ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

The Challenge of Contemporary History

This essay explores and deplores a paradox - namely, that while India is the most interesting country in the world, we know so little about its history as an independent nation. The essay identifies the obstacles to the writing of contemporary history, and also outlines how they might be overcome. It suggests some important themes for research - among them, the histories of states, the histories of institutions, and the biographies of writers and activists. Finally, it suggests that since the study of colonialism is meeting with diminishing returns, contemporary history might and perhaps should become a "growth area" for the future.

SPECIAL ARTICLEjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly192The Challenge of Contemporary HistoryRamachandra GuhaThis essay explores and deplores a paradox – namely, that while India is the most interesting country in the world, we know so little about its history as an independent nation. The essay identifies the obstacles to the writing of contemporary history, and also outlines how they might be overcome. It suggests some important themes for research – among them, the histories of states, the histories of institutions, and the biographies of writers and activists. Finally, it suggests that since the study of colonialism is meeting with diminishing returns, contemporary history might and perhaps should become a “growth area” for the future.This essay is based on the Malcolm Adiseshiah Memorial Lecture, delivered in Chennai on November 21, 2007. I am grateful to André Béteille, Sumit Guha, Mukul Kesavan, Sunil Khilnani, Srinath Raghavan and James Scott for their comments and criticisms.Ramachandra Guha ( is a historian and writer based in Bangalore.History is demarcated from its sister disciplines principally by its method of gathering information. According to custom and convention, historians work in the archives, sociologists do field research, political scientists conduct surveys. In the Indian academy, however, the demarcations are also marked by a single moment in time. Thus, when the clock struck midnight on August 14-15, 1947, India was freed (and also divided), History ended, and Political Science and Sociology began.1 This division made sense in the first years of Independence. The British Raj had definitively ended; it could therefore be treated as “history”. The new nation was being made; its making (and un-making) could be fruitfully studied through the participatory methods of the ethnographer and the political scientist. But as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s and the 1970s, the division made less sense. Yet it has persisted. Even now, 60 years after Independence, August 15, 1947 remains a “lakshman rekha” observed faithfully on either side of the divide. Historians of India do not transgress beyond that date. Sociologists and political scientists do not look back before that date.21 A Paradox and a PuzzleThe overwhelming importance in the academy of that single date, August 15, 1947, has led to a paradox – namely, that while India is the most interesting country in the world, we know verylittle about its modern history. And what we do know about independent India is chiefly the work of sociologists, economists, political scientists, and journalists – not historians. In fact, the works of history, properly so-called, on any aspect of India since 1947 are so few that they can be counted on the fingers of one hand or, at most, two.3The paradox is also a puzzle. For it is not as if history as an academic discipline is underdeveloped in India. To the contrary, there is a large and visible community of historians of India, so large and so visible that they are, in fact, the envy of their col-leagues in Sociology and Political Science. These historians are British and American and French and Japanese as well as Indian. Some are Marxist, others post-Marxist or subalternist, still others professing to be non-ideological, faithful only to the canons of empirical research. Arguing vigorously among themselves, these historians constitute an incredibly productive community of scholars, who have influenced intellectual debates well outside the borders of the Indian Union.Perhaps even more than Indian economists, Indian historians have left their mark on global scholarship. Their special field of interest has been colonialism, or stated more precisely, the encounter between colonialism and nationalism. In contrast to the handful of works on independent India, there are perhaps
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 2008193several thousand books and articles on the history of British India. Among the areas most intensively mined are the high politics of viceroys and English-speaking nationalists; the sub-altern politics of peasants and workers; environmental histories of water, forest, and wildlife; the economic histories of agrarian and industrial structure; feminist histories of women in the household and in the factory; and cultural histories of art, archi-tecture, and literature. The historiography of India is a very rich and very well tilled field. It is also a very narrow one. For it has focused closely – some would say obsessively – on the period “from Plassey to Par-tition” (to invoke the title of a recent survey of the field).4 The narrowness of the time frame has come at a cost – in fact, a dou-ble cost. In recent years, historians have begun to challenge this obsession with colonialism from one, that is to say the prior, side of the divide – with regard to the period of Indian history before 1757.5 It is past time that the obsession is challenged from the other, that is to say the later, side of the divide – with regard to the period of Indian history after 1947. 