The neo-Marxist historians of India

… first academic
job at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata…..a friend sent me a petition on the plight of Tamils….he hoped
some of my colleagues would sign……a senior
historian said: “As Marxists, the question
you and I should be asking is whether taking up ethnic issues would
deviate attention from the ongoing class struggle in Sri Lanka”

The times they are a changing. Yes, top scholars such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Tirthankar Roy hail from a (mostly) Marxist (also super-caste) background. But as Ramchandra Guha explains, their scholarship is rigorous and their viewpoint is post-ideological. Most importantly, they make history reading enjoyable.

What is of great interest is Guha’s reflections on the social science studies community (and its evolution) in India. The pre-eminence of Marxists (liberal muslims amongst them) was due to political patronage from the Congress. Now that the Saffron Parivar plans to get in the history (re-)writing business, our suggestion (plea) will be to encourage strong scholarship (even if the lens used is a different one). Weak ideologues will end up embarrassing the ideology. What then?
In October 1984, I got my first academic
job at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata (then
Calcutta). A week after I joined, a friend from Chennai (then Madras)
sent me a petition on the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, which he hoped
some of my colleagues would sign. The first person I asked was a senior
historian of Northeast India, whose work I knew but with whom I had not
yet spoken. He read the petition, and said: “As Marxists, the question
you and I should be asking is whether taking up ethnic issues would
deviate attention from the ongoing class struggle in Sri Lanka.”

My colleague
was known to be a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Yet
I was struck by the way in which he took it for granted that I must be a
party man too. Although this was our first meeting, he immediately
assumed that any new entrant to the Centre must, like him and almost all
the other members of the faculty, be a Marxist as well.

In the
1980s, Marxism occupied a dominant place in the best institutes of
historical research in India. There were three reasons for this. One was
intellectual, the fact that Marxism had challenged the conventional
emphasis on kings, empires and wars by writing well-researched histories
of peasants and workers instead. Indian history-writing was shaped by
British exemplars, among them such great names as E.P. Thompson and Eric
Hobsbawm, Marxist pioneers of what was known as ‘history from below’.

The second
reason for Marxism’s pre-eminence was ideological. In the 1960s and
1970s, anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa were led by Communist
parties. Figures such as Ho Chi Minh and Samora Machel were icons in
India (as in much of the Third World). These fighters for national
freedom were supported by Soviet Russia and Communist China, but opposed
by the United States of America and the capitalist world more
generally. To be a Marxist while the Cold War raged, therefore, was to
be seen as identifying with poor and oppressed people everywhere.

The third
reason why there were so many Marxist historians in India was that they
had access to State patronage. In 1969, the Congress split, and was
reduced to a minority in the Lok Sabha. To continue in office, Prime
Minister Indira Gandhi sought, and got, the support of MPs of the
Communist Party of India. At the same time, several former Communists
joined the Congress and were rewarded with cabinet positions. Now the
ruling party began leaning strongly to the left in economic policy — as
in the nationalization of banks, mines and oil companies —and in foreign
policy, as in India’s ‘Treaty of Friendship’ with the Soviet Union.

In 1969,
before the Congress and Mrs Gandhi had turned so sharply to the left,
the government of India had established the Indian Council of Social
Science Research. The ICSSR was meant to promote research on the
profound social and economic transformations taking place in the
country. The Council funded some first-rate institutions, such as the
Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, the Gokhale Institute of Politics
and Economics in Pune, and the Centre for Development Studies in

History is
both a social science and a branch of literature. In theory, historical
research should also have been within the ICSSR’s brief. However, in
1972, the government established an Indian Council of Historical
Research instead. The education minister at the time, Nurul Hasan, was
himself a historian. Those who promoted and ran the ICHR were, in
personal terms, close to Professor Hasan. In ideological terms, they
were Marxists or fellow-travellers.

The two men
responsible for establishing the ICSSR were the economist, D.R. Gadgil,
and the educationist, J.P. Naik.
Both were outstanding scholars, but
neither was a Marxist. They were true liberals who promoted high-quality
research regardless of ideology or personal connections. The ICHR, on
the other hand, was from the beginning dominated by left-wing historians
who favoured themselves and their friends in the distribution of funds
for research, travel, and translation.

