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Sunday, October 17, 2021

The unmaking of history

From the beginning, the ICHR has been beholden to the political and historical beliefs of whoever was in power. This aspect of its leadership has not changed.

Written by Dilip K Chakrabarti |
Updated: October 15, 2015 6:06:55 am
If anyone were to ask me if the ICHR has had a positive impact on historical research in the country, I would categorically say ‘no’. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar) If anyone were to ask me if the ICHR has had a positive impact on historical research in the country, I would categorically say ‘no’. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

Around 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) published “performance audits” of the Indian Museum, Asiatic Society (Kolkata), Victoria Memorial, Visva Bharati and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). After going through these reports — all available in the public sphere — the first reaction is that of sadness: What have these people been doing all these years! In the case of the ASI, it is pointed out that it does not have a defined conservation policy and possesses only marginal interest in doing archaeological research and caring for explored and excavated antiquities. The report further states: Governance from the ministry of culture was lax and found deficient on all aspects of adequacy of policy and legislation, financial management, monitoring of conservation projects and provision of human resources to these organisations.”

In the case of historical research, these limitations generate a stronger public reaction, because historical research has an influence on how the nation perceives its past and is thus involved in the formation of the nation’s identity.

The government of India sponsors two more organisations like the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) — the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the Indian Council of Philosophical Research (ICPR). Both history and philosophy should fall under the ICSSR’s purview, and the fact that they do not is because of two Central ministers — S. Nurul Hasan for the ICHR, who was education minister in 1972, when it was created. The man he appointed as the chairman of the University Grants Commission, S. Chandra, a medievalist like himself, was not known to have any significant publications to his credit. R.S. Sharma, another associate, specialised in ancient India. He was appointed chairman of the ICHR. All three were former or active communists and strongly believed in helping fellow travellers.

The precise context of the beginning of the ICHR has been narrated by historian Tapan Raychaudhuri in his Bengali autobiography. An earlier education minister, V.K.R.V. Rao, allocated Rs 3 crore for the translation of the volumes on Indian history published in English under the editorship of R.C. Majumdar by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. This project was cancelled, and the ICHR was established with this money. Once it was established and became the chief funding agency of historical research in the country, the wishes of its controllers became the command for teachers of history all over the country.

It is not necessary to carry forward this contextual and historical story. Right from the beginning, this organisation has cared for nothing except the political and historical beliefs of whoever was in power. This aspect of its leadership has not changed. Some sort of overall political control is probably inevitable, because funding comes from the government. What is, however, required is a well-defined professional framework, which the ICHR has lacked throughout. As a result, its operations have far too often been subject to past practices in various matters.

The area in which the absence of professionalism is most visible lies in the award of fellowships and grants for doing research. A huge amount of money has been spent on this since the early 1970s. Fellowships are of four kinds: Junior research fellowships for helping young people to do their PhDs, postdoctoral fellowships, senior academic fellowships generally given to retired people, and finally, “national” fellowships to outstanding scholars active in research. Grants are awarded not merely for scholarly research, but also for organising seminars. Grants are also given for the publication of books and for attending international conferences. There is also money for initiating research projects on its own. On paper, the whole scheme is marvellously equipped, and the government of India deserves praise for putting it in place.

The reality, however, is different. Junior fellows are currently selected through written examinations and interviews, but are they conducted openly and fairly? Who gives that assurance, and where is the published record with the relevant details? The same is true of the postdoctoral scholars, although in that case written examinations and interviews are unnecessary because people should be able to judge the quality of the PhD thesis on the basis of which they will be trying for postdoctoral fellowships. Senior fellowships, which are given mostly to retired people with access to the dominant group, are a nightmare. Senior Indian academics in the humanities and social sciences are generally too lazy to do research, and these fellowships in most cases are a pure waste of money. National fellows are supposed to be outstanding scholars. I have met some national fellows calling themselves national professors of subjects they know hardly anything about. Of the two national fellows I can presently think of, one is 86 and the other must be older than 80. Basically, “senior” and “national” fellowships may be considered the retirement benefits of people with contacts.

Indian academics are also enthusiastic organisers of seminars, even though there may be nothing new or exciting about them. The state of official projects is downright scandalous. The principal investigators are, in most cases, simply lazy, without a clear idea of the relevant research framework. If anyone were to ask me if the ICHR has had a positive impact on historical research in the country, I would categorically say “no”. And yet, with transparency and some academic commitment, it can turn itself around and be the agent of a new kind of history that Sister Nivedita wrote about: “In all that lies around us then, we may, if our eyes are open, read the story of the past. The life we live today has been created for us by those who went before us, even as the line of seaweed on the shore has been placed there by the waves of the tides now over, in their ebb and flow.”

This approach should be the core of a properly nationalist approach to the study of history in India.

The writer is emeritus professor of South Asian archaeology and senior fellow of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University. He is also a member of the ICHR.

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