2 Some Things We Do Not Know…I have referred to independent India as the most interesting country in the world. This is the impartial judgment of a historian, not the partisan claim of a citizen. For India may also be the most exas-perating and the most hierarchical and the most degrading coun-try in the world. But whatever qualifier or adjective one uses or prefers, it remains the most interesting country, too. This “in-terestingness” lies in the facts that it is very large and popu-lous, containing one-sixth of humankind; that this territory is astonishingly diverse, its peoples differentiated by religion and language and caste and ethnicity, as well as by ecology and technology and dress and cuisine; and that this massive and very diverse population is simultaneously undergoing four fundamental transformations. The Indian economy was once very largely based on agriculture; now, it increasingly depends upon industry and services. An overwhelming majority of Indians once lived in the villages; now, more and more Indians are making their homes in cities and towns. India was once a territory colonised by and ruled over by Europeans; now, it is an independent and sovereign country. The political culture of India was once feudal and defer-ential; now, it is combative and participatory. There were, and are, four revolutions occurring simultane-ously in India: the urban revolution, the industrial revolution, the national revolution, and the democratic revolution. The key word here issimultaneously. In Europe and the United States (US), for example, these revolutions were staggered. The US became a nation (or least proclaimed its national independence) in the 18th century; urbanised and industrialised in the 19th century; and became democratic only in the 20th century, after first women and then people of colour were granted the vote. In Europe, a continent broken up into many different nationalities, the pace of these different revolutions varied greatly across and within coun-tries. Crucially, in every country the national revolution preceded the democratic one by several decades or more. That is to say, the residents of a geographically defined and circumscribed territory came together under a single flag and currency well beforetheywere allowed to choose the men who would lead and govern them.India has three times as many people as the US; as many major languages as Europe; and far greater religious diversity than either theUS or Europe. Besides, it became a democracy at the same time as it became a nation (in striking contrast to its great Asian neighbour, China). In any event, the urban and industrial revolutions would have produced major conflicts and upheavals (as they have elsewhere in the world); but only in India have these conflicts and upheavals been articulated through the processes of political mobilisation and rhetorical expression that a democracy permits and even encourages. The size of its territory plus the diversity of its people plus the simultaneity of these four great social revolutions – this is what makes India the most inter-esting country in the world.Caste and ElectionsHowever, in focusing on the period of the Raj, the substantial and very sophisticated community of Indian historians has very largely ignored these multiple churnings. Take for instance those two words, and categories, and processes, which are of central importance to the history of modern India: caste, and elections. Sociologists and anthropologists have done numerous field studies of caste in every decade since independence. They have worked on single-caste villages, on multi-caste villages, on marginal castes like fisherfolk and pastoralists. They have investigated the relationship between the caste system and the agrarian economy, and between caste and politics. Likewise, political scientists have undertaken surveys and opinion polls at the time of every election since Independence. Their studies have sometimes focused on a sin-gle constituency; at other times on the dynamics of party competition in an entire state. Scholars have investigated voter behaviour, styles of campaigning, means of finance, and much else. There must be, by now, hundreds of books on caste in inde-pendent India, as well as many hundreds of articles on elections. Yet we do not have a single work by a historian that analyses or interprets the evolution of the caste system since Independence. Nor do we have a historical study that can illuminate our under-standing of how elections and electioneering have changed over these 60 years.The sociologist John Goldthorpe has argued that one advan-tage his discipline possesses is that it can generate its own evidence through fieldwork, interviews, and surveys. The histo-rian, he believes, is limited by his reliance on the world of the dead, that is, on what Goldthorpe calls “relics”.6 But he omits to mention the other side of the coin – namely, that precisely because they deal with the world of the living, sociologists and political scientists are seduced into predictions about the future which often, or perhaps even usually, turn out to be off the mark. The graveyard of the social sciences is littered with the corpses of failed forecasts, predictions by sociologists about the retreat of religion from public life, for example, or predictions by political scientists about the coming extinction of particular political parties or political institutions.On the other hand, because they deal with the past, and hence with acompleted social process, historians are in a position to
SPECIAL ARTICLEjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly194pass reasonably considered judgments on a particular society ina particular slice of time – on what happened there, how it happened, and on its larger significance. For the historian, the incomplete or fragmentary nature of evidence is compensated for by the completeness of the narrative. Seen from the perspectives of the disciplines, the orientations of the historian are different from that of the sociologist and the political scientist; seen from the perspective of human knowledge as a whole, they are also complementary.The studies by sociologists and political scientists of caste and/or elections were all conducted synchronically, that is, at a single point of time. A historical approach would differ in being diachronic, or across time. It would differ also in the kinds and varieties of sources used. Thus, for example, a historian writing a social history of elections would make use of the studies by political scientists, and supplement them with unpublished correspondence (whether personal or official), periodical litera-ture (in English and other languages), posters and pamphlets, and oral histories. Writing several years or decades after the event, the historian has the distance anddetachmentdenied to the participant observer. He7 has the ability to take a retrospec-tive and panoramic view, using these varied sources to track changes in patterns of party funding, or