Jadunath Sarkar, GS Sardesai and Raghubir Sinh offer lessons in dissent in our own time of churn
Has the political and geopolitical churn of the past decade made us more sensitive to history? That we have witnessed a decade of churn is evident from both external and domestic markers. The rise of a great power in immediate proximity to us, the oscillation of the United States from a Black president to one who has in his support White supremacists of different hues, and the drama of the departure of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union are only three of many other markers, although these three would cover a large part of our intellectual frames of reference.
Domestic political change, too, has been fundamental and its deep structural roots are suggested by wider debates about the past as also looking at well-established events from new and different perspectives. The controversy about the film Padmaavat , the renaming of Aurangzeb Road as APJ Abdul Kalam Road, the debate on the Battle of Bhima Koregaon commemoration, and the less controversial but equally significant commemorations of the role of Indian soldiers in World War I, or of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war with Pakistan, provide a snapshot of recent contestations and conversations about our medieval and modern history.
The debate in India about how historians should document our nation’s past, of course, mirrors similar debates elsewhere. In Japan, for instance, the debate about the 1930s and Japanese military and economic expansion into East and Southeast Asia is both an internal debate as also one in which other countries, in particular South Korea and China, take a very close interest. In the past decade-and-a-half, the rise of China and the transformed geopolitics of Asia have embedded this old debate in a new context. Similarly, in the UK, older debates about empire, decolonisation and the Commonwealth have the new subtext of Brexit. The latter today is seen to inform and provide much of the metaphor, context and content to medieval and modern British popular history — from the Tudors to Cromwell, from the House of Hanover to Windsor, or from Churchill to Thatcher. The brilliant Enoch Powell’s 1968 prediction about ‘rivers of blood’ thus has for many a new relevance and contemporary flavour. In many countries in East and Central Europe, the history of the 20th century between the end of World War II and 1989 is a story of the throttling of older democratic traditions by Soviet expansion and control. To others, this narrative is no more than a convenient cloaking of deep histories of anti-Semitism and collaboration with Nazi Germany. While these old debates had never died out, they have acquired a new dimension with the consolidation of ‘right- wing’ politics in Hungary, Italy, Poland, etcetera. We are perhaps now at the threshold of a possible peep into the future and pose questions such as whether Euroscepticism and immigration will become the rallying point for social and political fervent, much as the Treaty of Versailles or rearmament was a century ago.
The United States’ traditional interest in its Civil War history has now a new energy. The debate about the Civil War and Confederate statues is increasingly contextualised in terms of President Donald Trump, or ‘Trumpism’. The contestation over removal of the Confederate statues, for instance, is a debate really about slavery and race relations in the 19th century and how the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War by no means ended that debate. To many, the issue of Confederate statues has a poignancy often lost in the polemical dust of the discussions that surround it. Most of these statues date not to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War; nor were they put up to assuage families and communities grieving over those who fell in the war in defence of a rural southern way of life threatened by an industrial north. The bulk of these statues were, in fact, put up decades later around the turn of the century, and still later, in the 20th century. In this period, most of the gains of the post-Civil War decade — as far as African Americans were concerned — were wiped out as access to public office and other civil rights, including the right to vote, were steadily encroached upon to the point of disappearance. Both for the historian and for the activist at the vanguard of the removal of Confederate statues as symbols of White oppression and racial supremacy, this background has importance: The rollback from Civil War defeat for the Confederacy to assertion of ‘southern’ values and segregation in the Jim Crow phase of US history is for them a metaphor for the transition from Obama to Trump.
Much like in India, these are debates among historians, but are also public debates. In each case, participants in these discussions tend to overemphasise their contemporary character. The historian’s right to dissent against prevalent views and narratives, and even in the face of public opinion, is a central part of this debate. This right to dissent, however, has older roots and — consciously or otherwise — unacknowledged precedence which are worth recalling in the super-charged echo chambers of our times. A triangular relationship between three well-known historians of their times — Jadunath Sarkar (1870-1958), GS Sardesai (1865-1959) and Raghubir Sinh (1908-1991) — is as good an illustration of dissent as an integral part of the tradition of Indian history writing as we are likely to get.
Sarkar and Sardesai came to know each other in 1904 and thereafter became regular correspondents, close friends and in many ways a joint venture enterprise. Much of their correspondence has survived, and that it extended to over half-a-century gives it a certain unique status for those interested in the history of history writing in India and as a document showing the evolution and consolidation of a close friendship that had its origins in a common love for well-written and rigorously researched history. Raghubir Sinh, heir to the princely state of Sitamau in the historic region of Malwa (in present Madhya Pradesh) was a later entry. Sarkar was his doctoral guide and mentor from the early 1930s. After award of the DLitt degree by the University of Agra and publication of his research thesis as a well-received book, Raghubir Sinh became a member of the Sarkar-Sardesai circle of historians in his own right and with a research interest that focused on Malwa and Rajput history.
