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Out of my mind: History wars

British historians cannot agree about the civil war after four centuries of debate.

Dr James Ussher was a very famous Bible scholar. Counting the generations listed in the chapter of Genesis, he calculated that God created the world in 4004 BC. He was accurate in his calculations with the Bible, but wrong about history. Even to this day, those Christians who deny Darwin cite Dr Ussher.

The Bible is a religious text which combines history and mythology. There are excavations which unravel history within the text of the Bible. The Iliad and The Odyssey have also been used to trace the history of the early centuries of ancient Greek civilisation. Some elements of those epics are history and others mythology.

The new chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, Dr Y S Rao, is interested in exploring the Mahabharata as a historical text. There is professional outrage from secular historians about anyone being serious about such a project. They feel that Rao has been imposed upon historians as an agent of Hindutva by the new government.

There are quarrels and controversies among historians everywhere across the world. British historians cannot agree about the civil war after four centuries of debate. But they agree on the documents, the artefacts recovered and the chronology. American historians are no more agreed upon the causes of their civil war.

In India, there used to be diversity among historians. The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan sponsored a six-volume history of India from a Hindu point of view. But that was during the liberal days of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was Indira Gandhi who began the Manichean practice of us and them. The good historians were secular and socialist. They were to be given patronage. Anyone who disagreed with the dominant point of view was right wing and perhaps communalist as well. I speak with some experience, having played a small part in the Cambridge Economic History of India project. Dr Dharma Kumar, whose assistant I was, was forever denounced as an imperialist lackey because she had not signed up to the Left version of modern Indian history. She did not believe the two centuries of British rule had been a story of unmitigated disaster. She was robust enough to laugh her critics off.

It is this uniformity of political ideology, despite much diversity among the secular historians, which has now come to surface. Why can a historian not take up the Mahabharata as a serious subject of history? Of course, the epic is a story and mythology and it has many versions. Yet, at the core is a bloody battle which has the character of a holocaust. If you take the description of the war seriously, 18 aukshahinis fought for 18 days and out of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, horses and elephants who fought, only 10 people were left alive.

If the war depicted in the Mahabharata killed every adult Kshatriya in North India, we should ask whether this was a true event. D D Kosambi, the polymath historian, thought that the ancient Indian civilisation of those days (vaguely anytime between three and four thousand years ago) lacked the mineral resources, technology and population to be able to have such a large war where, by his reckoning, five million people died.

But suppose only 50,000 died. Is it not still an interesting question for historians or just one historian to investigate? Should there not be excavations on the site to see whether any old bones can be retrieved? If there seems to be a Ramachandra palace under the Babri Masjid, as some people believe, there is obviously no hindrance in finding ancient artefacts and remains if you dig deep enough.

The real objection is not that Rao wishes to investigate the Mahabharata as a work of history. Historians are angry because he is chairman of the ICHR. After all, he has been carrying on his research for a while. The issue to me is the presence of the government of any party in choosing who should chair the ICHR. Why can the historians themselves not elect their chairman? Of course, the government gives research grants and so he who pays the piper calls the tune. The historians who are complaining enjoyed the patronage while they were politically the favourites.

What would have been much healthier is to have privately endowed research foundations on the lines of Ford to fund research without imposing a political agenda. It is time Indian businesses began to take research funding seriously.

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