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Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Happy Result, And Something To Look Forward To

Arun Shourie
How fulsome they have been in commending each other -- the patrons and subalterns!

First the significance of Arif Qandhari's Tarikh-i-Akbari : it confirms what we know from Abul Fazl's Akbar Nama, says the eminent historian, it furnishes information we did not have earlier. He then recalls what has been done in regard to Qandhari's history by scholars already : "The Tarikh-i-Akbari has been excellently edited and annotated by Muinuddin Nadvi, Azhar Ali Dehlawi and Imtiaz Ali Arshi." And so, the need of the hour : "What it [the Tarikh-i-Akbari] now needed was a full-scale English translation." This pressing need, at last fulfilled : "This has been provided by Dr. Tasneem Ahmad in a very competent manner, aiming at faithful accuracy and at a critical assessment of the information here received by comparing it with that offered by other sources."

Not just that. This most eminent of historians writes :

"The publication of Dr. Tasneem Ahmad's translation is a notable contribution to the National celebration of the 450th Anniversary of Akbar's birth. I feel confident that it would reinforce the interest in Akbar's age widespread among those who have a care for the long process of the creation of a composite culture and a unity that together constitute what is India."

Not just the needs of history, therefore, those of secularism, of unity based on a composite culture too fulfilled! Such fulsome commendation from the very eminent, Irfan Habib himself in his Foreword to the book. And don't miss the description of India -- just the composite culture and unity which it has taken a long process to create ! The unity of course being nothing but a manifestation of, and totally dependent on that composite culture! So, composite culture it is.

The compliments duly returned : "The first and foremost [sic.]," writes Tasneem Ahmad, "I express my profound sense of gratitude, very personal regards and respects to Professor Irfan Habib, who encouraged and guided me at every stage of the work. In spite of his very pressing engagements and pre-occupation, he ungrudgingly spared his valuable time to examine with care every intricate problem, arising out [sic.] during the course of work."

The debt to another of these eminences not forgotten either : "My debt to my revered teacher," writes Tasneem Ahmad, "Professor Satish Chandra is incalculable. He took great pains in reading and correcting the work and his considered suggestions have paid me rich dividend."

"Examining with care every problem arising out during the course of work"? Taking "great pains in reading and correcting the work"? Advancing "considered suggestions" which "pay rich dividend"? -- when the entire manuscript has been lifted word for word from the work of Dr Parmatma Saran?

It isn't just a part of that composite culture that a subaltern should execute such genuflections towards his patrons. It is plain prudence. By thanking them for their "guidance at every stage," for their "corrections" and "suggestions", the subaltern ensures that they too are culpable, and, therefore, to protect themselves if for no other reason, they will shield him!

The plagiarised book is appropriately dedicated : "To the memory of my revered Ustad," writes Tasneem Ahmad, "Professor S Nurul Hasan" -� a "scholar" famous for his unpublished writings, the initial master-mind who coordinated the capture of academic institutions by the progressives. How fitting -- that when it comes to dedicating something to such a person, the devotee should give as offering a stolen manuscript!

And what do we learn now?

"For some time an allegation has been made on one of the employees of the Council," begins a note prepared for the ICHR meeting held on 31st August and September 1st, "that a work entitled Tarikh-i-Akbari, translated by Professor Parmatma Saran under the scheme of the ICHR, was appropriated by the Deputy Director of a Medieval Unit [of the ICHR itself]." Because of the persistence of this allegation, and because of questions raised by members of Parliament, it goes on to say, the Chairman constituted a Fact-Finding Committee on 8 August, 1998 to get to the bottom of the matter.

The Committee consisted of Professor K S Lal, an authority on medieval India, Professor Harbans Mukhia of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Dr T R Sareen, former Director of the ICHR. It was asked to assess, inter alia, whether Dr. Parmatma Saran's manuscript had been received in the Council [you will recall that in one of their letters to me the Ministry of Human Resource Development had said that it did not seem that the manuscript had ever been received], and to ascertain whether the manuscript had been "in any form plagiarised by anybody, within or outside the Council."

The manuscript of 62 pages which, as I reported earlier, had been recovered in the almirahs of the ICHR was turned over to the Committee. Here are the Committee's findings on the questions :

"(1) On the strength of the published Annual Report of the ICHR for the year 1976-77 (p. 11), it is obvious that the translation of Tarikh-i-Akbari into English done by Professor Parmatma Saran was received in the Council. This is also confirmed by the report submitted by the Grants-in-Aid Unit of the Council dated 24.8.1995 when a preliminary enquiry was constituted to locate the manuscript. The fact(s) (are) that full payment of honorarium was made to the scholar (which in normal case is only done after the receipt of the completed manuscript), and the second project was granted to Professor P. Saran only after completion of the first project. This related to the translation of Mirat-ul-Istlab, which was assigned to Professor P. Saran in February, 1978. This also indirectly confirms the receipt of the earlier manuscript on Tarikh-i-Akbari. With this evidence, the Committee is led to believe that there is no reason to doubt the receipt of the manuscript Tarikh-i-Akbari by the Council.