These three ‘history men’ comprised what in post- modern parlance would be termed as an ‘epistemic community’, although they themselves would have seen each other as ‘co-workers’ but with markedly different views on many issues. Fortunately, most of Sinh’s correspondence with Sarkar and Sardesai over a quarter of a century has also survived and apart from being of interest as a historiographical source, also tells a moving story of how a student becomes an associate, a close friend, and finally, as the two mentors age, a crutch and support in infirmity and old age.
Sarkar was easily the leader of the pack. His five- volume History of Aurangzeb (1912-24), and Shivaji and his Times (1919) had marked him out as India’s foremost historian. Promoted to the Indian Educational Service in 1919, Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University (1926-28) and knighted by the British government (1929), the scale of his achievement and the force of his personality make him a figure who dominates Indian historiography from the 1920s to the 1940s, and perhaps later. Sarkar capped Aurangzeb and Shivaji with a magisterial four-volume Fall of the Mughal Empire (1932-50). Identifying these three broad themes —Aurangzeb, Shivaji and the fall of the Mughals — does not do full justice to his prodigious output, which also includes studies on the history of Bengal and eastern India, numerous essays and lectures which were then printed as full- length books, and in addition, there is an impressive corpus of work in Bengali. Alongside all this was the collection and editing of a large number of Mughal, Rajput and Maratha manuscripts, many of which were published by him. In 1952, Sarkar was feted by being made an honorary foreign member of the American Historical Association. He was the only Indian on that list till Professor Romila Thapar was selected in 2009.
SARDESAI, TILL THE mid-1920s, was little known outside a small circle of historical aficionados in Maharashtra. From 1925, when he retired from service in the princely state of Baroda, he however devoted himself wholly to historical research and writing. His association with Sarkar introduced him to a wider all-India circle, beginning with the publication of a set of lectures he delivered at Patna University in 1926. This was published as Main Currents in Maratha History and stood out, then as now, as a reflective and admiring look at the rise and ebb of the Marathas. Sardesai thereafter was entrusted the task of selecting and editing documents from old Maratha records in custody of the colonial government. The 45-volume Selections from the Peshwa Daftar was followed by a 15-volume compilation (jointly edited with Sarkar) of English records on the Marathas entitled Selections from the Poona Residency Records that marked Sardesai out as a historian in his own right. Sardesai, however, remains best known for his three-volume New History of the Marathas (1946-49). This was in a sense the outcome of a lifetime of minute and detailed research in Maratha history, written in English so as to reach a larger, non-Marathi audience to explain the course of Maratha history. This vast output in English does not comprise even a fraction of Sardesai’s corpus of historical writing, the bulk of which was in Marathi, but it is significant that he consciously chose English as the medium for his most important work.
Raghubir Sinh remains best known for his DLitt thesis published as Malwa in Transition (1936). However, his endeavours thereafter followed an opposite trajectory to that of Sardesai. All his subsequent major works were in Hindi and include the history of a short- lived Rajput state in Ratlam in the late 17th century, Ratlam ka Pratham Rajya. He converted his palace into a research centre-cum-library-and-manuscript depositary and the Shri Natnagar Shodh Samsthan in Sitamau remains a standing testimony to his devotion to rigorously researched regional history.
Each of these three would appear unlikely choices for illustrating a tradition of dissent in modern Indian history writing. GS Sardesai, awarded with Padma Bhushan in 1957, termed his New History of the Marathas as a Kaifiyat or apologia on behalf of the Marathas and presenting how they viewed their history. He wrote: ‘I am giving out in my history the Maratha side of the affair — what I shall call the Maratha Kaifiyat.’ This led to much disputation and contestation with both Sarkar and Sinh. For the former, this invoking of Maratha pride was based on false premises: “We make ourselves ridiculous when we read the ideals and thoughts of 20th century English- educated nationalists into the lives of sectarian or clannish champions of the 17th and 18th centuries.” For Sinh, the differences with Sardesai (and other Maharashtra historians) arose out of his reading of Malwa’s history, since the Maratha expansion into Malwa had its own logic: “Various reasons have been assigned for the invasions of Malwa by the Marathas and for the wonderful success they met with in that province. Writers from the Marathi-speaking country generally say that the ideal of the Peshwa was to establish Hindu-Pad-Padshahi (Hindu paramountcy over the whole of India).” But, Sinh argued, “A close study of history and the fresh light thrown on the affairs of Malwa by the vast mass of contemporary records in Marathi, recently made available to the public, do not support these old theories.” To Raghubir Sinh, the primary reason for the Maratha incursion into Malwa was clear: “The Peshwa was deep in debt and he wanted money to pay it off…” Raghubir Sinh’s reading of Malwa history was of a loss of identity and administrative unity under the Maratha onslaught. The region’s inhabitants in his narrative tried to resist this process but ultimately failed. He argued much like Sarkar had that “the ambition and aims of the revived Maratha power in the north… and their activities there for forty years, 1765-1805, have left such a legacy of hatred for the Maratha name in Rajput hearts, which has not yet died out.”
