December 04, 2022

UGC Circular: A Constitutionally Untenable & an Invasion on Historical Imagination

Nilotpal Basu

THE UGC circular signed by M Jagdish Kumar,  former vice chancellor of JNU whose infamy for undermining  democracy and critical thinking in the university had been widely covered by the media. Therefore, his appointment as the UGC chairman did not surprise many. Now that he is anchoring the effort to legitimise narratives of Hindutva proponents like Savarkar and Golwalkar in the  official academic space of Indian universities, it only betrays his place in the hierarchy of the scheme of things that RSS and Hindutva forces plan to unleash in the sphere of higher education. That the UGC chairman officially used the services  of the Indian Council of Historical Research’s (ICHR) concept note, underlines the capture of the historical research body by the foot soldiers of Hindutva. 


Stung by the growing global criticism about his dispensation being thoroughly anti-democratic, symptomatized by the destruction of human rights and secularism which are the defining features of the Indian Constitution, Modi waxed eloquent on Independence Day from the Red Fort ramparts. He pitched on the concept of ‘India as the mother of democracy’. Modi has never sounded apologetic about his RSS lineage. Obviously, he has allowed historical imagination to be hijacked by the crude fictitious narratives of the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar on ancient India. 

Now that through the brazen use of official power, RSS has come to control the levers of political power, it has a  growing conviction that India’s history can be reshaped and reconstructed to suit the goals of achieving the sectarian exclusions that the fascistic Hindutva project proposes to substitute the democratic and secular Constitution. This attack should not surprise many. 


The concept note prepared by ICHR is pompously titled ‘Bharat: Loktantra ki Janani’. At the level of intellectual inquiry into our historical past, the document does not have the pretensions of being a product of any rigorous historical research. The development of Indian historiography as a serious discipline based on scientific evidence drawn from archaeological finds and the application of genomics is treated with contemptuous dismissal. In a sense, it serves the purpose of brazenly displaying the RSS capture of ICHR. That this distortion in the study of our past is being sought to be perpetrated across our higher education space should not only cause concern but underline the need for building a platform of resistance to safeguard objective reading of our history and the foundations of our constitution. 

The concept note prefaces with an ahistorical claim that Indians have been present  all over the globe since ‘time immemorial’ and consequently the notion of ‘Bharat’ needs to be celebrated. That this claim is far from truth has now been irrefutably established through the genomics studies and DNA footprints to establish that India has been more of a site for inward migration and not the other way round. In its subjective desire to find the roots of modern democracy in ancient India, the concept note only manages a muddled and distorted history mechanically drawing on European and British colonial writings on Indian village systems. This narrative has been the staple of European colonial historiography on India in the 19th century spearheaded by Charles Metcalf, James Mill, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Henry Maine and others.

The major theoretical grounding of the note reads, “In India, from the Vedic times itself two kinds of states, Janapda and Rajya have been in existence. The Indian experience evolved its own form of governance at  the levels of village and  the central polity: (i) The federal/central political structures were delinked from the lives of the community (village communities), and consequently, (ii) village communities became self-governing and autonomous and (iii) developed a hierarchy of self-governing institutions, such as panchayats and khaps that enabled them to remain unaffected by and large changing kingdoms/empires particularly, those of invaders hostile to Indian Hindu culture.”

Nothing could be more ironic than that, the Indian village which was one of the  foundational premise of the colonial construct of the Indian past has become the main prop for celebrating Indian democracy as a part of the diamond jubilee of Indian independence. No wonder that such a construct is the total denial of our anti-colonial legacy of the freedom struggle. That the RSS had carefully avoided to be part of the freedom struggle does not stop this doublespeak on Amritkaal and locating our democratic lineages of the ancient past. 


The UGC chairperson’s grandiloquence while quoting from the note frees his imagination to run riot. “There are many indications that the ancient form of governance in India was democratic, contrary to the general belief that it was monarchical. There is more evidence in the form of archeological, literary, numismatic, epigraphical, Bhakti and so on to emphasize the Loktantrik tradition of Bharat. The recent archeological excavation at Rakighari and Sanauli reveals that the roots of people’s self-governance date back to at least 5000 BCE”. Based on this assertion and without any concrete evidence goes on to propound that India in past had “Loktantra” as opposed to “Prajatantra” or “Jantantra”. Elaborating on this, the note goes on to explain that these categories stand for “community system oriented towards the welfare of the community” whereas “Prajatantra” is a mere translation of democracy and “Jantantra” implying the “ruler versus people-oriented system”. 

Armed with such esoteric explanation, the note goes on to assert that ancient India was unique because there was no autocracy or aristocratism and there was no concentration of the prestige of birth, influence of wealth and political office, and “Bharatiya governance was different from ancient Rome and Greece.” Instead, the notion of sovereignty in India rested on “Dharma” and interpreted by the note as “Law”.

