February 12, 2016

India: Ignorant Criticisms of Historians (Rajan Gurukkal)

The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 7, 13 Feb, 2016

Ignorant Criticisms of Historians

Rajan Gurukkal

A statement in November by a group of academics, tacitly over-defensive of the ruling power, rails against historians for adopting a blinkered and reductionist view and looking at Indian society through the prism of caste. The accusations betray a familiar ignorance of a certain category of academics about the diversity in Indian historiography.

On 3 November 2015, a team of academics led by archaeologists and historians, tacitly over-defensive of the ruling power, reacted against the public statement issued on 26 October by several historians and social scientists. The public statement later supported by colleagues expressed concern at the rising intolerance in the country. The reaction of the government’s apologists brands the petitioners as leftists and Marxists who by ideologically positioning against the Modi government and hypocritically claiming moral high ground cry wolf over the issue of intolerance. They accuse them of dominating historical bodies like the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian History Congress, etc, turning these bodies into arenas of political and financial manipulation, imposing a blinkered view of history on the discipline, deliberately sidelining, discriminating, ostracising and depriving the critics of professional opportunities since the 1970s. Such trifling remarks in frustration deserve no reply, but those with academic criticisms, ostensible though, have to be answered, for they try and debunk critical scholarship in historiography.

The Accusers

One thing that the assailants make clear through accusations is their hostility to Marxists and the leftists. But they seem to be failing to identify their enemies, for they think any historian critical of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government could be either a Marxist or a leftist. It appears from the allegations that any historian of theoretical approach is their enemy, for a main irritant to them in historiography is explanatory history, inevitably theoretical. A widely accepted fact that distinguishes professional history is its intellectual depth. Another fact of equally wide acceptance about history is its inseparability from theory that enables a historian to make the invisible, visible and the inaudible, audible. Theory is indispensable for a historian to sensibly piece together, manage the bewilderingly complex old time data and draw critical insights into them. How can historians afford unfamiliarity to historical materialism if that is the only comprehensive theory available for interpreting the past processes, relations and structures? Reductionism is not the theory’s problem but that of the approach, for in serious Marxist historiography one sees interpretations strikingly differing from one another. Where is the question of “blinkered view” in a framework of comprehension that allows hypothetico-deductive investigation? What the assailants’ prejudice denotes is distaste for theory, the secret of sustained obsolescence from which their ignorant criticisms emanate.

Their academic criticisms against the “left” historians are in the form of allegations such as the reductionist approach to history, erasure of India’s knowledge systems, denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu–Buddhist–Jain–Sikh culture, refusal to acknowledge the well-documented brutality of many Muslim rulers, neglect of tribal histories, biased use of sources, neglect of scientific data from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies, absence of professional ethics, pernicious imposition of legislated history, and promotion of contempt for cultural heritage.

The allegation that the Marxist historiography is tainted by “a reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasising its mechanisms of exclusion while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago,” exposes ignorance about Marx’s theory of social change, in which “class” has precedence over “caste.” Marxist historiography stresses on the function of caste as part of the fetters of productive relations, and systematically unveils the secret of integration. It does not neglect at all the role that caste played in enduring the contradictory structure of the Indian society by containing class struggle. Alas! They take pride about caste without which the Indian society “would have disintegrated long ago.”

Who has erased India’s knowledge systems? Those leftists/Marxists who tried to show that serious knowledge systems of traditional India had adhered to epistemic principles such as rationality, objectivity, verifiability, and notion of truth in their production or those philologists who tried to mystify the origins of knowledge system by assigning them to extrasensory abilities and supernatural powers of sages? It is in the writings of the former, not exhaustively though, that we see critical inquiries unravelling the logical procedures behind the knowledge systems of early India (Chattopadhyaya 1977, 1986, 1991, 1996). What the accusers consider as erasure is the academic exercise in humanising the past knowledge systems by looking for the epistemic universals behind their production and on the basis of which characterising some of them axiomatic and some others.

The allegation of the leftist “denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu–Buddhist–Jain–Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists” is based on methodological ignorance. What they mean by “continuity and originality” has to be examined against the source texts concerned and the methodological devices for using them for historical understanding. I do not see anyone among the accusers to have cared for reading Romila Thapar’s analysis of the historical consciousness in texts from early times in India and recognising the need to know the form in which this consciousness is expressed in them (Thapar 2013). Instead of undertaking such a different exercise, some of them seem to understand the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas as true history, despite their being composed over a period of time by multiple authors. They do not encounter the problem of their multiple versions and disparate periods, but instead, brand any scholar who talks about the plurality of textual versions, as a whole or in parts, as Western or Marxist historian. That the Buddhist Dasaratha Jataka and the Jain Paumachariyam contradict the Valmiki Ramayana or that certain parts of the Mahabharata seen in Jatakas contradict with the Brahmanical version is not just a Western misinterpretation or Marxist erasing of continuity and originality of India’s past (Thapar 2013). The same applies to the contradictions appearing in the inscriptional texts. Similarly the fact that we cannot pinpoint any one of the Puranas as authentic is not the fallout of the leftist conspiracy. Accessing of history beyond such texts through intertextual analysis is a universally accepted procedure in the case of literary sources. It is evident from the allegations that even the Sanskrit scholars and text-based historians among the accusers are unaware of the scientific techniques of analysing texts. Least bothered about the text in terms of its variants, they do not require methods to confirm the historicity, and imply that both historicity and history are irrelevant to them. Hardly do they seem to feel the need to think about the audience, the purpose and the patronage of the text.

