PUCL Bulletin,

February 1982

History studies and State patronage
-- By Uma Chakravarti

The proper development of social science subjects requires an atmosphere in which they can grow without the interference of the government or other political interests. When such interference prevails, it results in a steady erosion of academic freedom. This is best illustrated with the example of recent controversy pertaining to the discipline of History.

The controversy has raised crucial issues in the general context of academic freedom, although the debate itself has focussed on three specific questions: (1) History text books prescribed at the school level. Here the point at controversy has been the inclusion or exclusion of material which portrays religious fanaticism or material which can endanger the secular needs of contemporary India, (2) Syllabi at the university level where the controversial point has been the inclusion of certain works which are said to have a Marxist bias, or which denigrate the role of certain national leaders; and (3) Appointments of candidates in university and other centres of higher research. While the three areas of controversy are inter-related, they are actually separate. Unfortunately, they have been brought under the same umbrella so that the issue is posed as a clash between "scientific" history and "communal" or "obscurantist" history.

In reality, the three questions are distinct because the implications that actually result from them are different in each case. Clubbing the three questions under the same overall argument has had an important consequence in that the real beneficiaries have been at the centre of the third controversy. Posing the entire debate as clash between "scientific" and "communal" forces particularly in the context of appointments has been a convenient cloak which has calculatedly obscured the more fundamental question of the quality of the appointments made and the misuse of links with officialdom in order to make these appointments. This pseudo controversy has also succeeded in deflecting the real issue which is that official positions are being used to propagate a monolithic point of view which is also a personal point of view. Further, the controversy has helped to bolster up individuals or specific groups of historians as against others and this has had disastrous consequences for academic freedom. Far from the universities promoting genuine scholarship, they have been instrumental in stifling scientific enquiry from being pursued.

Fundamental to this issue is a question which historians have failed to raise. First, what is the general relationship between the academic community and the State? Second, why has there been the development of a special relationship between the historian and the important matter and requires serious consideration. Although there has been a general thrust of the State into the universities resulting in a steady erosion of academic freedom, nowhere has this taken the extreme form that it has in the case of History. Here the State has become the arbiter of what is "scientific" and "unscientific" history. This situation has emerged as a result of a two-way process. Individuals from within the academic community have sought the patronage of the State as if to suggest that once the State recognizes or upholds their views, it will be the proof of the "scientific" nature of their work. Alternatively, the State has sought the willing compliance of academics to promote viewpoints that it wishes to propagate. In the process, the general community of historians have begun to invest the State with an objectivity that it cannot possibly possess.

It is in this context that one must view the recent debates in History studies. Therefore, it is indeed strange that the various groups that have participated in the controversy should expect the government to endorse one view against another, irrespective of the immediate interests of the government itself. Further, while it is possible that the interest of one group of historians is likely to coincide the interests of the government at a given point of time, this alignment will not always be constant. It is this aspect which has resulted in the drastic shifts in the destiny of school textbooks. That the controversy has not always been between "scientific" and "obscurantist" History or between the "right" and the "left", 'even although these labels may have been invoked, became clear in the controversity syllabus saw the emergence of a peculiar combination of groups. It was no longer the traditional alignment between the so-called "progressives" in the government and the "left" on the one hand against the school textbooks issue. Now one had the "communal" and "rightist" forces on the other as in the school textbooks issue. Now one had the "communal" and "rightist" forces forging a common platform with the "secular progressives" in the government and isolating the "leftist" historians.

The most dangerous aspect of the controversy has been the depths to which academics have sunk in that a section of them saw it fit to take the content of the Delhi University syllabus to the Prime Minister for her consideration. Obviously the Prime Minister could not be expected to decide the merit of the syllabus on academic grounds. The only move that could be expected of her was that she should deliver a political verdict on it.

What we see happening in recent years through an analysis of the History controversy is the emergence of situation in which the kind of material being sanctioned to go into the text books, or syllabi to be taught, or even the appointments being made, have come to depend upon the decisions and interests of the government. Surely there can be no greater invasion of academic freedom than these developments.

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