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Address at the 66th Session of the Indian History Congress, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, 28 January 2006.


Hon’ble Ministers, The Respected Vice Chancellor of Visva Bharati, Respected President, President-elect and other office-bearers and members of the Indian History Congress, Distinguished Historians, Ladies and Gentleman:

I deem it a great honour to have the opportunity to associate myself with the 66th Session of the Indian History Congress being held at Santiniketan, the fountainhead of great ideas and creativity, immortalised by the life and work of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. All through its seven decades of existence, great historians of Bengal, like Susobhan Sarkar, Niharranjan Ray, Radha Kumud Mookerji, Surendra Nath Sen, and R. C. Majumdar, and, of course, your outgoing President, Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, among others, side by side with their peers from different regions of India, like R. S. Sharma, Sarvepalli Gopal, Mohammad Habib, Tarachand, Sir Shafaat Ahmad Khan, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra – to mention only a few – have provided dynamic leadership to the History Congress. They all rose above provincialism and narrow sectarianism, and strongly resisted non-scientific intrusions into the contours of historical research, and, in the process, contributed significantly to the enhancement of the quality of intellectual life in our country. It is befitting that the History Congress has met today in the University founded by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who not only developed the idea of the Indian civilization as a composite culture (Shaka, Hun dal Pathan, Mughal ek dehe holo leen…), but also held high the flag of freedom of thought (Chitta jetha bhay-shunya, uccha jetha shir….).

Gurudev was not only a great visionary but also a philosopher of history. He was profoundly original in his writing and his poems are testimony to his versatility and brilliance. Gurudev wanted to see India independent while at the same time, he wanted India not to close its doors to learn from the history, accomplishments and experiences of other countries. The great humanist that he was, Gurudev wrote and worked for freeing the human mind from the bondage of stifling traditionalism. He believed in critical scrutiny and was averse to anything that failed to stand the test of reason and logic.

Perhaps the greatness of Gurudev as a philosopher of history lies in the fact that he provided one of the finest examples of being concerned with the past, while remaining extremely sensitive to the present.

What is noticeable is that his secular outlook and approach characterize all his historical writings. His secular approach does not, of course, mean rejection of religion per se but at the same time he is truly secular because of his innate conviction in the unlimited and positive creative powers in Man. He has been a great advocate against all fetters; he opposed any boundary that limited or confined man. He understood and appreciated the contributions of great civilizations of his past and of his times.

The lofty and luminous legacy of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore can be felt by any one who visits Santiniketan. In his own words, Visva-Bharati was ‘the cargo of my life’. Gurudev put a great deal of emphasis on self-motivation and not on imposed discipline and tried to foster intellectual curiosity in the minds of the students. Later, in 1921, Visva-Bharati came into existence as a University and soon emerged as a premier academic institution of our country. No wonder, one can see in the list of alumni of Visva Bharati names of many outstanding women and men who have strengthened our national fabric in various ways. Incidentally, a portrait of the Gurudev adorns the Central Hall of Parliament House, among those of the other great sons and daughters of India, as a mark of the nation’s gratitude for his many-splendoured contributions. Only recently, Gurudev’s statue was unveiled in the new Parliament Library Complex as a tribute to the great creative genius.

If I may say so, it is quite appropriate that the historians assembled here will discuss and debate Tagore’s Vision and the 21st Century during this Congress.

History, as I understand, is basically the study of what happened in the past and the study proceeds and progresses through interpretation of data and facts available to the historians. It is essential that we try to understand the past in its proper context and perspective, as part of a web of interrelated institutions, values and beliefs that define a particular culture or era. The historians’ duty, I believe, is not only to explain historical events in terms of how and why change takes place within societies and cultures, but also to objectively and logically account for the continuation of tradition, understand the link between continuity and change, and explain the origin, evolution and decline of ideas, cultures and institutions. It is in this endeavour that historians have to guard against the tendency and temptation to confuse faith with history and mythology with science.

The question that needs to be addressed with regard to the discipline of History is; what indeed is the purpose of investigating the events of the past ? Is History all about invasions, wars, famines and the so-called clash of civilizations and about the lives and times of Kings and Queens ? What is the place of ordinary people in historical research ? Is there an end to history?

If we accept the proposition that in order to uplift the condition of the masses, change is necessary and conscious efforts have to be made to bring about appropriate and positive changes, then knowledge of the past is an essential prerequisite for those who set out to accomplish the task. As is rightly observed, you can ignore your past only at the risk of your own peril and if you do not learn the right lessons from history, the greatest risk is that you will end up repeating the mistakes of history.

The task of the historian is difficult because he has to exercise his intellectual acumen to diagnose from among the roots of the past, traits which are healthy and those which are harmful. This means a historian who is concerned with the past has to be, like Gurudev Tagore, equally, if not more, concerned with and sensitive to the present. As has been observed 'History is our analysis of the past in order that we may understand the present and guide our conduct in future.'

