WE ARE ACCUSTOMED to reading history and, in the case of memorable books, remembering the historian who made it possible. It is, however, unusual to be enthralled by a work centred on the lives of historians.
Of course, there are exceptions. In recent years, there have been at least three delightful studies of the chequered life and the works of AJP Taylor, a hugely popular historian and compelling speaker who was denied high academic honours because he was seen a bit too frequently on TV. Being ‘popular’ is something that crusty Oxbridge dons viewed with distaste and more so because Taylor didn’t give a damn. There has also been a delightful biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, an incorrigible snob whose formidable reputation suffered when he authenticated the forged Hitler diaries. Someone has also written a voluminous and over-detailed biography of Eric Hobsbawm but because the reviews have been so negative, I have not bothered with it. I prefer to let my memories of Hobsbawm’s weekly evening lectures at Birkbeck College—and his books, of course—shape my views of this unrepentant communist.
In India, however, we have not thought historians to be worthy subjects of study. This is largely because their lives were predictable. When not burrowing through archives—which is what historians of yore did, until ‘empirical’ research was replaced by theoretical gobbledygook—they were preoccupied with the intricacies of university politics. And, as Henry Kissinger famously said once, the politics of the senior common rooms tend to be the most vicious because the stakes are so small.
This year has seen the publication of History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and Their Quest For India’s Past (Harper Collins, India) by the retired diplomat and historian TCA Raghavan. I read the book leisurely and over a span of three weeks, in between negotiating the controversies over the Citizenship Amendment Act. Normally, if I fail to complete a book in, say, a week, it gets overtaken by something else. Not this one. Despite the imperfections of time management—inevitable in my present life in politics—I actually went through the entire book because it was absolutely fascinating.
My interest in Raghavan’s book was also kindled by the fact that this was the second book on Jadunath Sarkar I was reading. Some four years ago I was fascinated by Chicago historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (University of Chicago Press), a wonderful study of the ideas and values of a historian whose name has been airbrushed from public memory for reasons that are entirely political. Indeed, so embarrassed was the community of historians with Chakrabarty’s sympathetic portrayal of Sarkar that they pretended the book didn’t exist. It suffered from a lamentable paucity of reviews.
The reasons why Sarkar is an oddity in today’s world of history writing is obvious. He was relentless in his pursuit of the ‘truth’ and he was fanatical in his forensic scrutiny of documents, including dismissing some old manuscripts as blatant forgeries. He was also obsessed with character and attributed the decline of the Moghul Empire to the declining personal standards of the monarch and the nobility. Finally, outside the world of history, he was an uninhibited Empire loyalist and believed that India needed to wait another 50 years before it secured independence.
Predictably, after Independence, Sarkar was never honoured by the state with a Padma award.
Yet, there was another dimension of Sarkar that Raghavan has detailed: his seminal role in tracing and recovering historical documents that would otherwise have been lost to posterity. It is remarkable to read of Sarkar’s role—and his partnership with Sardesai and Sinh—in travelling all over India, negotiating complicated arrangements with prickly scions of old families and ensuring that primary sources were available to future generations of scholars. The importance of Sarkar’s endeavours shouldn’t be underestimated. Indians, by and large, have been rather casual about the details of historical events, preferring either a grand sweep or relying excessively on oral tradition. Sarkar was a complete fusspot when it came to details, even if it argued against the flow of the grand narrative. To him, it mattered to find out the exact spot of a battle, even when it meant cross-checking casual references in some long-forgotten despatch. Sarkar was India’s foremost archivist-historian.
This December will be the 150th birth anniversary of the man who was the pioneer in the study of the later Moghuls. He was not honoured by post-Independence India and this is the year to remember him. I feel that a section of the National Archives should bear his name.