forms of propaganda and rhetoric, or the mobilisation of voters, or the incidence of elec-toral violence and crime. In the same manner, a scholar writing a history of caste since Independence would, to the published ac-counts of sociologists, juxtapose evidence from newspapers and journals, court records (civil and criminal), and parliamentary and legislative proceedings to interpret the changing role and significance of this very influential social institution.There is not a single book on the social history of caste in inde-pendent India; not a single book either on the social history of Indian elections. But the neglect runs far deeper than that. Thus the year 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the reorganisation of Indian states. Normally, anniversaries are a spur to the publi-cation of historical works – remember how many books were published in 1997 to commemorate or deplore the Partition of India?.8 And yet, the 50th anniversary of the formation of most Indian states was met with a resounding silence. No historian, living in any of the 28 states of India, thought it worth his while to write a social, or political, or cultural – or “total” – history of the state he was working in.Some of the states of India are larger than a large European country. Their history has been as colourful and tumultuous as the modern histories of, say, France or Germany. But whereas there might be a 50 or a 100 worthwhile histories of postwar France, there is not a single history of West Bengal since its formation in 1947. I mention this particular Indian state because it has a very active community of historians. These historians have restricted themselves almost wholly to the colonial period. There are hundreds of books and PhD theses on the agrarian structure of British Bengal, but not – so far as I know – a single historical study of Bengal agriculture since 1947. In this respect, at least, what Bengal thinks today the rest of India thinks today as well. Go to a bookshop in Thiruvananthapuram, and find there histories of colonial Malabar and the Maharaja’s Travancore, old district gazetteers and manuals, but not a single history of modern Kerala. When the advanced intellectual cultures of Indiahave been so remiss, how can we expect there to be decent histories of Gujarat or Karnataka?BiographyMove now from history to biography. There do exist some fine lives of our pre-eminent “national” leaders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), written by accomplished historians and biographers. Since their subjects all died after 1947, these biographies do also illuminate the history and politics of independent India.9 The second generation of national leaders, for example, Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, have also had serviceable lives written about them, albeit by journalists rather than historians.10Although these major national leaders have been written about, for a deeper historical understanding they need to be written about much more, and from many different angles. We need not one biography of Patel (which is all we have at the moment) but at least half-a-dozen. Moreover, we need to juxtapose these leaders to one another, to illuminate the rivalries and controversies that they initiated or responded to. For instance, a student of colonial India knows a great deal about how Jinnah and Nehru differed with regard to the Hindu-Muslim question, or about how Gandhi and Ambedkar disagreed about the past and future of the caste system. What, however, of the debates in inde-pendent India between Nehru and Rajaji on economic policy, or between Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan on the proper role of the state? Should we not know about these, too? Till the 1970s at least, politics in India had a strong moral and ideological core – it had not become, as it is now, wholly cynical and instru-mental. The policy and political debates of the 1950s and 1960s are interesting in themselves. More importantly, they had a defining impact on the career of the nation.The major “national” leaders have not been wholly ignored by historians and biographers. However, if one moves a level below the “nation”, one draws a complete blank. If one expects, as one must, hagiographies and party pamphlets, then there are no lives of such remarkable and historically significant figures as E M S Namboodiripad, C N Annadurai, Sheikh Abdullah, A Z Phizo, or Master Tara Singh. From the perspective of India as a whole, the likes of EMS and Anna might be considered “provincial” politicians. But their province is the size of a large European country. These leaders shaped, for good and for ill, the lives of 40 or 50 million people. Their policies profoundly altered the economic, social, and cul-tural histories of the states they lived in and led. At every major turning point in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, which also means the history of India and of Pakistan, one finds the hand of Sheikh Abdullah or of the party (and political dynasty) he founded. Likewise with Namboodiripad and the history of Kerala, or of Indian communism.That we have no lives of such Indians is a commentary only on the impoverishment of our historical imagination. Not being able to read a life of EMS of Kerala, or of Abdullah of Kashmir, is like being French and not being able to read a single life of Charles de Gaulle.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 2008195Like De Gaulle, these individuals are significant enough, from a historical point of view, to merit not one biography, but several.The individuals mentioned in the preceding paragraphs were all oppositional figures, who set themselves against the central government and, in some cases, against the Union of India. But there are no biographies either of other influential politicians whodid not “challenge” the system, but worked to reshape and rework it from within. I have in mind here such Indians as K Kamaraj, Chaudhury Charan Singh, Devaraj Urs, and Karpoori Thakur, whose life and work likewise impacted many million people. But it is not just the lives of politicians that historians need to research and write about. Often, the history of a society can be illuminated by taking, as one’s entry point, a middle-ranking figure, whose life and work touched both the top and the bottom, the decision-making élite as well as the humble farmer and labourer. Three