Does history exist as objective truth? Or is it like malleable metal, a fickle landscape that morphs itself to suit what’s already in our head? Over the years, the Indian Council for Historical Research has often begged those questions. It has again invited scorn upon itself, with much aplomb, with the striking omission of Nehru from a series of images of the leading lights of the freedom struggle. Yes, it was just a digital poster for a lecture series commemorating the 75th year of Independence. The ICHR director now clarifies it was an unnecessary ‘controversy’, that more posters are on the way and India’s first PM would be accommodated ‘in the future’. So very reassuring, that.
The point here is, what is ICHR doing bringing out such tacky, controversial posters? As a department of the Ministry of Education, its role is to deepen research into the unlit corners of our history, in a nonpartisan manner. Poster-making and lecture series do not cut it, if the intent is to drop or prop up this icon or that, so as to realign popular understandings with one set of political beliefs or another. These are hardly unknown parts of history even if, of late, there have been revisionist efforts around Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, encouraging us to see ‘his role’ in a ‘new light’. The ICHR can steer historical research around him. A critical review of the Nehruvian era is also within its ambit. However, a nation in search of self-understanding cannot be spoon-fed pop cults—that is simply not worthy academic enterprise.
There are plenty of examples in the South Asian neighbourhood of what happens when a nation is not at peace with itself and its identity. India is yet to fully join that list. One reason for that is the solid institutional foundation Nehru built in the incipient days of the Republic. Taking a pick-axe to that foundation is not the job ICHR was created for