Indian Historiography at 75

A deep dive into the trajectory of Indian historiography over the last 75 years.
Indian Historiography at 75

Note

This is the full text of my talk delivered at the Pondicherry Lit Fest, 2022. My heartfelt thanks goes out to them for organising the event and for being such gracious hosts.

Preface

AT THE OUTSET, I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to the oganisers of the Pondicherry Literature Festival for inviting me. My additional gratitude is also due to them for two profound reasons. The first is the choice of the venue…this is the city sanctified by Sri Aurobindo’s lifelong penance and his brilliant vision that continues to reveal itself in multiple realms…of spirituality, nationalism, freedom, Bharatiyata, and history. The second reason is the thoughtfulness and timeliness on the part of the organisers in the choice of topic: Indian historiography at 75. Indeed, it is highly befitting that we should be discussing this on the occasion of Azadi ka Amritmahtosav… 75 years of celebrating India’s freedom from foreign rule.

Historians: Then and Now

Let me first read out a quote:

My message to my pupils and my pupils’ pupils is one of hope, I bid them be of good cheer, because the opportunities for carrying on research in Indian history on the Indian soil are now unimaginably great, and the right atmosphere for this type of work has also been created around us. When I first set my hand to the plough in 1891, research (except in Sanskrit) meant only the pirating or translation of modern English or French books, and we had no other resources. But today no genuine worker on Indian history is content unless he has mastered the language of the original authorities and can utilise the original records, despatches, state papers and inscriptions, which are the primary indispensable sources. Work in the right way, for the means are ready to hand, and the reward is sure.

That was Acharya Jadunath Sarkar’s farewell message delivered on 20 April, 1957.

But who would have even dreamed that barely within the next 15 years, his own body of extraordinary and prolific work in the realm of Indian history would be completely banished by the same history department over which he had towered like a titan for more than half a century? Who would have thought that his pioneering and substantial contributions to Indian history would be dismissed by tarnishing him with a single word: communal? Who would have thought that history would become one of the main weapons for not only distorting and destroying the truths of our past but to undo India’s hard-won independence itself bit by bit, bit by bit, bit by bit…decade by decade, decade by decade? Who would have thought that the kind of history-writing that people like Jadunath Sarkar regarded as a sacred calling, a Vrata, would be transformed into a slavish political cult by people whose “idea of India” is to break it?

Thus, if a Jyoti Basu could declare that Bengal would secede from India if the BJP ever came to power, if the Dravidian discourse is talking about a concoted “pure” Dravidian stock, if the Khalistan movement has been renewed in a dangerous fashion, we must remember that this lethal path was paved by distorting and weaponizing history.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the shortest version of today’s topic: Indian Historiography at 75.

I don’t mean to alarm you nor am I a fatalist… what I just described is just the consequence…and what we need to rediscover is the trajectory that has led us to this pathetic and fragile state. In other words, we need to briefly trace the history of Indian historiography.

The Golden Age of the Modern Indian Renaissance

Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, for roughly the next hundred years, a gradual, steady and in many cases, an irreversible transformation occurred in India. The next fifty years of that century transformed India and specifically, the Hindu society and culture in a manner and at a pace never witnessed in the preceding thousand years. In fact, the Indian freedom struggle, which eventually became a mass movement, was only the political face of a deeper and far more profound struggle. This struggle was the struggle to recover the battered, bruised and wounded ethos of the ancient Indian civilization, which had attracted the entire world continuously for more than 2000 years as the global hub of spirituality, education and culture and wealth.

And the next fifty years—i.e., from the end of the 19th century to the 19050s – witnessed the birth of an entirely new class of extraordinary intellectuals, thinkers, philosophers, spiritual masters, writers, artists, scholars, historians, statesmen, and it simultaneously transformed our business class as well.

This period… a full century… is known as the Indian Renaissance, and the class and calibre of people who trailblazed and nurtured it can be called the luminaires of the Indian Renaissance.

What these luminaries did was to chart a completely new process and a fresh journey of re-evaluating and rediscovering their own roots using the tools introduced by the West, broadly speaking.

