Author Chetan Bhagat stirred a debate by questioning the worth of historians' work. But much before his utterances, historians in India have been accused of pandering to leftist ideology at the cost of facts. We talk to Prof Rajiv Lochan of History department, Panjab University, on how politics affects history, what role Internet is playing in this debate and how the discipline can be rescued from bias.
Q. How has ideology impacted history in India?
Historians of India took it for granted that history is an ideological discipline whose job is to serve the State. Hence, one of the earliest things they did was to start talking from the point of view of the State. Many of these people say that history is a discipline intrinsically ideological in nature which is not true. History's discipline is ideological in nature in so far as any piece of knowledge is ideological in nature. But that does not necessarily mean that it ceases to be scientific. A historian faces a problem that there may be 5,000 facts, but he has to choose only 50 to narrate the story which becomes unscientific. Your story should be such that even if you choose only 50, it should reflect the reality of 5,000.
Q. Most of the historians in India are said to be aligned to the left. Do you think that's true?
No, that's not true. Some of them have been overtly aligned to the left, some of them have been overtly aligned to the right and majority of them have not been aligned anywhere. Those overtly aligned to the left like Romila Thapar have taken great care to ensure that their history does not necessarily serve only the political purpose. Their history is based on science. Irfan Habib's own practice of history is pretty scientific. However, when he theorises history in a manner he does, what happens is that large number of students of such historians end up doing that sort of nonsense history. As a consequence what has happened is that we simple don't have enough historians. The number of historians who write good history is even less. And that's something that needs to be rectified.
One of the major complaints that most of these historians have is that those who are challenging them on ideological grounds simply don't come up with facts. They just assert whatever they have read somewhere. You have to establish the text in its social context, in its time context. You can't just pick up a stray sentence from a text and viciously put it forward to create your own version of history. Unfortunately, the ideological challengers to people like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib have been more of this variety than those who pursue scientific method.
Watch the interview
You have to establish the text in its social context, in its time context. You can't just pick up a stray sentence from a text and viciously put it forward to create your own version of history.
Q. How has Internet affected the way we see history?
With Internet and social media, everyone has access to information which may or may not be accurate. You are free to assert that whatever you have read on Wikipedia or whatever has been submitted to you in an email or through a Facebook post is actually the truth. Many people use it to mislead others. One of the prime examples which exists is the circulation of speech of Thomas Babington Macaulay where he's talking about how British need to demolish India and its culture. It's completely fabricated. Macaulay was not talking about any such thing in the House of Commons. This is also an easily available information also on the Internet but those who want to create their own weird version of history are seldom interested in checking out facts.
Q. Is it possible for general public to access original sources which can help verify such claims?
Absolutely. The common people have access to languages. The good thing in India is that more than the historian, it's the common people who know multiple languages. Many of the original sources are now in public domain. Archival material is already available online. Digital Library of India provides access to large number of books. Similarly, the National Archives is a public archive. You can walk in and look at the document which is available for public viewing. Archives at state lvel are open. So if someone wants to do a rigorous check it is possible.
Many of the original sources are now in public domain. Archival material is already available online. Digital Library of India provides access to large number of books. Similarly, the National Archives is a public archive. You can walk in and look at the document which is available for public viewing.
Q Change in regime often leads to change in history textbooks as they always seem to be biased to the opposing party. How can we settle this debate?
I was involved in one such projects. I wrote the history textbooks of Rajasthan. That was when Congress party was in power. Those books were not changed when the BJP came to power because the books were done rigorously. We made serious efforts to understand what the people of Rajasthan wanted to know. We conducted seminars and sessions with people of Rajasthan, with schools teachers and the textbooks were written on the basis of this one -year long consultation. Those books were primarily drafted by the schools teachers of Rajasthan. You need to have an ideological commitment to the Constitution of India. The commitment can't be to Aurangzeb or Maharana Pratap. We also said that these books need to be revised but the revision has to be done through systematic analysis and collection of data.
We made serious efforts to understand what the people of Rajasthan wanted to know. We conducted seminars and sessions with people of Rajasthan, with schools teachers and the textbooks were written on the basis of this one -year long consultation. Those books were primarily drafted by the schools teachers of Rajasthan.
In fact, those were the first set of textbooks, which actually had a significant portion of a chapter on Maharana Pratap, simple because people of Rajasthan were familiar with Maharana Pratap, they wanted to know about him and the kind of heroism he was involved in. Now whether Maharana Pratap was heroic or not, that's for you to decide as a reader. As a historian I can tell you about various things he did. You please come to your own conclusion.
Q. What are the limitations in training of the historians and what they need to learn?
There are two-three things which historians need to take into account. First is historian's own procedure which is very simple. Collect your data, as much as you can. Also determine at the same time if the data is accurate. Whether the source is trying to mislead someone, what's the context from which information is coming, the time frame and what might be the objective of this information. Integrate this data into your argument as much as you can on the basis of certain integrative principles.
First is historian's own procedure which is very simple. Collect your data, as much as you can. Also determine at the same time if the data is accurate. Whether the source is trying to mislead someone, what's the context from which information is coming, the time frame and what might be the objective of this information.
Then historians can go their own way depending on the stream they pursue. They will have certain specific tools from that discipline. The kind of methods Max Weber suggested for sociology are something indispensable to historians. Another lacunae is training of historians in other sciences. They are simply not trained in statistical, sociological and psychological methods. All this training needs to be given to them.
Q Most of our history has been passed on through oral narratives. Is it difficult to verify such sources?
Not actually. You can always cross check the information form other kind of sources also. Let's take this whole thing of finding the Saraswati river. This particular stretch, which they are digging up in Haryana, has been identified through memories. These memories have also been embedded in gazetteers and talked about in Mughal times. So why historians keep saying that this research should not be done? This a part of narrative that has come to us, now let's investigate ir properly and see if this is true or not. Either way, the more systematic answer will come and there's no reason for the historians to presume that people won't be able to understand a reasonable answer.
Q. What is the future of history in India?
If we are thinking about people taking history classes and doing PhDs, then the future is very dark. However, if we are thinking of opening up the subject to the general public, involving the people at large, it's a very bright subject because Indians by nature are very interested in history. They are constantly talking about history, they are constantly fighting over history and they are constantly thinking about doing something in history. Important thing is to teach these people how to do this task scientifically. It's like crowd sourcing a subject. I run an Indian History page on Facebook and thousands of people come to us, ask us queries on historical subjects and we give them information. Such platforms are emerging all over and can be a starting point.