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History Of Contemporary Historians

Updated: October 8, 2015 6:30 am

The history or perception of contemporary India or its leading personalities by the recent crop of historians can certainly be scrutinized. And the first thing that strikes is that their narrations have heavy dose of their ideologies. So, we have India’s history written by some historians who look at facts through the prism of their ideologies—left or right. There are a few who, one is sorry to say, have not hesitated to ignore or convolute facts to be in harmony with their ideology or prejudice against some persons

History is what historians write. So, when we study Chandragupt or Akbar, we have to be dependent on historians during their respective periods of time. For Akbar, Abd al-Qadir Bada’uni is the most knowledgeable. He tells us that the Emperor was liberal, let his Queen Jodha Bai do her puja everyday and in fact had a special chamber converted into a temple for her to do her daily prayers. Chand Bardai’s poems tell about the gallantry of Prithviraj Chauhan.

And of recent past, excellent perspective of the life and times of Wajid Ali Shah has been provided by famous historians Dr. G.D. Bhatnagar and Ranbir Singh.

How much the historical narration of these rulers was affected by the personal orientation of the writers which with blinkered eyes might not have seen anything wrong in their idolized subjects. But we have no means to know the facts nor as to how far the biographers or historians diluted facts, albeit unconsciously, and thus might be hovering around the truth but not exactly be truthful.

10-10-2015But the history or perception of contemporary India or its leading personalities by the recent crop of historians can certainly be scrutinized. And the first thing that strikes is that their narrations have heavy dose of their ideologies. So, we have India’s history written by some historians who look at facts through the prism of their ideologies—left or right. There are a few who, one is sorry to say, have not hesitated to ignore or convolute facts to be in harmony with their ideology or prejudice against some persons.

But, “questioning the works of academic historians is often termed impudent, particularly when the questions come from those who are not considered academically qualified historians”. The authors, from whose article a few quotes are given, fall under the stated description. Nonetheless, it is essential to examine the same particularly since the effects would be enormous if the question turns out to be reasonable. These authors examined the expertise of the eminent historian, Prof. S. Irfan Habib regarding his research on Indian revolutionaries in general and Bhagat Singh in particular.

“He has authored a book on Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries, hence it is safe to posit that he is an authority on the subject. It is then expected that he provides a comprehensive analysis examining all indisputable evidences especially when they appear to contradict the thesis he posits.

“To our surprise, we found that Prof. Habib had ignored important information available in public domain in one of his research papers on Indian revolutionaries as also his book on Bhagat Singh,” said the authors.

He sought to establish that during the freedom struggle Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was hostile to the Indian revolutionaries, while his close associate and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had not only been favourably disposed towards them but also assisted them in different capacities.

They say Mahatma Gandhi was, of course, most uncompromising in his stance against violent methods. Yet there were other leaders of national stature in the Congress who certainly had a soft corner for the young revolutionaries. Prominent among them were Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.


“Focusing on Bhagat Singh we found, from easily available primary sources, that Nehru was at best favourably disposed to the revolutionaries in his public statements or written pieces. However his action or rather lack thereof at critical times displayed his indifference at best and animosity at worst.”

The authors, to the surprise and shock of many, produced indisputable evidences that establish the above assertion. They suggest that Irfan Habib has tried to underplay the fact neither Gandhi or Nehru had interest in Bhagat Singh’s death penalty commuted to life imprisonment. Thereafter, they show how Gandhi-Irwin pact sealed the fate of Bhagat Singh by excluding him from its ambit.

They also assert that Prof Habib is silent on the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru was a party to the Gandhi-Irwin pact. They then examine Nehru’s role in the betrayal of Bhagat Singh, with focus on if and how Prof. Habib has depicted the same. Nehru generously and repeatedly showered encomiums on Bhagat Singh, which Prof. Habib has dutifully reported.

The authors also say, “What is however particularly galling is that Jawaharlal Nehru’s actions were in stark contrast to his stated positions, which Prof. Habib does not mention at all. Prof. Habib omits, they further allege, many facts. They then “provided cogent evidence to show that Nehru was party to the entire negotiations that led to the Gandhi-Irwin pact, and the pact was inked only after his consent (and before the execution of the trio). This would therefore contradict Prof. Habib’s conclusion that Nehru supported the revolutionaries.

Manmathnath Gupta has also written how Jawaharlal Nehru had betrayed Bhagat Singh–of the terms–but as an obedient soldier, he had to submit to the leader. But the country had regarded him as something more than an obedient soldier. Thus, Bhagat Singh’s fellow revolutionary has written that Nehru considered the revolutionaries as fascists, rather than having the “soft corner’’ that Prof. Habib saw in him.

Prof. Habib did not mention Manmathnath Gupta’s or Subhas Chandra Bose’s assessment of Nehru’s betrayal of Bhagat Singh in any of his works; he also skipped the fascist characterization altogether. Prof. Habib in particular omitted the parts that showed Nehru believing the defence presented by the revolutionaries was out of place in a Congress bulletin. Prof. Habib also omits Nehru’s initial hesitation to publish the statements and his opposition to Bhagat Singh’s hunger strike.

10-10-2015Prof. Habib positions Nehru’s apology to Gandhi as a pro-forma one and emphasises that Nehru accepted the widespread popularity and recognition of the revolutionaries among the Congressmen. The more important conclusion that however emerges is that Nehru published the statements not out of any conviction, but compulsion due to pressure from Congress rank. Nehru remained completely silent in public on the exclusion of the revolutionary trio from the ambit of the pact before their execution, which Prof. Habib explains as ‘Jawaharlal Nehru kept quiet before the executions lest a word of his may annoy the Mahatma’.