such people in the history of independent India are the campaigning journalist and film-maker P K Atre, the nov-elist and activist Mahasweta Devi, and the novelist, journalist, film-maker and activist Kota Shivarama Karanth. One could write a wonderful social history of modern Maharashtra through Atre, or of modern Bengal through Mahasweta, or of modern Karnataka through Karanth. These names are thrown up for illustrative purposes only. Surely, in a country so large and so interesting, one could think of 30 or more Indian writers and thinkers, all of whom would, in a more sensitive and responsible intellectual climate, have already found their biographers.11Economic PolicyMove now from biography to policy. It is the conventional wisdom that the autarkic model of economic development adopted in the 1950s, where the state occupied the “commanding heights”, was a consequence of the preferences and prejudices of our first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, the claim that Nehru imposed a state-controlled economy on an unwilling nation is a claim made solely on the basis of the prejudices and preferences of the industrialists of today. The industrialists of Nehru’s day were by no means laissez-faire. In their Bombay Plan, they themselves asked for a strong and interventionist state. They even went so far as to quote the Cambridge economist A C Pigou to the effect that socialism and capitalism had to find a common meeting ground. And both Nehru and the Bombay capitalists were merely reflecting the spirit of the age. Across the board, among politicians, businessmen, scientists and economists, there was an over-whelming consensus in favour of a self-reliant, state-directed, “mixed economy” model for India’s development.This consensusis richly reflected in the private correspondence, official memoranda, scholarly literature, and newspaper commentary of the 1950s.12If the conventional wisdom with regard to the evolution of India’s economic policy is all too different from the historical truth, then there is no one to blame but the historians. Or, more specifically, the economic historians. These have scrupulously stayed on the far side of the lakshman rekha, writing many books and articles about the economic policies of the colonial state, while restraining themselves from examining, in an equally rigorous fashion, the economic policies of the successive govern-ments of independent India.The failure of the historian has led to gross misperceptions in the popular imagination, as in the myth of “Nehru the economic czar”. More seriously, it has led to colleagues in kindred disci-plines making elementary errors for which, again, it is not them but the historian who is to blame. For instance, in a newspaper article published in March 2005, a political scientist at Delhi University claimed that the “Hindu code bills, passed in 1955 and 1956, did not reform Hindu personal laws, they merely codified them, that is, brought them into conformity with what was assumed to be the ‘Indian’ norm – north Indian, upper caste practices”.13 Three months later, writing in another newspaper, another political scientist from the same university claimed that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)“had not opposed any legal or social reforms of Hindu society. It had proactively sup-ported such efforts. The support to the introduction of the Hindu Code Bill can be cited as just one example.”14Both these claims were false. The modernisation of Hindu personal laws was orchestrated by B R Ambedkar, who was admittedly male, but not north Indian, and certainly not upper caste. The reforms marked a substantial departure from (and improvement on) tradition and orthodoxy, allowing Hindu women, for the first time, to choose their marriage partners, to marry outside their caste, and to divorce (the reforms also sub-stantially enhanced a woman’s right to her husband’s or father’s property). And far from supporting these reforms, the RSS and kindred organisations in fact bitterly opposed them. Jana Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha members sought to stall the new laws in Parliament. The RSS organised hundreds of demonstrations call-ing on Nehru and Ambedkar to leave their posts for daring to tamper with Hindu tradition.15That, in everyday discourse, the common folk display a com-prehensive ignorance of the history of the 1950s is bad enough; but that this ignorance is manifested also by trained academics writing in newspapers is simply shocking. The fault lies with the historians. By turning their backs on the formative decades of Indian independence, when the economic, foreign and social policies of the Republic were shaped, they have allowed the events and happenings of those decades to be distorted and mis-represented according to the whims and fancies of the individual (or scholar) concerned. Historians have written with depth and insight of the many popular social movements that peppered the history of British colonial rule. But the period of Indian history after 1947 has scarcely been lacking in protest and struggle. We can thus look forward to historical analyses of the many movements of peas-ants and workers that took place in the 1950s and 1960. Again, the popular upsurge led by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s was written about at the time (not least in this journal); we now await a proper historical study of the same, detached from the passion and polemic of the present, and using the manuscripts and other materials that have since become available.InstitutionsAnother fruitful area of research might be the history of institu-tions. Consider All India Radio (AIR), an institution that played a formative part in the first few decades of independence. The AIR