Allegations about the biased use of sources and promotion of contempt for cultural heritage actually stem from this basic methodological obsolescence. In fact, who stops them from historicising the Hindu identity, rationality, progressiveness and legitimacy scientifically? Instead of making an idealistic call from the pulpit for “an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India,” why are they not going ahead with their long-cherished project of rewriting India’s past. Why cry about the leftists’ neglect of advanced Indological researches in the last few decades, rather than taking on them all by themselves? If the so-called archaeologists have developed alternative perspectives after considerable research, the scholarly world would have accepted them. Why blame the leftists to have sidelined them rather than looking into what failed them in securing scholarly recognition?

Refusal and Neglect

The allegation of “refusal to acknowledge the well-documented brutality of many Muslim rulers” targets source-based empirical studies exposing the deliberate exaggeration of wartime plunders as religious attacks of communal identity. Indeed such predatory campaigns were brutal and the historians, who sought to expose the hollowness of communal interpretations, had to be in a historiographical struggle for the cause of secularism. This is not to hush up the events of brutality but to unveil the actual historical context for checking the historiographically contingent communalism that unleashes acts of vengeance upon the present-day population that has nothing to do with the past events.

We owe the relative neglect of tribal histories to various factors, including the lack of data and promotion of methodological sophistication for writing the history of the people without history (Misztal 2003; Wolf 2010). I do not think that the leftists can be singled out as responsible for it in any way, for the major part of the work already done goes not to the credit of Hindutva scholars (Singh 1985; Chaudhuri and Bandopadhyay 2004). Anyhow, has anyone among the accusers studied ‘India’s tribal communities and their rich belief systems and heritage? Who has studied the tribal cultures to enable the sweeping generalisation that they have many things in common with the Hindu religion? Let us not talk about the neglect of scientific data, since the serious readership know how regional archaeo-metallurgical studies are labelled as Indian with nothing Indian about them. It is explicit why the casteist and communal historians are interested in genetic studies.

All that is discussed so far, which underscores methodological preoccupation, exposes the accusers’ total lack of professional ethics. It is largely due to their ignorance in social scientific methodology that they tend to denigrate those who use it for writing early Indian history, because it questions the Hindu communal distortion. They seem to be unaware of the process of the existing knowledge undergoing improvement or even replacement by new knowledge that is increasingly analytical, self-reflexive and critical. In fact, a high degree of reflexivity is inevitable for those indulging in the study of early Indian history. It is essential for them to be preoccupied in methodology, without which their knowledge base goes obsolete and criticisms become exhibits of ignorance.

Towards Legislating Fascism

Impairment of democracy, the inevitable consequence of capitalist development, has been progressing in the country for the last two decades, and slowly turning the democratic state into functional autocracy as a system of the corporates driven bureaucracy–political heads combine. The process is accelerated under techno-capitalism run by corporates, heavily dependent on the transaction of new knowledge in science and technology, for enhanced accumulation through trading in intellectual property rights (Feenberg 1991; Perelman 2004). It has given rise to “corporatocracy,” a new type of governance that enmeshes and destroys democracy (Suarez-Villa 2012). In India corporates have succeeded in intensifying their state control under the dominance of the BJP that mobilises people’s acceptance of functional autocracy through the rhetoric of national development and communal cultural preparations by penetrating into all bodies of educational policymaking in general and historical research in particular. It turns the people into uncritical masses moved by deadly sentiments of caste and religion, which degenerate nationalism itself into false consciousness. An immediate manifestation of it is social intolerance of the de facto type, the clearest symptom of advanced fascist cultural preparation.

A state-sponsored public attack on secular historiography is natural in the context, for it strengthens critical consciousness of the people by replacing sentimental narration of the past triggering antiquarian interests, with explanatory narration of the past providing insights into the problems of the present. While the former telling the story of the past glory kindles people’s pride, the latter educates them about the past misery due to relations of exploitation, institutions of oppression and structures of domination. One engenders a politically disengaging mass of people, while the other promotes the formation of a political people craving for emancipation. The allegations in question are raised from the former’s camp that deals with the superficial aspects of the discipline, while the alleged are in the latter’s camp that deals with its deeper aspects. It shows the inevitable ontological convergence of communal essentialism and revivalism on the politics of fascism (Bourdieu 1991). Both the Hindu as well as Muslim communalists are ideologically in the same track of ungrounded history, for distorted history is the only ideological means of self-justification for them (Chandra 2008). Their mutual exclusionism is based on the question, who should rule India? It is interesting that the Sangh Parivar academics in their statement tend to reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age.

Intellectuals’ reaction against intolerance and the Sangh Parivar academics’ attack on the former’s public statement have to be seen against the background of the threat to democracy.


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