The Public Life of History: An Argument out of India
I should explain at the outset that by the expression “public life of history,” I do not refer to the role that historians can and do sometimes play as specialists or experts appointed by governments or to the particular questions that have been raised about this role in forums such as the Public Historian. I have in mind a different question: under what conditions can history and historians play an adjudicating role when disputes relating to the past arise in the domain of popular culture in democracies? By history, then, I mean something very specific: the academic discipline that we research, teach, and study in universities under that name, the discipline that was invented in Western Europe in the early part of the nineteenth century and of which Leopold von Ranke, for all the criticisms made of his approach during and after his lifetime, is still considered a putative founding father. If one could think of the life of this discipline within the university — composed of classrooms, courses, examinations, seminars, conferences, journals, and so on — as its “cloistered life,” as it were, then by its “public life” one could mean the connections that such a discipline might forge with institutions and practices outside the university and official bureaucracy. Can this discipline have a public life in my sense of the term when the public actually debates the past?
India is a good site from which to address this question. The Hindu Right that rose to political power in India in the 1980s and 1990s by spreading anti-Muslim and antiminority sentiments was often accused by “secular” historians — justifiably, I might add — of rewriting history or even replacing it by myths for public consumption. Implicitly or explicitly, these historians — the most prominent of them (such as Romila Thapar or Sumit Sarkar) based in Delhi — argued for a role for their discipline in public debates about pasts and identities in India, particularly when the Hindu Right was disseminating antiminority sentiments and “memories” that were clearly at odds with reasoned historical judgments. Thapar, for example, has repeatedly emphasized in her recent writings the importance of historical reasoning in India’s public life. She has argued the need for identities in India to be ultimately validated by the discipline of history: “In the retelling of an event, . . . memory is sometimes claimed in order to create an identity, and history based on such claims is used to legitimize the identity. Establishing a fuller understanding of the event is crucial in both instances, for otherwise the identity and its legitimation can be historically invalid.”1 Another reason India is an interesting site is that the demand for the discipline of history — often called “scientific history” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — arose in public life long before Indian universities actually taught the subject at a graduate or research level. Yet over time, as I shall seek to show, the discipline of history has become marginal in debates among subaltern groups that arise from their perceptions of the past. This is not a criticism of the heroic and laudable attempts by historians today to find a public career for their specialist skills. But their present situation — unlike that of amateur nationalist historians at the beginning of the last century — is a bit reminiscent of a moment in the life of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Famously, Hobbes once thought that incontrovertible logic would compel people to listen to him, thus obviating any need for persuasive rhetoric. But he soon realized that while the matter of providing compelling logic was in his hands, logic by itself could not ensure that people would at all feel motivated to listen to him in the first place. Hobbes put it this way: “As it is my part to show my reasons, it is theirs to bring attention.”2
Similarly, the fact-respecting, secular historian in India can bring his or her reasoning to the public, but there is no guarantee that the public will bring their attention. Given their expertise, it is only understandable that historians in India should seek a role in adjudicating disputes about the past in India. But what prevents them from realizing this aspiration? It is to answer this question that I provide a history of history in India before returning, in conclusion and with some comparative glances at relevant debates in Australia and the United States, to the larger concern from which this essay arises: can history, the academic discipline, have a public life in a situation when the past is a matter of contestation in everyday life?
History’s Beginnings in Indian Public Life
History was not a university subject in India at the postgraduate level until after the First World War. The first master’s degree in modern and medieval history was created by the University of Calcutta in 1919, and most graduate-level history departments in other universities came up in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet the cultivation of history as a “scientific discipline” began in India in the 1880s and more seriously in the 1900s, particularly in Bengal and Maharashtra, two regions I will concentrate on in the first part of this essay, amid what could only be described as enormous public “enthusiasm for history.”
The expression “enthusiasm for history” is not mine. The poet Rabindranath Tagore used it an essay he wrote in 1899 in the literary magazine Bharati, welcoming the decision of Akshaykumar Maitreya (a pioneering amateur historian) to bring out a journal called Oitihashik chitra (Historical Vignettes) from Rajshashi in northern Bengal (now in Bangladesh). Tagore wrote: “The enthusiasm for history that has arisen recently in Bengali literature bodes well for everybody. . . . This hunger for history is only a natural consequence of the way the vital forces of education[al] . . . movements are working their way through Bharatbarsha [India].”3 Tagore was right in describing his own times. A host of young Bengali scholars had begun to take an interest in the past and in debating ways of accessing it: Akshaykumar Maitreya (1861 –1930), Dineshchandra Sen (1866 –1939), Rajendralal Mitra (1822 – 91), Rakhaldas Bandyopadhayay (1885 –1930), the young Jadunath Sarkar (1870 –1958), and others come to mind. There were, similarly, a bunch of “amateur” scholars taking an active interest in regional history in western India: V. K. Rajwade (1864 –1926), D. B. Parasnis (1870 –1926), V. V. Khare (1858 –1924), K. N. Sane (1851 –1927), R. G. Bhandarkar (1837 –1925), G. S. Sardesai (1865 –1959), and others. They worked on and from a variety of sources ranging from old literature to family genealogies, sculptures, and coins. Among themselves they debated “scientific” ways of studying the past, but they were all votaries of the new science of history.4 The idea that history could be a subject of “research” — and the very conception of “research” itself — were new.5 The English word research was actually translated into Bengali and Marathi in the first decade of the twentieth century and incorporated into names of organizations such as the Varendra Anusandhan Samiti (Varendra Research Society), established in Rajshashi in 1910, and the Bharat Itiahas Samshodhak Mandal (Association of Researchers in Indian History), founded in Poona in the same year. The Bengali word anusandhan was a piece of neologism, translating literally the English word research, while samshodhak in Marathi meant “researcher.”6
This demand in public life for “researched knowledge” of the past had something to do both with European administrators’ enthusiasm for discovering “Indian” history and with the cultural nationalism of nineteenth-century Indian intellectuals, many of whom subscribed to the supposedly universal ideals of the Empire. Nineteenth-century European administrators often believed that historical knowledge provided one of the best ways of “knowing” India. For instance, James Grant Duff, the pioneer of modern Maratha history, acknowledged his personal lack of preparation for historical research and yet undertook to do the same, asking, “Unless some members of our service undertake such works, . . . how is England to become acquainted with India?”7 Many of the contemporary Indian scholars, such as the ones I have mentioned before, all agreed, for their part, that the formation of the nation depended on the dissemination of “modern” (i.e., of European origin) scholarly knowledge in public life. It did not hurt their nationalist pride to acknowledge European “superiority” in knowledge. As the noted Indologist R. G. Bhandarkar put it in a public lecture titled “The Critical, Comparative, and Historical Method,” delivered on March 31, 1888, “It is no use ignoring the fact that Europe is far ahead of us in all that constitutes civilization. And knowledge is one of the elements of civilization.” If Indian scholars were to “compete with Europeans,” they could do so only by following “their [the Europeans’] critical, comparative, and historical method.”8 Bhandarkar repeated the point in his presidential address at the first Indian conference of Orientalists, which was held in Poona on November 5, 1919: “The study of . . . Indian literature, inscriptions and antiquity according to the critical and comparative method of inquiry, . . .