Yet, notwithstanding the position Sardesai himself took to explain Maratha expansion, his association with Sarkar (and Raghubir Sinh) saw him firmly placed outside the mainstream of Maratha history writing. “They,” Sardesai wrote to Sarkar in 1927, referring to the traditionalist Poona-based historians, “connect me with you as the real author of these thoughts: as if man cannot form independent views.” Sarkar was the bête noir of most Maharashtra historians for his biography of Shivaji in particular and his treatment, which was incidentally not un-admiring in itself, of the Marathas in general. Sardesai’s dissidence came from his continued association with historians led by Sarkar who were seen as antithetical to the Marathas and their history. Refusal to be trapped in a particular echo chamber was Sardesai’s great attribute.
Sinh, too, superficially would not easily get bracketed in the category of the dissident. He was a two- time Member of Parliament and heir to the throne of a princely state (he abdicated in favour of his son in 1969), although he himself viewed the princely states dispassionately and not with any great sympathy or nostalgia. He also served briefly in the Indian Army during World War II. But his historical writings are distinctive for the emphasis they place on regional history as a means of fostering national integration. Writing in the 1930s, at a time of rising nationalism, and thereafter in the 1950s, at a time when narratives focused on India-wide nation-building and national history, his was largely a minority voice. Much of this emphasis on regionalism came from his own experience of living in and writing Malwa history: “There could not be any point of contact or affinity between the Marathas and Malwa. Geographically, they were far apart; culturally, too, they had nothing in common; and socially, they differed widely from each other. The fact that the Marathas represented the spirit of opposition to the policy of fanaticism and Muslim cultural domination in India could not also make the Hindu population of Malwa feel one with the Marathas. To them and, more specially, to the Rajput element, who were admirers of Maharana Pratap, the Marathas appeared to be mere upstarts. To the leading Rajput Princes and generals, fighting in the distant Deccan for the Imperial cause, the Marathas appeared more as enemies than as friends.” For Raghubir Sinh, the erosion of the Mughals enabled the northern expansion of the Marathas, which in turn extinguished Malwa’s centuries-old history. A second theme which runs through Raghubir Sinh’s works is the emphasis that regional histories be rewritten in non-dynastic terms. Specifically with regard to Malwa, Rajasthan and Rajput history, with which he was principally concerned, his approach was to look at the region or sub-region as a whole. This was in contrast to the then dominant view which subdivided history in terms of ruling clans: the Hadas, Kachwahas, Rathors, Sisodias, etcetera and the kingdoms they ruled over — Kota, Jaipur/Amber, Jodhpur/ Marwar, Udaipur/Mewar. Sinh’s book on Rajasthan history Poorva Adhunik Rajasthan (1951) (pre-modern Rajasthan) thus sought to supersede these kingdom- or clan-based histories.
In an address to the Local History Section of the Indian History Congress in 1952, he had underlined that “in a vast country like India, a really complete and fully comprehensive national history cannot be prepared without the help of the authoritative histories of the different provinces, as these regional histories provide the solid foundations of the national history. If in the early years after attainment of Independence, the regeneration and reconstruction of India, was ‘our one primary concern’ but history, in this respect ‘tells us a completely different tale’: because even though for us, the Indians, the fundamental unity and inevitable indivisibility of India has since times immemorial been not only an undisputed fact but also a conception of everyday worship and an important article of political ideology, the regional peculiarities aggravated by the geographical vastness of the country have always provided a ready field for the centrifugal tendencies. Thus time and again the political and administrative unity of India floundered on the rocks of the growing weakness of decadent central authority, internal disunity and regional insurgence.”