As more and more Indians gradually began traveling to Europe, they got a first-hand experience of the society and other conditions out there, and were able to make comparative analyses with the Indian condition. One major finding was that the so-called “modern” and “progressive” British society was after all, not so progressive—the 19th and early 20th century British society was a deeply racist and status-conscious society. London for example, was notorious for rampant teenage prostitution to which the Government had turned a blind eye.

Armed with these findings, the luminaries of Indian Renaissance began broadcasting these ugly foreign truths to their own countrymen.

The outcome was nothing short of an all-encompassing explosion of civilizational reawakening and cultural revival helmed by the brightest minds endowed with the most compassionate hearts that beat and bled for Bharatavarsha. In a nutshell, they were real luminaries in the sense that they exuded a light which re-cultured the entire Indian society—both in parts and the whole.

And Indian history was one of the major areas which they illuminated.

And so, unless we study and understand this extraordinary phenomenon of the Indian Renaissance, we will be unable to grasp the full story of Indian historiography.

Five Phases

THE STORY OF Indian historiography at 75 can be classified into five broad phases.

The first phase begins with the Indian Renaissance I just mentioned. It was both the pioneering period and the golden era of historical scholarship.

Let me read out a brief list of names I’ve selected at random: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, V.S. Rajwade, R. Narasimhachar, D.V. Potdar, S. Srikanta Sastri, R.C. Majumdar, S. Krishnaswami Iyengar, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, U.N. Ghoshal, A.S. Altekar, C.S. Srinivasachari, V.V. Mirashi, B.A. Saletore, B.C. Law, R.D. Banerji, Motichandra, D.C. Sircar, Ramachandra Dikshitar, S. Srikantayya, R.N. Saletore, G.S. Dikshit, C. Hayavadana Rao, Radhakumud Mukherjee…I think I’ll stop at this.

In the first phase, historical scholarship of the highest degree was not only actively pursued but was passionately nurtured and carefully passed on to successive generations, a tradition consonant with the true ideals of the Bharatiya Vidya Parampara.

The entire nation’s academic atmosphere was sanctified by the presence of hundreds of such stalwarts. Here’s a small example of how they worked. Let’s say a mutilated sculpture belonging to the Gupta Era was discovered during an excavation. This news would travel throughout the historical community in India and outside as well. Based on just the ornamentation on the forehead of that sculpture, detailed discussions would go on for months together in journals and conferences. Each scholar would pitch in with his own expertise, analysing it from various angles: from numismatics, social customs of that era, literature, epigraphy, and so on. In many cases, a misreading of a single syllable in an inscription would be enough to prove or disprove years of research.

The other significant traits of historical scholarship in this first phase was that all scholars were without exception polyglots and their scholarship was truly multidisciplinary. Mahamahopadhyaya P.V. Kane for example, uses the evidence available in copperplate grants of a certain historical period to explain a specific nuance of say, the Gautamadharma-Sutra. And Kane’s fame and eminence rested on the edifice of his scholarship in the Dharmasastra—i.e., he was not known as a scholar of history.

Likewise, Jadunath Sarkar draws from Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa to expound upon the finer points of a pillared sculpture in the Sahasra-Rama Temple in Hampi. And Jadunath Sarkar was not known as a scholar of Sanskrit literature.

We also have the example of Sri Govinda Pai, known in my state as one of the greatest poets and litterateurs of the last century, and awarded with the Rashtra Kavi (national poet) prize. He was proficient in twenty-two languages. A wide scholarship in history was among the numerous facets of this extraordinary polymath, who wrote an extremely learned treatise on the history of the obscure Punnāṭa Kingdom.

If this was not enough, these luminaries could write with equal ease in academic journals and in the Sunday supplements of newspapers like The Hindustan Times. Like I said, I can go on and on…

The Second Phase

WHEN WE REACH the second phase, the atmosphere of history research and historiography is largely intact because the foundations were so incredible. This period can roughly be placed between the late 1920s up to the end of the 1930s when research in Indian history was thriving in an unprecedented fashion.

