In an interview with The Hindu, Kesavan Veluthat, the General President of the 81st session of the Indian History Congress which concluded in Chennai on Thursday, shares his views on the ICHR, and whether there was democracy in ancient India, among others. Excerpts:
How has the state-run Indian Council of Historial Research (ICHR) evolved over the years? What are your views on its functions?
The ICHR was founded in 1972 when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. She particularly brought Professor R.S. Sharma all the way from Patna to Delhi University as a Professor, and he was also made the Chairman of the ICHR. That body did some excellent work on historical research. There was a project on translation of standard historical works into different Indian languages. Of course, all these were dropped later.
They also started a very important journal, which is still there — Indian Historical Review — one of the leading peer-reviewed journals on Indian history, which published very interesting articles. In fact, landmark publications on Indian history came in the pages of the Indian Historical Review. The ICHR also started funding major research projects, and supported Ph.Ds of scholars.
It also supported teachers pursuing their Ph.D. They could apply for leave from their college/university and their salary would be given by the ICHR. The college can appoint people against the vacancy. In fact, my Ph.D. was with the ICHR fellowship. In this way, the ICHR promoted research in various ways.
In the second half of the 1970s, British historian [Nicholas] Mansergh published Transfer of Power on how power was transferred by the British to India. But that represented the Empire’s version of transfer of power to India. We Indians believed that this is a hard-fought freedom that we have got. It is not a a gift that the British gave us.
As a counter to this kind of imperialist representation, the ICHR started a major project — ‘Towards Freedom’ — Prof. S. Gopal was its Director and a large number of volumes were published, bringing out documents from the last years of the British in India. These brought out original documents related to the freedom struggle, which clearly showed that it [Independence] was not a gift of the British but something for which the Indians fought for.
Now, this project and other research projects of the ICHR were promoting a kind of historical research which was secular in character and was also scientific in the sense that the methodology was transparent, you can verify the sources and the way in which the sources are interpreted. This way, a solid foundation for scientific historical writing was laid by the ICHR.
But, in the [late] 1990s, when the BJP government under Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee came to power, it found many of these findings difficult and embarrassing for them for many reasons. First is, one of the basis for the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the BJP politics is the hatred of minorities. Muslims, Christians are all non-Indian, anti-Indian and any history which speaks about anything good that is done during the period of the Sultanate of Delhi or the Mughal Empire is unacceptable to that kind of [RSS/BJP] ideology. But much of this research was on documents about the Mughal rule or that of the Sultanate rule, etc., and how Indian civilization prospered under the Muslim rule. This was embarrassing that kind of politics.
The second but more dangerous is the support of archaeology that what the ICHR was doing was injurious to the theory that the original home of the Aryans was India. If you agreed that there was an Aryan race and that it came from outside India, what is so special about Muslims? Muslims are bad because their homeland is outside and Christians are bad because their homeland is outside. If Aryans’ homeland is outside, then the Vedas are also from outside, and what is there for you to hate about the Muslims, Christians? So you had to insist that the motherland of the Vedas and the motherland of the authors of the Vedas was India itself. But archaeology, unfortunately, would not permit that.
Archaeology is an interesting discipline. It cannot lie. A piece of bone or a piece of pottery cannot lie. It is a three-dimensional tangible object that you are picking. You can lie after interpreting it but this [the object] itself will not lie. So, that is a very embarrassing thing and that kind of research was stopped by the ICHR. Any support of research in relation to the Sultanate or Mughal or the Muslim rule was stopped. But more dangerous was the research on the period of the freedom movement.
The latter half of the 1930s and early 1940s, etc., were periods when the RSS was hand-in-glove with the British. When the Indian National Congress was fighting against the British, Savarkar and his allies were playing second fiddle to the British. The documents relating to that was being published and it was embarrassing to the BJP, naturally. If somebody says that your father was pro-British and anti-Indian national, how can you then play the cards of the nationalist? The BJP, which is playing the cards of nationalism, found this past very embarrassing. So, what do you do that past? Erase that past.
To erase that past, you must stop bringing out these documents. The Vajpayee government stopped publication of this ‘Towards Freedom’ series. K.N. Panikkar was the editor of one volume, Sumit Sarkar was the editor of another. All these were withdrawn. In fact, they had gone to the press. Oxford University Press had already sent them to the press. They were recalled from the press and kept in cold storage.
After 2014, when Mr. [Narendra] Modi became the Prime Minister of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government, one of the first things he did was to change the Chairman of the ICHR. Dr. Basudev Chatterji was the Chairman and his term was terminated and Y. Sudershan Rao, with no visibility in the academic world, was made the chairman. The IHR and the advisory committee with leading historians of the world was scrapped. And now, only papers of second fiddles are being published.
History is a very dangerous subject. Perhaps you may ask me, is not atom bomb more dangerous? But history can very clearly influence the thinking of the people. The wrong kind of mathematics or geometry will not be dangerous but the wrong kind of history can be very dangerous because history is that branch of knowledge with which identities are created, it is on the basis of these identities, consciousness is created.