SPECIAL ARTICLEjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly196sought to promote a national culture while paying respect to its regional diversities and differences. (One of its less recognised achievements was to help save the great traditions of Indian classical music from extinction.) At the same time, the impera-tive of cultural pluralism coexisted uneasily with the impera-tive of propaganda – for in political matters AIR tended to be an extension of the party in power. At any rate, in what was a largely illiterate society,AIR had a far greater reach and influ-ence than the periodical press. A history of this institution would be of absorbing interest. So too, would the histories of other institutions that have had a major impact on the life of the nation, such as (to take examples from two very different spheres) the National Dairy Development Board and the Delhi School of Economics.16Given the richness and diversity of the historical literature on modern India, the fact that so little of it deals with the period after 1947 is a paradox, a puzzle, and a pity. Other nations and intel-lectual cultures have been more fortunate. There is no reliable study of the formation of economic policy in independent India, but there are many excellent books on the formation of the welfare state in postwar Britain. Historians have not written with depth or insight about the (often very fertile) debates among writers and social scientists in independent India. Yet there are many outstanding studies of intellectual life in postwar France. No Indian historian has written a proper historical study of our wars with Pakistan. In contrast, studies by American historians of their postwar adventures in the Middle East and Asia are so numerous that they could stock a decent-sized library.The history of independent India is mostly unwritten. Even so, one knows that it will be more diverse and more exciting than the postwar histories of France and the United Kingdom and the US. This is because, as a culture, a society, and a nation, India is altogether more diverse and exciting than France or England or America – or any of the other hundred-odd members of the United Nations.3 Hurdles and ImpedimentsThe historian who writes about the recent past faces difficulties very different from (and sometimes unknown to) the historian who writes about the more distant past. One problem is the availability of sources. Government archives and private papers generally become open only after 30 years. Relevant secondary sources may also not be abundant, since memoirs and bio-graphies of key historical actors tend to be written or published some years or decades after the events which they helped shape or determine.A second challenge faced by the contemporary historian is that his audience often has strong notions about the topics he is writing about. A historian of the Vijayanagara empire or a biographer of Krishnadevaraya expects that his readers will know little about the subject. His own scholarly expertise, and the depth and originality of his research, carry great authority and value. In such cases, the historian speaks or writes, and the reader listens or reads, and learns. But a historian of modern Kerala or the biographer of E M S Namboodiripad cannot count on such willing passivity. For his readers already have decided opinions about the subject. Facts or interpretations that tend to confirm these opinions will be endorsed; those that tend to dispute them will be dismissed. The reader of contemporary history, unlike the reader of medi-eval or early modern history, is not willing to take the historian on trust. He comes to the text with his own, and often long-held, political and ideological preferences. The reader, in other words, knows the “truth” even before the historian offers it to him. The reader’s truth is usually based on hearsay and prejudice rather than evidence or research; for these very reasons, it is clung on to fiercely, even though the alternate, historian’s, truth, may be based on solid research and scholarship.The farther back one goes in time, the more comfortable the historian is, the more in command of his material, the more secure of his terrain. No reader would challenge the historian of the Mughal empire in the same, direct, combative way as he might challenge the historian of the 1950s. The biographer of Akbar, or even Aurangzeb, will not face the same searching, sceptical audience as will the biographer of Nehru or Indira Gandhi. The reader’s confidence in his own opinions decreases in propor-tion to the distance in time. The readerknows that there are some things recent rulers or politicians, say Nehru or Namboodiripad, should have done differently. But when it comes to individuals or institutions of a 100 or 200 years ago, the reader is more hesitant – he may wish that things had turned out other than they had, but he is not so certain that theycould have. The reader of contemporary history is a critical reader – an active participant in the historical dialogue. But it is not only the reader who brings his prejudices to bear on the facts of history. The historian might sometimes do so, too. This, then, is the third challenge of contemporary history, namely, that the historian of the recent past can himself have strong, and pre-conceived, opinions about his subject matter. Before he enters the archives he may already know what kind of conclusion he is looking for. Evidence that fits his line of thinking will be eagerly seized upon; evidence that confutes it disregarded. It is not easy for a historian of modern Kerala to stand completely apart from the Communist-Congress polemics of the present day. On the other hand, the historian of the Vijayanagara empire is less likely to bring his political preferences to bear on his scholarly research. Both the writing and reception of contemporary history are suffused with passion and prejudice. For the world that the historian and his reader live in, and share, has been profoundly shaped by the personalities and policies of the recent past. The imprint of E M S Namboodiripad and his party hangs heavy on modern Kerala, just as the imprint of Jawaharlal Nehru and his party hangs heavy on modern India. Every thinking Malayali has an opinion about EMS and communism, every thinking Indian an opinion about Nehru and the Congress. On the other hand, the imprint of rulers and political regimes of more distant times is less easy to recognise. Thus, for both the reader and the historian, the farther back in time one goes, the more easy it is to stand apart from the din and clamour of political controversy and debate. The farther back one goes, the more willing is the reader to respect and seek to learn