For example, the annual session of the Indian History Congress of 1939 held in Calcutta records an earnest note of thanks offered to the Indian Railways for giving a special concession on the ticket fare for the delegates. Even more incredibly, it also extends its gratitude to the Bengal Boy Scouts who volunteered to take care of the delegates from picking them up at the station, looking after their logistics, ensuring that their stay was comfortable and fussing over their luggage.

This clearly shows the overall social atmosphere of that India, which in the true Sanatana tradition, had unqualified reverence for scholars as Gurus and Acharyas.

But something else was simultaneously occurring in the 1930s. This was the slow emergence of what came to be known as the Aligarh and Allahabad “schools” of history. The first batch of Marxist ideologues had appeared on the history-writing scene. The most notable name was that of Mohammad Habib, father of Irfan Habib.

The Third Phase

THE THIRD PHASE in our story of Indian historiography occurs roughly around Independence but its real impact is felt by the end of the 1950s. By this time, ideology and politics have already infiltrated and infected history as an academic discipline. The profound ideal of history as a sacred calling has been eroded at a rapid pace. Cliques and camps have been formed, and as early as 1951 or 1953, R.C. Majumdar’s ambitious project for writing the comprehensive history of the Indian freedom movement has been crushed by Maulana Azad at the behest of the Nehruvian establishment. Majumdar has himself narrated this horrific tale, but his contemporary, B.A. Saletore’s overall assessment of where Indian historiography was headed at that time gives us the clearest portent of the doom that followed.

A good deal of loose talk by responsible persons has made the task of the historian more onerous…this is a coveted field which can only be covered by [Government] officials. This novel concept…has not helped the cause of history…people have for some reason…perverted the use of the term…and being on vantage ground, persist in their perversion…and what is worse, hold up their views as models for the rest of the world to follow. It is time the rational world cried halt to their presumptuous perambulations in a province which falls outside the purview of outrageous officialdom. To the above difficulties [is] a third one…this is the zeal with which scholars have taken to rewriting Indian history…the history of India as we now possess it is neither complete nor adequate…But the popular trend [is] to rewrite Indian history according to preconceived notions. The standards which these scholars have adopted maybe classified as racial and political.

It was in the third phase that systematic, concrete and deliberate actions were taken to destroy the Himalayan standards of historical scholarship that had characterised the first and second phases. This destruction was initially achieved by a simple device: dismissal…that is, dismissing the very notion of standards. It was not coincidental that the closure of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy departments in universities went hand in hand with the destruction of Indian history. Unless this was done, we wouldn’t have a Romila Thapar who wrote an entire book on ancient India with zero knowledge of Sanskrit.

The Fourth Phase

THE FOURTH PHASE directly follows from the third. This phase witnessed the marginalisation of the scholars belonging to the first and second phases. Let me give you an example to understand the magnitude of this crime against both history and scholarship.

Surendranath Dasgupta, scholar and author of the five-volume magnum opus on the history of Indian Philosophy was specially invited by the Lucknow University to stay on campus after his retirement. He was given a generous emolument and his vast personal library was moved into his campus residence. He didn’t need to work or give lectures or evaluate papers. The university’s reasoning for granting him this extraordinary munificence was extremely profound in its simplicity and idealism: Surendranath Dasgupta’s mere presence on the campus would be inspirational to students.

And this exalted climate was obliterated in the fourth phase, characterised by unbridled villainy. The loss has since become irretrievable.

As I mentioned earlier, it was in this phase that Jadunath Sarkar’s entire body of work was banned by history departments across the board. Doctoral theses of students would be summarily rejected if they gave just one citation from his work.

Not coincidentally, the fourth phase saw the founding of the JNU and the ICHR. Here is a small example of the colossal national damage that these two institutions have inflicted: how do we even begin to describe a history project that took 43 years, sucked up more than two crores of taxpayer money—not adjusted for inflation—and was still incomplete as recently as 2015? The title of this project, my dear friends, was Towards Freedom. It was allegedly conceived as a comprehensive history of the Indian freedom movement but in practice, became a lucrative milch-cow that was milked and indefinitely postponed by the extension counter of the same Marxist forces that sabotaged the Indian freedom struggle. A crueller irony, a greater mockery of Indian independence is hard to find. This is also an ominous warning to the nation on Azadi ka Amritmahotsav.

