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History of the Undoing of History

Author(s): Bhupendra Yadav

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jan. 19-25, 2002), pp. 192-194
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
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I Commentary

History of the Undoing

(The Sunday Times of India, December
23, 2001, p 5).
The present HRD minister, Murli

of History
Manohar Joshi, said, "... my Marxist
friends are interested only in history books
because it is they who have distorted
history" (The Indian Express, December
Despite the recent controversy that has dogged history writing 9, 2001). Joshi is wrong because, like in
in India, since ancient and even pre-modern times, patricians the past, the instigation (10 deletions from
and rulers have used history for control as well as for three textbooks in use for decades) to
moral/administrative education and entertainment. This apart, arouse the present controversy came from
his ministry.
historians too have been guilty offocusing too much on empiricism
Joshi claimed that the discipline of
rather than seeking to dwell on the nature and philosophy of history has become controversial because
history. the left intelligentsia has enslaved it.
Further, unnecessary dust was kicked up
BHUPENDRA YADAV general editorship of R C Majumdar).by Joshi's 'shishya', J S Rajput, director
These books (particularly Volume VII)of NCERT, by alleging that authors of
n the sidelines of the 'War against had a 'frighteningly outspoken commu- particularly the history textbooks furthered
Terror', a war of words has also nal approach' to medieval history thattheir 'narrow political agenda' and took
broken out in the 'republic of was untenable, according to established
his institution 'for a ride'. Not only this,
learning'. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial scholars of the time. For instance, it Rajput was foolhardy enough to suggest
Trust (SAHMAT) recently circulated a treated the resistance of Muslim and that the authors are "elements out to
statement about the 'communal onslaught Hindu satraps to the Mughal empire destabilise the nation" (The Hindu, Octo-
on history'. According to SAHMAT this separately. So, while the Muslim satraps
ber 23, 2001). It seems some very ardent
attack is serious as it has been mounted were shown to be resisting MughalsArya
for Samajis happily picked up the cu
power, the Hindu satraps were saidRajput
from the flanks of the same ministry which to gave. While visiting Joshi, one
is entrusted with the duty to protect and
be fighting the same rulers for their faith
delegation of these people sought the arres
promote, inter alia, different forms of [Habib 1979: 56-60]. of secular historians Romila Thapar
learning. Yet this kind of action is not The then education minister, P C R S SharmaandArjun Dev (The Hindustan
unprecedented. R S Sharma's AncientChunder, was not a RSS supporter. But Times, December 8, 2001). The RSS
India was done the honour of being 'with- this time elements beholden to RSS are sarsanghchalak, K S Sudershan, has mer-
drawn' by fiat in 1978 during the Janata calling the shots in the education ministry.cifully not gone that far but even he calls
Party rule. Scholars like Ashis Nandy, On instructions from them in 2000, ICHRthose who are resisting the revisions of the
then, blamed both the sides in the con- withdrew from publication books of NCERT textbooks as 'anti-Hindu Euro-
flict for encouraging and justifying as eminent historians(Sumit Sarkar and K NIndians' (Organiser, November 4, 2001).
also later condemning (depending on who Panikkar) which it itself commissioned Some scholars have claimed that Hindu
was at the receiving end) 'state interfer-underthe 'Towards Freedom' project undercommunalism not only draws on 'dis-
the Congress regime (Frontline, Marchtorted history' for its fodder but a com-
ence in intellectual affairs' [ Rudolph and
Rudolph 1984: 28,33-34]. 31, 2000, pp 109-114) This attack onmunal interpretation of history provides
This view of blaming all sides would 'academic freedom' was widely resentedthe scaffolding/contours to this commu-
seem simplistic today due to two reasons. but the unfased government has gone onnalism [Chandra 1984: 209]. Nobody
Firstly, history has been only as much with its 'demolition' work in history. Nowwould have believed Hindu communalists
18 months down the line the row is still
enmeshed in the power/ knowledge nexus if they told co-religionists that they were
not settled. ICHR will not allow the
as any other discipline in the social sci- a minority who will be submerged by
ences. Yet, whenever (and indeed wher- publishing of the books till its Research
majoritarianism. Only Muslim commu-
ever) BJP is in power, only history has Projects Committee (consisting of nalists could say this and they used this
been singled out for interference; Y Baikuntham from Osmania University, argument quite effectively to mobilise
projects get commissioned to distort,S R Mehrotra from Himachal Pradesh public support by arousing fear psychosis
delete and redo history. In 1978-79, theUniversity and Kapil Kumar of Indira among co-religionists. On their part Hindu
Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) Gandhi National Open University) vets communalists aroused fear among co-
coup in Indian Council for Historical them. And it is said the publishers (ireligionists
e, through stereotypes about
Research (ICHR) resulted only in the Hindus being congenitally 'divided and
Oxford University Press) will not return
translation of the series The History and
the manuscripts till they get from ICHRfull of cowardice' and they instigated
Culture of Indian People (publishedthe money incurred by them in editing hostility against Muslims by saying that
by Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan under the the 'mlechchas' were tyrannical as their
the books and in the litigation thereafter

