The publication was uploaded online last week in the Union Cultural Ministry website but removed after two days.

A brown book with the title The Dictionary of Martyrs: Freedom Struggle 1857-1947
news Controversy Tuesday, September 08, 2020 - 19:46

Last Wednesday, a PDF copy of the publication The Dictionary of Martyrs: Freedom Struggle 1857-1947 was uploaded on the website of the Ministry of Culture. Two days and a huge controversy later, the PDF was removed. In the days that passed it emerged that a report had been submitted by a committee of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) to remove more than 400 names from the list of the martyrs. These were primarily the people who died in various Communist struggles of 1946 and the much earlier Malabar Rebellion of 1921.

On Tuesday, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Binoy Viswam wrote letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal, asking for the suspension of the three-member ICHR review committee.

“The 2016 report incorrectly argues for the exclusion of Communist martyrs of the Punnapra-Vayalar, Karivelloor and Kavumbayi agitations as well as of Muslim freedom fighters who lost their lives in the Wagon Tragedy and Malabar rebellion. The perverse reading of history by the authors of the report, who have also been included in the 3-member review committee, is based on scholarship that has been discredited in the academic community,” the letters said.

CI Isaac, one of the committee members, claims that when he joined office in 2015, the scholarship fund for the said project was found to have been mostly squandered away. “It started as a project in 2007 by the government of India, to celebrate India’s 60 years of independence. An amount of Rs 2 crore was allotted for the project and ideally it should have been complete in three years. But when I joined as part of the new team that was constituted in 2015 I found this project among those which had been left incomplete. I took three months to inspect Volume 5 of the project which included the list of martyrs in Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and found that at least 420 names were ineligible to be in the list.”

The reasons he gives for writing off the Communist struggles of 1946 - Punnapra-Vayalar, Karivelloor and Kavumbayi agitations – are to do with an interim government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru taking charge of the country by then. “The interim government was formed on September 2, 1946. So we cannot count the Communist struggles which took place afterward as a fight for freedom,” Isaac says.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders in the state say this is not true. MA Baby, politbureau member of the party, points out that the Punnapra-Vayalar struggle was against the conspiracy of British imperialism with the royalty of Travancore egged on by Diwan CP Ramaswamy Iyer. "The ‘American model independent’ Travancore (sovereign country) outside independent India was defeated by the valiant fighters’ in Punnapra and Vayalar. If this is not freedom struggle, then there is something wrong with the perspective of those who disapprove such inspiring democratic upsurges."

CPI(M) leader P Rajeev says that it has never been counted as the country winning freedom when the Nehru-led provisional government was formed. “His (Isaac’s) method of historical research itself seems wrong. All these struggles have always been considered part of the freedom fight against the British. There have been many attempts to rewrite history since the time a political party which has never been part of any of these struggles came to power. Earlier they tried to rewrite history textbooks. This too can only be seen as part of those attempts.” Rajeev says.

That's the part that intrigues Baby too. "Most intriguing part of this episode is the fact that these modifications /distortions of history are being carried out, following RSS dictates! This organisation didn’t play any part in our freedom struggle. VD Savarkar notoriously apologised to the British Imperialism! Great example for post-truth!" he says.

The other major struggle - Malabar rebellion – that the ICHR has recommended for removal, has created another row with the 99 year old ‘lahala’ recently being made a subject of in four upcoming Malayalam movies. Right wing leaders had opposed the glorification of Variyankunnathu – leader of the rebellion – and claimed the fight was not against the British but a communal one, with forced conversions of Hindus. A stance that Isaac too subscribes to. “It cannot be counted as freedom struggle.  We are recommending removal of all such names which figured in fights with the police – in theft cases or attacks on worship centres and so on.”

Read: Centre plans to revise content of book on freedom fighters that mentions Variyamkunnath

However, Baby observes that Professor KN Panikkar and other eminent historians had written enough about the Malabar uprising of 1921 to prove that it was against local landlords who were in league with Britishers. "It was also part of the Khilafat movement which was supported by Mahatma Gandhi and the national movement. True, there were sporadic communal deviations. But the leaders were firmly opposing such trends," Baby says.

The removal of these names that Isaac had recommended in 2016 were not yet effected when Dictionary of Martyrs was uploaded online last week. The reason it was removed soon after is not because of the controversy, Isaac claims, but for monetary gains. “It would cost more than Rs 5,000. If we upload it online people would never buy it,” he says.

The publication was now being re-inspected and it would be re-published, Isaac says.

However in the two days that it stayed there, all those who debated against the right wing’s accusations of Variyankunnathu had scored brownie points. The BJP-led government had launched the book with the names that the right wing claimed did not fit in with the freedom fighters’ list.

Read: Variyamkunnath and nuances of the Malabar Rebellion: Author Manu S Pillai interview

“These young men and women who laid down their life to resist colonial rule were integral to India’s struggle for Independence and attempts to re-write the history of India for petty political gains are condemned and will be resisted. I urge you to immediately intervene in this matter and suspend the review committee established by the ICHR,” MP Binoy wrote.

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