(2) The Committee was provided with sixty odd pages of type-script of the translation of Tarikh-i-Akbari done by Professor P Saran. These pages were recovered from the file dealing with the translation assigned to Professor P Saran. These pages were compared with that published by one of the members of the ICHR, Shri Tasneem Ahmad, and the Committee found overwhelming similarity between Professor P Saran's translation and Shri Ahmad's book. The Committee felt that the similarity could not be accidental and the element of plagiarism cannot be ruled out."

How befitting : as tribute to the 450th anniversary of Akbar, to that "composite culture and unity that together constitute India" -- a plagiarised book!

And the finale : in his office at the ICHR Tasneem Ahmad has kept on display a photograph -- it shows him presenting the book to the then President of India, Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma! The touch of a master, that!

As the days proceed, more and more gems regarding the doings of these eminent historians keep tumbling out. The latest project I have learnt about can any day match the ones we have been considering in ambition -- and in non-achievement too. In addition, the records relating to it give us a glimpse of the entrepreneurial techniques of the eminences.

This particular project was started in 1987. It was to produce a Dictionary of Socio-Economic and Administrative Terms in Indian Inscriptions. The Dictionary was to be in nine volumes -- that is a key element in the technology : always propose many volumes ! The project was to completed in fifteen years -- another key element : who knows who will be around 15 years hence! Twenty lakhs of Rupees were to be taken for the project -- a third element : never be niggardly in demanding public funds!

Who were to be in charge? Our good friends. R S Sharma, a leading light of the Leftists, a former Chairman of the ICHR, later a leading advisor to the Sunni Wakf Board in its efforts to wrest the Babri Masjid site -- he graciously agreed to be the "General Editor". K. M. Shrimali, who has been very voluble on behalf of the Camp in the recent controversies, and K. V. Ramesh, with as much grace, agreed to be the "Main Editors". In addition an "Advisory Board" of another eleven eminences was constituted to oversee the project -- this is always a good device : thereby friends can meet at Government expense, and responsibility of the main suspects is always scattered.

Soon, the scope of the project was enlarged : Arabic, Persian and Urdu inscriptions too would be included. And soon this new part too was enlarged : farmans and the like in these languages would also be included, not just inscriptions. This too is always useful : enlarge the project every few months, the new items become the explanation for not having kept to the deadlines specified for the original proposal! And who would do this part of the project? Why, the most eminent of them all: "Responsibility for compiling the Arabic, Persian and Urdu inscriptions was accepted by Professor Irfan Habib on the request of the ICHR," the records state. How kind!

Everyone was to work in an "honorary capacity" -- but in the special sense in which these worthies use the term "honorary"! Each of the two "Main Editors", the "Editorial Committee" of the project decided in its meeting on 20th September, 1990, would be paid "an honorarium" of Rs 5000 for every four months. The General Editor too would be paid an honorarium of Rs 3000 for every four months. A very important rule that -- never take money, take honoraria! The Committee also decided, "Professor Shrimali may be allowed to purchase relevant books in connection with the work of the project if the books are not supplied to him by the ICHR within a reasonable time" -- a bit of honorariness which every scholar would lust after!

By 1994 there was a problem : there was little progress to record, though money was getting spent. The then Chairman, Ravinder Kumar [very eminent, the head of the Nehru Museum and Library etc.] convenes a meeting of what the record christens the "Consultative Committee". The solution? The Committee decides that a revised proposal be prepared ! Another sure-winner : months can be put to debating, drafting, redrafting, circulating, finalizing this, soon you can be arguing that the revised proposal contains elements which can be attended to only with an enhanced budget....

Better still -- prepare not a "revised proposal", prepare a "draft revised proposal". And that is what was done. A "draft revised proposal" was prepared, and, the record states, "handed over to the Chairman [Ravinder Kumar] for necessary action and approval."

Sunk without trace ! "It seems, that the draft proposal was not approved," states the review note prepared by the ICHR now, "and work was not taken up as per revised plan [sic.]."

A spat is always useful, specially one involving principle, personal honour, self-respect. And, happily, one erupted. At a meeting of the Research Projects Committee, someone -- perhaps Irfan Habib, I am not able to make out from the record -- raised an objection : a Committee "in which there was very substantial membership of those who were to be beneficiaries of such a decision" should not have decided about payments to be made to the editors etc., he objected. Arguments ensued, tempers rose. But even as it decided that this shall be a "firm policy for the future", the meeting decided that "each Main Editor, on completion of a particular volume with which he has been associated, be paid an honorarium of Rs 25000."

