The Communal Offensive and the Indian Council of Historical Research

Tanika Sarkar

The present Indian government is a coalition one, dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). What is little-known, however, is that the BJP is the electoral wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS provides daily sessions of ideological and martial education to millions of people across the country, and coordinates a large and varied spectrum of subsidiary fronts, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) which is its religious wing. The VHP has pioneered immense violence against Muslim and Christian minorities in the last decade. The various fronts have overlapping, multiple membership, the leaders of each front also are important Sangh functionaries. What is even less recognised is that the RSS has been functioning for the last seventy odd years continuously, that it cultivated direct links with the Italian and German fascists, and that its founders acknowledged the influence of fascist authoritarianism, militarism and racism quite openly at one time.

The Sangh combine seeks to replace the present secular, multicultural polity of India with the alternative of Hindu nationhood. Their claim is that since Hindus constitute the religious majority, the nation must be aligned to the needs, desires and aspirations of this community - as articulated by the Sangh combine alone. Democracy thus gets rephrased as majoritarianism. The concept of a monolithic Hindu interest suppresses the hidden majority of low caste and untouchable labourers, of women still oppressed by religious patriarchal norms - people whose lot is daily worsened by the effects of the globalised economy and structural adjustments with IMF - World Bank directives. On the one hand, draconian restraints are sought to be imposed on trade union rights. On the other hand, dress codes are being imposed on young urban women, their life-style is being policed, all representations of social and gender injustice through films and other cultural productions are attacked by their trained stormtroopers.

It might seem strange that in the middle of its designs about a transition to a highly authoritarian, militaristic, nuclearised Hindu nationhood, the Sangh combine invests a lot of attention to the writing of history. It is redirecting the production of school textbooks to promote an abrasive nation-worship and religious nationalism. It strenuously objects to all left-oriented historical writings. It is systematically packing all research organisations and funding bodies with trusted right-wingers. It tries to stop publication of edited volumes of archival documents dealing with the period of the anti-imperialist movement. A systematic smear campaign is directed at left historians to discredit their academic credentials and personal integrity. Important segments of the media are pressed into the service of the smear campaign.

The British historian N. Mansergh edited British archival documents which dealt with constitutional relations in the years immediately before the transfer of power in 1947. In 1989 the government of India organised a team of historians of modern India to compile and edit a collection of Indian archival documents as a counterpart. These historians were mostly of a liberal persuasion with a few leftists among them and they decided to go beyond the archival sources into the Indian newspapers, private papers, and organisational papers; they also determined to provide an history which would be as complete as possible for the last few years before independence, and not simply restrict themselves to the British-Nationalist interaction. Some of the editors uncovered valuable new materials on the working class, peasant and tribal movements, religious conflict as well as of the Indian left which has been neglected in Indian historical writing. The archival documents also adequately demonstrated the trouble-free relations between the RSS and the colonial government when almost every other political organisation at some time or the other faced massive bouts of repression. The documents also revealed that even though the Indian Communists had supported the British war effort in 1942 which was directed against the fascist powers, their movement against colonialism had not slackened and very soon after 1942 their activities again came under severe constraints.

After the RSS came to dominate the National Democratic Alliance government in 1998 the first thing they did was to penetrate the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Subsequently they systematically eliminated the liberal and left historians from decision - making in the academic world and filled them with their trusted people. This was a difficult task because the world of Indian historical writing has so far not produced a right-wing historian of any stature whereas several liberal and left historians enjoy undisputed international standing. From the very beginning of its government the BJP has carried out serious attacks on the freedom of research as well as on academic norms. Quite recently two volumes of the Towards Freedom Project on archival materials have been withdrawn from publication primarily on the ground that the already published volumes refer extensively to the historical works of leftist historians. The review was done by bureaucrats, full-time RSS activists and teachers of ancient and medieval history of slight academic reputation. Not a single historian of modern India was involved in the review of the volumes dealing with the years 1937-47. At the same time the very right of left historians to engage in historical research, as well as any reference to left histories other than to the 1942 'betrayal' are strongly asserted in systematic campaigns in the media and in universities across the country. The personal reputations of liberal and left historians is being calumnised and they are being represented as 'Pakistani agents'. In the case of Romila Thapar, a liberal historian of ancient India, street campaigns have been conducted in the state of Kerala claiming that she has defended the 'Muslim invasion' of India and the wrecking of temples. The skilful methods of playing around with historical writings and using them for distorted disinformation reveal a Goebbelsian mindset.

The Sangh combine attempts to control the writing on modern history for two important reasons. One is to conceal their own complicity with British imperialism and fascist powers at different points during the late colonial period. The other is to suppress the histories of the movements of working people which were largely led by the left. There is also a move to erase distinctions between myths and history : the historic Babri mosque was demolished in 1992 because it was supposedly raised by Muslims at the site of the birthplace of Ram who is a Hindu mythological figure!

Controlling the meanings of history has served multiple purposes in the recent past. It has helped foster a notion that religious antagonisms have always been the organising principle of our history, it has helped produce endless fiction as authenticated accounts of Muslim and Christian oppression and treachery that can justify present intimidation and terror directed at them. Above all, the present agenda is to erase the left from historical accounts of peoples resistance against global imperialism and against social injustice - struggles that the Sangh has always avoided and abhorred.

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