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Megha Kumar
Megha Kumar

Between The Lines: History lessons

Historical truth is often a bitter pill that cannot be sweetened or wished away

Earlier last month, Oxford-based historian Megha Kumar was in the news when her book, Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969, was withdrawn from the market by her publishers Orient Blackswan (OB). Released in mid-April this year, the work was already on sale when Dinanath Batra (Dinanath Batra: Here comes the book police), who was instrumental behind the suppression of scholar Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, struck again. Ironically, this time, his victim was not Kumar’s book, but one by another historian, Shekhar Bandopadhyay (From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India), published 10 years ago by OB.

In a knee-jerk reaction, OB decided to send a number of its backlist and frontlist titles (including Kumar’s book) for a fresh round of review in order to ensure there was nothing libelous in them. This, in spite of the fact that Kumar, a Rhodes Scholar who read history at Oxford, had already been subjected the usual academic reviews and assessments that scholars face before publishing their work.

After keeping her in the dark for weeks about the exact nature of these further investigations, OB has finally got back to her, with a request to revise certain passages in the book that may be considered culpable under Section 153 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which refers to the offence of inciting hostility among different religious communities.

In a recent article in The Indian Express newspaper, Kumar has expressed her distress not only at the fate of her own work but what such pre-emptive self-censorship augurs for scholarly research in India (Ready to crawl). Earlier she had explained to Mint, the premises of her book (The book will come out, one way or another: Megha Kumar), which looks at three specific instances of riots in the city of Ahmedabad and the sexual violence these engendered.

As Kumar points out, each of these incidents was triggered by a set of reasons that could not be neatly explained in terms of binaries – communal, economic, social, and local factors were equally responsible, in varying degrees, for the eruption of these riots and the sexual violence perpetrated during them. That the material Kumar deals with in her book could be distressing to many readers—across races, religions, and genders—is not hard to understand. But simply because the truth she tries to uncover is unsavoury, does not mean it could be wished away or made palatable (as it seems from OB’s urgings) by blunting its hard edges. History is replete with instances of inhumanity, and the more squarely present and future generations learn to look at those incidents, the better equipped they may be to avoid such lapses—or that is what can be hoped for.

Historical research is, to an extent, influenced by personal interpretation. But it is also, in the end, solidly empirical, based on facts and events that took place and were usually recorded for posterity. In the case of Kumar’s work, a range of sources–archives, state reports, media coverage, and most importantly, the oral testimonies of the survivors and families of the victims–have been used to create a composite view of three incidents separated by several years. Whether the picture she has come up with is balanced or not, it is for scholars to access, and for the readers to either accept or reject.

Unfortunately, as matters stand, it seems we have to wait a while longer to get an opportunity to do so.

This fortnightly column talks about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future

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