped, he was equally clear that it could not be: "I said that we could respond academically and if there is a feeling that there have been some omissions, then supplementary volumes could be brought out." The point was again raised at the next meeting and the compromise decision was to set up a committee to review all futu re volumes.

''TOWARDS FREEDOM'' began in 1972 as a project of the ICHR. Its basic purpose was to challenge the interpretation of Indian freedom that had been presented in a British compilation entitled "The Transfer of Power". Certain historians think retrospectivel y that the Indian nationalist response was perhaps a little exaggerated. But they went along with the project in the expectation that it would deepen both the scholarly and popular understanding of the freedom struggle.

The Hindutva propagandists within the ICHR seek to hold the entire team of editors responsible for the inordinate delay in getting the project off the ground. That is an evident falsehood since "Towards Freedom" was in essence an internal project of the ICHR until 1988. For most of this time, it was under the charge of a deputationist from the Gazetteers Department named P.N. Chopra.

A volume dealing with the year 1937 was published in 1985. Although found to be wanting in academic quality, it was put into circulation and is still available in many libraries. A second volume pertaining to 1938 was ready by 1987 but was not published on account of certain evident shortcomings. Chopra was shortly afterwards relieved of responsibility for the project.

Grover today seeks to make out a case that Chopra was the victim of intellectual censorship by Professor Irfan Habib, the eminent historian of medieval India who was then chairman of the ICHR. The charge has been answered by Habib himself: "The needs of the project made it necessary for the volumes to be prepared simultaneously, and accordingly steps in this direction were taken in 1988-89. It was very gratifying that, with Professor S. Gopal as general editor, eminent historians agreed to edit individu al volumes. The entire project was entrusted to the editorial committee... (which)... proceeded to scrutinise a huge pile of documents, classifying and selecting them."

An indication of the academic value of the project in its new format is available from the fact that Oxford University Press agreed to publish all its volumes without any subsidy from the ICHR. The thematic organisation which was preferred over a strict chronological ordering also had inherent merits in that it allowed for the presentation of a vast variety of material. Whereas the "Transfer of Power" documents had dealt with largely a single source and could hence be presented chronologically, "Towards Freedom" was conceived as a project that would go beyond those self-imposed limitations. "Towards Freedom" was supposed to include in its ambit official documentation from the lower levels of the administrative hierarchy, which had been preserved in the National Archives and the various State archives. Apart from this, material drawn from newspapers, pamphlets, private papers, and the documents of various political organisations were meant to be included.

This made a thematic arrangement unavoidable, since the alternative would be an unseemly melange of unconnected documents. Grouping diverse material together in chronological terms would in this context only cause total confusion, say historians familiar with source material on the freedom struggle.

THE ICHR administration has been tied up in agonising contortions in its effort to defuse the sense of outrage in the academic community over the developments. Equally picturesque has been the response of the Union Minister for Human Resource Development , Murli Manohar Joshi. Evidently not cognisant of the methods and purposes of a documentary history, yet eager to project an aura of modernity, Joshi is on record as saying that all books need to be reviewed and revised with the passage of time.

February 16 witnessed a gathering of historians and academics in New Delhi to protest against the ICHR action. A statement signed among others by three former chairpersons of the ICHR - R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib and Ravinder Kumar - denounced the withdraw al of the "Towards Freedom" volumes as the "grossest form of censorship" which was transparently linked up with the "plan to spread a distorted and fictitious history of the national movement".

A still larger protest action took place on February 25, when a resolution to "defeat the designs of the Bharatiya Taliban" was adopted to much acclaim. A core group plans to meet again soon to work out a strategy to confront the ongoing cultural offensi ve. "Towards Freedom" may have begun as an academic project and at various stages in its career seemed little more than an arena for abstruse scholarly disputation. Today, it seems more akin to the terrain where a battle to retrieve the authentic history of a nation's independence and the spirit of its democracy will be waged.

'It is a fear of history'

Interview with K.N. Panikkar.


K.N. Panikkar, Professor of Modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan on his association with the ''Towards Freedom'' project and his perceptions of the current controversy over the ICHR' s decision to withdraw two volumes from publication. Excerpts from the interview:

Could you explain the background to your personal involvement in the "Towards Freedom" project?

I became part of this project in 1989, specifically because Professor S. Gopal was its chief editor. I was invited by the ICHR to edit the volume for 1940. I completed my work in 1995 and handed over the volume to Prof. Ravinder Kumar who was then chairm an of ICHR. A copy was also given to Prof. Gopal, who looked through the volume and suggested some changes which were incorporated. Throughout the period of work there were monthly meetings of the Editors and the chief editors in which both the contents and the format of the volumes were discussed. In 1998, I received a letter from the then chairman of ICHR, Prof S. Settar, that the volume has been forwarded to Oxford University Press for publication.