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 2008197from the historian. The farther back one goes, the less likely is the historian to let his personal or ideological agenda have a bearing on his scholarship.17These three challenges – namely, that the sources can run thinly on the ground, that the reader is a critical reader of the text, and that the historian can himself be strongly prone to bias and prejudice – are common to contemporary historians every-where. But they operate with force in India. Here, the sources are even more scarce than they are in some other countries. India claims to be the “world’s largest democracy”, which in some re-spects (as for instance the number of voters) it certainly is. But in the matter of official records the government of India is lessthan democratic. Other established democracies make officialdocu-ments available to scholars 30 years after the event. It is worth noting that a country like Israel, which has ongoing and bitter disputes with its neighbours, scrupulously adheres to the 30-year rule, even with regard to questions of borders and sovereignty. But out of a peculiarly Indian combination of fear and careless-ness, very few of the records of the government of India for 1947 and later have been transferred to the National Archives. And those materials that have reached the archives are not particu-larly interesting or important. For instance, the records relating to the framing of our economic, foreign and linguistic policies since 1947 are still not accessible to scholars.‘Public’ and ‘Private’Historical research is also impeded by the fuzzy boundaries that exist in India between the “public” and the “private”. For instance, the official papers of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remain in the control of his descendants. Only two foreign scholars and two Indians have been allowed to consult them. The official correspondence as prime minister of Indira Gandhi has not been shown to anyone outside the family. That theseofficialpapers are not available to scholars is possibly illegal. That they remain closed is certainly an impediment to the deeper understanding of the policies of the government of India between 1947 and 1964, between 1966 and 1977, and between 1980 and 1984.Outside of the Nehru-Gandhi family, too, the private or official papers of influential individuals are also not nearly as abundant or accessible as one might wish them to be. For Indians in general are indifferent to records and artefacts; thus, when a distin-guished Indian passes away, his records are often burnt or dis-posed of as ‘raddi’. Alternately, they may be guarded with an almost paranoid vigilance, secreted and kept away from scholars. (The former is the case usually with writers or social workers; the latter the case usually with politicians or demagogues.)The compulsions and pressures of academic fashion also act as a deterrent to contemporary history. For some time now, the agenda for Indian history-writing has been principally set by the currents of postmodernism and post-structuralism. These ten-dencies tend to underprivilege archival research; they have little time for political history; and they are actively hostile to bio-graphy. Finally, these fashions and trends are obsessed with the impact of European colonialism. Those in thrall to academic fashion may not be so easily persuaded to fill the gaps in our historical understanding identifiedin this essay. To write about the Bengal of the 1920s is to connect oneself to grand and ostensibly universal themes such as “colonialism” and “modernity”; to write about West Bengal in the1950s, when the whites had all departed and the truncated province was merely part of the Republic of India, is to run the risk of appearing, at least among one’s peers, “provincial”. This may be one reason why the historiography is so disproportion-ately biased towards the first half of the 20th century; why, for every historical article or book written about Bengal in the 1950s, there are perhaps a 100 articles or books written about Bengal in the 1920s.4 And How to Overcome ThemThe preceding section underlined some of the hurdles placed in front of the historian of contemporary India. This concluding section is an exhortation to my colleagues to disregard or over-come them.To begin with, the sources for contemporary history are perhaps more abundant than many Indian historians allow. True, the National Archives in New Delhi, and the India Office collections of the British Library in London, are filled mostly with records of the colonial period. But the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has painstakingly built up a magnificent collection of private and institutional papers. A handbook issued by the Nehru Library in 2003 lists as many as 681 separate collec-tions. These include the papers of major political parties, as well of influential and important writers, scientists, civil servants, diplomats, and above all, of politicians from all sides of the ideo-logical spectrum.18 Some state archives have also collected the papers of Indians who lived and worked after Independence.From these collections one can, if one chooses, reconstruct many aspects of the political and institutional history of inde-pendent India. In fact, the materials in the manuscripts section of theNMML proved indispensable in the writing of my book India after Gandhi. However, after that book was published, the new management of theNMML imposed strict curbs on access to mate-rials for the post 1947 period. In earlier times, in particular under the stewardship of the remarkable Ravinder Kumar, the direc-tors of the NMML had allowed scholars access to all records in their collection that were more than 30 years old. Now, however, the fear of offending their political masters has made the NMML management restict access to documents relating to Kashmir, China, the Emergency, and other such matters deemed conten-tious or controversial. Again, this policy is probably illegal, for the donors of these collections of private papers have not imposed any such restrictions. One hopes that this short-sighted (and anti-intellectual) policy will be reversed, and scholars once more allowed unfettered access to the records in the collection of the NMML.Official records and private papers are two crucial resources for contemporary history. A third, and equally important, resource is the fabulous riches of India’s periodical press. The NMML itself has a superb collection on microfilm of daily news-papers in English, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, and other languages; as well as runs of important weeklies. Newspaper and journal offices elsewhere in the country also maintain their own files.