192 Economic and Political Weekly January 19, 2002

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rulers, as oppressive as medieval officials 'get the story straight', researches in his- theory; Marxist and feminist analyses on
and cruel/treacherous in the battlefield. tory resembled the anthills created by symbols and signifiers,etc. But book-
worms which dig deeper and deeper into
Moreover, history as a discipline is very shelves of history are blissfully innocent
vulnerable to manipulation because de- just one place like historians. That the of theoretical labours and singularly de-
place chosen for digging was a part of
spite being rich in narratives it lacks di- voted to narratives of the past. So, it is
rection. This essay is primarily concernedsome bigger world may have been under- astonishing that despite so much 'poverty
stood but this fact was acknowledged just of theory' among their peers E H Carr
with the problem of 'directionless-ness' in
occasionally and the linkages between one asked What is history? or Marc Bloch
history. All social sciences are supposedly
doing some good. Sociology/social an-anthill and another were explored even explored The Historian's Craft or Hayden
less. Joining the worm's 'fact gathering' White discovered The Content of the Form
thropology is said to be for social better-
work to the flight of a bird was therefore [Jenkins 1996: 2].
ment; political science for political devel-
opment; and economics for economic necessary for two reasons. Firstly, this In the past quarter of a century much has
welfare. But, like philosophy, history is would
a have given to history and historians changed in the conventional historical
the wings to empathetically reach out explanation and method, declare some
non-utility subject, as it does no tangible
good. The 'quantum of history may be not only to things past and times gone but scholars. Historians are more aware today
reduced' ordains the National Curriculum also to people dead and folks unknown. that history is as much an 'invention' as
Framework circulated by NCERT in 2000.It would have vested them with richer it is a 'discovery' of the past. A section
The second step may be that, like Ford,'social imagination' and prepared them of them have begun accepting that histo-
history may be declared 'more or less bunk'.better to do comparative analyses. Self- rians live encaged in personal history
For this the fraternity of historians is alsocentredness is bad for any Social animal (meaning that they have gender, class, race,
to blame, howsoever partially. The fact isbut for those into critical social studies it sexual and cultural preferences), private
that 'hard' social scientists in south Asia is inexcusable. beliefs and perceptions as individuals that
are 'historically minded' (World Social Secondly, the interweaving of the worm's constitute their ideology and specific lin-
Science Report, p 147). Yet, historians and bird's eye-view would have given to guistic capabilities/affiliations. So, some
have failed to join history to the fund of history a solid conceptual apparatus de- historians have started studying new areas
knowledge created by other disciplines of rived from logic (as in philosophy), from like identity construction, embodiment,
the social sciences even on a reciprocal cultural appropriation, liminality and the
imagination (as in literature) and of course,
basis. They have failed to even use (leave empirical reality (as in sciences). This'other'. A majority of the historians are
alone produce) many social concepts, would have at least initiated the journey said to be still enamoured by the 'mod-
models and theories. Not only this, evenof history out from its self-inflicted 'pov- ernist wreckage', which consists of the
the best historians have seldom cast a erty of theory'. Peter Burke, professor belief
of that we can know the true meaning
critical look at the making and subsequent Cultural History at Cambridge Univer- of the past and that 'we can have an
unmaking (as at present) of their disci- sity, was disturbed at the indifference of essentially unmediated and direct access
pline. Sociology of knowledge is report- historians and social theorists to one an- to past reality' [Munslow 2000: 20].
edly a new discipline but its equivalentother. for He was able to count just two Considering that most historians have
history has not even been conceptualised. concepts, viz, 'moral economy' by E Pcast their critical look on everything except
Thompson and 'invention of traditions' by themselves, John Tosh recently compiled
'Poverty of Theory' Eric Hobsbawm, which historians (both of a book comprising 38 essays by 'Histo-
whom were British and Marxists) cre-rians on History' (also the title of the
Patricians and rulers in pre-modern times by historians which had become book). The main finding of Tosh, which
influential in all social science [Burke is very important for our purposes here,
used history not for control but for moral/
administrative education or entertainment.
1992: 1-21]. This undoubtedly is a poor is that the best minds in the discipline were
History, however, was formed as a disci- just pleased doing small things like dis-
record for a discipline more than 150 years
pline with a scientific methodology oldonlyin its modem 'avatar' and proves that covering what happened and what it was
history has been a barren land so far as
in the 19th century. This growth was helped like to live in the past; studying the past
by the accessibility of people to policy
the birth of concepts, models and theoriesto uncover the shape of human destiny;
documents, for example, through institu- are concerned. establishing history as a teacher; and
tions like the British Public Record Office Some scholars are quite unhappy at thelegitimising the powers that be. Reflec-
(created in 1838) or by the liberal offer of way history has sunk in the deluge of tions on the nature and philosophy of history
Pope Leo XIII to open the Papal Archive empiricism, unlike other disciplines. Book-by even the best minds in the discipline
are few and far between; they are only
in 1883. Developments in palaeography shelves of philosophy are not starved of
and numismatics coupled with the method theory and here we see texts on ontology 'incidental', declares Tosh. 'This makes
of carbon dating of paved the way for (theories of being), epistemology (theories history an undefined entity - an empty
critical historical scholarship to blossom. of knowledge) and methodology; varieties space for colonisation by other more
In this way professional historians were of analysis: idealist, materialist, realist andpowerful interests' [Tosh 1999:1-12].
created as different from the court chroni- phenomenological; texts on scepticism, Not all powerful interests, however,
clers or antiquarians of yore. sought to feather their nests (or further
language and meaning, etc. Similarly, book-
Teachers and students of history have shelves of literature these days abound nottheir domination) by servile history writ-
for a long time been unhappy with the just in fictional narratives but also in lit- ing nor did all political leaders clinch their
pound of flesh (or fame) from party his-
dismal empiricist bias of their discipline erary theory on allegory, poetics, rhetoric,
[Stedman-Jones 1972]. In their desire to deconstruction, reception theory, critical torians. Julius Nyerere criticised historians

