Successful Session of the Indian History Congress At Thiruvananthapuram
From a correspondent
THE Indian History Congress successfully held its 77th annual session from December 28-30, 2016 at Thiruvananthapuram, hosted by the University of Kerala. A record number of delegates (over 1,300) from all parts of India attended the session.
One of the noteworthy features of the session was not only that the state government of Kerala extended a generous grant to the University of Kerala to host the History Congress session, but that the government, appreciating the importance of the occasion, gave open support to the cause of scientific and secular historiography that the Indian History Congress represents.
One day ahead of the session, on December 27, 2016 a symposium was held at which Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan strongly criticised the Sangh Parivar’s distortions of history. It was wrong, he said, to give credence to such views of the past as a possible alternative interpretation of history. While professional historians should defend the principles of their discipline it was necessary for people also to be on guard, he declared. Professor Romila Thapar emphasised the importance of secularism not only as being essential for democracy but also as an inseparable ingredient of the historical method. Eminent musician T M Krishna also spoke on the occasion.
Although the Indian History Congress opened on December 28 as scheduled, its formal inauguration by the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, took place on December 29, in the main hall of the University of Kerala.
In his inaugural address, Pranab Mukherjee upheld the cause of objectivity in History, and condemned all forms of intolerance. He regretted that perceived criticisms “of our heroes and national icons have often been met with hostility, and even violence”. He insisted that pluralism was an integral element of our culture; and this should be recognised by everyone. He commended the Indian History Congress for its readiness to speak up whenever it felt that the integrity of the discipline was at stake. He also lauded the ‘Kerala model’ and praised the radical land reform that had been carried out in the state.
Pinarayi Vijayan, speaking on this occasion, strongly criticised the centre’s effort to peddle myths as history. He also condemned the ICHR’s decision to stop the publication of Towards Freedom volumes, describing it as “a blatant attempt at communal and intellectual censorship”. Ramesh Chennithala, leader of the opposition, also denounced the RSS’s project of communalising history.
Thanking the president and other speakers, Professor Shireen Moosvi, president of the Indian History Congress, recognised that the present situation was “difficult”, but she assured the president of India that “the vast majority of Indian historians will remain loyal to the requirements of their profession and stand up for freedom of thought and expression”.
The president of India, at this session, handed over the Rajwade Prize for lifelong service to the cause of history to the renowned epigraphist, Iravatham Mahadevan, for his fundamental work on the Indus script and early Tamil epigraphy. The prize (Rs 50,000) was instituted by the late Professor A R Kulkarni and is awarded every three years. The Proceedings of the previous session of the Indian History Congress, containing texts of over a hundred rigorously selected papers, was released by the chief minister.
Earlier, on the previous day, the first part of the inaugural session was held in the same hall. Here the president of the History Congress, Professor Shireen Moosvi delivered her presidential address, titled “The Making of India”.
In her address, Moosvi traced not only the history of the consciousness of India as a country (popularly ‘the idea of India’) but also the historical factors, notably the diffusion of the caste system and imperial structures which gave to outsiders as well as the elite among its own inhabitants an impression of the cultural unity of the whole country. She argued that India became a nation by rejecting part of its social baggage through the social reform movement and resistance to colonial rule and exploitation.
She concluded: “An Indian nation was thus created in which all classes of people could feel they had a share. It was created not only in opposition to the British rulers, but also in face of hostility from within, especially from the advocates of the “two-nation” theory, based on religious identities headed by ‘Vir’ Savarkar and M A Jinnah. Partition was the price paid. But in what remained of India, a dream was widely shared, one that moved Jawaharlal Nehru as well as his critics, a dream that India would stand forth as a secular, democratic and socialist republic”. She conceded, however, that “today a different wind seems to be blowing, a wind hostile to everything that went into the construction of a nation”, which she felt it was the duty of all citizens to oppose.
Professor Romila Thapar also addressed the session as the chief guest. She spoke of the need for the freedom to be assured to historians as well as other citizens, to ask questions, and warned against the danger of imposing a single, irrational presentation of history through official pronouncements and communalised text books.
The inaugural session was followed by the meetings of the six sections in which the History Congress then divides. The printed list of papers contained titles of as many as 896 papers, and a number of additional papers were submitted for presentation at the various sections after the list had been printed. All sectional meetings opened with the presentation of addresses by the respective sectional presidents.
