The Indian History Congress, the premier body of historians in India and abroad that was founded in 1935, has completed 75 years of successful engagement in promoting research and teaching of history in India.
About 4000 historians from all over India and a few dozen from abroad were invited as delegates this year.
In the concluding session of the 75th session of Indian National Congress (IHC) held from December 28-30, 2014, at JNU Convention Centre, Delhi, veteran historian Prof. Irfan Habib of Aligarh University, while piloting the resolutions on ‘Defence of scientific methods in history’ and ‘Preservation and conversion of monuments’ said that the present government of Modi was spending public money to launch propaganda against Indian History Congress.
The Indian History Congress passed a resolution that said:
“The Indian History Congress… is perturbed to hear voices being raised in certain influential quarters on the need to rewrite Indian History through an abundant use of ancient mythology and speculative chronology, while fresh myths, like that of Indians originally peopling the whole world are being created. There is widespread belief that soon text books will be revised or rewritten, to inculcate such a strongly misleading and divisive brand of history among pupils in our schools.
“The Indian History Congress is confident that all genuine historians would stand by the values of their profession and resist interested distortions of our past. It also calls upon all members of political establishment to refrain from making statements contrary to well-established historical facts. They should understand that loose or irresponsible statements of this kind tarnish the good repute of this country.”
The BJP criticised these resolutions. When asked about BJP’s bitter reaction, Prof. Aditya Mukerjee, one of the organisers handed over to me a booklet, ‘The Hindu Communal Project-RSS, School Text and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi.’
“IHC has always had an ear on the ground and responded to major issues that the polity and society have thrown up. Right from its infancy, it has passed resolutions articulating its core commitment as a professional and democratic body,” said Prof. Mridula Mukherjee.
“History cannot be faith-based. The two exist separately and conflation does not further the cause of either,” said Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India, who inaugurated the IHC.
The two-day programme ended with a cultural performance by Prof. Madanlal Singh and Chaar-Yaar.
Since the theme of the 75th (platinum) Indian History Congress was ‘Economy, Polity and Society in the Nehruvian Era: Its Contemporary Relevance’, scientists and economists who could share their experiences with Nehru and India were also invited. It was the 125th birth year of Nehru.
On the second day of the Congress, Prof. Irfan Habib coordinated a session on “Forms of Inequality in Indian History”, organised by Aligarh Historians Society. “Caste is a fundamental and unique social institution in India which has an overwhelming significance and is the source of inequality in our society. It is the caste that divides the society into a number of groups,” he said.
As the chair of the session, eminent historian Prof. Romila Thapar said that inequality is based on economic and technological differences and is a complex issue which has to be critically analysed. She stressed that caste status cannot be changed. “Understanding of inequality also changes over time,” said Prof. Thapar, continuing that the dominant caste in Punjab is completely different from the dominant caste in Tamil Nadu.
Prof. Thapar concluded the session by giving a clarion call that much more research has to be done by historians and scholars on social inequality.
Hamid Ansari in his inaugural address said that history can’t be studied in isolation — it has to be intertwined with society.
He quoted Winston Churchill’s aphorism: ‘Study history; in history lies all the secrets of statecraft.’
He also quoted E.H. Carr, “the historian without facts is rootless and futile; facts without their historian are dead and meaningless,” and that “the study of history is inescapably the study of causes”. This would exclude what has been called “counterfactuals” or the ‘what if” category and its simplistic assumptions and premises.
It is thus evident that methodology is critical to the study of history. Contestations over the historical past need civility of discourse to ensure that it does not cross the imperatives of ensuring social peace and societal cohesion.
He said Carr also dwelt on history’s wider relevance: “an individual stripped of memory finds the world a confusing place: a society with no sense of history is unaware of where it has come from or where it is going.”
He said we live in a world of nation states but the idea of a homogenous nation state is clearly problematic. Diversity is identifiable even in the most homogeneous of societies today. “In our own country the sheer diversity of identities — 4635 communities according to the Anthropological Survey of India, is a terse reminder of the care that needs to be taken while putting together the profile of a national identity. “It is imperative to be inclusive of neglected groups in society. These subaltern classes, as Gramci had pointed out, are not unified and their history therefore has to be intertwined with that of civil society. It has challenged what has been called ‘the univocality of statist discourse.’ It has sought to focus on Dalit and gender issues. The methodology of studying these opened up new and enriching vistas of study for historians,” said Ansari.
In a very impressive ceremony, the CEO declared SAGE to be a trust. 15 volumes of Sage Series in Modern Indian History were dedicated to Prof. Bipan Chandra. Prof. Sucheta Mahajan wrote the first volume on the partition.
Dr. Rakesh Batabyel, organising secretary of 75th Indian History Congress presented his book ‘JNU’, yet to be released, to some delegates.
All the leading publishing houses of India had their stalls at the Convention Centre.
There were volunteers to provide all kinds of assistance to the guests. One Kashmir Singh was attached to us. He was a dedicated and committed volunteer and a Ph.D student, working on the Khalistan Movement.
It was a great honour to be in the company of great intellectuals of India, particularly Prof. Irfan Habib, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Shireen Mousvi and Aditya/Mridula Mukherjee for a couple of days.
The IHC was a great learning experience. One came back with the confidence and assurance that Indian intellectuals would fight Hindu religious extremism.