What is at stake in the controversies surrounding the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) is the autonomy of the discipline of history. Every time there is a change in the government at the Centre, the ideologues of the Left or the Right rush to control the Council, as those who thrive professing Marxism and secularism did in 2004-05 when UPA I took over and with a regime change in 2014 it is now the turn of those who were marginalised for ten years.
Thus, the wretched struggle will continue, even as a closer look might reveal that the struggle is not so much about any well-intentioned ideological commitments, but it is about group-politics or factionalism for controlling the funding for fellowships, research and publication projects, and of course the journal, Indian Historical Review, which is in news recently.
History as a professional discipline can grow only if there is enough space for new research and fresh interpretations, above the party-politics of the time and political abuses. And state-sponsored histories will always be suspected as propaganda for the legitimation of state’s power, often arbitrarily used, and not so much as serious and credible efforts for production of historical knowledge for creating a better educated society than what we have at present.
History remains a study of the past, though it is always deployed in the service of the present. And state funding of historical research does not necessarily imply that the officials of the state will dictate to historians, including those who do not like to toe any party-line or belong to a different party, to fabricate histories in such a way as to provide ideological justifications of many of the state’s actions, no matter how irrational, arbitrary or even well-meaning those actions might be perceived by sections of the general public. The crucial question is whether a historian, not willing to submit to any dominating ideology — Left or Right — can have an intellectual space to objectively or credibly interpret his sources, without incurring the wrath of the ideologues and officials in the service of the state.
One is speaking here of a supposedly liberal milieu of a modern institution established and supported by democratically elected governments. Dictatorships and private funding would mean historians would be reduced to the position of His Majesty’s Voice and not so much offering any critical appreciation of historical questions relevant in the present, including such topics which are hotly contested in the public domain. Distancing from the politics of the present can ensure some credibility for the historian’s craft as independent critical thinking, ecumene or episteme, relating to how the past might have been like, even if that past cannot be reconstructed in all its entirety.
History as a professional discipline can grow only if there is enough space for fresh interpretations.
Assuming that the Chairperson, Member Secretary and Members of the Council of the ICHR are basically political positions, granted to those in close proximity to the people in power, it is only rational that they are removed when a new regime takes over, bringing in new people willing to do its bidding and also further extending the patronage to the people who were sidelined earlier, benefiting them through various means, including financial help in the name of research and publication projects.
The journal published by the ICHR also becomes an immediate casualty every time there is a change in dispensation. Those who control the journal seek to benefit their associates by getting their work published, no matter how shoddy, and they can also block the publication of an important piece of research coming from outside of their network, even though the façade of properly following the process of peer-review is followed in both cases. So, as a matter of fact, not many fine scholars like to waste their work by submitting it to ICHR, and this is not a new development.
In a nutshell, the brouhaha over heads falling at ICHR is a theatre of the absurd, for replacements of personnel on political positions is a matter of routine. If a political appointee can be toasted by the whims of a few resourceful persons, he can also be discarded by those working for the new regime. The beneficiaries or victims of such arbitrariness are generally big academic dons, mostly retired professors who may have done some research 40-50 years ago, though they are often worthless old men enjoying powerful political connections.
The future of research and the discipline of history rest not so much in those few resourceful people who manage to thrive in various official committees, but in the large numbers of research scholars sincerely slogging in the archives. These young scholars eventually contribute to knowledge production, independent of the dictates of contemporary politics, and this is how scholarship grows over time.