If that were indeed the case, then the question that arises is why did the future prime minister weigh his fear of provoking the Mahatma’s wrath above his determination to save the revolutionary freedom fighters from the gallows? Could his fear have been motivated by a greater determination, that of furthering his political career in then Congress power structure where Gandhi had the last word? Or is it the case that the intention to save the revolutionaries never existed in the first place, contrary to his spoken words?

In Prof. Habibs words: But soon after the executions, he [Nehru] came out with a statement in defence of his silence. He said that I have remained silent though I felt like bursting, and now all is over. This may be true because in some other reference he had accepted that I was being compelled by force of circumstances to do things I was in thorough disagreement with. He further said, Not all of us could save him who was so dear to us and whose magnificent courage and sacrifice have been an inspiration to the youth of India; India today cannot save her dearly loved children from the gallows ….

The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family clearly did not elaborate on his compulsions and if and how those related to his ambition for personal political power. Thus, Prof. Habib’s reporting of Nehru’s sorrow at not being able to act compelled by force of circumstances, without asking the above questions, appear to be uncharacteristically uncritical of a probing scholar who specializes in political history. To us, the authors said, however, given Nehru’s inaction, his words of condolences subsequent to their execution appear ludicrous.

The broader contention that the authors have been able to establish that among leading academic position holding historians in India there are those who are at best unaware of publicly accessible information that are crucial to their research area. This in certain cases makes them guilty of distorting history, either by selective quotation or suppression of historical sources, both actions often guided by ideological and political considerations.

The ideological considerations pertaining to Nehru and Bhagat Singh, for example, may well be that the former is posited as an icon of the left, or at least parts thereof, and Nehru’s betrayal of revolutionary Bhagat Singh who enjoys iconic status all over India and across the political spectrum, might irretrievably undermine Nehru’s legacy.

RC Majumdar, the famous historian who refused to bow to the powers that be, has narrated his own experience in writing history—the gross interference from political and official figures and the propensity of professional historians to follow cues from their political masters. “When as a whole time Director, I prepared the draft of the `History of the Freedom Movement in India’, sponsored by the Government of India, I met with constant interference and obstruction from men in authority, having no knowledge of history…. It is very sad that the spirit of perverting history is no longer confined to politicians, but has definitely spread even among professional historians.”

The governments of his time had a certain policy towards history and compelled many professional historians to follow their policy. But as he points out: “But history is no respecter of persons or communities, and must always strive to tell the truth, so far as it can be deduced from reliable evidence. This great academic principle has a bearing on actual life, for ignorance seldom proves to be real bliss either to an individual or to a nation. … The real and effective means of solving a problem is to know and understand the facts that gave rise to it and not to ignore them by hiding the head, ostrich like, into sands of fiction.”

In Rewriting Indian History, a provocative book by the French writer Francois Gautier, who currently serves as the political correspondent in India for France’s top newspaper, Le Figaro, and for Switzerland’s leading daily, Le Nouveau Quotidien, quotes Nehru’s “amazing eulogy” of the tyrant Mahmud Ghazni, the destroyer of Mathura’s great Hindu temples, Gujarat’s Somnath, and numerous other Hindu and Buddhist temples. “This means even Nehru, the historian, distorted or suppressed facts to suit and propagate his ideology. It has become increasingly evident that the history of India by the present crop of historians, most of them Marxists, is totally unreliable as they present India and judge prominent leaders according to their leftist orientation, which does not encourage good opinion of India or its majority community.”

Gautier talks of Marxist think-tanks such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University [JNU] in New Delhi, which has bred a lot of ‘Hindu-hating scholars’ who are adept at negating Muslim atrocities and running to the ground the greatness of Hinduism and its institutions.

These Marxist “historians,” well-ensconced at JNU, have long been masterminding the politically correct textbooks of India’s history used in Indian schools. No wonder, JNU is also known as “the Kremlin by the Jumna.” For a long time, the Indian Marxists had been so brainwashed that whenever it rained in Moscow—the capital of their “only true fatherland”—they opened their umbrellas in Delhi. To be sure, dissenting voices were raised against Gandhi’s support to Muslims.

Before the partition of India, Aurobindo Ghosh, the great poet-philosopher, posed the question about a brand of Islam: “You can live with a religion whose principle is toleration. But how is it possible to live with a religion whose principle is ‘I will not tolerate you’? How are you going to have unity with these people?… I am sorry they [Gandhi and Nehru] are making a fetish of Hindu-Muslim unity. It is no use ignoring facts.”

Francois Gautier’s Rewriting Indian History is one of the growing numbers of the literature of dissent against the “standard” textbooks of India’s history. Having lived in India for 25 years has helped him “to see through the usual cliches and prejudices in India which are being subscribed for a long time, as most foreign (and sometimes, unfortunately, Indian) journalists, writers, and historians do. Rewriting Indian History, the author prefaces “might well be called an antithesis” for it questions many of the assumptions in the “standard” treatises by Euro-centered colonialist historians and their imitations by Indian Marxist writers. Enough evidence is now available that quite a few of the present crop of historians are propagating their ideology, their hatred towards the India of today and the majority of people through what they call history of India. The best would be to nominate some impartial historians to write history of contemporary India and give them freedom from any political or ideological considerations. And they must not consider themselves as foil to Marxist-oriented historians. Let such historians who enjoyed power and privileges under Nehru and his heirs fade away and be foot-notes in history. That would be justice to such unpatriotic Indians.

By Vijay Dutt

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