(This article was first published on 27 June 2018. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, on 6 July 2022.)
At times, one gets the feeling that history has ceased to be a scholarly discipline. Those who claim to be professional historians have started indulging in revising and rewriting history in a manner that is reminiscent of a reality show driven by TRPs.
Facts are conveniently forgotten, and fantasy is served as alternative truth.
The latest example is the controversy created by the special research project to examine the ‘murder’ of Syama Prasad Mookerjee during detention in Jammu and Kashmir in 1950.
Before we proceed let’s get a few things clear.
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee is a most distinguished son of India. Not only did he serve as a Cabinet Minister in JLN’s first Cabinet, he had a long record of distinguished public service during freedom struggle prior to that.
He had served as a minister in the Bengal government in 1937, and before that, for decades in the legislative assembly. His stint as the VC of Calcutta University is still remembered.
Nehru was well aware of Mookerjee’s pro-Hindu leanings and association with the Hindu Mahasabha. But it was his ability and eminence that had ensured him a ministerial birth.
Mystery Surrounding Mookerjee’s Death
Syama Prasad never hid his reservations about article 370 in Kashmir. He thought that this provision would only alienate the Valley from the rest of the country.
It is enough to note that the old man had resigned from the Cabinet in protest, and had marched to J&K to launch an agitation resisting its imposition. No one needs a reminder that his death under ‘mysterious’ circumstances, has from the beginning spawned conspiracy theories.
Why didn’t Nehru accede to his mother’s request to institute an independent inquiry? Why did the state government not take better care of an old and ailing national leader?
To some, it may appear odd to use the prefix ‘old’ for Dr Mookerjee who died at the age of a little over 50, but at the time, the life expectancy of an Indian was less than thirty years, and 50 was well past middle-age.
He was shifted from the Central Jail in Srinagar to a cottage in the outskirts and was in fact attended to by senior doctors. However, it may be argued that the state government could have treated an opponent with better care.
Conspiracy Theorists Rewriting History
To return to conspiracy theorists. How can anyone satisfy skeptics that Netaji died in an unfortunate air crash? Or that Lal Bahadur Shastri had succumbed to a massive heart stack at Tashkent?
There has never been a dearth of revisionist historians who have suggested that the loyal followers of Nehru and the custodians of his dynastic interests have systematically arranged the elimination of inconvenient critics.
Remember the Emergency and the damage done to a frail JP’s kidneys in jail? There never can be a satisfactory closure of such engineered controversies.
But should these efforts to legitimise gossip be taken seriously? Many are disturbed when special projects commissioned by professional bodies like the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) get involved in these antics. We feel that the masses can’t make up their minds about the past by reading NCERT textbooks or papers presented at history conferences.
Myth and personal memories – however distorted – propaganda and plain prejudice shape our responses to forgotten events.
This isn’t to suggest that myth-making is an innocent pastime. One never can tell what will create an explosive brew. A democracy has to accept diversity of views and dissent, however unreasonable it may appear. One doesn’t really have to engage with purveyors of the ridiculous.
The Indian history establishment has been monopolised by Marxist historians for long. There was never any space for anyone who was not a fellow traveller.
‘Nationalist’ interpretations of Indian history were considered as belonging to the Jurassic era – non-secular, and unscientific.
It must be extremely painful for them to admit that the time for payback has arrived.
With the regime change in 2014, a new light brigade of ‘historians’ has launched its charge. They may be tilting at windmills masquerading as knights in shining armour. Should we be amused or angered, worried or prepare to retaliate? Like in any other war, truth will be the first casualty in this war of words.
(Padma Shri awardee Professor Pushpesh Pant is a noted Indian academic, food critic and historian. He tweets @PushpeshPant. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)