Social Scientist. v 18, no. 207-08 (Aug-Sept 1990) p. 85.

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Culture and Consciousness: Historiography as Politics

K.N. Panikkar's Damodaran Memorial Lecture published in a recent issue of the Social Scientist, no doubt reflects his acute concern about the growing communalism in today's Indian politics.1 This is true of most of his other writings in recent times—be it on Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy or the television serial on Tipu Sultan.2 Given this concern, which most of the radical intelligentsia shares with Panikkar, he has proposed in the course of the Damodaran Memorial Lecture an interventionist role and a political agenda for intellectuals to combat communalism. ^

These are indeed laudable intentions. But laudable intentions neither necessarily lead to, nor are a substitute for the right kind of intellectual practices (here, historiographical) and hence to the right kind of political agenda. Sadly, Panikkar's own historiographical practice and his political project, as evident from the Damodaran Memorial lecture, are characterised by a kind of elitism which is by now sufficiently written about.

Let me begin with a brief—somewhat simplified—summary of Panikkar's arguments. His views on religion are quite straightforward. Invoking Marx, he treats religion as providing 'illusory happiness and consolation* to the oppressed and it also legitimises oppression by preventing the people 'from thinking about oppression committed by their rulers'. For him, in the Indian context, the Hindu concepts of karma and maya encapsulate the legitimatory and illusory character of religion.

With this conception of religion, Panikkar, as a historian, looks back at the intellectual history of colonial India, especially its nineteenth century variant, seeking explanations and solutions for the present-day communalism. There he finds a glimmer of hope—rather, a rationalist agenda—to clear the religious/communal muck of today. This rationalism is, for instance, embodied in the early Rammohan

* Madras Institute of Development Studies, Madras.

Social Scientist, Vol. 18, Nos. 8-9, August-September 1990

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