New Delhi: A group of 47 eminent Indian historians, archaeologists and scholars of Indian civilization has taken strong objection to recent open letters by historians from India and overseas. Accusing them of creating a “bogeyman” through unjustified charges of “intolerance” and imposition of a “legislated history”, the statement, endorsed by several members of the Indian Council of Historical Research, criticizes what it calls the “Leftist School of Indian historiography” and calls it “a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography”.
In its analysis, the scholars endorsing the just-released statement point out that the Leftist School has reduced much of history to studies of caste and systematically under emphasized India’s original contributions, especially to various knowledge systems. They challenge the Leftist School’s claim to practice “scientific” history, when it has actually neglected large amounts of data, glossed over dark chapters of Indian history and indulged in unethical practices to capture the academic space through political support and suppress dissent and debate.
Finally, the scholars point out that the “values and traditions of plurality” which the two open letters invoked are precisely “those that the Leftist School never practised” and call for an “unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India”.
Hypocrisy and Indian History
A public statement by concerned Indian historians, archaeologists
and scholars of Indian civilization
On 26 October, 53 Indian historians voiced alarm at what they perceived to be the country’s “highly vitiated atmosphere” and protested against attempts to impose “legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others….” This was soon followed by an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists”, 176 of them, warning against “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history.”
Such closely-linked statements appearing with clockwork regularity in India and abroad — there have been several more from various “intellectual” circles — are a well-orchestrated campaign to create a bogeyman and cry wolf. They are neither intellectual nor academic in substance, but ideological and, much more so, political.
As historians, archaeologists and academics specializing in diverse aspects of Indian civilization, we wish to respond to these hypocritical attempts to claim the moral high ground. Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and “overseas” historians have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline.
Anchored mainly in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies, this new School, which may be called “Leftist” for want of a better term, has become synonymous with a number of abusive and unscholarly practices; among them:
- A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.
- A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field —philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic — and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributions to other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!
- A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.
- A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.
- A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed a space to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.
- A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Western historians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectives after considerable research have been sidelined or negatively branded. Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.
- A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions, became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarizing the academic community.
While we reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age, we condemn the far more pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a “legislated history”, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilizational heritage. The “values and traditions of plurality that India had always cherished in the past” are precisely those this School has never practiced. We call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.
- Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
- Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
- Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
- M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
- Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
- Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
- B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
- R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
- R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Viswa Mahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
- B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
- Dayanath Tripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
- R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
- K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
- Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
- Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
- Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
- Chandrakala Padia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
- Sachchidanand Sahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to Preah Vihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
- J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
- Makarand Paranjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
- Nikhiles Guha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
- Issac C.I., member, ICHR
- (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
- Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
- G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
- Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
- O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
- S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
- S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
- Amarjiva Lochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
- R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
- Professor (Dr) Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
- Kirit Mankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
- K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, Rashtriya Sanksrit Parishad
- M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
- Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
- Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
- R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
- Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
- S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
- Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
- Vikram Sampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
- K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
- M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
- Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
- Prema Nandakumar, Author and translator
- Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi