September 06, 2006

Using Historiography to emphasis an Ideological Stand

V. N. Dutta, Professor Emeritus, is a regular columnist in Spectrum, a Sunday section in The Tribune published from Chandigarh. He writes the column "Off the Shelf". Earlier he was quite regular. His reviews of different books were surfeited with scholarly comments. Last year, his reviews were full of literary references even of the book of literature wherein he was seen departing from discussing the history books and taking up the books from literature. However, this year his column is not appearing regularly. As one can assume that he has advanced in age and may be he is not keeping up with the editorial demands of the publication. Even the last review, one before the last Saturday, did not carry the stamp of V. N. Dutta genre.

Last Saturday, that is September 3, 2006, he wrote a review on "The Last Emperor" by S. Mahdi Husain, republished from Delhi. The first edition was published in 1956. While recollecting the event of the publication of the book in 1956, Prof. Datta referred to an incidence which prompted Husain to publish the biography of the Last Emperor. I reproduce the whole paragraph verbatim below:

"The impulse to the writing of the biography of Bahadur Shah originated from the controversy that had aroused between the author and the doyen of historians, Dr R. C. Majumdar. The author wrote an article, Emperor Bahadur Shah II and his Role in the War of 1857, in Amrit Bazar Patrika, November 18, 1956. In this article, Husain had emphasised that Emperor Bahadur Shah was a staunch patriot. Fired by a passionate zeal, he fought for the freedom of his country from the fetters of foreign rule. Husain also maintained that the War of 1857 was the war of independence and not a mere sepoy revolt, as is commonly known. Ten days later, on November 28, 1956, Majumdar, contesting Husain’s views rebutted that only one epitaph fitted suitably to Bahadur Shah, and that was treachery. In other words, Bahadur Shah was a traitor who betrayed the sepoys. Husain took Majumdar’s criticism as a challenge and brought out this comprehensive work on Bahadur Shah."

After making a point above, Prof. Datta carried out the dissection of the book from the point of historicism and methodology. However, I am here with comments of different genre.

It is rather a continuity of my earlier argument which I have presented in my earlier post titled "Need of Rewriting Gandhian Era". The question here is the actual interpretation of Indian history rising above the ideological affiliation and the biases which were quite strong in the middle of twentieth century India. There is need of rewriting the history of India from Indian perspective. I remember, as a young student of history at undergraduate level I was amused to read the controversy debated between A. L. Srivastva and S. R. Sharma over the episode of marriage between Jahangir and Nurjahan. I read their books to prepare my notes for my examination. But when I reached the chapter of Jahangir, I was put into difficulty to choose this episode for my notes. They had discussed this issue over three to four pages. I was not able to decide whether I should write any notes on them or would there be any question on it. When I discussed it will by Professor, I did not give any straight forward answer. He rather discouraged me. He told me not to consult A. L. Srivastva as he was branded as Hindu minded biased historian. I did not have the understanding and knowledge to understand what he was telling me. I still remember that I did not obtain good marks in Mughal History paper. The boys, who had consulted the question answers books (The Refreshers or Kunjees as it is called in India), obtained better marks than I did. I had virtually licked each and every line of S. R. Sharma and A. L. Srivastva. One of my friends who knew that how far I had mastered this subject mocked at me for my method of study. Well that is other story. The issue is that the historians debate among themselves over such issues in such a manner which can not be included under the subject of history. In history, a historian should remain confined to the source material and say only that much which had been written in the original sources. If he has to pass any judgement, then the historian should also write there the counter view. However, it is found that historians indulge in an activity of settling scores with their fellow historians and write history accordingly. This damages the interest of history as well of the interest of those people or nation about which it is written.

It is not one single episode. There is another episode in the Indian historiography. There was similar fight and debate between R. C. Majumdar and Tara Chand. Tara Chand was deputed to write the history of India, especially the Freedom Struggle of India. Earlier this job was to be given to R. C. Majumdar who had already accomplished a big task in 1951 under the patronage of G. D. Birla for Bhartiya Itihasa Samiti with funding from Shri Krishnmarpan Charity Trust headed by G. D. Birla, an industrialist known to be close to Gandhiji. Later, the ruling party Congress entrusted this job to Tara Chand. They had accused Majumdar for being near to Jan Sangh group and a non-secular historian.

Similarly, a few years back, Irfan Habib was ousted from the ICHR on the grounds that he was a Marxist historian. In response, Irfan Habib came out with his book of essays wherein he countered many concepts and views being promoted by the historians in his absences.

Similarly, Sumit Sarkar has come out with his own book titled Writing Social History. I have not yet completed the reading of this book. Therein, I am developing this impression that the essays are intentionally collected to counter a particular form of historiography. Though in such type of books, sometimes you are not able to understand the direction of debate. May be one is not all that well informed as well as well read as these established authors are.

Another examples which comes to mind is the book, the Last Mughals and the profile of Bahadur Shah I. One is just amused to read that how S. R. Sharma tried to counter the impression about Bahadur Shah I as created in the Last Mughals.

On the whole, such types of exercise by the historians to project an event in history with counter views and then indulge in obscurantism by obfuscating a historic personality or an event does a great a disservice to the subject. I am really excited when I find some original sources online which is made available by this new technology of Internet. My faith in my own view of Internet as a good source of discussing history through collecting of sources available online was further reinstated when I read of an invitation to Miland Brown by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It helps you to see for yourself the real content of the source and derive the exact picture of an event or a personality.

I here again take another example. Since our school days we were taught that Aurangzeb was a religious bigot and fundamentalist. It was taught that he used to take his supper only after collecting a maund of sacred threads of Hindus. Later, in the book of J. L. Mehta, a letter by Aurangzeb was reproduced. The contents of that letter project Aurangzeb in a different colour. Similarly, an attempt was made for sometime to project Aurangzeb as a milder person than what he was earlier projected in the history books. Now, at present stage, when I read more and more about Indian history, I always thing over that how a particular aspect of history would be taught in Pakistan. Will they project the same version? It is then, I feel that there is need to rewrite the history.

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