Wednesday, February 29, 2012

India’s Missing Historians

By Mihir Bose
History Today Volume: 57 Issue: 9 2007

Mihir Bose discusses the paradox that India, a land of history, has a surprisingly weak tradition of historiography.

Nehru with Pamela MountbattenNehru with Pamela MountbattenIndia, the land of contrasts, presents no greater contrast than this: in a land rich in history there is a dearth of native historians, particularly those willing to tackle big subjects. Few academic historians are ready to explain how modern India emerged. Nor do they write biographies of prominent Indians. Even scarcer are large format illustrated books of popular history.

Indian historians appear to worry that they might ruffle too many feathers, and there is every reason to sympathize with this fear. A couple of years ago, an American academic James Laine wrote a biography of Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Maratha king. Some modern-day Shivaji followers were so outraged by certain passages in the book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, that the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute where Laine had carried out the research was attacked. Oxford University Press withdrew the book from India where it was banned.

The lack of historical writing has deep roots. Ancient Indians believed poets are not only more valuable than historians but better able to write history. Kalhana, author of Rajatarngini, a twelfth-century history of the kings of Kashmir, began his book by saying, ‘who but a poet can bring back the past in sweet composition, and what can make it intelligible if his art cannot?’ As R. C. Majumdar, doyen of Indian historians, lamented in Ancient India (1968), ‘One of the gravest defects of Indian culture, which defies rational explanation, is the aversion of Indians to writing history. They applied themselves to all conceivable branches of literature and excelled in many of them, but they never seriously took to the writing of history,’ with the result that ‘for a great deal of our knowledge of ancient Indian history we are indebted to foreigners’. So to write about ancient India today you have to consult Herodotus and the Greek writers who accompanied Alexander the Great’s campaign to India; Megasthenes, the Greek historian who in c. 300 bc was ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya and collected material there for his work Indica; Ptolemy’s Geographia; and the Chinese travellers Faxian and Xuanzang.

The first history of India was written in the eleventh century by Alberuni, a Muslim scholar who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion of northwest India. The Muslim presence in India encouraged the recording of history and nearly all the great Mughal emperors from Babar, founder of the dynasty, left behind fascinating memoirs, something that their contemporary monarchs in the West did not emulate. Yet when it comes to evidence of what life was like in Mughal times the historian still has to turn to foreigners – as Abraham Eraly (an exception to the rule that Indians do not go in for big picture history books) discovered when he came to write The Mughal World (2007): ‘For everyday life in Mughal India, the only sources are the writings of foreign travellers, and I have used them extensively.’

It is understandable that Indians do not want to study the Raj. British historians do that well enough, and many Indians would rather forget what they see as a shameful episode in India’s past. But it does seem remarkable that the two most popular books to deal with the gaining of India’s independence are Freedom at Midnight (1997) by Dominique Lapierre, a Frenchman, and Larry Collins, an American, and Liberty or Death (1998) by Patrick French, who is British.

Indians have not even been keen to tell the story of the India that has emerged since 1947. A rare example of excellent narrative history is India After Gandhi (2007) by Ramachandra Guha. He complains he has had to struggle because there are no biographies of many of the leading politicians of the last sixty years, the only exceptions being Gandhi, Nehru (who himself had a taste for writing history, something he shared with his fellow Harrovian, Winston Churchill) and his daughter Indira. As for other Indians, if a foreigner does not write the biography it does not get written. A good example is The Man Who Knew Infinity (1991), the biography of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920) by American Robert Kanigel. Indians honour Ramanujan: his face is on postage stamps. They just do not seem to feel his life needs to be recorded.

This has left huge gaps in historical study. Take the story of how India assumed its present political and geographical shape. The British had left behind a curious state, without a uniform civil or criminal code. A third of India was ruled by princes who enjoyed considerable internal autonomy. In 1947 the 500-odd princely states were given the right to either accept India or Pakistan or seek independence. The integration of these princely states into India – with one glaring exception, Kashmir – was achieved much more quickly, and with less violence, than the transformation of the American colonies into the modern United States. Yet, apart from a book written by V. P. Menon, the civil servant who masterminded the operation, there has been no historical study of this remarkable exercise in nation-making.

