5 December 2014

There are moments in the legal history of a country, which go almost unnoticed; moments when entire populations stumble upon an altogether new phase of their collective memory without realising it. In the mid-1980s, Israel, Germany and then most of the European countries, released legal orders making of any Holocaust denial, and facts minimisation, illegal, if not a crime. This is not a small affair: at the heart of self-proclaimed liberal democracies, the public, rational voice of Law sets a limit for historical interpretations – some facts of the past are beyond doubts. But this is also an ambiguous rhetoric: if those facts were indeed unquestionable, their objective truth would always shine, and legal impositions would not be needed. It is perhaps that anything human requires interpretation, and ultimately meaning, as Viktor Frankl – an Holocaust survivor – would later famously elaborate. Twenty-two years ago, the thousands of dead on this December 6, in Ayodhya, could not be denied by anyone – the communal mayhem was too loud, too tragic and crying. But, two decades later, the lost lives seem to have gone in vain; they are now mentioned as historical expediencies, as unfortunate costs over sadly endless quarrels hiding interpretation behind ‘objective history’, and forgetting the pragmatics of cultural harmony behind the fantasy of pure identities. And, this time, certain public officials and offices seem all too eager to extend the age of mythologies and throw in the air the craft of historians. This week on LILA Inter-actions, Irfan Habib regrets the deterioration of the conditions of historiography in India, after the praiseworthy principles laid in the Constitution. He observes the alarming attempts at stepping away from our secular project. Kumkum Roy remarks how the institutions of history research and teaching always tremble when turning points like 1984 and 1992 occur, but she remains hopeful as to the potentials of a history placing dialogue and concern as its core values.


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Resisting the Offensives

Irfan Habib

History for All

Kumkum Roy



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It is common to ask: what purpose does History serve? One can respond that one might as well ask: of what use is, then, memory to an individual? Just as one would think rather poorly of an individual who makes unsustainable claims for his own achievements in the past, so also it is always a reflection on peoples or nations who expect their historians to present them with a manufactured glorious past for them. Ideally, a historian should examine history with clinical neutrality and it should not matter, contra Edward Said, whether an Indian or German is writing on the history of India or Germany. Just as an individual can benefit only from an accurate memory, so also a nation can learn only from accurate history, and not a varnished one.


NCERT’s textbooks were affected
by some interferences on historical writing

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The founders of the Indian Republic created conditions making it possible for objective History to be pursued in our universities and colleges. As against this, a tendency has grown for replacing History with either mythology or heavily communalised narratives. This was seen in NCERT’s textbooks under the first NDA government, and all the indications are that a coloured set of narratives will soon replace genuine history in our schools, and, not much later, in our universities.

The Babri Masjid episode has been one result of such determined misreading of History. It was admitted on all hands that it was a structure built at Ayodhya in 1528, and it had its place in the history of Indian architecture. When the hysterical campaign for its destruction began in the 1980s, the Indian History Congress, at its annual sessions from 1986, passed unanimous resolutions calling on the Government of India to protect it under the Ancient Monuments Act — but to no avail. Its destruction in 1992 came at the hands of those who cannot apparently see a mosque as part of our national heritage.

Now that the monument has been destroyed, only the battle for its debris remains. That too was, however, converted into a question of History, once the Supreme Court held that the question whether it was originally built on the site of a temple could be relevant to the dispute, thereby turning a property dispute into an issue involving History and Archaeology, leading to even a court-directed excavation of the site in 2003, at enormous cost. The two sides in the case present an instance of a confrontation between the communal and objective readings of our History, which should be of much use to those who wish to see how much these diverge (see Aligarh Historians Society’s History and the Judgement of the Allahabad High Court (Lucknow Bench) in the Ramjanmabhumi-Babri Masjid Case, Sahmat publication, New Delhi, 2010).

Hemu the Great:
a politicised past

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Attention is properly directed towards how, particularly under the BJP regimes, the Central and State governments tend to shape the teaching of History in their peculiar manner, often taken to ridiculous lengths like celebrating ‘Hemu the Great’ as a figure dwarfing Akbar, a recent RSS addiction. But it is not to be forgotten that the courts have now also began reshaping History in the same direction. Article 28 of the Constitution plainly forbids religious instruction in all state-maintained institutions, and prohibits its being made compulsory in recognised or aided institutions. But in a judgement, the Supreme Court has, in effect, repealed this Article by asserting that “instruction in religion” is necessary, because so many of our social values come from “sanths and saints”. While committing this historical fantasy, the Supreme Court judges gave no evidence that values like liberty, democracy, equality, gender equality, and secularism – the recognised essential elements of our Constitution – have come originally from any santh or saint. The High Court judgement of Justice Sudhir Agarwal, on which the operative part of that court’s orders of 2010 on the Ayodhya case are based, is replete with statements which any NDA-sponsored textbook would surely eagerly reproduce. One sample here has to suffice:

“Another surprising aspect was that the Indian sub-continent was under the attack/invasion by outsiders almost a thousand or more years in the past and had been continuously looted by them. Massive wealth continuously was driven off from the Country” (para 1611).

Coming to the executive arm of the Government, it is clear that since the Government finances so much of school and higher education, it has a voice in determining what is to be taught. This can be exercised carefully, with the contents of disciplines shaped by their professional practitioners using academically recognised methods. The worst alternative is to insist a priori that a particular set of prejudices would determine the content of teaching. These prejudices, when they invoke national or religious symbols whether in India or other countries, obtain, for the moment at least, a degree of popular support. But, ultimately, such distortions of academic disciplines, whether these be History or (given one of our Prime Minister’s recent statement) Plastic Surgery, can only cripple us intellectually. One can only hope that, whatever be the pronouncements of those currently in power, there would still remain a sufficiency of sanity and the scientific spirit in this country to be able to resist such an offensive of unreason.