Recently, the ICHR published a book — India: The Mother of Democracy. What is your review of the book? Is there evidence to suggest democracy in ancient India?
I have not read that book, but I will tell you something very interesting. In 1911, there was a historian, K.P. Jayaswal, who was teaching history in the Calcutta University. He used to write a series of articles in the journal Modern Review, which were about the republics and kingdoms in the 6th century BC, what is known as the Mahajanapadas. One of the things that he found about some of them was there was no monarchical rule during the Mahajanapadas and that they were republican and self-governing and that they were democratically organised.
When these series of essays were published, the British were naturally upset and then Viceroy Lord Curzon asked the Vice-Chancellor of the Calcutta University, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, to take action against Prof. Jayaswal over what he called the “seditious” articles. Prof. Jayaswal was advised to resign. He set up practice as a lawyer and was a roaring success. The anti-climax was that after Independence, he came back to Calcutta and joined the university as Carmichael Professor of History.
Prof. Jayaswal’s writings were later published as a book, which was named Hindu Polity: A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times. So, this book is actually the foundation for those who argue that India was the ‘mother of democracy’. It was more a political document than a historical document. He was participating in the India’s freedom movement in a vicarious manner.
Following K.P. Jayaswal, there were a number of historians like R.K. Mukherjee, A.S. Altekar, and Nilakanta Sastri from the south, who wrote about democratic institutions in the past. These are all a vicarious participation in the freedom movement.
The Kudavolai system from Uthiramerur, is it actually democratic? It very clearly says that only members of the sabha can take part and those who own property in the village, those who have studied Vedas. Brahmins alone could participate in the process. Is this democracy? There was only a microscopic minority, who were indulging in this. This is what was there is 6th century BC also. Republics were only about the chiefs, the landed magnates of that region, who, among themselves, looking after the affairs. There was no monarchy, no single ruler and it was a kind of oligarchy. Oligarchy was confused as democracy. So, this is the evidence that we have about the so called democracy of ancient India.
This was the same case in the so called democracy of the Chola times. There is a famous incriptions in Manur, which speaks about similar arrangements during the Pandya kingdom, which is again about property-owning Brahmins. All this is formerly taken as democracy in grassroot levels. But democracy which excludes 99% of the population, it that democracy? It is only an arrangement among property-owning Brahmins.
The second aspect is, if you have to be the mother of democracy, you should have children. From India, people must have gone to Greece and must have established democracy in ancient Greece, or people from India must have gone to the U.S. and must have given them the Constitution.
Hindutva demands that India is special and superior to others. To say India is special and superior, you have to say something like this.
The early historic period in peninsular India was hitherto considered either tribal or semi-tribal, but the findings from Keeladi suggest it was an urban settlement. Your views...
Honestly, I have not followed Keeladi closely, but I can say these. Even if Keeladi gives evidence of an exclusive urban settlement, what about other sites relating to this period? There are a large number of other sites which were excavated. For instance, you have Kodumanal and Thiruvallam and others which were excavated, and they were from the early historical period. Even if there is an exclusive site called Keeladi, which was urban, that does not change the picture in a big way.
There was a movie on the Chola rule in Tamil recently, which naturally evoked interest on Chola society. What do historical evidence tell us about the society then?
When we talk about the Chola period, we generally talk about it from the times of Vijayalaya, that is, 9th century AD down to Rajendra III or 13th century. During this period, it was a highly stratified society. There is clear evidence of that society being a caste society. The caste oppression is also on record. For instance, Bhakti literature has considerable amount of evidence of caste oppression. Why was Nandanar stopped from entering the temple in Chidambaram? Why was Tiruppan Azhwar denied admission to the Srirangam temple? These are clear evidences of caste oppression.
How was the time during which the religious Bhakti movement emerged in Tamil society? Some believe it sought to bring about reforms but some believe it was more theological. Your views..
One cannot describe Bhakti movement in a single category. The Bhakti movement has several aspects. On the one side, there was dissent against the established order of things in relation to the Vedic practice. At the same time, there was considerable conformism to the Puranic kind of religion. If you look at the songs of these saints — Saiva Nayanars and Vaishnava Alwars — most of them are addressed to Puranic deities, who are consecrated at temples.
In a paper which I along with my Professor M.G.S. Narayanan published some 45 years ago, we argued that the Bhakti movement was propagation of the temple cult, which meant the propagation of the kind of ideology represented by the landed magnates who were managing the temples. So, a new social formation was coming into existence and this was the ideological justification for that. The Bhakti movement was not this or that but it was this, that and the others. You cannot give a single explanation for the movement. But the Bhakti movement further developed more conformists. Brahminical orthodoxy is also the child of Bhakti movement. What began by breaking fences eventually ended up building walls.
What is your view on the argument that the writing of the history of India should start from the south and not from the north?
This question comes only when you accept the notion of India. If you accept the notion of India, you could ask whether it should start from north India or south India. When does this notion of India come into existence? Let us say in the 19th century, with the Indian national movement during the British rule. Before that, there was no India. Then, what Indian history are you talking about?