Wednesday, May 28, 2008

“The Left distorts” (Interview with Arun Shourie)

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: India Today
Date: November 23, 1998
Controversy and Arun Shourie are inseparable. He, has taken on
governments, politicians and corporate houses, championed
contentious causes and assumed the role of India's permanent
gadfly. After questioning the mythology centred on Babasaheb
Ambedkar and offending Dalit activists, Shourie has now targeted
Left historians. Eminent Historians: Their Technology, Their
Line, Their Fraud (ASA, Rs 350), released last week, is a
characteristically robust attack on India's history
establishment. He has accused it of shoddy scholarship, wilful
distortion and even milking the exchequer He spoke to Deputy
Editor Swapan Dasgupta on his latest battle. Extracts:
Q: Let me start with a question you accuse communists of
constantly asking. Why now?
A: It is what the Gita calls a war unasked for. We should never
shirk work that has been brought upon us. Some magazines
published reports that the BJP Government had changed the
resolution of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR)
by converting "rational" into "national". It was a concoction by
some CPI(M) members and I learnt from the ICHR staff that the
letter circulated to the newspapers was typed in the ICHR office.
A staff member told one of these so-called historians that it was
not true. He replied. "Who cares? Let it go." That was the
origin. And every newspaper just swallowed it. I contacted the
editors but none of them retracted the story. Even the story
carried by INDIA TODAY was about the eminent historians not
having accepted one penny as if there was a genuine other side to
Q: So you believe that in this controversy there is no other
A: Not yet. Not in the three limited matters which I have touched
upon in the book. Which are: the technology by which they acquire
these institutions and the uses to which they put it to; the
pickpocketing that they do; the complete and systematic
perversion of facts. I don't think there is another side.
Q: It's curious that it took a non-historian to question some of
these assumptions. Why hasn't this challenge come from within the
discipline of history?
A: There are too many establishments in India, the Indian
journalists service, the Indian intellectual service, the Indian
historians service. They capture institutions. There is a great
timidity in India in all intellectual circles. You want a
promotion in the history department, increase in research funds,
funds for travel, promotion, everything depends upon certificates
>from these persons. If you want to challenge the accepted
notions, you not only need a person who is outside the discipline
but one who is deaf to the reproaches of these persons.
Q: Your interventions in history have aroused claims and
counterclaims that you are waging a proxy. political war?
A: These are allegations. Have they found anything wrong with my
facts? When they quote a source, I look it up and I find it is
the opposite. Then they say that he did not look up the correct
one. Whatever they write is politics. So why are they so
surprised that an honest man may also write?
Q: Part of the problem in your view has been caused by shoddy
scholarship and shoddier journalism.
A: Yes. That, as well as slavish scholarship and journalism. One
and a half paras from Stalin's Short History of the CPSU(B). Just
look up any one the books of R.S. Sharma, Satish Chandra, Romila
Thapar or D. N. Jha. It is the slavish mentality, providing
examples that substantiate those one and half paras on
periodisation. Even the Soviet historians have liberated
themselves from those categories. We got stuck in the categories
of the 1920s and 1930s.
Q: But you haven't stopped at mere intellectual slavishness. You
have actually accused these "eminent historians” of milking the
A: Yes. It is a pitiable milking by current standards-all for
just Rs 12,000 or Rs 6.5 lakh. But it is a gross misuse of
authority and position. If the NBT or NCERT send a proposal that
R.C. Majumdar's edited Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan series on the
history of India should be translated into Indian languages,
these people would pass a resolution saying that it was not worth
translating into any Indian language. And lo and behold-they will
recommend their own works or that of EMS (Namboodiripad), the
great historian.
The deputy director of ICHR gives a project to Dr Paramatma
Saran, one of the great medievalists in India. He translates and
sends it to ICHR. After his death, the deputy director takes that
manuscript and gets a PhD for himself from Rajasthan University
without changing anything and publishes the book dedicated to
Nurul Hasan and thanking Irfan Habib who wrote a laudatory
foreword to it. In his office there is a picture of him
presenting his book to the then President Shankar Dayal Sharma,
another great scholar. So it's not just milking the state.
Some people in ICHR have told me that well known sociologist A.R.
Desai had been given a project to compile the history of the
trade union movement in India in 15 volumes. He completed the
task before he died. Then it mysteriously disappeared. The
current ICHR chairman has succeeded in tracing these manuscripts
inspite of non-cooperation. By doing so, he has deprived 15
people of their mock PhDs.
Q: None of these details have been seriously contested. But your
detractors sail they will not give you the pleasure of a de
defamation suit because you are beneath contempt?
A: Why aren't they replying through the newspapers. They are
always issuing statements, these six eminent historians, 10
leading intellectuals. They put on lofty airs because they have
no answers.
Q: How should people, governments and public spirited individuals
approach the question of teaching history in schools?
A: I feel that each time their books are recommended, mine should
be too. The students should see what great perversity they are
being made to swallow. There is no sufficient professional
scrutiny, no professional discourse on what has been published.
The same thing gets repeated. Nobody goes back to the sources.
Also, it is a bad idea for governments to get into the business
of preparing textbooks just as it is a bad idea to have
institutions like ICHR. It only leads to the patronage of
intellectuals. This is the bad legacy of Indian socialism.
Q: Will the book be of assistance to the BJP governments which
have also been accused of doctoring history?
A: Firstly I do not know what changes have been brought about by
them. I have asked them (Left historians) to show me those
textbooks which they think have been changed. But they haven't.
It can't be that you set one standard and any departure from that
stand is communal. The cure is that if someone perverts the next
set of history text books then they should also be subjected to
professional scrutiny
Q: Has the spirit of inquiry completely gone out of Indian
A: Yes, I think so. By and large our work is very derivative in
most subjects. I find this in the case of many subjects. In
history it is slavishness to the verbiage of the 1920s and 1930s.
There is a lack of creativity even in activist movements in
India. When an issue became prominent in the West, five years
later you'll see it prominent in India like feminism, human
rights, big dams, child labour and child prostitution. We are so
blind that someone has to yank our eyelids open for us. I am
considered disreputable if I depart from the standards of
political correctness set by the establishment.
Q: Why does it fall on you to yank open the eyelids, whether it
is on Ambedkar, Ayodhya or ICHR?
A: First. I'm deaf, and secondly, I'm shameless. I am not looking
for a job and find it quite easy to survive without a job. Of
course, they will say he is not a historian, that it is part of a
political agenda. It starts with allegations and smear and will
not stop till they say facts are not as important as social
revolution. It doesn't affect me. I hope readers will see through

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