SPECIAL ARTICLEjune 28, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly198Vigorous and independent, documenting and reflecting the social and political currents of the day, the Indian press is a wonderful resource for historians, if somewhat underutilised by them.19 A fourth source is, of course, oral history. Here the contempo-rary historian has a decided advantage over his more backward-looking colleagues. The biographer of the 19th century Bengali reformer Raja Rammohun Roy can only know of his subject at third or fourth hand. But the biographer of the 20th century Bengali politician B C Roy can actually meet, in the flesh, many individuals who knew his subject, sometimes intimately. The same is true for social history: for instance, there are many people around who participated in the all-India railwaymen’s strike of 1974, whereas the rebels of the Santhal ‘hool’ of 1855 have been dead a century and more. It would be unwise for a historian to rely wholly on oral testimonies; however, when used judiciously, along with and as a complement to contemporary documents – whether private letters or notings or newspaper reports – they can be of much value in reconstucting the somewhat recent past.20A fifth source consists of the official papers of other countries which have had close (or contentious) relations with India. Thus, the diplomatic missions in New Delhi of the governments of the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, and France (among others) have kept a close watch on Indian developments, meeting Indians acrosss the social spectrum and from different parts of the country. Their findings have been communicated in detail in dispatches sent home. These letters and documents are now accessible in the national archives of these countries. They contain valuable infor-mation on practically every aspect of Indian politics and economics. Contrary to what is sometimes supposed (or claimed), the sources for writing contemporary history in India do exist. The research into these sources will be laborious; the writing up of the material, perhaps harder still. For the historian of the recent past has to work his way around the prejudices of the present. We know that Indian history is a most contentious terrain. The battles over our nationalist heritage are very bitter indeed. Therearethose who see Gandhi and the Congress as the real deliverers of India’s freedom: others who would accord the acco-lade to Savarkar and Hindutva; still others to Bhagat Singh and revolutionary socialism; yet others to Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army. Perilous PathThe historian of Indian nationalism has to negotiate a perilous path between these competing interpretations and claims. Who is to say that the task of the historian of independent India will be any easier? If anything, it might be more difficult still. The passions generated by Jawaharlal Nehru are even more heated than those generated by Mahatma Gandhi. Dispassionate analyses oftheperiod of Indian history since 1947 are even more likely to be silenced or intimidated by sectarian identities based on caste and religion.There is the worry that anything a historian will say or write about the recent past will be “politicised”; but the historian cannot escape his obligations, his academic duty, his professional calling, for that reason alone. However, to write contemporary history in a coherent, plausible,independent way, the historian must approach his sources with a completely open mind. He cannotcompletely abandon his own beliefs and prejudices; but he can at least try to hold them in abeyance. How best can the historian face up to the challenge of contem-poraneity? How best can he rise above the arguments and animosities of the present day, to which he, as much as his reader, is also prey? Two maxims might be useful here. The first is from F W Maitland; “What is now in the past was once in the future”. The second is from George Orwell: “The writer must not be a loyal member of a political party”. Maitland’s maxim warns us against using the privilege of hindsight. Orwell’s warns us against imposing the political preferences of today on our renditions of the past. My own view is that the historian needs a generation’s distance to write dispassionately and seriously about the past. In the 1960s, the 1950s could not be treated as “history”; but in the first decade of the 21st century it certainly can. After 25 or 30 years have passed, one can view events and processes away from the partisan passions they gave rise to at the time. The happenings of this and the previous decade are the stuff of currrent affairs; the historian has no business passing judgment on them. For example, one does not yet know whether economic liberalisation will deci-sively end the endemic poverty of the peoples of south Asia. One does not know either whether the Hindutva wave has peaked, and will pass. On the other hand, the period of independent India up to and including the Emergency can be viewed through a properly historical lens. Living through the 1970s, it was hard not to take sides in the rivalry between Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, to see one (either one) as a protector or liberator, and the other as a destroyer. Now, so many decades later, with so many new sources available, and with the distance that comes with time, one does not have to take sides any more in that once intense rivalry (the fact that the rivals are both dead also helps). One might even see those fierce competitors as being, in the long run, collaborators – collaborators in the undermining of constitutional democracy, one working from above, the other from below. Growth Area of Future?My own hope is that the study of the first decades of independent India will become, for historians old and young, Indian and for-eign, the real growth area of the future. The India of the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s – this was an extraordinary country living through extraordinarily interesting times. It was an unnatural nation; and an even more unlikely democracy. Never before had a society so large and so diverse sought to make itself into asingleterritorial unit; never before had a population so over-whelmingly poor and illiterate based its political system on universal adult franchise. As a political experiment, the Republic of India has no parallel or precedent. But there was, as I have noted, a social and eco-nomic churning too. A society based on deference was learning to live with the language of rights; an economy based on the land was diversifying into other forms of productive activity. In the different states of the Union, and in the different regions and
