Friday, October 28, 2011

An Airtight Compartment: India's historians prefer committee versions of history

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since clever one-liners are as much a part of a journalist’s stock-in-trade as hard information or penetrating insights, I have often described myself as a lapsed historian. This self-description has served two functions: first, to explain why the past invariably intrudes into my writings on the present and, second, to allay fears of being a crashing bore.
This may seem needlessly harsh on India’s historians — a community that is forever involved in public brawls over one thing or another. In most ‘free’ countries, by which I don’t include China and countries with a Ba’athist-inspired dispensation, historians are among the most exciting people to have as intellectual decorations. They tend to be witty, irreverent, erudite and, most important, quirky. A historian who can discuss corruption in India with a passing reference to Gibbon’s account of the ‘sale’ of the Roman Empire to Didius Julianus by the venal Praetorian Guard is the sort of person we’d love to fly with. In the old days, a savage book review by A.J.P. Taylor was an occasion that we all looked forward to.

Historians were very clever but they could also be rather nasty people, especially when bitching about fellow historians. I recall the casually devastating observation of the Cambridge historian, Eric Stokes, that someone must have thrust a copy of a Rajani Palme Dutt pamphlet in the hands of an ageing Sarvepalli Gopal. It was a not-very-subtle way of suggesting that Gopal’s biography of Jawaharlal Nehru was riddled with dogmatic certitudes and, perhaps, was characteristic of the university he inhabited in old age.

Even ideological convergence didn’t automatically promote conviviality. I particularly recall Eric Hobsbawm’s carping observation in Interesting Times that E.P. Thompson was “a man showered by the fairies at birth with all possible gifts but two. Nature had omitted to provide him with an in-built sub-editor and an in-built compass”.

Maybe it was Hobsbawm getting his own back on Thompson for his disavowal of the Communist Party after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the so-called ‘revolt of the intellectuals’. However, I detected a conflict of temperaments. Despite a commonality brought about by a shared vision of proletarian power, these were two different individuals. Hobsbawm was an austere, refined patrician, strangely reminiscent of the pre-war European man of letters. Thompson, by contrast, was emotional and excitable and very English. Hearing him declaim passionately about subjects as diverse as nuclear disarmament and the Luddites, he often reminded me of a radical vicar, always at odds with Lambeth Palace but yet accepted in the Church of England.

The sheer versatility of the tribe, the ability to garnish academic rigour with individual eccentricities, have added value to the public standing of historians. Because the study of history is, by its very nature, riddled with tentativeness, historians have helped embellish the past with insights of human behaviour. Just as no two histories can be the same, no two historians should be or even aspire to be the same. There is nothing more unprepossessing than histories written by a committee or disputes involving the past being resolved through a show of hands.

Ironically, both these are routine occurrences in India. “Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec,” was the only advice that Winston Churchill, then prime minister, proffered his education secretary, Rab Butler, during the passage of the Education Act of 1944. How to tell the story of Empire was for teachers, historians and society to ponder: it was not something any government could speak for the nation. Yet, in India, history writing is a preoccupation of the State and the successful historians are the ones best able to translate political priorities into a committee version of history.
Where the stories of the past are, ideally, replete with question marks of uncertainty and tentativeness, the history-speak of India is over-stuffed with certitudes, the ‘correct’ views. Sometime in the early 1990s, the Indian History Congress decided to settle the question of whether a temple predated the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya through a show of hands. The display of professional democracy, unfortunately, told us more of the historians of India than it did about a dispute that divided India emotionally.

All this circumnavigation is in aid of an anecdote. Some three months ago, I was hugely excited after reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, a book I hoped many more people would buy and read. It so happened that I bumped into one of the pillars of India’s historical establishment at a dinner around that time. I couldn’t resist telling her about the book and about Ferguson’s earlier works. “That’s not history,” was the icy retort.
Ferguson, by the way, is a professor of history at Harvard and was also a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Yes, he does a lot of television but his scholarly credentials are very kosher.

Since it is rude to press a disagreement at a social occasion — I’ve had whisky thrown at my face for informing an earnest sociologist in 1996 that Uma Bharti was a personal friend — I left it that. However, interactions with students of history at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University resulted in two surprising discoveries. First, that Niall Ferguson was indeed shunned by the academic pundits, maybe because his books, like Heineken, reached parts that others don’t, and second, that it was just not done to blend the scholarly with the popular, a euphemism for the non-professional historian.

The envy part of the story is understandable but the rejection of the non-tenured historian is baffling. Earlier this year saw the publication of Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, a Briton of Ghanian origin who, apart from having a doctorate in history from Cambridge, is also the Conservative member of parliament for Spelthorne in Surrey. Kwarteng also wears an old Etonian tie which makes him triply suspect.

Kwarteng’s thesis is compelling: “The British Empire was nothing more than a series of improvisations conducted by men who shared a common culture, but who had very different ideas about government and administration. There is very little unifying ideology in this imperial story. It was grand and colourful but it was highly opportunistic, dominated by individualism and pragmatism.”

Expressed in another way, Kwarteng has argued that there was no grand imperial project that led to half the world being coloured in red by 1918: the Empire resulted from a series of local decisions, some well-considered and others, such as the annexation of Burma, a consequence of impulsiveness.

In an environment of post- colonial angst, Kwarteng is certain to be regarded as another ‘revisionist’. This may not be an incorrect description if it is assumed that academic orthodoxies, like fashion, keep changing ever so often. But the more relevant point is that a revisionist challenge can only be mounted if the history establishment opens its doors and windows to let the outside air in. If historians choose to live in airtight compartments, they can wallow in their own correctness but with the associated risk of obsolescence and fossilization.

Centres of learning often have their origins in religious seminaries, what in India are called the ‘mutts’. A feature of this tradition is that knowledge is pursued for its own sake. But the self-enforced monastic insularity can also trigger hideous intellectual distortions.

At the heart of the kerfuffle over the inclusion and exclusion in the Delhi University history syllabus of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on multiple Ramayanas is the closed shop. India’s historians believe that to stroll outside their cloistered habitat involves the danger of falling off the edge of the world. No wonder they count for so little in the arguments over India.

Telegraph, October 28, 2011

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