The control
of Marxists over the ICHR weakened slightly in the 1980s, but was then
re-established when Arjun Singh became education minister in 1991. He
was persuaded that the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign could best be opposed by
the State sponsoring ‘secular’ and ‘scientific’ history. Marxist
historians flocked to his call, accepting projects and appointments
within the minister’s favour.

In 1998, the
Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. The new education minister, Murli
Manohar Joshi, was an ideologist of the right rather than left. Under
him, the ICHR was handed over to academics charged with, among other
things, diminishing the contributions of socialists to the freedom
movement and discovering the origins of the river Saraswati.

In courting Marxist historians, Arjun Singh took inspiration from Nurul Hasan. In promoting Hindutva
scholars, the current HRD minister is following in the tracks of M.M.
Joshi. Hence the recent appointment of Y. Sudershan Rao as chairman of
the ICHR. 
I had never heard of Professor Rao before, and, nor, it
appears, have most other historians. Since he belongs to Andhra Pradesh,
I asked some historians in that state what they knew. They described
Professor Rao as a “non-descript scholar who does not have any academic
or intellectual pretensions”, but was known to be close to the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh. They added that despite his ideological bias and
lack of scholarly distinction, he was an amiable and friendly man.

His personal
charm notwithstanding, Professor Rao has not published a major book,
nor a single scholarly essay in a professional journal. However, he has
made known his belief in the essential goodness of the caste system, and
the essential historicity of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. These may be among the reasons why he has been appointed chairman of the ICHR.

The Marxists
who once ran the ICHR were partisan and nepotistic, but also
professionally competent. The thought of Karl Marx — as distinct from
the practice of Communist parties — provides a distinct analytical
framework for understanding how human societies change and evolve. This
privileges the role of technology and of social conflict between
economic classes. Marxist historiography is a legitimate model of
intellectual enquiry, albeit one which — with its insistence on
materialist explanations — is of limited use when examining the role of
culture and ideas, the influence of nature and natural processes, and
the exercise of power and authority.

sophisticated intellectual culture should have room for able right-wing
scholars too. In the US, conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson
are both credible and prominent. Their work celebrates the stabilizing
role of family and community, and argues that technological dynamism and
respect for individual rights are not evenly distributed across
cultures. And where Marxist historians chastise capitalists for
exploiting workers, right-wing historians celebrate them for creating
jobs and generating wealth.

Why are there no Indian equivalents of Niall Ferguson? This is because the right-wing here is identified with Hindutva,
a belief system which privileges myth and dogma over research and
analysis. And no serious historian can be expected to assume a priori
that Ram was a real character, that Hindus are the true and original
inhabitants of India, that Muslims and Christians are foreigners, and
that all that the British did in India was necessarily evil.

Contrary to
what is sometimes claimed in the press, there are many fine historians
in India. From my own generation of scholars, I can strongly recommend —
to student and lay reader alike — the work of Upinder Singh on ancient
India, of Nayanjot Lahiri on the history of archaeology, of Vijaya
on the bhakti movement, of Sanjay Subrahmanyam on the
early history of European expansion, of Chetan Singh on the decline of
the Mughal State, of Sumit Guha on the social history of Western India,
of Seema Alavi on the social history of medicine, of Niraja Gopal Jayal
on the history of citizenship, of Tirthankar Roy on the economic
consequences of colonialism, of Mahesh Rangarajan on the history of
forests and wildlife, and of A.R. Venkatachalapathy on South Indian
cultural history.

The scholars
named in the preceding paragraph have all written excellent books, on
different themes and periods, in different stylistic registers.They have
all read Karl Marx and digested his ideas. At the same time, they are
not limited or constrained by his approach.They have been inspired by
other thinkers, other models, in their reconstructions of human life and
social behaviour.

Like their
counterparts outside India, these scholars bring to the writing of
history both primary research and the analytical insights of cognate
disciplines such as anthropology, political theory, and linguistics.
Their personal or political ideology is secondary (if not irrelevant) to
their work, whose robustness rests rather on depth of research and
subtlety of argument.

In the 42
years since the ICHR was founded, the historical profession has moved
on. The economic and technological determinism of Marxism, once so
appealing, has been found wanting in pushing the frontiers of research.
If the HRD minister wanted a professional, non-partisan (and
non-Marxist) scholar to head the ICHR, she had a wide field to choose
from. But it appears that the minister wanted not a capable or respected
historian, but a captive ideologue. And she has got one.





Brown Pundits