Professor K K Thaplyal, president of Section I (Ancient India) in his address discussed a series of issues of ancient Indian history on which there can be different deductions possible from varied types of evidence. Professor S Z H Jafri, presiding over Section II (Medieval India) elaborated on the rise of a composite culture in Awadh during Mughal times. In a long combative address, Professor Sucheta Mahajan, president of Section III (Modern India) dealt with the interpretations being offered by neo-colonial and subaltern schools of events leading to the partition and independence. Professor Swapna Bhattacharya, in her presidential address at Section IV (Countries other than India) spoke on the pre-colonial history of Myanmar. Ajith Prasad P in his presidential address at Section V (Archaeology) gave a survey of the prehistoric archaeology of Gujarat based on the latest archaeological findings. Presiding over Section VI, Contemporary India, Professor Amiya K Bagchi, the famous economist, presented his thoughts on ‘India at Crossroads’ in which he spoke of “the threat of BJP and fascism today”, and raised certain important questions over the achievements and limitations of the Left in India.
The Indian History Congress organises each year a lecture named after the late Prof S C Misra. Prof Rajen Saikia gave the lecture on December 28, explaining the modern history of the North-east. A symposium on the 29th evening was devoted to the ‘Nation and its Monuments’. Prof Laxman S Thakur, spoke on the norms of conservation, while Prof S Ali Nadeem Rezavi discussed the way monuments of the past are being deprived of their historical and artistic value by wrong methods of conservation.
Over 900 papers were read at the six sections. One of these by Professor Irfan Habib and Faiz Habib was presented at the Medieval Section. It turned out to be topical because, while being concerned with the mapping of Firoz Shah’s canals, it reconstructed the story of how Firoz Shah too, like our present-day rulers became enamoured over the revival of the Sarasvati river. A river so named, now called Sirsa, falls into the Sutlej above Ropar. Firoz Shah was led to believe that, like the legendary Sarasvati, it used to flow through the Punjab plains, but was diverted towards the Sutlej by a hostile tribe raising a dam now surviving as a hillock. Firoz Shah spent seven months with a huge army of labourers to break the so-called dam, but failed to make this Sarasvati flow into the plains. What happened 650 years ago should be a lesson to the Modi government’s addiction to making the mighty Sarasvati flow again.
Out of papers that are presented at the Indian History Congress sections about a hundred are selected through a rigorous system of refereeing and editing for publication in the annual volume of Proceedings, which thus becomes an important indication of current interests and standards. About eleven prizes have been instituted for authors of papers in various fields of research. These were announced and awarded to authors of papers in the last year’s Proceedings during the general session on December 28. The M Athar Ali Memorial Prize for the best paper in the previous session went to Chandni Saxena for her paper on ‘Religion and Fate of Women during the Partition’.
Along with the sections, there were also some panels that were organised. The Kerala Council of Historical Research sponsored a panel on the Pattanam excavations, Pattanam is a site that was identical with or close to the port of Muziris on the Kerala coast, described in Greek accounts of the early centuries of the Christian era. The seminar was organised by Prof P J Cherian. Among others, Professor Romila Thapar and Prof Rajan Gurukkal and scholars from abroad took part in it. Another panel titled ‘India and its Parts’ organised by the Aligarh Historians Society was concerned with regional history as well as the present problems of regions. About twenty historians, economists and political scientists presented papers here, which had been pre-circulated through a special volume. A team of Dutch scholars organised a panel around the theme of Dutch sources on Indian history. Yet another panel was organised on Dalit History, which is now becoming an important part of Indian Historiography.
The executive committee, which met during the session re-elected the current secretary (Prof Ishrat Alam), treasurer (Prof Ramesh Rawat), joint secretaries (Professor Amar Farooqui and Professor Vivekanand Shukla). It elected Professor K M Shrimali as general president for the next session and Professor K Paddayya and Irfan Habib as vice-presidents. The following sectional presidents were also elected: Prof Shankar Goyal (Ancient India), Prof Sunil Kumar (Medieval India), Prof Bhojanandan Prasad Singh (Modern India), Dr Aroop Banerji (Countries other than India); Dr Sima Panja (Archaeology) and Rajmohan Gandhi (Contemporary History).
The twenty members of the executive committee are elected by the delegates. But there was no voting since all the twenty members, representing various parts of the country, were elected unopposed. They included Professor S Janeswaran, the local secretary of the History Congress session.
