Historians prevent us from becoming a people without history

  • Rohan D'Souza
  • Updated: Aug 09, 2015 18:15 IST
Shashi Tharoor delivers his speech at the Oxford Union debate. (Screenshot from video)

It is hard to miss the irony in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s effusive praise of Shashi Tharoor’s debating skills at Oxford University. The former minister of state for foreign affairs and human resource development (2012-2014) not only let fly a scorching and withering critique of British Imperialism but carried out the charge with such stirring eloquence that the word empire itself was ingloriously flung into the dustbin of history. And of course, this triumph was crowned when the debate went ‘viral’. The media in India too gushed with fulsome praise for delivering to the citizens of an erstwhile colony a total victory in a single afternoon of compelling prose and exemplary erudition.

In the fog of this oratorical victory, Modi seems to have failed to fully grasp the colour of the arguments that he was praising. History as the sword of choice in the Oxford University Union debates always comes encased in an ideological sheath. Tharoor was rehearsing, if not ably belabouring, a critique of British colonialism that drew upon rich scholarly contributions of Left-nationalist and Marxist historians. This avowedly Left-wing anti-colonial scholarship of the immediate post-Independence period not only built on the early economic criticisms made by Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt but also further explained the complex financial mechanisms of colonial exploitation.

In the course of painstaking research, these scholars were able to credibly build a distinct anti-colonial historiography, which could convincingly explain independent India’s economic backwardness. Poverty and underdevelopment, they argued, could be squarely traced to historical injustice through notions such as the ‘drain’ of wealth from India to Britain, the de-industrialisation of the country by British manufacturing interests and the strategic colonial neglect of Indian industrialisation. Seminal contributions by Bipan Chandra, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Barun De and Sumit Sarkar, to name a few, were foundational in disproving the claim that gnawing economic underdevelopment in British India was simply a result of the Empire’s unsuccessful attempts to civilise South Asia.

Read | Tharoor: Modi talks of development but condones its opposite

These Left-wing nationalist and Marxist historians were able to very substantially upturn the ‘Orientalist’ and ‘Utilitarian’ histories that the likes of Alexander Dow, William Jones, Max Mueller or James Mill had assembled as a style of framing South Asia in terms of an unchanging, spiritual and passive ‘people without a history’. In such colonial interpretations, the South Asian subcontinent was essentially made up of a collection of loose internally contradictory cultural blocs comprising castes, religions, endogamous groupings and tribes who could not provide the social or political ingredients for modern nation-making.

This colonial view of the subcontinent’s pasts, moreover, was further undermined in the early decades of India’s independence with the emergence of modern professional history writing and the embrace of a decisive secular and material turn. In particular, a prolific set of pioneering publications dealing with the ancient and medieval periods by the likes of DD Kosambi, RS Sharma, Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib (to mention a few) made a strong case to understand Indian history as a rational project that was very open to non-spiritual reasoning. It is this rich legacy of Left-nationalist and Marxists scholarship that in fact made Tharoor’s unimpeachable facts and claims possible.

Ironically, Modi’s praise for the victory at Oxford University comes at a time when his government has been actively undermining these very same intellectually robust secular and material histories by trying to resuscitate instead the much-discredited Orientalist notion of an unchanging religious India.

Tharoor cannot entirely escape the accusation of strangling Indian scholarship. As minister for education, his tenure was more than lacklustre, even somewhat fatal, for social sciences research in India. The UGC, for example, was allowed to run riot with conflicting rules and instructions. Instead of helping augment the government’s ability to deliver on public education, especially for higher learning in the arts and humanities, what one saw was a drift and the steady dismantling of institutions. For the field of history, nothing was done to rebuild, restore or even revive the decrepit state of archives. The case of Delhi University is only too well known to bear repetition. History writing in India today happens under the most trying infrastructural and financial constraints. One wonders if there are ways to demand reparations from ministers of education who wreck and debilitate scholarship?

Read | I was impressed by Modi's gesture: Tharoor

But the last laugh must still, ironically enough, belong to Oxford University and Britain in general. The fact is that the British library and its well-maintained collections still remain the premier archival holding on India’s colonial past. The British University system, moreover, continues to fund and maintain its historians and the study of history with superior infrastructure and commitment than what India offers to its relatively impoverished counterparts.

It is all well and good to play victim in the charmed environs of Oxford University or tickle the conscience of the British elite, but the real defeat of colonial arrogance would have been more meaningful if lesser-known Indian universities like Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University in Bihar or Indira Kala Sangit Vishwavidyalaya in Chhattisgarh had been given the infrastructure, the libraries and the resources to produce great scholarship and historians.

The ‘idea’ of India, at heart, is a project of history and any government that fails to nurture, develop or sustain this historical imagination by encouraging good and rigorous scholarship plays dangerously with its foundations. Already the better libraries, archives and collections on India lie abroad. Eliminating historians and their craft is but one step to becoming a people without history.

(Rohan D’Souza is associate professor, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University. The views expressed are personal)

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