Economic and Political Weekly January 19, 2002 193

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at Dar es Salam University for exagger- Revolution. (This punishment was meted
the principal actors; and a popular revolt
ating facts about the African past simply to more radical scholars who were sur- to him because he dared to ask - whether
because colonial historians ignored them. the war communism policy of the Soviet
prised by the extent of people's participa-
This Tanzanian nationalist suspected that tion in Awadh. socialist regime was a dictatorship of the
self-serving accounts were drawn from Without beingjudgmental or quarrellingproletariat or a dictatorship over them?)
political commitment which drove histo- about facts, Neera Chandhoke, a politicalMikhail Nikolai Pokroviskii (1862-1932),
rians to the error of exaggeration or over- scientist, says that history is the key atoproud self-proclaimed Leninist histo-
selectivity [Wrigley 1971]. Our own na- rian, addressing Society of Marxist His-
identity (both personal and collective) and
tionalist leaders were no less forthright torians, put the whole debate of 'objectiv-
memories of the past will be plural as well
in expressing a sound philosophy of his- ity' in history caustically in the power
as conflicting. She uses the example of the
tory. Jawaharlal Nehru was jailed nine events of 1947 in India. To most of us
knowledge framework. He said, "Objec-
times, so, his patriotism should not be August 15, 1947 symbolises victory over tive history is a formula to fool the masses.
doubted. It was during one of his impris- oppression and independence from History co- for history's sake was undertaken
onments (between 1930-33) that Nehru lonial rule. But on some others it thrust always by untalented minor historians or
wrote a 'mountain of letters' to his then partition and dispossession, bloodshed andby intelligent people to hide their faces
teenage daughter which were published as evil memories (magazine, The Hindu, behind a pile of quotations and to adhere
the 1,000 page long Glimpses of WorldDecember 16, 2001). Constructing their to views of one or another class" [Stern
History. Glimpses had no chauvinistic or identities on such conflicting memories 1970: 329-41].
racial bias. It viewed the development of every group and section (or even nation- Sadly, the educational establishment in
'man from barbarism to civilisation'. It ality) wishes to see history as a discipline
India now is doingjust this to history. And,
categorically stated that the values of harbouring plural interpretations. But theincidentally, this is what was done in
civilisation (like education, science, jus-
monopolistic nationstate and powers that Pakistan in 1970s. So, if left historians are
tice, art, liberty and social cooperation)
be do not like plurality as it threatens the
the intellectual progeny of 'Marx, Macaulay
uniform worldview they want citizens/
were not confined to any nationality, culture madrasas' (as alleged), must the
or people. Hence, in Glimpses there subjects
is to hold. Totalitarian regimespolitical ancestry of Joshi (and his blue-
were the worst culprits in this regard. eyed boys in the academia) be traced back
praise for Greek learning (viz, as in chapter
16, 'The Glory That Was Hellas') or forIn George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty- to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and even General
the statesmanship and literary activities Four,
of Zia-ul-Haq? Ea
Winston, the hero, calls the control
Kang Hi, a 17th century Chinese ruler over(as the past 'more terrifying than mere
in chapter 93, 'A Great Manchu Ruler torture
in References
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194 Economic and Political Weekly January 19, 2002

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