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On the wrong side of Left?

Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan, ICHR Chairman, was BJP's "non-controversial" candidate for the prestigious post. He talks about his unenviable task during a brief visit to the City.

M.G.S. NARAYANAN, CHAIRMAN, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), is reflective of an interesting post-Left generation: he grew up with the communists in Kerala, read Marx and Marxists, took some inclination to the Left, and in course of time, came to be annoyed with all things Communist. This disillusionment, interestingly, happens at a time when the Right is on the upswing. That may just be a coincidence. The temptation to classify him as one who found favour with the Right, he says, is because he accepted the chairmanship of the ICHR. This is what one gathered of the man within the confines of a hurried conversation at the inaugural of the Lectures Series of the Southern Regional Centre of the ICHR last week.

Prof. Narayanan is in an unenviable position: he believes that the Communists have had a hold on the ICHR for too long and that procedures were not followed objectively. His objective is to rid the institution of such monopoly and ensure that every individual who approachs the ICHR for project and research help would be treated fairly regardless of ideological affiliation. He wants to uphold the ICHR's constitution, intensify historical research, and enhance public awareness on the subject of history.

The 70-year-old professor is among the few South Indian historians known nationally and internationally. He is a scholar of South Indian history, Kerala history, in particular. He headed the Department of History at Calicut University, and was instrumental in developing a specialised library and museum of Kerala history and culture, and in starting the Calicut University Historical Series publications. He was the Commonwealth Academic Fellow in SOAS, University of London, Visiting Fellow in the Universities of Moscow and Leningrad, and First Member Secretary of the ICHR, 1990-92. He is well versed in ancient South Indian scripts languages, besides classical Sanskrit. Even his bitter critics acknowledge that he has brought a certain discipline to the ICHR.

Prof. Narayanan was unfazed by a rather provocative conversation. Excerpts:

How did you emerge as the consensus candidate at a time when the Centre was attacking the ICHR as being Left-oriented?

Such appointments may be subject to politics — personal, party-based, or communal. They may have invited me because I was acceptable to the Right as well as to the Left, and to the North and South. The fact that I was appointed the first member secretary of ICHR only in 1990 shows that there must have been politics right from the '70s. That is why I resisted earlier appointments. At the time I came in, there was a very thin line between history and politics with a lot of talk around the controversial project on the history of nationalism, the Towards Freedom project. At that time, K.S. Lal was asked to step down for administrative lapses and I was invited to take over. I consented on condition no one would interfere with my work. The Union Education Minister assured me that.

What was the Left doing to the ICHR, as you saw it?

The ICHR worked like a monopoly. Applications for projects were never available and proposals never got a response. ICHR served Delhi. You could get projects only if you knew someone in Delhi. Also, 80 per cent of the research funding would be cornered by three universities, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Calcutta University, and Aligarh University. Only those in the good books of the Left had a place in ICHR. The rules were not transparent. Also, there were media allegations against the ICHR. The first thing some mediapersons asked me was when I would write textbooks for Joshi! I told them we had nothing to do with textbooks. When there are other 100 projects, why was the media talking only about the Towards Freedom project?

What did you do to check the `rot' that had set in?

We did three things never done before: we published guidelines for research projects; brought out a newsletter with information on fellowships and grants; activated regional centres such as Guwahati and Bangalore, which had been neglected for long. The idea was to break the Delhi-centred outlook of ICHR.

If ICHR `suffered', the Indian History Congress (IHC) too must have suffered...

From the '70s, the Left and the Right have tried to monopolise the IHC also. I had suggested then that the congress function as a national forum for professional historians. The Marxists, under Irfan Habib, had supported me. But as soon as I left, the very same Marxists betrayed me. There was an all-out effort to make it a pocket organisation. In the mid '80s, the Left rigged the elections, and a resolution was passed to limit membership, which, I thought, defeated the purpose of the congress itself, which was to admit anyone interested in history.

It must have been tricky to sort out the Towards Freedom project, with many eminent historians involved in it.

Seven volumes have been published as part of the project. The project, which started in 1972, recommenced recently under Irfan Habib and 10 other editors, who were mostly Left historians. I don't know why, but K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar, who were part of the project, had presented their manuscripts to the OUP press prior to the ICHR inspection! This coincided with the BJP Government coming to power and the beginning of my own term.

They must have, with some fear, sent it to the other publication. But this was illegal. We requested the OUP to part with the manuscripts. They refused. We went to court and OUP returned them when the court threatened to levy a fine. We found that Panikkar had not yet written the introduction to the manuscripts, Sumit Sarkar's floppies were damaged, and some portions could not be retrieved. But I am personally for publishing what they have collected, provided the full text is given. If there is criticism to be voiced, it can be done either in a foreword or any other supplementary. We have now appointed a committee to examine the manuscripts and report on the condition. We are awaiting their report...

You seem to find everything wrong with the Left. Would they see your position as secular?

When I went to the Soviet Union as a Government of India delegation member, I found no freedom there. Then the Marxists in Kerala, they were autocratic when in power, unlike in Opposition. They destroyed the democratic culture in universities and education suffered. My direct experience as member secretary of the ICHR, where I found the Marxists manipulating information, completely disillusioned me. For the communists whatever is non-Hindu is secular. There is nothing wrong with Saffron - it is a colour of renunciation in the Indian tradition. I am proud to be a Hindu though I don't worship or perform rituals. The Hindu tradition has always been catholic.

But 21st Century Hinduism defines itself against the Muslims and Christians, a forced homogeneity really...

This Semitic view of religion, as you put it, is not really acceptable to more than five per cent of the population. Is the BJP today talking of Hedgewar or Golwalkar? They even accept Gandhiji as the Father of the Nation. In fact, compared to its earlier Jan Sangh days, the BJP has come a long way. Today it accepts parliamentary democracy. I think the BJP is a dynamic movement. I hope it will change further.

But parliamentary democracy made no difference in Gujarat, did it?

Well, we don't really know what happened in Gujarat. I don't get to know everything nor do we understand everything, that goes on. These things should not happen...


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