Apart from the essential colonial roots of underlying historiography, the note ends up in attributing Hindu religious and cultural identity rooted in the Brahminical tradition to explain our past. Apart from overlooking concrete evidence of traditions that challenge the authority of the Vedas and Bhramhinical scheme, the Hindutva ideologues in the ICHR are hell bent to whitewash these dissenting alternative traditions. It is also clear that the note fails to recognise that the Vedic and the Harappan cultures are distinct and separate streams, but opine them to be part of a singular whole - which is the trademark for Savarkar’s Hindutva driven historical narrative. 

Oblivious of the distinction between history and mythology, the note proceeds to attribute a timeless perception – “the Hindu mind from the beginning addressed the central question of how to weld the vast multiplicity that is India into a single larger community and from ancient times a geo-cultural definition has been given  to this entity, Rashtra,  Bharata – the country which lies to the South of the Himalayas and the north of the ocean is called Bharat and the Bharatiyas of this country”. The Savarkaresque and Golwalkaresque overtone is so pronounced! Historian B D  Chattopadhyaya effectively argued that the the early meaning of Bharatavarsha can be discussed and understood without any reference to Indian nationalism, Chattopadhyaya pointed out that the notions of ‘border’. ‘frontier’ or ‘foreigner’ were absent in the “connotation of Bharatavarsha in early sources.” 

Predictably the note has laid the blame of splitting the ‘self’ from the others, on the alien invaders. This is a plain denial of the hierarchical social order perpetrated by Varnashram. The note’s specific emphasis on placating the caste inequality is eloquent. “Indian people infused with the spirit of equality, have had since the very Vedic times loktantrika Parampara”, makes a mockery of history when such caste ridden history of persecution and atrocities against Dalits and other backward castes are advertised as ‘alternative roots of democracy and governance’ simply to reinforce that ‘India is a mother of democracy.

The ICHR note also echoes the Hindutva narrative of the Indian past and attempts to project the so-called Bharatiya roots of Constitutional democracy in contemporary India by completely distorting and whitewashing the legacy of anti-colonial freedom struggle. The most gruesome crimes were committed against humanity, dalits and women by the very same tradition – the Brahminical order. Many of the Dharmarashtras and the other Sutras underlining the ideologically loaded nature of the note and obviously, the UGC chairperson’s advisory did not find it appropriate to be truthful and put these records straight! 


That UGC chairperson’s act smacks of impropriety is obvious from the manner in which he  has launched an assault on distribution of federal powers in the sphere of higher education as enshrined  in  the Indian Constitution. 

The UGC Act as enshrined  in  the constitution outlines the powers of the UGC – “Determining and maintaining standards of teaching, examination and research in universities. Framing regulations on minimum standards of education. Monitoring developments in the field of collegiate and university education; disbursing grants to the universities and colleges”.

Notwithstanding the many changes that the law has undergone so far as the governance of higher education is concerned, this sector is not in the central list and the state governments have clearly defined and constitution ordained role in this area. The brazen endorsement of ICHR’s note on history without any substantive academic/scientific basis clearly brings out the political/ideological nature of this initiative. 

In the constitution, state governments are state governments; in no way the governors can subsume the powers of the elected state governments. The UGC chairperson by having written directly to the governors for organising seminars on the subjects enunciated by the ICHR note is a blatant attack on the powers of the state. We have been, off late, witness to the shenanigans of BJP/RSS sponsored governors like Arif Muhammed  Khan. That such cynical acts are not stand-alone episodes but part of the larger scheme of sweeping unilateral attempts to centralise powers at the cost of the constitutional arrangement becomes all the clearer from this latest UGC missive. 


Latest research by historians characterise Hitler's attempt to rewrite the history of World War II as the ‘invasion of memory’. It is pointed out that, “Among naval records on the leisure-time activities of German troops stationed in occupied France was a misplaced copy of a directive from Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Dated August 12, 1940, the document conveyed Hitler’s order to Germany's Army High Command to destroy World War I memorials in occupied Belgium and France. The monuments, in Hitler’s eyes, served to defame the army and perpetuate hatred against the nation. Their eradication was thus necessary to restore Germany’s reputation and protect it for posterity.”

This is not a chance discovery. Fascists have invaded memory and historical imagination in order to sustain racial, divisive and other sectarian political/ideological narratives to sustain and reinforce ‘hate’ and ‘othering’. Similar instances can be seen in the manner in which the myth perpetrated by the Old Testament was used by the Zionists to colour historical imagination to provide sustenance to a religious identity driven Israel and forcing the Arab Palestinians to face internal colonisation, making them refugees in their own land. 

The all-out attack mounted by the RSS and the Hindutva forces draw their inspiration from fascists of invading our collective memory. The UGC circular is a rude reminder of that inglorious association.