On Wednesday, the Savitribai Phule University (SPU) in Pune put up a terse note on its website, announcing its inability to host one of the most important events in the country’s social science calendar — the Indian History Congress. It has cited a paucity of funds for backtracking on its commitment. But the last-minute cancellation — “postponed indefinitely”, the SPU website said — is bound to raise eyebrows given the IHC’s uneasy relationship with the central government. It is also a telling commentary on the state of institutions in India — of social science research in particular — that a “fund crunch” can jeopardise the largest gathering of professional historians in the country.
The past is today a bitterly-contested terrain as interest groups and political organisations try to right perceived wrongs by denying historiography. The IHC has often been critical of such endeavours — its members have openly disapproved of attempts by BJP-led regimes to rewrite history textbooks. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s opening lecture at the 2001 congress, for example, castigated the-then NDA government’s attempt at “confounding myth and history”. Last year, the IHC passed a resolution against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement citing plastic surgery and genetic science with regard to Ganesha and Karna. The IHC itself has been criticised for being sectarian. But for nearly a decade, the body has provided a platform to historians working on diverse themes. At last year’s IHC, for example, historians presented papers on an eclectic range, including historical geography, Dalit and gender issues, history of medicine, and history of crafts. There were also papers on themes in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Buddhist philosophy along with articles on more conventional social and economic history topics.
The IHC’s annual congregation is a valuable platform where academics from some of the country’s less-advantaged departments interact with their peers from the more well-endowed universities. The episode also bares a familiar predicament of India’s institutions — the inability to mobilise independent sources of funds. The time has come for the Indian academia to take up the issue more seriously. For now, the Union human resource development ministry must step in to ensure that the IHC is held as per schedule.