The general business meeting was held on the afternoon of December 30. It approved the reports of the work and finances of the Indian History Congress during the past year. It was informed that the next (78th) session of the Indian History Congress would be held at Kolkata under the auspices of the Jadavpur University. The business meeting unanimously passed four resolutions submitted to it on behalf of the executive committee. A resolution expressed concern at the fact that the Indian Council of Historical Research is dragging its feet on the publication of Towards Freedom volumes as well as also the volume prepared on martyrs of the national movement. A second resolution asked for the rescinding of the Delhi University’s withdrawal of the Hindi translation of Bipan Chandra’s book Struggle for Independence (which contains much criticism of the communal forces as direct or indirect allies of British imperialism).
A third resolution reiterated the Indian History Congress’s stand that the unprofessional renovation of medieval monuments being carried out by the Aga Khan Trust should not be allowed to continue by the Archaeological Survey, since such work could ruin the historical value of these buildings.
Finally, a resolution expressed the concern of the Indian History Congress on the ICHR’s journal Itihas carrying an article that set out to ‘Aryanise’ the Indus Civilization by claiming the famous Dancing Girl statue found at MohenjoDaro to be a representation of the goddess Parvati.
The delegates were greatly impressed with the concern shown for the Indian History Congress session by the Kerala state government. The accommodation provided for the delegates was usually quite comfortable. The faculty of the University of Kerala and the student volunteers were exceptionally helpful. Some unfortunate snags did occur like non-provision of accommodation for the third day to many delegates nor of the evening meal on that day, as has always been in the IHC session and despite specific assurance of it in the local secretary’s circular. But in every case even members of the University Syndicate came forward to assist the delegates; and this made a deep impression on all History Congress members. They will thus surely carry many happy memories of the session.
INDIAN HISTORY CONGRESS RESOLUTIONS
Towards Freedom Volumes
THE Indian History Congress is strongly of the view that the extremely important work of bringing out the documents of the critical period leading up to India’s freedom in the Towards Freedom Project of the Indian Council for Historical Research must be carried forward. It appears that the ICHR is going slow on the project with volumes nearly ready for the press being put in cold storage for more than three years in the case of volume III of (1947), while Volume II (of 1941) has been ready for more than a year. The IHC expects that these will be brought out as early as possible so that Indian researchers, indeed the Indian people, should obtain a full picture of their glorious freedom struggle.
The Indian History Congress further hopes that the ICHR volume already prepared on martyrs of the national movement will also be allowed to be published.
Lift Ban on Major Historical Work
The country was shocked when a book written by one of India’s best known historians, Professor Bipan Chandra, India’s Struggle for Independence, which was translated into Hindi and published by the University of Delhi’s Hindi Implementation Board on the recommendation of the Department of History has been ordered out of circulation on the specious charge that the book denigrates the national hero Bhagat Singh and his comrades by describing them as ‘terrorists’. The book describes them as “revolutionary terrorists”, using the designation the martyrs themselves used, making it clear that no pejorative meaning was intended in using the words. The Indian History Congress hopes that the virtual ban on the book would be immediately withdrawn and that such attempts to stifle scholarly historical writings should not be allowed to happen in future.
Deliberate Injury to Monuments
Since a few years, the Archaeological Survey of India has handed over the work of conservation and preservation of our national heritage to a private organisation invoking a “public-private model”. Initially the World Heritage site of Humayun’s Tomb was handed over to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now other structures like the Tomb of Khan-i-Khanun at Delhi and the tombs of Qutub Shahi rulers have been handed over to them.
The AKTC has contravened the well-laid archaeological rules and policy in India that the work of preservation would not involve an attempt to restore and complete the buildings to what we choose to suppose may have been their supposedly original appearance. Our duty is simply one of preservation against future injury.
The Indian History Congress is greatly disturbed at this deliberate mode of destroying our national heritage. It appeals to all authorities concerned and the Archaeological Survey of India to stop further injury to our past heritage and follow the conservation policy as laid out by Sir John Marshall so as to preserve the authenticity of our historical monuments.
Maintaining Standards in ICHR Journal
The Indian History Congress is concerned at the article published in the leading journal of Indian History Itihas where the statue of so-called “Dancing Girl’ of Mohanjo Daro is identified as Parvati, the consort of Shiva. In the considered view of the Indian History Congress such fantasies should have no place in a journal bearing the imprint of ICHR. The Congress urges the ICHR to ensure that articles published in its journal are vetted properly so that such lapses do not occur.