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Culture emerges as site of struggle: K.N. Panikkar

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Special Correspondent

Communal historiography seeks to deny the secular heritage and ignore the variety of cultural articulations

‘Nationalism given cultural character’

‘Political discourse not divorced from cultural concerns’

KANNUR: Indian History Congress (IHC) president K.N. Panikkar said here on Sunday that culture had emerged as a site of struggle as the communal historiography in the country seeks to deny the secular heritage and ignore the variety of cultural articulations within a community.

Delivering his presidential address titled ‘Culture as a site of struggle’ at the 69th session of the IHC on the Mangattuparamba campus of Kannur University, Dr. Panikkar said the communal historiography had attributed an exclusively cultural character to nationalism because in the bulk of Indian historiography, the nation was located either in the economic or the political space without tracing its connection with the cultural.

Observing that the political discourse was not divorced from cultural concerns implicit in goals of national unity, social diversity and religious communitarianism, Dr. Panikkar said cultural attributes such as homogeneity, plurality and superiority informed these goals.

Protagonists of communalism masquerading as historians were seeking to besmirch the secular heritage of Indian civilisation. The Indian historiography had thus become a site of struggle between secular and communal interpretations, among others.

Stating that the ideological influence of the colonial and neo-colonial histories continued to persist, the IHC president said these histories tended to mask the reality of colonial oppression. Communal interpretation was primarily engaged in undermining the secular traditions, while nationalist historiography tried to expose the colonial structure of exploitation.

He said Marxist historiography not only exposed how the hegemonic character of culture justified and maintained the exploitative system, but also underscored the role of culture as a source of resistance.

“In the communal strategy, the study of culture fulfils two purposes: first, to identify culture with religion and secondly, to redefine the nation exclusively through this relationship,” he said. Distortion of history, either through factual misrepresentation in textbooks or invention of facts in research, was intended to achieve these purposes.

Dr. Panikkar said an implicit struggle between those who viewed culture as a secular practice and those who identified it with religion was inherent in the making of India as a nation. The significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s initiative to create a cultural consciousness was that it sought to equip the people for higher social and political efforts. The secular conception of Indian culture was the common thread connecting the ideas of Gandhiji, Tagore and Anand K. Coomaraswamy.

The nation was a cultural construct in the communal conception of the nation, with culture understood as an integral part of religion, Dr. Panikkar said. This conception assumed that each religious community was culturally homogeneous and distinct. “The cultural logic of communalism seeks to unburden the secular cultural baggage that society has acquired historically,” he said. In the process, the heterogeneity was ignored.

in his speech delivered after being installed as general president of the IHC, Dr. Panikkar said cultural Marxism opened up a range of possibilities for enquiring into the problems relating to culture and social consciousness.

D.D. Kosambi’s study of Indian history represented a re-orientation, with culture occupying a central place. He lamented that the critical and innovative approach to the study of culture which Kosambi had pursued was yet to herald, in any significant measure, the arrival of a new cultural turn in Marxist historiography in the country. “The relatively inadequate attention to the study of culture in Marxist historiography has made it easier for communalism and imperialism to appropriate the study of culture,” he said.


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