This began as a centralised effort within the ICHR and then became a collegial effort. As a work of compilation, "Towards Freedom" was essentially a non-ideological effort, though there would need to be certain criteria used in sifting through documents and bringing some to light and omitting others. What exactly were these?

One must understand the immense amount of work involved in this project. The sheer bulk of the documents received by each editor was very large. I do not know the exact count, but I think each editor would have had to study more than a lakh of pages. A s election now means actually reducing that to something like 2,000 or 3,000 pages. Obviously this is a selection in which certain criteria have to be used, of which the main one was that the volume should be fully representative - it should comprehend all that happened.

If you take one particular issue, say constitutional developments or the discussion on reforms, you cannot provide all the documents. But we tried to provide those documents which are most crucial for understanding the divergent views on this issue. As a n example, in my volume dealing with 1940 I have given the response of various political parties like the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Communists and others to the offer made by the British goverment for consti tutional reforms. Any student would find in the volume the essential details of what these diverse actors thought. From there he could follow up further. The whole volume is arranged thematically and within each theme, chronologically to enable easy acce ssibility.

How are the specific emphases in your volume different from the corresponding British production?

You see, the British were mainly looking at what they themselves did. Take constitutional reforms, for instance. The British emphasis was mainly on what the thinking of the Viceroy was or of the Secretary of State for India, not so much on the Indian sid e. But an Indian researcher would like to know what was the difference in approach between different Indian actors. More importantly, our treatment is sensitive to the complex character of the freedom movement and the participation of various social grou ps in it, like the peasants, workers, women, students and so on. Such a view is absent in the British volumes.

Is the manner in which you have approached the communalism question one of the reasons why the volumes have become the target of an ideological attack?

Could be. Since they do not know what these volumes contain they are afraid these documents might not bring them out in favourable light. The documents are not presented in order to project a particular party's or group's role and to undermine any other' s. It represents in a comprehensive manner what actually happened.

But do you think there is an apprehension in some circles that the ideological fallout of publishing your volume could be adverse for the Hindu Mahasabha and its affiliates?

It is quite possible. In my view this is an attack not only on the project, but on the individuals associated with it. The current attack is not only on Marxist historians but on liberal-secular historiography. This attack is essentially rooted in a fear of history. And that fear arises from the fact that these volumes present a documentary record, which cannot be denied. K.N. Panikkar can be accused of distorting history, but it is not so easy to refute the contents of a letter written by Savarkar. For this reason, they would like a documentary history to be stopped. This is a very real factor - the fear of the real, the fear of the authentic.


Does this point towards a reinvention of the past?

Yes, indeed. As evident from the ongoing efforts of the Sangh Parivar to rewrite history. A Hinduised past is being created. This is not an attack on us alone. What they are attempting is to discredit us, by calling into question our professional integri ty. The false, malicious and slanderous attack on historians by Arun Shourie is a good example of this attempt to discredit the secular scholars of this country. In the present case, they are accusing us of acting in an unethical manner by sending our vo lumes to the publisher. As I have said earlier, this is a false charge. We have observed all procedures expected of us. Still their spokespersons like M.G.S. Narayanan continue to spread lies without any intellectual honesty or compunction. Obviously, th ey are making these charges in the belief that some of them will stick.

When did you first get an inkling that some such thing is being planned?

I had no inkling. As someone who has followed proper procedure, I could not even think of any such thing. I was planning my work for the next six months with the intention of devoting sufficient time to this work, because there is a great deal of proof-r eading and checking left. Surprisingly, we came to know of it only from the publisher. I did not expect the ICHR to conduct itself in this manner, even under this government, because after all it is a body made up of professional historians.

But the ICHR has itself been under attack for some time for this specific project, from people like Arun Shourie, who have been saying that it is an unproductive project.