Unlike America, there is no simple narrative explaining the creation of the nation. India did not have a Yorktown where the British surrendered. Gandhi may be the Indian Washington and popular folklore may have it that he drove the British out, but the real story is more complicated. During the Second World War the British jailed nationalists like Gandhi and Nehru for demanding freedom, while many Communists supported the British war effort, seeing it as a fight to save the motherland of Communism, Russia. While some 2.8 million Indians volunteered to fight for the British, the largest such volunteer force of the war, many Indian soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese joined the Indian National Army fighting against the British. In 1946, when the British put these men on trial, nationalist Indians rushed to their aid. But when India won its freedom, none were allowed back into the Indian Army.

Other aspects of post-Independence India await their historian. In the last sixty years India has seen the biggest experiment in positive discrimination anywhere in the world, by which members of the lower castes have jobs and educational places reserved for them. This hugely controversial subject is little examined by historians. Nor are there any histories to explain how the Indian army was kept out of politics when the Pakistani army, created by the same British masters, could not wait to leave the barracks to take over power.

The gap left by the absence of a clear freedom narrative has been filled by a persistent desire to prove that the Indian nation that emerged in 1947 was a truly secular state. It is understandable why Indians should want to assert this. Pakistan, a confessional state, was created on the basis that Muslims could not co-exist as a minority in a Hindu-dominated India. Looking back now, it is astonishing how many British officials supported the creation of this religious state, how pro-Muslim and anti-Hindu they were, and how contemptuous of the secular credentials of the Indian state.

Indian secularism led by Nehru took a curious turn. Almost any mention of religion was considered inappropriate, and the very word ‘communal’ was (and still is) used pejoratively of people who are biased in favour of either Hindus or Muslims – a usage that had its origins in the way the Raj allocated seats in representative assemblies by dividing Indian communities along religious and caste lines. By so completely ignoring the religious factor in India, India’s secular historians have left a back door open to be exploited by those keen to promote their own agenda about the religious divide in India.

This is underlined by the absence of a tradition of popular history writing in India. The wall between academic historians and popular historians seems as strong as the old Hindu divide between the higher castes and untouchables, bridged only by a very few, such as the businessman Gurcharan Das, who has written some fine popular books on Indian history. Such works are all the more important because, unlike in the west, there is a dearth of primary source materials. Often the best material on India is to be found in western libraries.

It is easy enough to laugh at the efforts of some so-called Indian historians – for example, P.N. Oak, who claimed in one book that the Taj Mahal built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was really a Hindu palace, and in 1985 sought to prove that India once had an empire that included Britain. But more credible histories examining the effect of religion in India have generally been the work of foreigners, such as William Dalrymple’s splendid studies of Mughal India. Historians such as Ramachandra Guha and Pankaj Mishra – arguably the best Indian writer of non-fiction today – do seem ready to deal with this historical deficit, but even Guha found it necessary to preface his India after Gandhi with an apology labelling narrative history a ‘primitive technique’.

Guha is revealingly reluctant to discuss the personal lives of the politicians he is writing about. He does not tell us that Nehru had an affair with Lady Edwina Mountbatten but that ‘with both delicacy and truth [Edwina Mountbatten] can be referred to as his closest lady friend’. I cannot imagine a British historian being so coy. It means that Guha refrains from discussing whether Nehru’s policies  were influenced by his friendship with her husband, Lord Mountbatten – in particular, his disastrous policy towards China. And while Guha has found fascinating information, it is based on printed sources rather than interviews, even though many of the figures he writes about are still living.

Guha calls his section dealing with India since the 1990s ‘historically informed journalism’ rather than history, since the thirty-year rule for releasing official documents has not yet elapsed. Not many British writers would accept such a distinction. Indian historians have a horror of oral testimony. They need to overcome that, and be prepared to provide narrative histories, however ‘primitive’ the technique, if the story of India is not to be left to foreigners.

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