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‘The grip of modern Indian historians on power politics is very strong’

‘The grip of modern Indian historians on power politics is very strong’

DILIP Kumar Chakrabarti is a noted Indian archaeologist and professor emeritus of South Asian archaeology at the Cambridge University. He is known for his studies on the early use of iron in India and the archaeology of eastern India. In a freewheeling interview, he spoke on the state of historical studies, especially of ancient history and archaeology, in India.

Q: Where have historical studies gone in the last few decades in India?

A: It is not that no research has been done. In fact some good work, especially in the field of modern Indian economic history, has been done. But in other areas things are less satisfactory. One of the reasons is that the emphasis in educational curriculum has overwhelmingly been on the study of modern history of India, especially modern Indian politics. The emphasis on ancient historical studies is almost negligible. If one accepts a pan-Indian view, there are many universities in which students of ancient and mediaeval Indian history find it very difficult to get teaching jobs. In vast areas of the country, studies in the field of ancient and mediaeval Indian history are grossly neglected. I don’t know how it has come about but this is a fact.

Q: This could not have happened entirely by default.

A: To some extent it is by design because the grip of the modern Indian historians on the corridors of power politics is very strong. I would like to cite an example from Delhi University itself. It is true that it gives options at the postgraduate level to students to go for specialisation in either ancient or mediaeval or modern Indian history. However, at the graduation level ancient Indian history is taught in the very first year of the three-year history honours course. As a result, by the time students reach the postgraduate level, they are no longer interested in ancient India. In Kolkata, for a long time, the postgraduates in ancient Indian history or archaeology were debarred by the university regulations to apply for jobs in colleges. This meant that bright students never opted for ancient and mediaeval India for studies.

Q: What is the state of archaeology as a discipline in Indian universities?

A: I will ask a counter question: why is archaeology not taught in Delhi University and Jawaharlal National University? Very few universities in India have archaeology as a specialised discipline and currently the status of archaeology in them is very weak.

Q: What about the approach of Indian historians to the subject?

A: In India there has always been a serious separation between the land and its history. This is unacceptable. If history has to be a meaningful subject and has to contribute to the national consciousness, then it is required to be related to the ground. After all historical characters did not operate in a vacuum. They operated in terms of the actual land. Unfortunately, historians in India have not directed their attention to this. In fact, the importance of relating history to its land was emphasised by nationalist thinkers. Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, wrote about this need as early as at the beginning of the 20th century. History may be ideological but at the grass-roots level it is the history of the land. But in India we have not even begun to do that. Only a handful of us are interested in it or write about it.

Q: Could you explain in easier terms the relationship between the land and its history?

A: If we can draw an honest and authentic map of Delhi in the third century BC or about any patch of land in the country we can know how it was like a hundred thousand years ago. This kind of work is almost routine outside the country. We still don’t know the routes used by Ashoka Maurya in the expansion of his empire. We don’t know where old Pataliputra is.

Q: History is being used as a political tool these days and is subservient to different ideological strands.

A: Ideology is not the most important thing in writing history. Some people suffer from the notion that our ancient texts contain everything relevant to the study of ancient India. That unfortunately is rubbish because we don’t have ancient texts from that point of view. So if some of the old Marxist concepts are unacceptable, similarly many of the concepts propounded these days are also unacceptable. History cannot be reconstructed on the basis of myths.

Q: Are you worried about blurring of the dividing line between history and myth?

A: History is as much a professional subject as any other discipline. If historians argue their case on the basis of facts or offer an objective picture of the past backed by evidence, then only they are acceptable, otherwise not. I am not saying that historical data is not there in our ancient texts. It is there but that in itself is not going to tell us anything about our history as they are not historical texts. There is not a solid chunk of time that you can pinpoint about the Vedic texts. I find it very curious that our nationalist leaders did not put much emphasis on ancient Indian history or archaeology to glorify our past. Whatever emphasis was put by nationalist leaders was on the Vedas and Upanishads that are very rich in spiritual matters. The material basis of our ancient past was by and large ignored by them.

Q: What do you have to say about the political affiliations of some Indian historians in the present time? How do you rate their work?

A: I am not the right person to comment on that because I don’t know about current politics. But I do know about the politics of present-day historians. Most of them are rascals. I don’t bother about them in any case because the test of an academic lies in the sincerity with which he pursues his work. Unfortunately, our academics are not known for their consistent devotion to the subject. From the works of today’s great historians (let names not be mentioned), it is very difficult to pinpoint what they have done after they wrote their PhD thesis.

Historical studies in India have become group-oriented. Even ideology is immaterial for historians in their pursuit of group interests. I don’t think they have anything to do with Karl Marx or Deen Dayal Upadhyay. I don’t think the current generation has produced historians of the stature of Jadunath Sarkar or R. C. Mazumdar. One of the tests of the competence of a historian is his ability to handle the primary sources. From this point of view most of our historians are of bad quality. They try to fit their data into the frame of one Western theory or the other. They call it great research work. Essentially our historians are self-seeking individuals, for whom ideology is a shield. In my life I have seen some good communists and communist goondas as well — Delhi University and JNU are full of them. The same is true of the right-wing historians. Ideological dispute in India is a camouflage devised by a few clever people to keep their names in newspapers.

Q: Some intellectuals, including historians, are accusing the present government at the Centre of failing to protect Indian pluralism.

A: It is not the job of bloody historians to preach the value of tolerance and pluralism. Tolerance is in our blood. Clamour like this is very idiotic and it shows that these people don’t know much about the life that is lived at the grass-roots level in the country. Historically India has always been tolerant and plural. The old concept of dharma which Ashoka propounded is very much observed in the countryside today.

Q: As an archaeologist how do you view the claims and counterclaims about Ram’s birthplace at Ayodhya?

A: Ayodhya is a major historical site of our country. There is no doubt about it. We have not yet excavated Harappa properly. So why are you interested in a question to which you cannot get an answer? At the so-called birthplace of Ram, the Archaeological Survey of India conducted excavations and found the ruins of a Vishnu temple. Now all that we can say is Ram as the incarnation of Vishnu has a temple at the site. Beyond that we cannot say anything. On what basis can an archaeologist declare whether or not Ram was born there? However, when millions of people believe Ram was born there, what is the point of denying that? It is a matter of faith for millions of people, which you cannot deny.

—The Statesman / India

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2016

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