This itself is very misleading, because when we started working in 1989, five years were generally accepted as a reasonable time to complete it. When we actually started working on it we found that the material already collected was thoroughly inadequate . In fact, documents had to be collected afresh in several areas. Mind you, this is not a full time job for any of us. Still I completed my manuscript in 1995, Partha Sarathy Gupta in 1993 and Sumit Sarkar in 1996. The delay and expenses on the project w ere actually before we took over. M.G.S. Narayanan says that Rs.1.2 crores had been "wasted" on this project when he took over as the Member Secretary in 1990. Obviously, it was spent before we were associated with the project, while Narayanan was a memb er of the Council. Was he remaining silent then because he was loyally discharging the orders of a supposedly "Marxist" chairman? Has he now discovered a sense of indignation since the BJP is in power? Since he had recognised the project as a "colossal w aste" of money even in 1990, he is guilty of dereliction of duty for not taking proper steps during his tenure as a member of the ICHR and later as Member-Secretary.

Charges of financial misdemeanours have also been levelled.

These are completely baseless and malicious. When Arun Shourie, who happens now to be a Minister in this government made these charges, I had said publicly that he should find out the true picture from the Ministry of Human Resource Development and after ascertaining the facts make an apology. Well, he only heaped further charges.

For Hindutva the arena of political contention is now history. Is that how you see this whole thing shaping up: that there is now a fresh offensive under way to efface the past and create a new record of nationalism as it were?

Very much so. That has always been their agenda and they have used history very effectively. I find a distinction, though. So far they have been using history in order to stigmatise Muslims. Their entire communal enterprise was based on that stigmatisati on. Now communalism has entered a new phase, in which aggressive steps are on to define India as a Hindu nation. As a part of this project, they have developed this concept of cultural nationalism, which is based on a reinterpretation of the past. Theref ore in the present circumstances, particularly in the context of the recent socio-economic developments, the reinterpretation of the past in religious terms has become more crucial. All secular voices have to be either marginalised or suppressed. So hist ory is going to be a major arena of contest. These are the forewarnings of greater attempts sponsored and supported by the state to change our notions of the past.

As a professional historian, how would you read the implications of this? We have had in the last ten years, when the contention for influence within civil society has been sharpening, several cases of archaeologists and historians trampling upon prof essional ethics. Many of them are now in the ICHR. Is the discipline strong enough to withstand this or are we going to witness a withering away of scientific history writing?

I think there are two or three levels at which we have to understand this. Historical scholarship in India is very strong and it has a very good record of adhering to the methods of the discipline. Now I feel that the discipline is in danger for two reas ons. One, though historians in this country are largely secular and have great regard for the methods of history writing, there has been a slow erosion. I was in one of the universities in Haryana the other day, which had a very good department of histor y at one time. But today an overwhelming majority of young historians who were very secular before, have gone over to a communal view. This is actually an indication of how this kind of ideology is creeping into the university departments.

More important, there is a popular history that is being created by Hindu communalists, which has nothing to do with the professional history being produced in the universities. I sometimes wonder whether this popular history will completely overwhelm th e professional strain.

Through what medium is this popular history disseminated?

There are popular books in all languages which are being circulated in a big way. And I understand there is a huge project undertaken by the RSS, through an organisation known as Itihas Sankalan Samiti, to write the history of each district of the countr y. So if these histories are published, they will become the accepted or the most easily accessible history for the mass of the people, which is going to influence the popular understanding. So this danger of popular history replacing professional histor y is really very strong. Once that happens, the historical consciousness in society might also be influenced. I have been told by some schoolteachers in Delhi that they cannot go to their classes and teach history, because the students come with certain communal notions already imbibed from their immedite surroundings. During the Ayodhya movement I have myself confronted this. Many have preferred to accept the communal construction of the history of Ayodhya over the verifiable history.

Does that mean there has to be a new idiom of popular history? When large-scale communalisation is exerting this kind of pressure on the professional discipline of history, how do you reverse that kind of process?

I think it is necessary to write local history from a perspective which conforms to professionally accepted norms of research. Professional history does not reach the people. A history of a village is very rarely written, but people are interested in wha t has happened in their locality. We always think of thematic histories or mega-histories. You may be interested in knowing that a very interesting move is on in Kerala. They have undertaken this big project of writing the history of each panchayat with the involvement of the people, with local historians, schoolteachers and college teachers trained to write local history. In fact only last month, there was a workshop for training and orientation of people who could write this kind of history. I think s omething on those lines could stop the threat that popular history of the RSS kind poses.


'Not a question of bias'

Interview with Sumit Sarkar.


Sumit Sarkar, Professor of Modern Indian History in Delhi University, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan about his involvement with the "Towards Freedom" project, sharing his perceptions of the issues raised by the Indian Council for Historical Research's (ICHR) decision.

When did you personally get involved in the "Towards Freedom" project, and what can you tell us about the procedures and principles you followed as an editor of the volume for the year 1946?

