Last weekend’s 78th session of the Indian History Congress in Kolkata went beyond a mere academic discourse by distinguished brains. It was very pertinently riveted to increasing attacks on the freedom of speech and expression ~ from the campuses to the cinema ~ and thus assumed a contemporary connotation. As much is clear both from the presentations and the resolution. The ground was prepared on the first day of the three-day conclave by historian Professor Irfan Habib’s analysis of the factors that have in recent years hobbled the study of history. Sure it is a social science discipline that is open to subjective reflection. On occasion, however, objectivity has been accorded the short shrift and deliberately so. It is cause for alarm that the line between empirical evidence and inference is being increasingly blurred by political compulsions of the day.
The nub of the matter must be that from the Indian National Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political class tends to lend its respective spin on historical texts. However bizarre on the face of it, detoxification is the spurious thread that runs through the political spectrum. Such “manufactured history”, as the noted historian, the late Barun De, once described it has made it virtually impossible to answer EH Carr’s passionate query ~ What is History? Given the meddling by successive political dispensations, it is unfortunate that genuine practitioners of the discipline must still be groping for a reply.
The trend was manifest amidst the controversy over the origins of Babari Masjid (demolished on 6 December 1992) and continues 25 years after. To the almost incredible extent that the authenticity of the past has been open to question. Not to put too fine a point on it, the suggestion to selectively bowdlerise textbooks verges on sub-literacy. Indeed, if a certain pragmatic school of “historians” has its way, the history of the Mughal Empire must be omitted and the reign of Akbar and Tipu Sultan assessed ~ if at all ~ in a manner that is wholly derogatory. The debunking of the Taj Mahal only exemplifies the trend towards fiction. A graduate or post-graduate degree, based on such politically-influenced history, can have little or no value.
It is the cause of objectivity that urgently needs to be defended, and the responsibility must lie with historians ~ who will have to shed their political sympathies ~, publishers, teachers and the taught. It will be a tragedy if the credibility of Clio is at stake.
And Kolkata, where the study of history is still fortunately a highly developed discipline, can well show the way. Not wholly unrelated to the core issue is the project of the Indian Council of Historical Research to prove that Adam’s Bridge (Ram Setu) was not natural, but made by the human hand. Let empirical evidence craft historiography.