is primarily a European study. Our aim, therefore, should be to closely observe the manner in which the study is carried on by European scholars and adopt such of their methods as recommend themselves to our awakened intellect.”9
In other words, Indian scholars who believed in the Empire as representing something universal also believed that knowledge itself was grounded in that universal and that historians in India and Europe belonged, equally, to the same republic of letters. To quote Bhandarkar again: “Between the Western and Indian scholars a spirit of co-operation should prevail and not a spirit of depreciation of each other. We have but one common object, the discovery of truth.”10
It was in the same spirit of bringing knowledge, a public good, to the people that Rabindranath Tagore, addressing the student community at a meeting organized by the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Bengali Literary Academy) during the years of the Swadeshi movement (1905 – 7), said:
Bengal is the country nearest to us. The Bengali Literary Academy has made the language, literature, history, sociology etc., of this land into subjects for their own discussions. My appeal to the Academy is that they invite students to be part of these discussions. . . . If students, led by the Academy, can collect details about religious sects among the lower orders of their own country, then they will both learn to observe people with attention and do some service to the nation at the same time.11
For Tagore, the criterion by which knowledge could be judged “true” was that it helped to improve the life of the people. Simply reading “ethnology,” for instance — Tagore used the English word — was not enough. If such reading did not generate “the least bit of curiosity for a full acquaintance with the Haris, the Bagdis, and the Doms [all ‘untouchable/low-caste’ groups] who live around our homes,” said Tagore, “it immediately makes us realize what a big superstition we have developed about books.”12
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Thanks to my coeditors and collaborators in this special issue and to Rochona Majumdar and audiences at the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, and Columbia University for their comments.
- Romila Thapar, “Somnatha: Narratives of History,” in her Narratives and the Making of History: Two Lectures (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000), 49.
- Hobbes quoted in Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics: Hobbes and Civil Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 75.
- Tagore cited in Prabodhchandra Sen, Bangalir itihash shadhona (The Bengali Pursuit of History) (Calcutta: General Printers, 1953 – 54), 36.
- See Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), chaps. 4, 5; and Prachi Deshpande, Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700 –1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). See also Shyamali Sur, Itihash chintar shuchona o jatiyotabader unmesh: Bangla 1870 –1912 (The Beginning of Historical Thought and the Emergence of Nationalism: Bengal 1870 –1912) (Calcutta: Progressive Publishers, 2002); Gautam Bhadra, Jal rajar golpo (The Story of the Fake King) (Calcutta: Ananda, 2002); Kumkum Chatterjee, “The King of Controversy: History and Nation-Making in Late Colonial India,” American Historical Review 110 (December 2005): 1454 – 75.
- I am indebted to Arjun Appadurai for inspiring in me an interest in this question by informally sharing with me his own interest in the history of the practice called “research.
- On the history of these two organizations, see Nirmalchandra Choudhuri, Akshaykumar Maitreya: Jibon o shadhona (Akshaykumar Maitrya: Life and Endeavors) (Darjeeling: North Bengal University, 1984?), chapter on Varendra Research Society. For the Poona Mandal, see the brief remarks of Jadunath Sarkar in his Maratha Jaitya Bikash (The Development of the Maratha Nation) (Calcutta: Ranjan Publishing House, 1936/7), 44; and Deshpande, Creative Pasts, 117 –19.
- James Grant Duff, History of the Marathas, 4th ed., vol. 1 (Bombay: Times of India Office, 1878), ix.
- “The Critical, Comparative, and Historical Method of Inquiry, As Applied to Sanskrit Scholarship and Philology and Indian Archaeology,” in Collected Works of Sir R. G. Bhandarkar, vol. 1, ed. Narayan Bapuji Utgikar and Vasudev Gopal Paranjpe (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1933), 390, 392.
- “Presidential Address at the Opening Session of the First Oriental Conference of India, held at Poona on the 5th of November 1919,” in Collected Works of Sir R. G. Bhandarkar, 319.
- Bhandarkar, “Presidential Address,” 319.
- Rabindranath Thakur [Tagore], “Chhatroder proti shombhashon” (“Address to Students”) in Rabindrarachanabali (Collected Works of Rabindranath) (hereafter RR), centenary ed., vol. 12 (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal, 1961 – 62), 728 – 29.
- Thakur [Tagore], “Chhatroder proti shombhashon,” 729.