Y Sudershan Rao, chairperson, Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), says colonial and Marxist historians have dominated history writing in India for long. He feels there is a need to "Indianise" history and, for that, our epics and itihasas including Ramayana and Mahabharata should be treated as historical sources. Rao tells ET that he does not need any certification from the likes of Romila Thapar. Excerpts:
The first event that you organized, the Abul Kalam Azad Memorial Lecture, saw frayed tempers with former VC of MG University, Kerala, Rajan Gurukkal, openly challenging keynote speaker Dr SN Balagangandhara...
Professor Balagandhara is a very well known philosopher and theoretician. I invited him to speak because he's neither Marxist nor Rightist in his approach. His question to Indian historians was that do Indians need a history or a past and whether historiographical methods can be applied to our Itihasas and Puranas. According to him, our history-writing is influenced by Christian theology. His ideas are ahead of his time. Gurukkal, who was the commentator at the memorial lecture, called him intellectually shallow. Perhaps he has not read any of Balagangadhar's works. Rajan just wasn't prepared to accept any criticism.
But many historians were unhappy you invited a philosopher to talk about history...
Is history the domain of only professional historians? Marx was not a historian. Was (DD) Kosambi a historian? But they wrote history and gave us tools of analysis and historiographical procedures. These disciplinary borders only exist in India. Nowhere else in the world would people ask you if you have a Masters in History before you, say, deliver a talk on Ashoka. Philosophy is one area where all sciences or social sciences ultimately merge. This is why we award a doctorate of philosophy in all subjects.
So does India, according to you, need a history or a past?
History writing in India is just about 300 years old and is not exactly reflective of our past. The first generation of history writers in India was European, the second generation was nationalist and the third generation in the post-Independence era was dominated by Marxists, who use European tools of analysis. The Europeans have not considered Puranas and Itihasas as historical sources and simply called them myths. If Rama's story is not true then how has he survived in the collective memory for so long? People do not care whether Ram is historical or not. He is truth for them. India's need is a special study of its past and the truth of its past cannot be denied. We need to Indianise our history writing.
You say Ramayana and Mahabharata are "truths", but we have many versions of both in our country. So what is the real truth?
I am not here to question the beliefs of people. The content of one Ramayana may be different from the other but the existence of Ram, Sita and Ravan is consistent. That's the truth. I might not know anything about my great great grandfather but I can't deny his existence for lack of evidence or how else would I be here? Similarly Rama's existence need not be proved by historical procedure. What benefit are you (historians) going to get if you deny the existence of Rama? Why do you want to try to prove he is not there?
History writing in India has always been a Left Vs Right debate. Will you try to change it?
ICHR is willing to debate all issues but historians participating should have a scientific temper. They should not get emotional. (Rajan) Gurukkal, for instance, was emotional in his comments and he wanted to condemn everything. Adi Shankaracharya and Mandana Misra once participated in a debate on Veda and Karma where the adjudicator was Misra's wife herself. She declared Shankaracharya as the winner knowing well that her husband would have to renounce the world and be Shankaracharya's disciple. That should be the scientific spirit.
RSS reiterates that India is a Hindu country. How would you define a Hindu?
Hinduism is a term that has been coined recently. In ancient literature, we called it Sanatan Dharma. We didn't have a name for our religion because we had none. Perhaps we didn't have any religion before Buddhism. It was after Buddha's death that books were written on Buddhism and it became a cult or religion. Hindu in ancient times was a name given to people who were living to the east of the Indus river up to Kanyakumari. Hindus were religious, nonreligious and irreligious. As a historian, I look at it that way.
Would you want to reopen the debate on whether Aryans were invaders/settlers or indigenous?
Aryans are called outsiders only by colonial and Marxist writers. We have evidence that points to indigenous origin of Aryans. Scholars in India have been aware of it, but are they (Marxist historians) ready to accept it? One needs a scientific spirit for that. Even if we organize a debate here in ICHR, will those people (Marxist historians) be part of the discussion? For instance, it's a known finding that the city of Dwarka exists under water. Inspite of recent archaeological evidences historians are still following colonial theories with regard to Hindu culture or Aryan debate.
What about suggestions that modern medical science was there in ancient India. For instance, Lord Ganesha and plastic surgery?
I don't think so. I think scientific concepts could have been there in ancient times but not actual examples of, say, plastic surgery.
Your appointment has is seen as a political decision. Historian Romila Thapar has said you haven't published in any peer reviewed journal.
That's her opinion.
But have these questions been posed to any other chairperson before?
Were these questions posed to Irfan Habib. He enjoyed two terms at ICHR. No media questioned him whether he was Marxist or with the Congress then. Romila Thapar is a historian and so am I. Do I need a certification from other historians to become the ICHR chairman? I have been appointed by the government and not a political party