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Contestation of History Evokes More Interest Among Readers: Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee

In a freewheeling interview with Saket Suman, Prof. Mukherjee talks about his new book that blends state-of-the-art pictures and maps with a text of rigorous scholarship while also responding to some pertinent questions on history as a discipline

2 March, 2023 | 4m read

The study of history will always be significant because unless we know about the past we cannot understand the present, says Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, who has co-authored A New History of India along with Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair. 

“These are not discontinuous entities. The past and the present and the future are part of one flow,” explains Prof. Mukherjee, who has taught History at the University of Calcutta and held visiting appointments at Princeton University, the University of Manchester and the University of California, Santa Cruz and was the founding Vice-Chancellor of Ashoka University.

Prof. Mukherjee, however, does not believe that there is or there can be only one narrative of or about the past. He points out that there may be several ways of looking at the events of the past and the people studying it may come from different backgrounds and possess varying socio-political outlooks.

“I believe history has to be revisited. There will be different versions of the past which will be contested and argued and debated. What’s wrong with that? Just because some people do not like a particular ideology and proponents of that ideology are trying to write history, should we condemn the whole rewriting of history? Some other people are rewriting history. Multiple sides are doing it. What’s wrong with it,” he asks, before pointing out that we are living in a very creative phase where the writing of history has become multi-faceted and some talented historians, regardless of their backgrounds, are increasingly venturing into the field.

He points out that the contestation and revisiting of history evoke more interest among readers because the general view is that the past is dead and inert.

“Debates show that the past is not dead and inert but the past is actually alive and you can debate it. Contestation of history allows you to interrogate it in a different way and that allows different historians to revisit our past in different ways,” adds Prof. Mukherjee, who was also the Editor of the Editorial Pages of The Telegraph.

But then, we often come across allegations and accusations that seem to convey that propaganda and misinformation are seeping into the discipline.

“Some people are fighting back. So, there is a campaign against misinformation, particularly misinformation through the internet and social media. People are fighting against that. Historians need to stand up and say that this is not fact. Not just historians, I think politicians need to stand up, political scientists need to stand up, economists need to stand up. Ordinary citizens need to stand up and say that this is a misrepresentation, this is not a fact,” he added.

But there’s more than meets the eye here, particularly for youngsters who may believe that it is for the first time that such a thing is happening.

Chancellor Mukherjee contests: “Nobody objected when there was state patronage to a certain kind of historians in the 1970s. Why was the Indian Council for Historical Research created to give patronage to a certain kind of historical writing?  And that is not just restricted to India. That has been the case not just in India but also in countries like the (erstwhile) Soviet Union and China where the state actually promotes a particular version of the past. There is no British Council of Historical Research or the United States Council of Historical Research or the French Council of Historical Research. The historians in those countries practice their own craft without state patronage. Why should the state get involved in the writing of history? It is not the state’s business to interfere with the writing of the past, it should be left to the historians.”

As a professor of History, an important revelation for Prof. Mukherjee is that youngsters don’t read enough these days. He laments that this is a drastic change from the past and recalls that in the 1970s youngsters were much more interested in reading about the past than what students of today read. While he agrees that the rise of digital media has contributed to this decline, he does not blame it solely on technology. He contended that that’s just one of the factors and maintained that there has been a “shrinkage” of the reading space.

But that does not mean the interest in History as a discipline has dwindled over the years. Instead, the interest is very much alive but there are also challenges. Prof. Mukherjee, who was awarded a D.Phil in Modern History by the University of Oxford in 1981, maintained that the young scholars of today are not shying away from historical research and said that there are plenty of young scholars doing their work.

And, what are the challenges that historians have to withstand?

Prof. Mukherjee is quick to interject that these challenges that historians and students of history face are not new, historians have always faced challenges. And that’s not a phenomenon that is limited to our time or our country.

“Some of the major challenges are access to archives and preservation of documents. We have no processes of properly preserving archival documents, the archives are in a terrible state and no government has looked into this problem to ensure that the records are properly kept. The Indian government does not follow the international rule that after thirty years all government records should be accessible to the public. I have reasons to believe that some documents have even been destroyed. These are not new challenges, historians have always been facing them. I don’t think the atmosphere in India, not just now but also over the past 30-40 years have been particularly conducive for historical research. I don’t understand why to look at post-1947 papers of the first prime minister of India, I need special permission. Why should I need permission? It’s nobody’s private property,” quipped Prof. Mukherjee.

Chancellor Mukherjee’s new book A New History of India covers all the major landmarks of Indian history from prehistoric times up to the twenty-first century. It is published by Aleph Book Company and is now available at all major bookstores as well as e-commerce platforms.

The book has been written along with cultural historian Shobita Punja and photographer-archivist Toby Sinclair.  A New History of India brings the story of one of the oldest, most complex countries on earth to vivid life by blending state-of-the-art pictures and maps with a text of depth, clarity, and rigorous scholarship.

“History is always being rewritten, always being reinterpreted, history is not a dead and static discipline. Why we call this book A New History of India is because there has been no history of India that fuses together historical narratives and visual representations of the past with detailed annotations of those visual representations. So, the book actually unfolds at two interrelated levels. No other book has presented India’s past in this manner,” he maintained.

(Written by Saket Suman)

Study at Ashoka

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