“Civil society should seek access to the voluminous evidence collected by Sachar Committee”

Calling for democratisation of public access to official records, historian Shahid Amin said developments in technology could be leveraged to digitise all documents and preserve all records.

Dr. Amin was delivering the inaugural lecture on “The Nation's Many Pasts and the Practice of History,” to the 2011 class of the Asian College of Journalism here on Monday.

Citing the example of the Sachar Committee's report, he said civil society in India should seek access to the voluminous evidence collected by the Committee (which dealt with the socio-economic and educational status of the Muslim community), given that the entire exercise was performed using the taxpayers' money.

“We are in a paradoxical situation where the state lays increasing claim to all the details of its citizens but as far as the state is concerned the less information you give the better it is,” said Dr. Amin, a Professor of History at the University of Delhi.

Understanding people

He pointed out that the British maintained better records in the colonial period and though this could be understood in the context of their need to understand a foreign society, it was no less important for the Indian administration to try and understand its people better. “[But] the real exercise of power is in trying to remain as unaccountable as possible between elections,” he said.

Dr. Amin added that it was “silly” to have the Right to Information Act that provided access to documents in the present. There was no similar legislation for access to the documents of the past.

“Intermediate custody”

To this end, the Public Records Act needed to be rewritten to include the idea of “intermediate custody,” where a presumably digital repository of all documents could be created and released to the public when thought fit.

Dr. Amin said he was involved in a project to provide online access to a series of 284 gramophone records of dialects spoken in India recorded between 1890 and 1920.

“Right now, we have to go to the British Library in London or other such places to obtain records like Survey of India maps from the early part of the century. This does not allow for a level-playing field for all historians,” he said.

Dr. Amin pointed out how economic historians of the late 19{+t}{+h} century had focused on the external factor of British exploitation to explain landlessness and poverty in the country.

Inequalities

“While that was a cause too, we cannot ignore inequalities in Indian society and issues like caste that contributed to this. We have to see how the economic framework ties up with the social framework,” he said.

There was also a need to look at other sources of history (apart from official records) including folklore and tradition.

History had to be rewritten, including the history of conflicts in society, based on the findings from these investigations, Dr. Amin said.

Vital question

“The question then is can we write a non-sectarian history of sectarian strife,” he asked.

It was “good” that the courts had lifted the ban on James Laine's book on Chhatrapati Shivaji, which was “well-researched” and “interesting,” Dr. Amin said.

History was not just about creating narratives but was also about understanding how factors such as gender, caste, language and religion impacted the development of society, he said.

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