Eyewitness

April 14, 2000

India's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party government is accused by its critics of rewriting history and of trying to take control of state-funded academic institutions to push through a "jingoistic" agenda.

Pro-BJP academics have been appointed to key research bodies such as the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the National Council of Educational Research and Training, while changes in school curricula place more emphasis on "nationalism".

The media hailed a "big fight" between secular historiography and the Hindutva school, which equates Hindu nationalism with Indian nationalism, as distinct from pluralistic Indian nation- alism.

For many critics, the last straw was the decision by the BJP-dominated ICHR to suspend publication of two books by historians Sumit Sarkar and K. N. Panikkar on the grounds that they "over-emphasise" the role of the left in India's freedom struggle. The books are part of the ICHR's ten-volume Towards Freedom project, which counters the view that independence came from a voluntary transfer of power rather than a struggle for freedom.

Professor Sarkar said: "The problem is that for all their claim to nationalism, the Hindu fundamentalist bodies such as the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, from which the BJP has descended, did not play any role in the freedom struggle. But now that the BJP is in power, they want to write themselves into history."

The BJP says that for 50 years the country was fed a Marxist interpretation of history. The government of Atal Behari Vajpayee says it is simply correcting the "bias".

The secular camp has many well-known historians, including Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Mushirul Hasan, R. S. Sharma and S. Gopal, general editor of the Freedom project. But the Hindutva school reflects the virtual absence of serious right-wing scholarship resulting from nearly 50 years of liberal western influence.

State patronage for secular scholarship lent public legitimacy, but the BJP has been trying to replace this outlook with its own ideas since it took power in 1998. However, its incompatibility with today's world makes their supremacy unlikely.

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