The Fifth Phase

AND NOW WE COME to the fifth and final phase, and I’ll keep this short because there’s really nothing to be said… I mean, what really remains after destruction on such an epic scale? But let’s hear the story directly from the horse’s mouth. From Romila Thapar herself. In a 2003 interview, the French paper, Le Monde asked her “vision” of India at the end of the 21st century. This is what she said:

by the end of the 21st century, India would break down into a series of small states federated within a more viable single economic space on the scale of the subcontinent.

Clearly, this is not Romila Thapar’s “vision” but her fond wish to see India broken into pieces. And I don’t mean to single her out. Even as we speak, a deadly narrative called “the United States of South India” has been making the rounds since 2018. And as we’ve seen so far, without whitewashing and distorting history on such a colossal scale, there was no way that such narratives could even be birthed.

The story of Indian historiography at 75 is this: from studying our history to recover and rejuvenate the integrated civilisation and the cultural unity of India to studying history to break India.

Concluding Remarks

I’LL CLOSE MY SUBMISSION with some concluding remarks.

In my limited studies, I’ve found that a comparative history of the world from the Indian perspective has not been written even as we speak.

This history should investigate questions such as these: what was happening in the other parts of the world during say, the Vedic period? What was the condition of say Italy or Portugal or France when the Vijayanagara Empire was being established? What were the dietary habits of Europe during the Gupta Era? What was the comparative condition of the much-extolled British naval power when the Cholas had become the absolute masters of the Indian waters? Why for example, is there no comprehensive work that shows that the war indemnities looted by the East India Company from the Marathas, went on to fund much of British R&D in arms and war technology? At what stage of evolution was the legal and judicial philosophy of Europe or the Middle East even as our Dharmasastras had matured and attained authoritative status as canons that governed all aspects of our life and society? What were the innate differences between the business ethics and practices of Europe and India until the birth of European-style corporations?

Each of these topics is enough to produce multiple volumes. But to state the clear truth clearly, this is generational work. And the fact that we haven’t even begun it makes me infinitely sad.

But let’s ask the same question in a different way: why does an Audrey Truschke or a Sheldon Pollock still take such an abiding interest in India? Why is Richard Eaton’s book on the Sufis of Bijapur still considered a standard reference work?

But what I have said so far is nothing new. My confidence has strong roots in our past masters.

In his presidential address to the Indian History Congress way back in 1939… 83 years ago… R.C. Majumdar lamented precisely about this point:

Apart from the history of India, there is hardly any centre of advanced study in the other branches of history either in our universities or outside them. European history no doubt forms a subject of study…and a few universities…have professors in these branches; but it is difficult to name any individual scholar or any school of studies in India that has made any original investigation in, or given any new interpretation of any period or aspect of the history of any country outside India. Whether it is…ancient, medieval, or modern civilisation of the East or the West, the contribution of India towards the study of their history may be regarded as almost nil. On the other hand, there is hardly any progressive country in the modern world that has not made important contributions to the study of Indian history and civilisation… We have paid the penalty for it in the past and may have to pay a greater penalty in future, if we cannot rise above it and put ourselves in touch with the currents of human civilisation that flow around us.

And we have clearly paid this greater penalty. I have been informed by truly distinguished scholars of our own time that in the next 25 or 30 years, there won’t be a single Indian scholar living in India who would be able to decipher valuable inscriptions and other primary sources of Indian history written in Indian languages if we continue on this path any further. That knowledge has already been safely stored in the institutions of the West who will once more come here to teach India to Indians.

This is the fatal aspect of Indian historiography at 75.

But there is a bright side to it as well. Dedicated individuals, independent researchers and organisations driven only by passion and commitment have emerged over the last decade and have already built up an impressive body of work. Our future lies with such folks.

Postscript

I once again offer my heartfelt gratitude to the entire team of the Pondicherry Lit Fest for providing me this opportunity and for all of you in the audience for giving me a patient hearing.

||सत्यं शिवम् सुन्दरं ||

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