The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) sticks out like a sore thumb among comparable institutions dedicated to pursuit of knowledge about the past. It was conceived in an era when India's leaders looked up to the Soviet Union as a model for development. Therefore, it necessarily had to be a sort of langar for doling out sops to individuals drunk on the brew of Marxist-Leninism. It had all the vices that caused the downfall of the Soviet Union - malevolence towards dissent, corruption, nepotism and bureaucracy. So, at the turn of the 20th Century, when a non-Congress government decided to introduce some long-overdue reforms, one touch was all that was necessary to make it collapse in a heap. ICHR was not only a colossal failure as an academic institution, it was, like every relic of Sovietism, rotten to the core.
In a way, ICHR was born in sin - a product of the Congress' secret relationship with the Communists. The minister of state for Education in the Indira Gandhi regime, S Nurul Hasan, was a historian from the Aligarh school which was infamous as the manufactory of pinko history. Keen to expand his influence in the murky world of Left scholarship, he decided to use tax- payers' money to buy personal glory. In the name of sponsoring "scientific" inquiry into India's past ICHR began to consolidate on a national scale the already distinct Leftist bias which had crept into the postures of a few universities like Delhi, JNU, AMU and Calcutta. Yet, Hasan acquired Parliament's sanction for his disingenuous scheme by promising, in his reply to the debate on the Bill which paved the way for ICHR's founding in March 1972, that the proposed council would be "free of bias and isms". But over the years the opposite was practiced. Not one of its lofty objectives, articulated in grand projects like Towards Freedom, source books on Indian history, Economic History, translation of valuable manuscripts, etc. have been implemented. Yet millions of rupees have disappeared into the black hole of socialism and not one of the guilty has ever had to account for fraud. On June 24, 1998, The Asian Age, never a friend of the BJP when it was in power, aptly described ICHR as an "expensive joke" on the nation.
In order to understand the true depth of this scam, we need to observe the organisational lapses which caused it. That will lead us on to the mysterious research projects commissioned by ICHR and the millions that were sunk in them.
ICHR's Memorandum of Association envisages a honorary chairman who was to be above petty academic politics and the humdrum of administration. The chairman was supposed to be a benign face of India's history scholarship. The post of a member-secretary was created to administer it on a day-to-day basis. But, right from its inception, the machinations of the coterie of Leftists, or "friends of Nurul Hasan", ensured that rules and regulations were only for the birds. Up to 1991 there was no effort to appoint a member-secretary on a regular basis. The chairman ran ICHR like his personal fiefdom. Far from being inclusive figures, the chairmen appointed by successive regimes up to 1998 were self-obsessed figures who thrived on the incestuous relationship between Left academia and pseudo-secular polity. In fact, under Irfan Habib, the ICHR's headquarters doubled up as the Delhi outpost of the Babri Masjid Action Committee.
Habib was part of the gangster tradition which marked the intellectual shops India imported from the former USSR. Anybody who disagreed with the self-proclaimed "rational" and "secular" yardsticks of understanding Indian history was humiliated, banished to oblivion and condemned to wallow in obscure colleges. Only those research proposals which fitted the Marxist bill were entertained. In fact, this culture also dominated the administration of ICHR. The ICHR Council, which was envisaged as the supreme policy making body, was peopled with hand-picked cronies who never raised uncomfortable questions about the manner in which public money was looted in the name of compiling the Towards Freedom and other volumes. Year after year, CAG reports were pointing out that something was very wrong with ICHR, yet nobody in the rubber-stamp council ever blew the whistle. What was most strange was the tacit understanding which existed between the HRD ministry officials and ICHR chairmen. It was not before 2003 that a ICHR chairman, MGS Narayanan, was probed for his spend-thrift lifestyle and dubious dealings. But what about the Rs 2 crore lost in the Towards Freedom project which, despite all the bang and fire, could produce just one of the eleven promised volumes in three decades? Why was the Economic History project allowed to go to seed? Why was the Dictionary of Inscriptions project abandoned? Where have most of the over-500 original manuscripts submitted for translation disappeared?
"The way in which ICHR is proceeding, not only the projects but also the organisation will be doomed". Who said these famous words in a meeting of the Council in 1974? Murli Manohar Joshi? No. Barun De. Its another matter that De descended to the crudest levels of yes-manship by 2004 when, under Arjun Singh's orders, he gave a command performance on the "experts committee" formed to vet the NCERT texts published in 2002. But it is significant that even on its second year, it was apparent to even the fastest friends of Nurul Hasan that ICHR was proceeding towards infamy. Actually, ICHR's arrogant denizens bit off more than what they could chew. Conceiving and implementing original projects was hardly its mandate. Yet, in utter disregard to its own incompetence, it took upon grandiose projects which the coterie was ill-equipped to handle. The culture of sacrificing talent for mediocrity, a typical Soviet malaise, afflicted it deeply.
So, it was natural to see more than 80 per cent of the fellowships handed out to handpicked scholars produce one big, collective zero. More than 4,000 projects were in various stages of abandonment by 1998. Beyond the usual card-holders and toadies, many of the beneficiaries of these sumptuous grants were found to be wives, children and other relatives of HRD ministry officials who winked at the overall loot. Scraps were also thrown at some friendly newshounds who opted not to bark while the scandal was played out over 26 years.
Now, the D Bandopadhyay Committeeappointed by the UPA government has once again recommended wholesale loot in the name of reviving Towards Freedom and other projects. Who recalls today the heady debates in Parliament in the late 1960s which provided the original stimulus to this project. It was supposed to be India's riposte to the British government's act of publishing the "Transfer of Power" volumes. The conceit and arrogance conveyed by that term was enough to shake the tall political leaders of India at the time into deciding to assert that India's independence was hard-won and not gifted on a platter. But what has ICHR done with that lofty vision? It has, one, stripped Towards Freedom of its sacred core by converting it into a gravy train for ideological bedfellows (some very "eminent" scholars gifted themselves lakhs of rupees but didn't produce a single line in all of 26 years). Two, in typical communist fashion, they back-projected today's political disputes to the 1930s and 40s and began to target the Hindu Mahasabha here and Veer Savarkar there, all for scoring brownie points.
The irony that rings the self-righteousness of the scholars who protested the justified scrapping of Towards Freedom is that most of them are either full-timers or speech writers of the communist parties. And can one ever forget the infamous CPI slogan of 1947: Yeh azadi jhootha hai? The past and the present have truly merged. Today's ICHR is out to prove that Dange, Joshi and Ranadive were not wrong after all.
Today, every lowly act in public life is justified in the name of "secularism". So, nobody would be surprised to see ICHR plunge into further depression. It is too late in the day to save it. If it has to be saved, then, much like the Communist Party of Great Britain which was the fountainhead of Indian communism, ICHR has to declare itself "dissolved". We can think of an alternative afterwards, much afterwards.
(The author is a historian and former ICHR Council member)