No sweeping changes in IHR advisory board: Sudershan Rao

In an interview to The Hindu, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) chairperson Y. Sudershan Rao talks about the reasons for bringing about sweeping changes in the council.

Updated - May 23, 2016 05:28 pm IST

Published - May 21, 2015 03:18 am IST

TIRUCHI, TAMILNADU, 22/01/2015: Y. Sudershan Rao, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi, in Tiruchi on January 22, 2015.  
Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

TIRUCHI, TAMILNADU, 22/01/2015: Y. Sudershan Rao, Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi, in Tiruchi on January 22, 2015. Photo: B. Velankanni Raj

You have effected some sweeping changes in the advisory board of the Indian Historical Review. What prompted you to make the changes?

This is a usual and normal practice. The advisory committee or editorial committee of Indian Historical Review (IHR) is not a statutory panel. It was formed a few years ago in 2009 by the IHR Committee, which designated itself as the editorial board. Whenever a new council is constituted, all the committees are reconstituted by replacing the old members. All committees are periodically reconstituted. This cannot be taken as ‘sweeping changes’ and it cannot be construed as being ‘prompted’ by any extraneous reasons. In a democratic set-up, no one can enjoy any position for life, how much one may desire. Everyone who has some basic acquaintance with the working of the council knows this. I was surprised to see that some former members had raised this issue in the press. They might be having their own “good reasons,” which I fail to understand.

From what is known, the IHR journal was doing fine largely due to the efforts of the 22-member advisory board. Why did you feel the need to bring about a change at this point in time? Were there any problems with the content of the journal?

The IHR journal was earlier printed and published by the ICHR. Since the council is not a professional publisher, it does not have the necessary paraphernalia to market its journal. Many ICHR publications lack market exposure. Despite our fat offers of 30-50 per cent concessions on occasions like conferences, seminars etc., which are very frequent with us, bulk numbers of copies of all our publications are simply stored unsold creating us problems of space. The voluminous works having reference value are unsold. It doesn’t mean that this pathetic situation has any reflection on the standards of these works.

IHR is being printed, published and distributed by the Sage Publications since the past few years (from about 2010). The ICHR was subsidising its printing cost and receiving nominal loyalties, which, however, could not match our investment. Only this year we could break even. This was mostly possible because of the marketing abilities of the publishers. One should know at what cost it was achieved. It was also due to commercial ratings of subscription almost not in the reach of individual scholars. The standard of a journal only depends on the articles published in it, not on well-known names on its advisory.

The advisory committee is not a regular committee. It has no stipulated powers and functions. The role of the advisory body is minimal if not nil. They never met and perhaps were never asked to give any advice on any issue, in particular by the previous councils. It was for all practical purposes a sleeping one continued indefinitely, in the fond hope, expecting extra miles without actually treading any extra paces. The number of its membership is not fixed. Whenever ‘one’ felt, members were added to the existing committee. Reconstituting the board on the lines of other committees does not amount to ‘breaking’ and ‘fixing’.

I think it is not out of place to clarify here the issue raised by the media regarding the replacement of Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya as the chief editor of IHR by Prof Dilip Chakravarti. The chief editor is not an office or a post as such. It is honorary. The head of the IHR committee will be its chief editor, while the chairman of ICHR happens to be its ex-officio chairman. Whenever a new committee is formed, the chief editor is nominated by the committee. The council may also nominate those who are not the members of the council, to this committee by co-option. Prof. Sabyasachi was the chief editor when he was the chairman of the council and subsequently, he was co-opted by the succeeding committee. He continued as the chief editor even for one year during my term. He is my esteemed elderly friend. He is also very kind and affectionate to me. I don’t think he said that he was ever ‘troubled’ by me or that the ICHR was ‘taking to rightward direction’ under my chairmanship as the reasons for his resignation. This might be a media-construct. On knowing that Prof. Dilip Chakravarti was made the chief editor, he welcomed it and wrote a very courteous letter relinquishing his responsibility as chief editor. I also thanked him acknowledging his valuable contribution to ICHR in various capacities. I requested him to feel free to make any suggestions and offer guidance in my work. I do not have any differences with him.

Are you planning to give the journal a certain focus and direction? If yes, can you spell it out for us?

The IHR journal does not focus on any theme in particular and it is not supposed to give any direction to historical research. It encourages research and any scholar can present his research study for publication on any research problem. It will be published after being evaluated by the experts in the field concerned. It is open to every research scholar, Indian or other than Indian.

What happened to the Freedom Project started during the first term of the NDA in 2000? Are we going to see some changes there? Is it nearing completion?

‘Towards Freedom’ project of the ICHR, started more than three decades ago (not during the first NDA rule), is long and even now seemingly an unending saga. It is taking time perhaps as long as our freedom struggle was fought. We regret to say that some chief editors and editors of some volumes could not live to see its fruition. A few volumes are yet to come. The project is funded by ICHR, written by somebody, edited by some other, printed and published by Oxford Press, however, without text being cleared by the council.

The ICHR has been charged with mixing fantasy with history. Your emphasis on Vedas, Puranas have lead to concern on the direction you want historical research to take. How would you respond to the charge?

As far as I know, the ICHR was not charged with ‘mixing fantasy with history’ before my nomination to the council as chairman. Such allegations have only been pointed to me after I became the chairman. The ICHR has never taken up any project on its own worth mentioning to study culture, society, economy, polity, science, technology, art, religion etc, of ancient and medieval times, which are recognised areas in the Memorandum of Association of the ICHR (1972). When I assumed the chairmanship, I said on one or two occasions that the ICHR should also, if possible, meet this deficiency in proposing its projects. When we turn to these areas, we have to invariably examine our ancient and medieval literary texts — Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Arabic and Persian— to cull out historical data. The importance of these literary texts for an academic study should not be disputable.

You are entrusted with the Mahabharata Project? What does it entail and how far have you succeeded in your research?

I was never ‘entrusted’ with any research project either by the government or any private funding agencies. I was drawn to study the epic Mahabharata if I could get any flinching evidence to precisely fix the date of the Great War, which I consider serves as the sheet anchor of the ancient Indian chronology. Many scholars have worked on the date of the war. Recently, many research works have come out suggesting the date to about 3000 BC based on scientific data. ‘Some’, of course, deny ascribing any historicity to the epics and Puranas, again for their own ‘good reasons’. It doesn’t mean that ‘others’ should not work on these sources. In research, one cannot foresee the conclusion. One has to arrive at it.

As a historian are you treating the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as indisputable facts?

For the construction of history, we have to at least begin examining the historical content. The Puranas mention a long list of dynasties and it is not difficult to corroborate the content with facts. I am a professional historian and will examine the facts available.

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