THE Indian History Congress held its 78th annual session at the Jadavpur University campus, Kolkata, from December 28-30, 2017. By all accounts, it was its largest session till date, the number of delegates crossing the 1,600 mark.
The session was presided over by the famous historian of Ancient India, Professor KM Shrimali. His presidential address was delivered at the inaugural session on December 28, in the main hall of the Jadavpur University. His printed address, “Reason and Rationality: Some Leaves from India’s Intellectual History” was a discourse on how there has been, in India, since ancient times, a celebration of reason, and the long history of questionings and religious co-existence that has marked Indian culture. The address was rich in scholarly research, but it is obvious that it was provoked in part by the present officially sponsored offensive against reason and secularism. He ended his address with these words: “Shall we, the knowledge-seekers, aspiring to achieve universal humanism and forming the civil society, lower our guards and positively acquiesce in heralding what Julian called ‘the age of the intellectual organisation of political hatreds’? Hopefully the immensely rich legacy of India’s dialectical tradition would not let us down and we should be able to sing: woh subah kabhi to ayegi: that bright dawn is bound to come someday’.
After the inaugural session, the Congress divided into six sections, in which their presidents delivered their address, printed copies of which were also distributed. Professor Shankar Goyal (Section I: Ancient India) discussed Harsha as a historical figure, Professor Sunil Kumar (Section II: Medieval India) offered a critical survey of the literature on the Chishti mystics of the 14th century; and Professor Bhojanandan Parsad Singh (Section III: Modern India) presented his reflections on the Champaran Satyagraha, 2017 being its centennial year. Professor Rashmi Doraiswamy presiding over (Section IV: Countries other than India), called her address an essay in commemoration of the October Revolution and devoted her address to debates on culture in the USSR. In Section V (Archaeology) Professor Laxman S Thakur devoted his address to Rock Art. In Section VI (Contemporary India), Mr Rajmohan Gandhi, the well-known biographer of Gandhi and other national figures, in his address (India’s Story, 1947-2017) raised the question whether the Partition could have been prevented, and spoke feelingly of how an anti-Muslim sentiment has been created under the cry of Muslim appeasement even when Muslims are under-represented in all fields including legislatures, service and education. He spoke of the need to bring up “adivasi, dalit and Muslim personalities” so as to provide India with “the leadership it needs”. He ended by appealing to the people of India to care for our neighbours, about whom “we possess opinions, not knowledge”.
The papers presented at this session surpassed in number those of previous sessions. As many as 1,085 were presented in the various sections, as per the printed list of papers, of these 136 were assigned to Ancient India; 223 to Medieval India; 402 to Modern India; 46 to Countries other than India; 61 to Archaeology and 217 to Contemporary India. It was noticeable that there was a distinct revival of interest in the national movement, with which as many as 63 were directly or indirectly related. Dalit and gender history also continued to attract many papers.
On December 29, the Congress was addressed by Mamata Banerjee, chief minister, West Bengal, who called on historians to continue to follow their tradition of objectivity and secularism. Incidentally, the present West Bengal government has followed the policy of its predecessor in generously assisting the host university in organising the session.
The annual symposium of the Congress had as its theme “Literature and Life”. Held on the 29th evening, Professor Irfan Habib spoke on radical trends in Medieval Persian Poetry, while Professor Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, gave a written address on “Cultural Pluralism and its Enemies: the Ramayana Story”. Professor Bhattacharya particularly touched on how AK Ramanujan’s work on different versions of the Ramayana was removed from the Delhi University syllabus, owing to protests organised against it.
The general body meeting on December 30, unanimously adopted three resolutions. The first expressed the commitment of the History Congress to the pursuit of objective approach in history, and the second drew attention to the policy of discrimination in grants being followed by the central government agencies. In the third resolution, the Congress welcomed the establishment of the Bihar Museum but asked that other repositories like the Patna Museum be not deprived of their holdings.
Certain panels and seminars were organised by other organisations or individuals alongside the Indian History Congress session. The Aligarh Historians Society’s panel this year was on India and Iran, their shared History. Some 25 papers were presented, carving the period from prehistory to the last century. There Iranian scholars also presented papers, and Professor Romila Thapar chaired the first session. Professor Prabhat Patnaik in his paper touched on the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953 through a CIA operation. He argued that not only Communism, but also third-world nationalism was not acceptable to US imperialism, even in cases where its direct interests were not involved.
