Newsletter, August 2008

In Defence of History and Democratic Rights

by Amar Farooqui

There is increasingly a common sense about history as a discipline-that it is not a discipline in the sense of other social sciences or natural sciences. This implies that there is a perception that history requires no specialized knowledge or training. Anyone, a guide at a historical monument or a narrator of anecdotes about local folk-heroes, can hold forth authoritatively on history and that one version of history is as authentic as another. All of us, at least if we happen to be reasonably educated, are assumed to have a basic knowledge of ‘our’ history (in the sense of the history of our nation). This history is supposed to be generally known, just there, having perhaps been handed down from generation to generation or imbibed naturally.

It is a different matter that it required the growth of history as a modern discipline for us to learn about the existence of Ashok or the Harappan civilization, to cite only two examples. One needs to bear in mind that Ashok (as a historical figure, rather than legend) was ‘discovered’ around the mid-nineteenth century, and the Harappan civilization came to light only in the first quarter of the twentieth century. For several hundred generations in the preceding period there was no knowledge of these histories. This historical knowledge was the product of the evolution of history and archaeology as modern disciplines with their own specific techniques and methods of verification.

History, like any other discipline, has its own rules and methodology. These cannot be altogether disregarded. To quote Partha Chatterjee, ‘[W]hatever else in scientific historiography may have come under a cloud, the technical apparatus of the verification and authorization of “facts” remains intact. At the very least, there is no doubt about the need for such a technical apparatus, even if the currently used one in any particular field is in dispute. Writing history has not become the same thing as writing fiction’.

The teaching of history involves, therefore, training students to use the methods and tools of the discipline – and there are well-recognized and established methods based upon a consensus within the discipline. Hardly anyone would agree to a suggestion that the bizarre ideas of Erich von Daniken about the extra-terrestrial origins of Egyptian pyramids should be presented as established facts to students. More important, students have to be equipped to be able to understand how historical knowledge is constructed so that they can decide for themselves whether or not to accept von Daniken’s views as historical ‘facts’.

Chronologically, history as a modern discipline has developed more or less simultaneously with nationalism. In fact the history of the discipline and the history of nationalism are closely interconnected. History-writing has had to contend with the demands of the nationalist project worldwide. It has invariably been pressed into the service of nationalist mobilization, since each nation is supposed to have a common history: each nation must therefore have an authorized version of its own history. This has been a contentious issue, to say the least, often with terrible consequences. The mass-killing of Jews in Nazi Germany was, and the brutal suppression of the Palestinians in contemporary Israel is, legitimised in terms of so-called authorized versions of history.

Similarly there have been contending versions of Indian nationhood since the latter half of the nineteenth century. During the course of the anti-imperialist struggle, the dominant understanding of the nation, as represented (at least officially) by the Indian National Congress, and the Left, was that of a secular, multilingual, multiethnic India. Unlike what is usually presumed, the Congress did not take its cue from the west in formulating its position on nationhood. Its historical achievement lay in promoting a nationalism that was home-grown and all-inclusive. On the contrary, those who sought to define the Indian nation in terms of religious identities were inspired by European models of nationalism, ‘an exclusionary nationalism that tried to create a uniform citizenry on tried and tested European nationalist principles: a shared language, an authorized history, a single religion and a common enemy’ (Mukul Kesavan, Secular Common Sense).

Secularism was an integral part of nationalism in the Congress’ perception of nation. This was recognition of the fact that it was necessary to take into account the enormous diversity of the subcontinent in order to forge a powerful united front against the British. As Kesavan puts it, ‘there was a Noah’s Ark quality to Congress nationalism, as it did its best to keep every species of Indian on board’. Moreover, the Congress had a fairly well-developed understanding of colonialism as a system of economic exploitation. Consequently in its struggle against the British it focussed on the economic exploitation of the Indian people as a whole. To quote Kesavan again, ‘The emotional charge of Congress nationalism came from anti-imperialism – not the myth of a suppressed identity struggling to be born’.

