It may soon be right side up for history writing in India with a new team taking charge at the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) last week, comprising scholars who have worked on topics such as Ram and Ayodhya, and written on Hindu gods and sacred animals.
The new members – some of whom are known to be close to the BJP and its ideological fountainhead the RSS – have also conducted research on the condition of Hindus in Bangladesh, Kashmir and Kerala and are taking on the country’s top left-leaning historians.
The discourse on medieval India is witnessing the most heated debate as the composite culture theory that highlights Hindu-Muslim syncretism is being challenged by an assertion that Hindus were persecuted during the period.
Saradindu Mukherjee, a member of the new panel, embodies the shift. “Hindus suffered at the hands of their Islamic conquerors. Look at the records and not the propagandist books and you find destruction of temples, discrimination, forced conversions either smothered or rationalised, if not justified,” he says.
The swords were drawn late last year when YS Rao was appointed the ICHR chief with many saying the government was trying to saffronise history writing and education by influencing the body, set up over four decades ago to guide research and sanction grants.
In recent months, statements by some in the government about ancient Indian knowledge of planes, advanced mathematics and medical sciences have also invited controversy and been disputed by well-known academics.
Dissatisfied with the new ICHR council, eminent left-leaning historians such as Irfan Habib and DN Jha have now hit back, saying RSS orientation rather than “professional competence” has been given importance.
“It is obvious that, as far as academic profession of history is concerned, this is not a very satisfactory list. Only a few have written papers that have appeared in top journals. The list is extraordinarily mediocre,” Habib told HT.
He alleged some new members were known for their RSS leanings, one had been a BJP candidate, some weren’t qualified enough to make it to university departments, and some were not even historians by training. The historian, however, said veteran Cambridge archaeologist Dilip Chakrabarti was an exception.
Veteran historian KN Panikkar also told HT the panel seemed to lack diversity and RSS leanings were perhaps considered crucial.
Mukherjee, who has often spoken out against left-leaning academics in the past, retorted. “Those who can’t even accept simple facts of history such as the existence of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and its destruction by ‘holy’ Islamic warriors are not worth a dialogue. The RSS is a patriotic organisation. It is rooted to this land. After all, Sir Syed Ahmad’s legacy has many takers,” said the professor.
Habib said there was little representation of medieval India on the panel, adding that new member Meenakshi Jain had written an NCERT textbook “full of errors” during the Vajpayee government.
“Modern India and economic history are hardly there,” Habib contended, crediting previous Congress regimes with constituting better councils.
Jain, however, questioned Habib’s claim, saying only half the tale was being told. “The Indian History Congress did produce a monograph. But I rebutted all their points in writing,” she said. Her works also include a book on “Ram and Ayodhya”.