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW june 28, 2008199districts within them, these transformations were manifesting themselves in different ways. The variations in language, social structure, and ecology made for different local and regional histories, all articulated within a wider history of India as a whole. These histories were sometimes marked by contention and conflict; at other times, by consensus and collaboration. The claims and desires of various social groups were expressed directly by themselves, and indirectly through the representa-tions of artists, writers, musicians, and film-makers.The year 1947 marked a watershed in Indian history; as, long before that, did the year 1757. For, the colonial impact on the subcontinent was wideranging as well as longlasting. The British brought with them new technologies of production and communication; new forms of political authority; new ideas on society and culture; and, of course, a new language to expresses them in. The different parts of the subcontinent did not experience British rule in the same uniform pattern. The interventions of the rulers varied widely; one land system was imposed on eastern India, for example, but a very different one in the South. The indigenous response varied, too; some groups in some peri-ods met the new institutions with resigned acceptance; others with militant opposition; yet others with a critical engagement. The languages of resistance and incorporation varied from province to province and often within a province as well. When India became independent, a long, deep, look back at the period of British rule seemed a necessary task for the histo-rian. For, the economy, society, polity, and ecology of the Indian subcontinent wasshaken up by colonialism; and shaken up in a 100 different ways. One can understand why the colonial encounter, in all its variations and manifestations, became the ‘boom’ area of historical research. One can appreciate and admire the very many excellent books and essays that came out of this preoccupation. One must still insist that the historian’s obsession with colonialism has gone on far too long. Post-1947 ChangesThis insistence stems from the understanding that the changes unleashed by that momentous year, 1947, have been at least as far-reaching as those set in motion by the outcome of the Battle of Plassey. But they have beenmuch less written about. Take, again, for illustrative purposes only, the social history of West Bengal in the decades after the British had departed. The 1950s saw the massive influx of refugees from the east, which transformed the demography and social life of the premier city, Calcutta. The 1960s witnessed scarcity, food riots, the temporary eclipse of the ruling Congress, and the rise of the Naxalite movement. The 1970s began with bloody battles between two kinds of commu-nists, continued with the Emergency, and ended with the emphatic electoral victory of the Left Front over the Congress. The 1980s saw the CPM consolidate its hold over the countryside through agrarian reform and political decentralisation. The 1990s began a partial reversal of the anti-urban bias of the Ben-gal communist; the present decade has seen the reversal continue further, with unexpected effects (as in the bitter battles about land acquisition).These are the bare, sketelal, facts, as put down by someone who does not read Bengali and does not know Bengal particu-larly well. But once – or if – the trained historian puts flesh and blood on them, who is to say that the history of postcolonial Bengal will turn out to be any less interesting than the history of colonial Bengal? On the political and economic fronts, it appears to have been scarcely less tumultuous. And we have not even mentioned the cultural side yet. For, the West Bengal of these years also showcased the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, the plays of Utpal Dutt, the stories of Sunil Gangopadhyay and Subhas Mukhopadhyay, and the poetry of Sudhin Dutta. I am confident, too, that the post-colonial histories of other parts of India will be as absorbing. The state I live in, Karnataka, has certainly enjoyed its own roller-coaster ride. Here, the first decade of freedom was dominated by the Samyukta Karnataka movement, by the struggle to create a single political unit within which all Kannada speakers could dwell. The second decade was dominated by a tussle for political dominance between the Vokkaligas of the southern parts of the state and the Lingayats of the north. The third decade saw these two major castes being temporarily sidelined by an alliance of backwards and Muslims. The fourth decade witnessed (as in Bengal and elsewhere) the end of the Congress hegemony, and a fascinating but ultimately failed experiment with panchayati raj. The fifth dec-ade saw impressive strides by the software industry, a move-ment of agrarian capital into manufacturing and real estate, and a rise in Hindu-Muslim violence. The sixth decade was marked by the emergence of Bangalore as a favoured destina-tion for foreign investment, and by unprecedented levels of political corruption. Taking the period as a whole, the political and economic transformations were profound, and their cultural expressions varied and effervescent. For the history of modern Karnataka has also featured, among other things, the stories of U R Anantha Murty and Devanoor Mahadeva; the plays of Girish Karnad, Chandrasekhar Kambar, and K V Subanna; the films of Rajkumar and of Girish Kaseravalli; and the poetry of Kuvempu and Adiga. Academic fashion calls the scholar to focus on the period of British rule. Political partisanship calls him to pass quick and motivated verdicts on the history of the recent past. But these calls are not compulsions. They can be resisted, and they must. As an ordinary citizen, one might certainly be more content in Sweden or England; but, as a historian, where else would one want to live in and work on than contemporary India? Thereare so many archives to dig into it, so many narratives to construct and share. To turn one’s back on these archives and narratives is to live in the most interesting country in the world, and yet to abuse that privilege.21 Whether one is a political historian, a social historian, a feminist historian, an environmental historian; whether one is an urban historian, an agrarian historian, a film historian, a literary historian – in sum,whatever branch or style of history one owes an allegiance to; there are diminishing returns from working on the colonial period. The history of independent India after 1947, and of its states and regions, is easily as interesting as the




$ (

, - ! ! - # $ % ! # $ % '! # $ % ( ! ) '*
. +

$ / '

*! 01'$'1$'2 '34-5336$ 7$$)$5336 #

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top