Ultimately it was this understanding, which was the product of the common struggle of the Indian people against colonial rule, that was broadly enshrined in the Constitution. At the same time there has been a sustained attempt to undermine the secular and democratic fabric of the Constitution, especially by the Sangh parivar, which seeks to shape the nation in terms of Hindutva. The compromises by the Congress on the issue of secularism, particularly from the late sixties onwards, made the Sangh parivar’s offensive more potent, culminating in the aggressive ideological onslaught and physical mobilization on the issue of the Babari masjid from the late eighties onwards. And once again it is history as a discipline that was the casualty. Those who were not even remotely connected with history – had no training in the discipline – arrogated to themselves the right to hold forth on historical facts and interpretations.

Not surprisingly, when the BJP-led NDA government came to power, it lost no time in targeting history textbooks. As is well known, new textbooks that incorporated the Sangh parivar’s ideological positions promptly replaced the existing history textbooks. This was not about presenting a different perspective, or interpretation, but undermining the discipline itself, as was demonstrated by the numerous critiques that appeared at that time. Another target was the ‘Towards Freedom’ project of the Indian Council of Historical Research. Volumes related to the project that were in the process of being published were withdrawn, and the project itself was abandoned. One could, of course, cite numerous other examples. Eventually, it was after the UPA government came to power that the NDA-mandated NCERT textbooks were withdrawn, and the ‘Towards Freedom’ project was restored.

Nevertheless, the offensive continues, often insidiously. On the one hand the processes of the judicial system are resorted to so as to subvert, in the name of upholding, human rights and civil liberties in such a manner that the process itself amounts to inflicting punishment. On the other hand straightforward violence is resorted to. As a matter of fact the threat of violence, with all the intimidation that it implies, is always present even when ‘normal’ democratic forms of protest are adopted.

Recently the Department of History, Delhi University, became the victim of a campaign of this kind when a handful of people, who had little to do with history-teaching or with the discipline generally, objected to the inclusion of an essay entitled ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’ among the suggested readings for a Concurrent Course on Ancient Indian Culture in the B.A. (Honours) programme. The essay was written by the eminent scholar, translator and poet A.K. Ramanujan. Ramanujan was an authority on Indian oral folktales. He taught at the University of Chicago for several decades till his death in 1993. The essay has been available in print since 1991, and an expanded version was included by OUP in The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan (New Delhi, 1999), edited by Vinay Dharwadker (pp.131-160). The essay is really a celebration of the Ramayana and its wonderful diversity, and yet its inclusion was objected to because it was allegedly trying to denigrate the holy epic. Further, as the statement issued by the Department of History noted in response to the objections:

When readings are prescribed in a course, it is not essential that the course-designers, teachers, or students should agree with or defend each and every word. In fact debate, dissent, and dialogue are important parts of the discipline of history. It may be pointed out that the terms that have apparently caused offence to certain individuals should in no way be construed as mischievous or slanderous. There is no question whatsoever of intending or attempting to denigrate or hurt the sentiments of any culture, religion, tradition, or community.

The aim of the course in question is to teach University students (who are, after all, young adults) to be able to analyse a variety of source material academically, analytically, and without embarrassment or denigration. That is the spirit in which the course was framed and that is the spirit in which we believe it is being taught.

The objections were followed by a violent protest against the department on 25th February 2008, during the course of which a few protestors who had come to meet the head of the department, Prof. S.Z.H. Jafri, accompanied by the crew of a television channel, went on a rampage – physically assaulting the Head, breaking windowpanes, upturning furniture, flinging/tearing papers and books on the floor, damaging doors and almirahs. Incidentally, police personnel who were present while all this was going on preferred to remain spectators.

Simultaneously, recourse was taken to the legal system. A case was filed in the Delhi High Court against the inclusion of the essay among the suggested readings. The Court rejected the petition.

Writing and teaching history is increasingly becoming hazardous, but then so is democratic dissent, or taking ideological positions that oppose communal and right-wing ideologies. The teachers’ movement will have to intervene effectively to ensure that hard-won democratic rights and academic values are not destroyed by the offensive of communal and right-wing forces.


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