For independent India, the answer in Sinh’s view could only be constituting the regional units so that “they provide for a solid foundation… as the integrant parts of a composite body politic”. This was essential because “the Constitution of India”, Sinh asserted, “cannot by itself perpetuate the Union.” If these were his views arising from historical research and study, in Raghubir Sinh’s case, we also have the fascinating instance of the historian entering the public-policy space. The evidence for this is in a detailed memorandum he submitted to the States Reorganisation Commission seeking the constitution of a separate Malwa state. Sinh’s efforts notwithstanding what emerged from the States Reorganisation Commission was a giant Madhya Pradesh, literally the old Central Provinces — in which all the princely states of the region were added — Bhopal, Gwalior, Indore and a host of smaller ones, including Sitamau. If no separate state of Malwa existed or has since been created, it remained nevertheless central to Raghubir Sinh’s thought and to this day, the postal address of the institute he founded remains the one he had always used: Shri Natnagar Shodh Samsthan, Sitamau, Malwa.
Finally, Jadunath Sarkar himself. To many, he too would be difficult to categorise as a dissident — he was well-known as an admirer and supporter of the colonial state and in his writings would generally be regarded as conservative. He has been called the ‘high priest of communal historiography’ in India. An English historian, Peter Hardy, had some three decades earlier also described Sarkar as ‘a camp follower in the march of British minds over the past, and specifically the medieval past, of India’; that his central achievements as a general historian betray him ‘as having accepted, if not every British proposition about India’s past under Muslim rule, then the presuppositions on which these propositions rested.’ Moreover Sarkar did not, Hardy argued, write ‘as though criticism of the men of the past for not meeting his standards… was anachronistic.’ He is thus ‘hurrying on his historical personages past their own contexts into his.’ For example, he assumes ‘that in the circumstances of the 1670s in India, Aurangzeb’s knowledge, understanding and attitude towards the Islamic legal doctrine of Jizya was the same as the knowledge, understanding and attitude of the Muslim jurists who formulated that doctrine in the early centuries of Islam…’
SO, IN WHAT way can Sarkar be regarded as exemplifying the quality of dissidence? In large part, this is so because he recognised the importance of this attribute as central in the toolkit of any historian. Volume III of Aurangzeb appeared in 1916 — the year of the Lucknow Pact between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress — and from which there was much hope that Hindus and Muslims would forge a joint partnership against colonialism. This volume dealt with the period of the emperor’s growing orthodoxy and Sarkar pulled no punches in detailing these and in citing authorities which provided the evidential basis for his contentions. Sarkar’s treatment was regarded as objectionable and offensive by many, as also undermining of national unity. True or not, his analysis of Aurangzeb’s bigotry has come to be regarded as communal. Similarly, the volume on Shivaji which appeared in 1924 offended public opinion in Maharashtra greatly for a variety of reasons.
Sarkar himself scoffed at such criticism, holding that a historian was guided by different and higher aims. In a speech delivered in 1915, possibly anticipating the criticism that was going to come his way, he had said: “I would not care whether truth is pleasant or unpleasant, and in consonance with or opposed to current views. I would not mind in the least whether truth is or not a blow to the glory of my country. If necessary, I shall hear in patience the ridicule and slander of friends and society for the sake of preaching truth. But still I shall seek truth, understand truth and accept truth. This should be the firm resolve of a historian.”
In the mid-1930s, Rajendra Prasad, a future President of India and a leading Congressman, invited Sarkar to chair the editorial board set up by the Bhartiya Itihas Parishad for the preparation of a New History of the Indian People in 20 volumes. The conditions Sarkar laid down for accepting the appointment merit detailing:
‘National history, like every other history worthy of the name and deserving to endure, must be true as regards the facts and reasonable in the interpretation of them. It will be national not in the sense that it will try to suppress or whitewash everything in our country’s past which is disgraceful, but because it will admit them and at the same time point out that there were other and nobler aspects in the stage of our nation’s evolution which offset the former…..’ And:
‘(T)he historian must be a judge. He will not suppress any defect of the national character, but add to his portraiture those higher qualities which, taken together with the former, help or constitute the entire individual.’
In an age of change and flux, history writing finds itself at the intersection of the demands of popular culture, galloping technological change and a push towards homogeneity, dictated both by globalisation and geopolitical conflict. The lives of these three ‘history men’ stand out for the histories they wrote; inevitably their histories have been superseded by others as the nature of history writing has changed as have the questions we asked about the past. But the friendship they forged despite the numerous differences among themselves also makes them stand out and beckon to us from the past. This is for two reasons. First, the acceptance that history could only be based on evidence and digging it out in the minutest detail was the true and only attribute of the historian. Second, the willingness to be contrary-minded and to maintain minority positions as long as the evidence so dictated. Both principles are valid even today.