Our role in this project starts operationally only from 1989. The whole procedure that was laid down for us was that we would function as a board of editors. We met collectively and kept on doing so regularly as long as these manuscripts were being colle cted. As and when we submitted particular manuscripts, the ICHR would send them to Professor Gopal who would make suggestions and then we would have discussions and we would modify whatever was needed. Finally it would be sent to the publisher. I submitt ed my manuscript in 1995. None of us was doing this on a full-time basis, apart from Dr. Basudev Chatterji. The minutes of the council in September 1998, the same council which we now hear set up some kind of review committee, states clearly that my manu script had been received and transmitted to OUP (Oxford University Press) for publication. Contrary to all the charges that we made crores of rupees - the gap here between reality and fiction is so vast that one feels almost shy of exposing it. How can such absurd things be said? Not a paisa of ICHR money has passed through my hands.

What essentially was the purpose of the project - to capture and portray the mood of the country as it was progressing towards independence?

Yes, and I think also the title chosen is rather significant. It is not a documentation of the history of the freedom struggle. It is "Towards Freedom". That is to say, to document the last ten years leading to that peculiar combination of Freedom and Pa rtition that we had.

Part of the logic of the volumes, which Prof. Gopal has expounded very well in his general introduction, is that we should bring out the diversities. And the significance of the anti-colonial movement lies not only in the struggle against the British, b ut in the progressive broadening of the movement - how, in other words, democratic, secular and some kind of federal and social justice aspirations enter the canvas - the background, in short, to the Constitution.

What was the broad thematic arrangement for your volume dealing with 1946, and is there any reason why it should prove controversial?

Well, if they want to make something controversial out of it, it is something else. But one thing we were all agreed on is that these are going to be publications of documents. So whatever our personal views, we would keep them out. We decided to keep ed itorial remarks to a minimum. There would be a general introduction by Gopal which is common to all the volumes, a special introduction again by Gopal for that particular year, and then a brief introduction by the volume editor. Naturally we cannot do an ything without some presuppositions and assumptions, with which people can disagree. But the whole point of these volumes was that since a massive amount of diverse publications was being presented and editorial comment is being kept to a minimum, people can judge for themselves.

Now I was editing the 1946 volume. Can you imagine a volume of that type without documentation of the communal riots from August 1946 onwards? The way our critics are arguing, no doubt I will hear it said that there is too much on the communal riots whic h had nothing to do with the freedom struggle. Of course, they were not part of the freedom struggle, but neither was British repression. So do we leave these out?

As for the arrangement, in my volume, it is broadly like this - it is divided into two parts, the first dealing with British India and the second with the princely states. The principle I followed to save public money in what are very massive volumes, wa s to exclude material which has already been published and is easily accessible.

In the part dealing with British India, the first chapter deals with the documentation of directly anti-British movements. The early part of 1946 is full of these, the most famous one being the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) rebellion, or mutiny as it is called . There is a great deal of documentation on that available. Our critics will not like this chapter because in these movements Communists were rather active. At least the British thought they were very dangerous. The RSS is nowhere on the scene. What can I do?

Then Chapter Two deals with political organisations, as many as we could get hold of. It suffers from some limitations, like the Muslim League documents are all in Pakistan and we have no access to them. There is quite a lot on the Congress, a bit on the Communists and the socialist groups, something on the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Hindu Mahasabha.

The third chapter I think is about labour and peasant movements. Here the year 1946, up to about August, was a period of unprecedented labour movements, which even though not a part of the freedom struggle, were deeply feared by the British and met with their repression. We see the beginning of the Telengana movement and the Tebhaga movement in Bengal. These things are also part of "Towards Freedom". What sort of freedom are we talking about - freedom can be of many sorts.

There is the ideological agenda of the RSS and like-minded political groups to try and portray the Communists as non-participants in the freedom movement, perhaps even its adversaries. Do your selections in a way challenge that conception?


To the extent that the documents are there. Now the 1942 volume is not yet ready. When that is so, then a few other things will come out about the Communist role, which some people may find dubious. But in 1946 there was just no question about collaborat ion. In fact, the British felt threatened by the Communists. There is a lot of such documentation which one has to present. What can one do? It is not a question of bias. And in these movements, Communists as well as socialists and elements of the Congre ss are very much present.

It is not my fault after all that both in the direct struggle for freedom and the other kinds of anti-British activity, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha are conspicuous by their absence. These right-wing Hindu movements share with the Muslim League a part icular honour - they were the only groups that were never repressed by the British. At some period or the other, every other movement came under some kind of repression. The Communists first became legal in 1943. Immediately after Quit India, for instanc e, they were not repressed. But that is rather exceptional.

