Historians making the front page...

October 22, 2004

... is not always good news, Maria Misra discovered on a recent visit to India.

I will watch at least some of David Starkey's new 20-part series on the British monarchy with interest, even though it's not quite my kind of history. As an academic who has put her toe into TV history, I think the more history on TV the better, and Starkey certainly produces a polished and entertaining product. Even so, I prefer my history slightly more edgy and polemical and, though monarchy does have an argument, it looks much like the old Whiggish celebration of English liberties flowering in the venerable soil of ancient institutions. While some academics will doubtless quibble, this will not be the stuff of front-page controversy.

However, my desire for historians to be in the thick of contemporary politics has been somewhat dented after a recent trip to India. There, the role of the public intellectual, and the media historian in particular, could not be more different than it is here. India's TV networks are not awash in history and its historians, outstanding though many of them are, do not command the fees of a Starkey. Recently, however, they have acquired a profile that British academics can only dream of, though the reasons for their prominence are more the stuff of nightmares.

In the past five years, several leading historians have been the targets of an ideological campaign by the recently defeated nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party Government. Oddly, given that administration's preoccupations with making India an Asian superpower, cosying up to the US and Israel and nuclearising its defence capability, it still found time to harass humble historians.

The BJP's project was to redefine Indian national identity as non-Islamic, exclusive and Hindu. Since 1998, it had ordered the pulping and rewriting of history textbooks for schools, systematically "cleansed" all educational and research bodies of historians with supposedly leftwing leanings, among them Romila Thapar, India's most distinguished ancient historian.

Meanwhile, respectable research querying the notion of the "Aryan" origins of high-caste Hindus and suggestions that cow-worshipping Hindus may once have been beef-eaters were pilloried. Most dangerously, determined efforts were made to politicise Indian archaeology to justify the destruction of several early modern Muslim monuments.

One consequence of this "Hinduisation" of history has been that many Indian academics found themselves thrust into the media spotlight to defend Indian secular and intellectual values against a concerted political assault.

Several senior academic historians have become household names, trenchantly defending their research in the press and, in some cases, paying for it with their jobs.

Earlier this year, the BJP Government suffered a shock electoral defeat, and India is now governed by a broadly left-leaning coalition led by the Congress Party. Efforts are being made to repair the damage, school history textbooks are being "rerewritten" and the "Towards Freedom" research project, which the BJP had suspended, has been restarted under the auspices of respected professional historians. There is a palpable air of relief among Delhi academics that they can shake off their unsought role as media intellectuals. It now seems that history in India may be able to retreat from the front pages to the academic journals and departmental common rooms.

The experience has lessons, perhaps, for those of us who wish media history could be more "relevant" and academics more prominent. Perhaps history, so potentially explosive in these times of nationalist revival worldwide, is better packaged in less controversial forms. When India has its own David Starkeys, it will truly have transcended its communal and religious demons.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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