The appointment of Professor Y Sudershan Rao as the chairman of Indian Council of historical Research has been an issue of media discussion. No other Chairman of the council, since its inception on 27 March 1972, has faced such scrutiny as has he. To understand Professor Rao’s view on the controversy surrounding his appointment, Prafulla Ketkar, Editor Organiser along with Assistant Editor Deepshikha Chauhan, spoke to him. Mr Rao not only shared his concern towards the way journalists are writing stories without doing enough research on their subjects, he candidly shared his views on the state of history research in India, his priorities and the role of history in nation-building.
Y Sudershan Rao’s profile
Professor Y Sudershan Rao retired from Kakatiya University after having held many important academic and administrative responsibilities as Professor and Head of the Department and also the Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences. A recipient of UGC National Fellowship award for two years, one among two selected by national level competition for working on ‘Understanding Indian History – Search for an alternative’, he has taught for over three decades in collegiate and university system.
- There are some voices in the academic community, especially in Delhi, who are saying that they don’t know you as an historian. What is the reality?
What they feel they must have a valid explanation and answer to. But before putting in writing and sharing such views with the public, I sincerely urge everybody around including the media to at least try to know a bit about me, about the people raking up such controversy, and judge me not by hearsay but through my work. If somebody is labeling me even without knowing me, then it is ridiculous. I may not be an ‘Eminent Historian’ like the people you are referring to, but I have been associated with the teaching and research of history for more than three decades. I have met many of these ‘Eminent Historians’ in conferences and seminars, and have been associated with various academic institutions and bodies. Yes, being from a state university, maybe I cannot be called a specialist historian. I did my initial research pertaining to early modern history, but the structure of the state university compelled me to deal with the vast panorama of ancient history to world history. So I don’t fit into the category of elite historians who can afford to specialize at micro level. In that sense I am a generalist. But history is the only passion I have adhered to.
- Do you think this generalist trait is a handicap in handling the ICHR affairs?
It’s the other way round. My experience in teaching almost all sub-disciplines of history has given me better understanding of the subject matter and research. The mandate of ICHR is to support and promote research in history; I know all the fields, the status of research in those fields. Therefore, I feel, a generalists rather than a micro-specialist is better suited to head institutions like ICHR.
- What are your priority areas as the chairman of ICHR? Are you going to completely change the course of history writing and research in India?
Frankly speaking, as far as writing history books are concerned, ICHR has a very limited or almost no role to play. Primary job of ICHR is to encourage historical research among students and teachers within the available budgetary provisions. From Junior Research Fellowship to Post-doctoral research, various research grants are provided by the council. So there is a policy in place for inviting research proposals, scrutinising them and then allocating grants. ICHR doesn’t dictate terms for the research topics or areas; our job is to assess the merit of the research. There is a council and there are committees to do that. If any policy changes are to be made in this then it is the council that will decide. So chairman alone can’t change the course of historical research in India.
When it comes to area of research, what ICHR can decide on is limited to the projects thecouncil can undertake. As a researcher, I sincerely feel that the focus of our research has been modern India in the last few decades. ICHR also undertook projects on freedom struggle, focusing mainly on British Period. But ICHR alone is not responsible for that. Most of the researchers seek grants in that area, even resources are amply available, so modern India is the focus. More importantly, our researchers are not equipped with undertaking research in medieval or ancient history as it requires language skills in Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit etc. Our university system has yet not focused on making it essential to learn these skills.
Non accessibility of primary sources for the grass root researchers is another problem. Most of the original sources pertaining to ancient or medieval history, or even modern history are available in New Delhi or in some foreign centres like London or Moscow.
I personally feel to make these available in digitalised format should be a priority for us. In fact, in proposed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with Japanese and a British association, I have insisted that instead of sponsoring scholars or organising seminars, they should provide them with training and resources so that historical research becomes easier for the scholars. Let us see how far we can take this forward as a council.
- But there is hue and cry about saffronisation and rewriting of history in liberal circles and media. You also said something on similar lines when you took over as the chairman in June?
As I said earlier, we are not in the history writing business, but as a researcher I honestly feel that Indian social science research in general and history research in particular is dominated by Western perspectives, in the name of liberal or left perspectives. Most of us see India through western prism- may be because under British rule we began considering and understanding Indian history from there point of view. Unfortunately, after independence we’ve continued with the same perspective. I am of the opinion, we should get training on methodology and academic rigour from the Western scholars but the perspective should be our own. And then every nation has a right to write its own history from its own perspective, with certain national objectives. I call this process as ‘Indianisation’. At best, you can call it a patriotic approach.
- What are those national objectives? According to you, what is the role of history in nation-building process?
This is a critical question. When I talk about Indian or Bhartiya perspective on history, I want to reinstate pertinent questions on historical research like what is history for, whose history and why we should study history. Do we want to limit history to the history of the victorious? Do we want to limit it to chronological orders and material facts? We need to think about.
History has a role to play. Yes, at one level it is an individual passion and quest to find about past events. But history has bigger role to play than all this. ‘Nation’ is again a so-called modern European concept.
For us, Rashtra always meant the cultural ethos. We as common Indians can have feeling of patriotism, belongingness and unity only when we are aware of our surroundings, our ancestors and their struggles.
History provides an important platform for encouraging ‘self-critical’ perspectives. It allows us to learn from past mistakes. I think, when future resources are available on digitalized format, more and more people will try to seek this perspective and real objectives of history. Only Indian perspectives on history can help us in realising who we are and what is our role in Rashtra. I am sure young researchers will seek this path of history research in coming days. n