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The accidental historian

Richard Eaton, liberal India's favourite Western scholar - in town for the first time after the Ayodhya verdict - on Islam, Hinduism, and why historians became 'servants of politics'. Paramita Ghosh writes.

art and culture Updated: Dec 05, 2010 00:20 IST
Paramita Ghosh

Grand historical narratives have almost always had humble beginnings in the exacting labour of microscopic research. French Annales historians such as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel showed how to mingle the modesty of a local schoolteacher's profession with the ambitious scope of a historian's vocation. Richard M Eaton, liberal India's favourite western scholar, has followed in their footsteps.

In town for the Medieval History Journal's annual lecture, Eaton turned into a historian from two encounters. He met India via Iran and he travelled through an American county looking for a teaching job. On any subject. It turned out that they wanted a history teacher.

In the Sixties, this gameyness turned the 21-year-old college graduate with a degree in philosophy towards history with a small detour through soil chemistry.

"I was posted in Tabriz as a Peace Corps volunteer…. Before the (Islamic) Revolution, the government of Iran thought Americans could teach anything, so I was asked to teach soil chemistry in an agricultural school," says Eaton with a laugh, sitting on one of the ramparts of the Lodhi tomb, remembering a journey to Delhi in the mid-sixties by train from Iran across the Baluchistan desert.

Eaton's book, Essays on Islam and Indian History (2000) has been the backbone of most arguments for denying the Hindu right's charge of Islam as the sole guiding principle for the destruction of temples by the Mughal rulers of India, and makes it essential reading, especially in our post-Ayodhya times.

Historian Harbans Mukhia says Eaton shifted the terms of debate in medieval history.

"Unlike the Sangh Parivar's fanciful claims that 60,000 temples were demolished in the medieval period, Eaton showed through scientific data and intensive research into primary sources that the number was actually 80 over the entire spread of Muslim rule in India from 1190 to 1760. He also investigated why, when and where the temples were destroyed and the wide range of motives that led to their destruction".

For example, according to Eaton's book, in 1679, temples patronised by Rajput chieftain, Rana Raj Singh, were destroyed by Aurangzeb for having backed his brother and rival, Dara Shikoh.

According to Eaton, the recent Ayodhya judgment - which some have interpreted as 'legitimising' the Babri demolition - is a "panchayat decision" and is symptomatic of the success with which Hindu fundamentalists have been able to project the concept of a 'Hindu nation' versus a 'Muslim nation' onto the 16th century.

"The idea of India as a nation or even two nations is a modern construct. And there was no sustained pattern of a Hindu resistance to Muslim rule unlike Chinese history which was marked by unstable dynasties and their violent overthrow," he says.

Unlike many western scholars whose need to 'understand' Islam is as recent as the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, if not 9/11, Eaton's interest stems from evidences of Islam's pluralism. That this is not a popular idea, even among Muslims themselves, owes a lot, he says, to the technology of communication.

"Earlier, you had local, village Islams... Then came the steamship. Muslims from different parts of the country started going for the Haj together. Travelling on the ship, they began to see themselves as a single community," he says.

"The TV, radio, ship, broke down differences between here and there. It made it all one."

Why is history writing in India skewed? National movements, says Eaton, made it necessary for historians to justify India, and Pakistan, in bipolar terms.

"Historians became servants of politics," he says.

"Post-Independence, the use of Persian declined and historians did not look up sources in the original. To discover new information, you have to go to the mofussil record rooms and not just sit in Calcutta and expect them to come to you."

Or, think that if the information was not in Delhi or Kolkata, it was in London.

If history doesn't stand still, should historians? Eaton, who witnessed the birth of the Subaltern Studies school in the '80s, says its latter-day tendency to do historiography "by keeping the British Raj in the centre" defeated its initial work of writing history from below.

Eaton says his work has Marxist 'influences'.

"Marx," he says, "taught that history is not just pushed along by great men."

As for Partha Chatterjee, the leading light of the Subaltern school, he is, says Eaton, "an old monument".