Other panels included are:-
1. Secularism and the political culture in Modern Bengal, (December 28, 2017)
2. Environment and empire (December 28, 2017)
3. The Partition of India: Revisiting after 70 Years (December 29, 2017)
4. Dalit history and politics (December 29, 2017)
5. Looking Back at 1942 after 75 years (December 29, 2017)
It may be mentioned that the Indian History Congress publishes a volume containing over 100 selected papers of the previous session, and this year too a thick volume of the Proceedings of the previous year were distributed among the delegates.
Professor Sushil Choudhury was elected president and Professor Irfan Habib and Shireen Moosvi vice-presidents of the 79th session. The sectional presidents elected are:
Section I : Ancient India: Professor Om Prakash Shrivastava (Allahabad)
Section II : Medieval India: Professor KSS Seshan (Hyderabad)
Section III : Modern India: Professor Ravindran Gopinath (Kannur)
Section IV : Countries other than India: Professor Manoranjan Mohanty (Delhi)
Section V : Archaeology: Professor. Sushmaji Dea (Pune)
Section VI : Contemporary India: Professor CP Chandrasekhar (Delhi)
Since the terms of Professor Ishrat Alam and his team of office-bearers end this year, Professor R Mahalakshmi of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, was elected the next secretary and Professor Neerja Singh, as the new treasurer, the joint-secretaries are: Professor Vivekanand Shukla, New Delhi and Dr Bodh Prakash (in-charge permanent office), Delhi.
The executive committee is elected annually by members. This year too, a 20 member executive committee was elected unopposed, the elected members being: Professor Indu Banga, Professor Arun Bandopadhyay, Professor Rajsekhar Basu, Professor Rajan Gurukkul, Professor Bishambhar Jha, Professor Mridula Mukherjee, Professor Rajen Saikia, Professor KSS Seshan, Professor Radhika Seshan, Professor Susanta Das, Professor SA Nadeem Rezavi, Professor DN Roy, Professor Subhasish Biswas, Professor SNR Rizvi , Professor Deepak Kumar, Professor LK Tuteja, Professor GJ Sudhakar, Professor BP Sahu, Professor Sajal Nag and Professor AS Nao.
In Defence of the Objective Method in History
The Indian History Congress was founded in 1935 to defend the cause of Indian History from the distortions perpetrated by the colonial and communalist historians. But this defence was to be undertaken, not by inventing imaginary events or achievements, but by strictly following scientific and objective methods in historical studies. For the last eight decades, this organisation has done its best to remain true to its founding principles.
Recently there has been a display of a tendency among responsible persons, including ministers and legislators, to speak as if they can “change” history by a fiat. There have been particular attempts to run down figures like Akbar and Tipu Sultan, while fictitious achievements are attributed to favourite or fictional heroes. It has even been suggested that the history of the Mughal Empire be removed from text books; and the prime minister has spoken of Akbar in a derogatory context. There is widespread expectation of changes made in syllabi and text books to impose prejudiced versions and false narratives in the teaching of history.
This effort goes hand-in-hand with increasing attacks on liberty and freedom of speech. The murders of four leading rationalists and reformers in Maharashtra and Karnataka, with the perpetrators still untraced and so escaping justice, are grisly reminders of an extending campaign against freedom of thought.
The Indian History Congress calls on all historians and public-spirited citizens to defend the cause of objective history, as, indeed, also reason and objectivity in the pursuit of all branches of knowledge, and to stand up for freedom of speech as an essential part of this effort.
On grants from governments and semi-government organisations
1. It has been noticed for some time that authorities in command of public money are tending to discriminate against organisations that do not necessarily support the currently favourite official credos. The Indian History Congress itself, whose contributions to research are for all to see in its voluminous annual volumes of Proceedings, has constantly seen a sharp decline in assistance from the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) which incidentally has ceased to have a historian as its chairman or member-secretary.
The same body has, on the other hand, announced an ambitious project to prove a manifest fantasy, namely, the alleged building of the islands of Adam’s Bridge by human hands in remote antiquity. Not only is such a project an insult to human intelligence but would involve a huge waste of public funds, should it be undertaken.
On publication of works on the national movement
2. The Indian History Congress reiterates the demand made in its previous resolutions that the ICHR should release funds for publication of the volumes prepared on Martyrs of the Freedom Movement and the volumes of Towards Freedom, which it has withheld from publication. Such indifference towards the history of the national movement hardly fits well with the official declarations, day in and out, of commitments to patriotism.