It noted that this decision was strictly in accordance with precedent ! "The Committee was prompted to this decision," the minutes record, "in the knowledge that in the 'Towards Freedom' project of the ICHR each volume Editor was to be paid Rs 25000 for his contribution." Unassailable logic : as editors were to get that amount under a project which was not getting anywhere, why not under another project which was not getting anywhere either?

That decided, through an innocuous sentence tagged on to the end of a paragraph, the minutes slipped in another opportunity : "It may be noted," the minutes noted, "that two or more Main Editors may be associated with the completion of each volume of the Dictionary project." From two "Main Editors" for nine volumes, to "two or more Main Editors" for each volume !

"As for the Chief Editor [a promotion that, he had till now been known as the 'General Editor'!]," the minutes recorded, "he should receive a sum of Rs 30000 on the publication of each volume."

R S Sharma, as befits his eminence as much as his Leftism, threw a fit -- always a useful thing to do a few years into a project : you can then allow yourself to be persuaded, and, when questions are raised later about nothing having been done, you can always claim that you in any case had not wanted any part of the project. "In view of the strictures passed on the 'beneficiaries' of the Dictionary project in the RPC [Research Projects Committee] meeting," he wrote to the Council, "I would not like to continue as Chief Editor. I neither asked for any 'benefice' / 'benefit' in any meeting or outside nor did I receive any remuneration for the work that I did for the project. As far as I can remember none of the Main Editors asked for any benefit or remuneration in any meeting of the Editorial Committee."

H R Deve Gowda, the then Prime Minister, and S R Bommai, the then Minister for Human Resource Development, selected the well-known art historian, Professor S Settar to be the Chairman of the ICHR. In a sense an outsider, he was duly alarmed at the state of such projects. He addressed letters to Sharma, Shrimali and Ramesh in March 1997 inquiring about the work they had done. Months went by, he could not nudge anyone concerned to get on with the work. He accordingly convened a meeting of R S Sharma and Irfan Habib on 29 September, 1997. He was asked to contact Shrimali and Ramesh again.

Ramesh now deployed the next weapon : ask for more ! Fools will always throw in good money after bad. He wrote back saying that for him to do the work, the Council should appoint three more scholars to assist him [so helpful was he that he specified the names of the three also!], that the Council provide him with a computer assistant, and also with rented accommodation! The Chairman wrote pointing out that already Rs 45000 had been paid to Ramesh, seven years had passed, and asked how much more time was required. Another year "may be required" if the terms he had proposed were met, Ramesh answered!

In despair, Settar turned to Irfan Habib and Sharma again and "appealed" to them to help out -- another tactic : subalterns block the pass; the only way the fellow can hope to proceed is by beseeching, and thereby getting in the debt of the principals! Sharma recalled that he had already dissociated himself from the project -- vide the "beneficiaries" spat. In any event, the two met Settar, and agreed to submit -- by now you should be able to guess -- a revised project each !

"The detailed note of the revised project promised by Professor Sharma has not been received so far," the ICHR was informed at its meeting on August 31-September 1. "Professor Irfan Habib has yet to send his detailed proposal which he promised to send on 10-3-98."

As more and more queries were coming about the project, R. S. Sharma wrote to the Chairman on 7 July, 1998 that "at present I and Shrimali are terribly busy with the editing of Comprehensive History of India, Vol. IV, print 2. I will consult Shrimali to find out whether he can spare some time for the project this year, though I am not hopeful. A meeting of Ramesh, Shrimali and other members of the editorial board should be helpful for completing the project as soon as possible." Notice the tone : far from being the one who shares a major part of the responsibility for the state of affairs, the person is offering to do a favour, to, against his better judgment, contact Shrimali and see if something can be done to help the Chairman out !

The result ? By now eleven years have passed. Rs 370,000 have been spent. Nothing but nothing has been published. Thousands of "cards" are said to have been compiled by specially hired "compilers" -- these remain in the personal custody of Shrimali and Ramesh. And the Chairman is under advice that to get the project going he has to convene a meeting of the very persons who have brought the project to this state -- with the caveat, of course, that the conditions specified by one of them must first be met, and that the other -- the TV star -- is "terribly busy" on some other project !

And, never forget, if the ICHR takes any step to bring them to account, if it takes any step to hand over the project to anyone else, it is doing so because these eminent historians are secular, and the Council is now set to saffronize history!

India Connect
September 9, 1998

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