The colonial approach to Indian history was prejudiced and blinkered and was centred around degradation and vilification of Indian civilization and culture and questioned India’s ability to govern itself. Historians with a colonial mindset, like their apologists in our contemporary times, not only projected Hindus and Muslims as permanent adversaries, but also questioned the basis on which India as a nation-state existed. This one-sided and negative view of history could be pushed aside with the National Movement for freedom gaining momentum in our country. Soon, there emerged a nationalist view of Indian history which forcefully countered this derogatory and misleading colonial approach to Indian history. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad were in the forefront of the nationalist view, forcefully empahsising the pluralistic and secular nature of Indian civilization, rooted in the notion of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, that recognised the need for and provided space to every section of the society to live, work and prosper. Today, when the sanctity of the discipline is being threatened by a divisive interpretation of history based on religion, which explicitly renounces the ideal of plural and syncretic culture and a secular vision of national unity, it is vitally important to recall that heritage, the unifying vision of history, provided by those great minds of India. It is, therefore, essential for the historians to be always on the guard against the use of political power to settle debated questions of history.

The importance of objectivity in historical research can never be overlooked. Understanding history warrants strict adherence to accepted methods of enquiry, rigorously studying evidence, using sophisticated tools of research, in which method and application of the established theories have a lot of significance. A historian has to bring to the fore the rational and logical facet of events and individuals. All the past practices need to be tested according to the standards set by the modern society and must justify their relevance to continue to be in existence. It is here that historians have a vital role to play. Historians who are justifiably concerned about the developments in the past, have to be equally sensitive to the events taking place in and around them in the present. No matter, whatever be the content and contour of the Hindu-Muslims ties during the medieval period or during the colonial period, we cannot see that relationship now in terms of a confrontationist role. All religions have flourished in India and they continue to do so. The adoption of one of Tagore’s poems by Bangladesh as its national anthem must be baffling to many of those who visualise Hindu–Muslim relations as inherently antagonistic. Many people tend to forget that it is poverty, and not religion, that causes discontentment and antagonism in a diverse society. We must keep these aspects in mind while writing history for posterity or teaching history to our students.

People – their life, interests and the impact they made on their times should occupy the central place in historical enquiry and their interests and concerns should become the focus of political discourse. It is encouraging to note that, in the context of our democratic society, where everybody, irrespective of his or her caste, religion or gender, is guaranteed certain fundamental rights, more and more historians are beginning to look into those components of society which were earlier beyond their study. Attempt to learn the histories of the underprivileged and the ethnic and the religious minorities as also women, children, workers, farmers, etc. – those sections of our society which were otherwise said to be without any history – deserve to be complimented. We need more and more ‘integral historians’ to borrow an expression from Gramsci, to understand the social processes in their entirety. This reorienting of history around the masses is what is necessary to achieve, what Tagore called ‘the triumph of the insulted man’.

Democratic institutions in India have taken deep roots and what is now required is to refine these institutions in the light of our experience in the last nearly six decades. In our scheme of things, the Parliament occupies a pivotal position as the supreme legislative institution of the country. Over the last five decades and more, drawing on the wisdom of the Constitution, our Parliament has sought to be a beacon for the governance of the country. In spite of various imperfections, our elected representatives in the national Legislature have consistently striven to fine-tune our governance structure. I agree that we need to do a lot more to achieve the ideals that we have enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution.

Our Parliament embodies the spirit of our history and symbolises the aspirations of our people. That being so, the history of our Parliament will be an important chapter in modern Indian history. I will only request our historians to properly record the history of Parliament - so that the succeeding generations get the correct picture of what Parliament has done or achieved as the highest Legislative Body in the country.

Cautioning us of the dangers of mythology taking over knowledge, celebrated Historian, Eric Hobsbawm observed, I quote: ' The curious fact is that as we move in to the 21st century, historians have become central to politics. We historians are the monopoly suppliers of the past. The only way to modify the past that does not sooner or later go through historians is by destroying the past.' To this I would add, distorting the past also. It is against this danger that professional historians have to be ever vigilant. History is too serious a subject for a nation, to be allowed to be manipulated to suit the political purposes of any group of persons. History Congress has always resisted threats to historical scholarship and national unity and warned against the use of political power to debase history to suit the hidden agenda of any political formation.

It is, therefore, essential that we understand history in the right perspective so that we, as nations and peoples, can benefit from the experience of the past by learning the right lessons from it which will help us in moving forward as world citizens of the 21st century. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore prophetically wrote: ' There is only one history – the history of Man. All national histories are chapters in the larger one.' The human being is the truth in the centrality of all historical writings. Historians can never overlook this cardinal principle while writing for posterity.

I understand that eminent historians will be presenting several papers dealing with various sections of Indian History like the ancient, medieval and the modern period. I am sure the discussions will be meaningful and will further enrich History as an important academic discipline.

With these words, I thank the organisers for giving me an opportunity to share my views with this distinguished body of historians and I wish the Conference here a glorious success.

Thank you.

 

 

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