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I have studied history almost incessantly since I was in school, have been formally teaching history for more than thirty years, and have researched and written on history as well. My specialisation is in ancient Indian history, so much of my formal teaching and research has been related to that domain.

I began to teach in 1983. Within a year, in 1984, Delhi witnessed the worst ever communal riots since Partition. As a relatively young teacher, grappling with students whose class and regional backgrounds were distinctly different from mine, I was plagued with the problem of discussing the violence we were witnessing. How could I take time off from ‘finishing’ the syllabus to even raise an issue that was quickly being brushed under the carpet? My attempts were not particularly effective. I realised some of the students were polite, others bored, yet others condescending, and all wishing that I would return to my assigned tasks.

Who assigned these tasks? For more than fifteen years, as most teachers in state-run institutions do, I taught a syllabus that had evolved through discussion and debate, often acrimonious, and over-ridden by an examination system that was cumbersome and almost always bursting at the seams. And yet, these institutions, till recently, have also provided spaces for dissensions, change, even transformation. What is more, with all their limitations and failings, they have attempted to accommodate diversity, more or less willingly, in terms of caste, regions, communities, gender, even though in institutions of higher education these have been more or less restricted to an increasingly diverse middle class.

I mention 1984 because it is worth remembering that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 was not an isolated occurrence. There was a larger and more complex context. We also need to remember that the 1990s witnessed the liberalisation of the economy, and the onset of globalisation with all its complexities, as well as, obviously, sharpened caste antagonisms, demonstrated in the anti-Mandal agitation.

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Also, in 2014 we are faced with far more complex challenges in higher education. State interventions in educational policies, and even in the day-to-day running of institutions, apart from the creation of ‘official’ histories, are only too obvious problems. At the same time, many of our institutions depend on state support. To maintain the fine line between support and intervention requires a breadth of vision that has often been missing. And this is perhaps one of the many tasks before academicians and others interested in higher education—to work towards long-term goals in order to strengthen and reinforce this fine, often blurred line, and ensure that it is not obliterated.

What is less visible than state intervention, but what is changing the higher education scenario dramatically, if not irreversibly, is privatisation. In the new universities, which range from high profile institutions to more shady ventures, the space for the social sciences in general, and history and ancient Indian history in particular, is shrinking rapidly. This is often justified in terms of the pressure of market forces. Where it survives, the study of history is often reduced to tourism and heritage management, which are visualised as more viable than the more complex engagement with the discipline in at least some state-supported institutions. The space for the reading and writing of histories, secular and otherwise, is shifting and changing radically.

For a democratisation of history

Obviously, we require more than one formula to meet this complex challenge; what I am suggesting are some possibilities. One is to work towards the greater democratisation of history, in terms of writing, teaching and learning.

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History has, more often than not, been invoked and implicated in identity formation—whether of nations, castes, communities, classes, regions, or genders. What does democratisation entail in this context? First, that we write histories in many and more accessible languages, and with a greater degree of self-reflexivity, instead of taking our social and political locations as given. This, in itself, is a daunting task, long overdue. Second, we ask ourselves what the particular theme/problem/issue we are exploring may mean to the person on the street, assuming that history is of interest to the middle class. Third, and even at the risk of not being able to make profound assertions about the past, we need to demystify and share the process of history writing.

I was part of a team that attempted to work along these lines when the National Curriculum Framework 2005 was developed by the NCERT (National Council for Educational Research and Training). The syllabi and the textbooks that we developed attempted to be inclusive—bringing within the purview of the discipline categories such as forest-dwellers, pastoralists, peasants, agricultural labourers, investigating processes such as globalisation, and focusing on the everyday, through discussions on clothes and sport, for instance. There were also sensitive analyses of some of the most violent and tragic moments of human history, such as the Partition of the subcontinent. The project was state-supported, and there were discussions, debates, negotiations, as well as compromises, in what proved to be a significant intervention. There were also significant omissions—issues of disability received token attention, and heteronormativity was barely challenged.

For me, one of the major learnings from the exercise was the urgent need to build, within our limited resources, vertical linkages amongst all those involved in the process—between researchers/university/college-based teachers and those transacting the books in everyday practice. These need to be developed and sustained on a regular basis.

At another level, we need to work constantly and consistently on building alliances and coalitions. The process will be painstaking, even painful. We need to realise that it is not sufficient to be only secular, or only against caste-oppression, or only feminist, or only socialist, to name some of the identities or positions we may claim or dismiss at one point of time or the other. Even if our priorities are different, even if our potentials are distinct, and because these are so, we need to develop ways and means of talking, listening, and acting together.

Irfan Habib, one of today’s leading historians in India, is Professor Emeritus at Aligarh University. With an academic career spanning over almost half a century, he has published near twenty books and monographs on 12th-18th century India, including the classic Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707. He also contributed to the editing of several volumes of the UNESCO History publications, as well as the first volume of The Cambridge Economic History of India. Irfan Habib’s work follows a Marxist orientation. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2005.
Kumkum Roy is Professor of Ancient Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, Delhi. Her current research focuses on inter-textuality in early and early medieval Sanskrit texts, with a special focus on the representations of gender, marginalised people and liminal spaces. Her doctoral research concentrated on the connections between the emergence of political institutions in ancient monarchies, and domestic relations. Keenly interested in history teaching in schools, Kumkum Roy has developed curriculums and textbooks in collaboration with the Delhi SCERT and the NCERT.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Pichost | Wikipedia | Prashant Sengar | Samuel Buchoul

Voice courtesy: Shriyam Gupta

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