INDIA: Righting or rewriting Hindu history
By Ann Ninan (Orginally published by Inter Press Service - February, 2000)
NEW DELHI - Independent historians see the hand of the ruling right-wing Hindu party in the decision to stop the publication of two volumes of a project documenting India's independence movement by two eminent historians.
The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), where top appointments are made by the government, has ordered the Oxford University Press (OUP) to ''return the typescripts'' of the two books for ''review''. Neither historian, Sumit Sarkar or K N Pannikar, were informed by the ICHR, and they only got to know of it on February 14 from the OUP, which has declined to comment, only saying the withdrawal of the volumes is a huge financial loss.
''In the past few weeks, I have been getting proofs of my volume and I thought we were almost through,'' Prof Sarkar is quoted as saying by The Hindu newspaper.
Both historians have formidable reputations as liberal and secular historians, and outspoken opponents of the Hindu right-wing which now leads the coalition government in New Delhi. Prof Sarkar, who has been associated with Delhi University for over two decades, says the volumes are ''based on archival material and we have presented these documents as they are''. Prof Panikkar is at the Jawaharlal Nehru University here.
The volumes are part of the ICHR's Towards Freedom project, giving an overview of the last 10 years of British rule; it has been more than 30 years in the making. The project was intended to counter the colonial view that India won freedom in 1947 not through a struggle but because the British decided to decolonize the empire. Only two of the planned 20 volumes have been published so far by OUP.
The ICHR was ''just doing our job'' said its chairman, B R Grover, who ordered the review. According to him, the two volumes already published were ''very damaging in nature''. Grover, a historian, had supported the BJP-led right-wing claim that a mosque in Ayodhya which was razed by Hindu fanatics in December 1992 had been built by medieval Muslim rulers at the birthplace of the mythical Hindu god-king Rama.
The government's critics say the Hindu right-wing would like to see the volumes scuttled because of ''critical'' references to the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The ultra-nationalist RSS, which counts among its members Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Home Minister Lal Krishan Advani and Education and Culture Minister Murli Manohar Joshi, did not participate in the important 1942 Quit India movement.
Instead, according to Italian academic Marzia Casolari, who has used archival material to prove the influence of European fascism on the RSS's growth and emergence in the 1930s and 1940s, the Hindu right-wing was obsessed with the need to fight Muslims. Today that obsession with those who threaten the Hindu identity ''encompasses Christian missionaries, inconvenient film-makers, painters, those who challenge Hindu patriarchy - especially women with alternative sexuality,'' said the Hindustan Times newspaper on Friday.
ICHR chairman Grover said the two professors were ''leftists''. He charged them in a three-page statement to the media with reducing ''Mahatma Gandhi to a mere footnote while the Communist Party, which played a traitorous role in the freedom struggle, was highlighted out of proportion''.
On Thursday, a demonstration against the ''saffronization'' (the Hindu colour) of academic institutions at the ICHR office in New Delhi, was joined by liberal and left intellectuals, activists, students and teachers of Delhi's three universities. ''There is no doubt at all that the decision is politically motivated, aimed at stifling secular and progressive historical research,'' said Moloyashree Hashmi, convenor of the Jan Natya Manch, a street theater group.
Liberal Indians see danger in the pace at which the right-wing are seeking to ''Hinduize'' India and distort the writing of history. Education, particularly the social studies, has already taken a Hindu turn in Indian states ruled by the BJP. Communalism Combat, a publication which rigorously reports on right-wing politics of hate and discrimination, did a cover story on how extremist Hindu organizations like the RSS have infiltrated school education boards. For instance government-prescribed text books in BJP-ruled Gujrat state are equating Ancient India with Vedic (Hindu) India and glossing over the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a man who was influenced by the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha.
Combat editors, who have stuck their necks out to defend a democratic and multi-religious India from right-wing extremist attacks, urged readers to take a stand on ''doctored textbooks''. ''Your child's future is in your hands,'' it pleaded.
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