This is one kind of absence of the Hindutva forces from the movement towards freedom. The bigger absence of course is that they have no role in the broadening of the content of the freedom struggle.

Essentially, then, your compilation was a threat to the conception of the Hindu nation that is now being constructed?

There are some fears that they would have. They might be afraid that their absence would be noticed in any kind of objective documentation of ''Towards Freedom''. But there is in a sense a deeper agenda, which threatens not only ''Towards Freedom'', but also all notions of intellectual and cultural freedom. Basically, what these people want to bring back are old-fashioned, discredited notions of what history is all about, that is, Indian history as divided neatly into Hindu and Muslim periods, defining periods by the religion of the rulers. That was the dominant way in which partly due to colonialism and partly on account of our own contributions, history was taught and studied for a long time. The national movement would then be understood like a stor y of cops and robbers, of great leaders and great villains.

Things have changed since the 1950s. And in this, the Marxists have made a signal contribution but not only Marxists... I think we need to make the point that relatively few, perhaps even a minority, of these eight volume editors would consider themselv es Marxists...

And you?

I must say that I am old fashioned enough to think it would be a badge of honour to be called a Marxist. But various scholars, all modern and liberal, have made major contributions. This is why modern Indian historiography, starting with D.D. Kosambi in the 1950s, is acknowledged the world over - wherever South Asian history is taught or studied - as quite on a par with or even superior to all that is produced abroad. And that is why Irfan Habib or Romila Thapar or R.S. Sharma are figures respected even in the most diehard anti-Communist American universities. They cannot be ignored if you are studying South Asian history.

To return to the thematic arrangement of your volume, could you tell us what are the further contents?

Yes. Chapter Four in Part One deals with communalism. It documents the communal riots from August 1946 and the anti-communal mobilisation. Gandhi figures in a major way here. One could of course write a full volume on that, but I have already referred to his role in my Modern India as his finest hour. Apart from this, there is, ample evidence, of efforts being made by other groups to stop the communal bloodshed. There is for instance an area north of Noakhali with a very powerful peasant organisation, o verwhelmingly Muslim, which stood guard and were able to block the spread of riots.

The second part of the volume in some ways would be the most original part, focussing on the princely states. We see that in British India direct political agitation died down a bit after about February-March 1946, partly because the nationalists and the British had got involved in direct negotiations and partly because of the fratricidal riots. But a lot of things are happening in the princely states, in a much more feudal atmosphere. On this I have got a lot of rich material. These rulers were in many ways the bulwarks of the British empire. And without the struggles against them, sometimes under the leadership of movements like the States Peoples Conference, Indian unity would not have been achieved. It was not achieved just by federalism, though it certainly made a contribution. There was a combination of pressures from below, which the Congress and particularly Sardar Patel were able to utilise. So these movements are important for the free India that emerges in 1947.

So this is a conception of history that goes beyond the "good king, bad king" comprehension to an understanding of the mass of the people as participants?

Yes, it is a much more total conception.

Would you say that it is an idiom of history-writing that develops with the evolution of democratic ideas in society and that the effort to extinguish it represents a threat to democracy?

Absolutely. And academically, it can mean disaster. I would say that there has been a collective failure on the part of our community of historians, in the sense that not enough of these ideas have been effectively spread at what could be called the "low er" tiers of education and culture in general. At the school level, at the popular level and in the less endowed universities outside the metropolitan centres, the old views still exist and they are being reproduced. And of course over the last ten years they are being reproduced in a much cruder and offensive form through the media and the RSS propaganda machine.

So you think there has been a disjunction between the profession of history writing and the way in which history is perceived?

I would suggest that as the Nehruvian dream began to fade, as Congress regimes moved away from the project for independent development and some kind of social justice - notably during the Emergency of course - we get the substitution of those commitments with rhetoric. More and more we are taught to look at the nation as something of a myth, as just a map, a cult or a flag. This of course the RSS takes over and develops much further. But what is the nation? Is it a map or a flag, or is it living, suffer ing, dying, struggling human beings? It is this kind of nationalism that I think is useful both for human beings and for history.

So you think your project would contribute to the broadening and revival of that view of the nation?

I would hope so. But more accurately I would put it negatively. The Sangh Parivar fears it might do so. I make no great claims for how effectively it does so.


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Somanatha temple and Gazni
False Concept
The Indus and the Saraswati
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In Defence of History
Are tribals hindu

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Last updated: April 08, 2000 .