Partha Chatterjee is an acclaimed academic and professor at Columbia University, New York. Speaking with Srijan Mitra, Chatterjee discussed the ICHR chair’s recent remarks on ‘secular’ historians, history versus general knowledge — and why, despite tangy controversies, studying history is so unexciting in India:
ICHR’s new chair feels ‘secular historians’ swayed public opinion ‘towards the Muslim community’ during the Babri mosque debate — what is your take?
The comment assumes there were two sides to the Babri masjid dispute — the Muslim community and the Hindu community. That is hardly the case.
There was a legal dispute in court — but there was a much wider debate in the public sphere about the significance of history, monuments, events and narratives. Most historians i know participated in that debate, which was not about Hindu and Muslim communities, but the historical making of the country we now call India.
Were opposing voices termed ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ without fair discussion?
All sides in the debate spoke and wrote extensively. Their views were well known and are available to anyone interested in the subject.
Given the politicisation of bodies like ICHR, what is their relevance?
There’s no reason why a body like ICHR should become politically controversial. It’s unfortunate that is the case in India.
For this, right-wing Hindu nationalists are not the only ones to blame.
Doesn’t such politicisation make history more abstract to citizens’ lives?
The debate over secular history is not particularly abstract. In fact, there are complex technical matters that have never been discussed in public debates since they require a great deal of technical knowledge.
In some ways, this has meant public debates have been carried out in rather simplistic terms.
This was shown glaringly in the court hearings on the Ayodhya dispute when historians and archaeologists were called to testify — they were questioned in court in a way expert witnesses would never have been questioned in, let’s say, forensic matters in a criminal case.
That’s because there is an assumption that history is a matter of general knowledge open to all, that it does not require much specialised training.
Despite having produced some of the world’s finest historians, studying history remains unexciting in India. Why?
The first problem is history textbooks are so badly written. Good historians who write well are rarely asked to write school textbooks.
The second reason is there’s so much sensitivity over the contents of history textbooks that every school board tries to avoid a treatment that’s out of the ordinary — as a result, what comes out is a bland, unexciting recounting of names and dates that students are asked to memorise.
I still remember most of what i read in school about European history because we read a series published in Britain.
I don’t remember any Indian history books from my school days.
Is a saffronisation of history textbooks likely?
One hopes it would not happen — but there are forces within BJP which will keep pressing for it.
Your research on Calcutta’s Black Hole was path-breaking — but isn’t economics like Thomas Piketty’s now dominating the argumentative space his-tory once held?
There are many brilliantly written history books published across the world, widely discussed by the general public.
Unfortunately, Indian history has not been served well by good researchers — who are also good writers.
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