The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth

The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth

by Dipesh Chakrabarty

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A leading scholar in early twentieth-century India, Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1870–1958) was knighted in 1929 and became the first Indian historian to gain honorary membership in the American Historical Association. By the end of his lifetime, however, he had been marginalized by the Indian history establishment, as postcolonial historians embraced alternative approaches in the name of democracy and anti-colonialism. The Calling of History examines Sarkar’s career—and poignant obsolescence—as a way into larger questions about the discipline of history and its public life.

Through close readings of more than twelve hundred letters to and from Sarkar along with other archival documents, Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrates that historians in colonial India formulated the basic concepts and practices of the field via vigorous—and at times bitter and hurtful—debates in the public sphere. He furthermore shows that because of its non-technical nature, the discipline as a whole remains susceptible to pressure from both the public and the academy even today. Methodological debates and the changing reputations of scholars like Sarkar, he argues, must therefore be understood within the specific contexts in which particular histories are written.

Insightful and with far-reaching implications for all historians, The Calling of History offers a valuable look at the double life of history and how tensions between its public and private sides played out in a major scholar’s career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226240244
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, including Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Calling of History

Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth

By Dipesh Chakrabarty

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-10045-6


The Popular Origins of Academic History

History was not a university subject in India at the postgraduate level until after the First World War. The first postgraduate department for the study of modern and medieval history was created by the University of Calcutta in 1919, and most graduate-level history departments in other universities began in the 1920s and 1930s. The precarious nature of the profession in its early days may be seen in that the sole journal representing the discipline in India, the Journal of Indian History, brought out initially in 1921–22 from the University of Allahabad, ran into financial trouble in the third year of its existence because of the "lack of support" from the authorities. It survived by being relocated to Madras, where it was edited and rescued by the archaeologist S. Krishnaswamy Aiyangar of the University of Madras.

The historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya is probably right to observe that "the [original] site of modern Indian socio-economic and political thinking and contestation was not the university" but public life. The colonial university, he further argues, was an institution created primarily to "attribute cognitive authority to western civilization exclusively" and to transmit, passively, knowledge produced in the West. Indian thought on society and the social sciences, he concludes with reason, was molded in the informality of public life. While this statement is broadly true, it can also be seen with little reflection that no academic subject worth its name could emerge in the modern world without the blessings of the institution called the university and without the creation of professional associations and other related institutions. These latter institutions developed late in India. Self-taught researchers debated issues fundamental to the discipline of history — such as historical facts and truth, evidence, sources, archives, research — for a long time before Indian universities began to teach history for research degrees. As a result, the relationship between academic and popular histories in India has been marked by a certain kind of closeness and tension that we will encounter as we study the debates and activities that engaged the energies of Sir Jadunath Sarkar.

Popular "Scientific" Histories

The cult of "scientific history" began in India in the 1880s and more seriously in the early years of the 1900s — particularly in Bengal and Maharashtra, the two regions I will mostly concentrate on in this book — 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 in an essay he wrote in 1899 in the Bengali 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]." Tagore was correctly describing his own times. A host of young Bengali scholars had begun to take an interest in the past and in debating ways of gaining access to it: Rajendralal Mitra (1822–1891), Akshaykumar Maitreya (1861–1930), Dineshchandra Sen (1866–1939), 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; they debated among themselves "scientific" ways of studying the past; but they were all votaries of the new science of history.

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 Rajshahi in 1910, and the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal (Association of Researchers in Indian History), founded in Poona the same year. The Bengali word anusandhan was a neologism translating literally the English word research, while shodhak in Marathi literally meant "the searcher," and hence samshodhak "the researcher." The Kamarupa Anusandhan Samiti was set up in Assam in 1912. K. P. Jayasawal and others set up the Bihar and Orissa Research Society — later Bihar Research Society — in 1914. Speaking before an assembly of Indian historians and officials in 1943, the director-general of archaeology of India, Rao Bahadur K. N. Dikshit, who presided over the Indian History Congress meeting in Aligarh that year, commented on the growth of societies and departments devoted to historical research in many parts of India: the government of Bombay had established the Department of Kannada Research in 1939; a "new Journal of Andhra History and Culture" had been "recently started at Guntur," where Andhra University was located; the Andhra Historical Research Society already existed in the Nizam's dominions; and the Gujarat Research Society had been established "recently."

Jadunath Sarkar was a lifelong member of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Bengal Literary Academy) and the Bharat Itihas Samsodhak Mandal in Poona. He was also associated with the Bihar Research Society and with the nationalist student conference in Bihar that was started by Rajendra Prasad, who went on to become the first president of independent India. Sarkar even presided over some of the sessions of this conference. But more than the research associations and academic institutions in Bengal, it is really the historians of Poona, both Sarkar's collaborator Govindrao Sardesai and other members of the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, who loom large in our story. Sarkar's interest in the history of the Marathas, both at the time of their ruler Shivaji (1630–1680) and when the peshwas ruled (1713–1818), led to many clashes of opinions and conflicts of perceived interests between Sarkar and Sardesai on the one hand and some Poona scholars on the other. Those conflicts underpin much of the story told in the following chapters. But Sarkar's engagement with the Poona circle of historians is seen not only in his friendship with Sardesai but also in the fact that he actually wrote, for the journal Modern Review, detailed obituaries of four of these of Marathi stalwarts when they died around 1926–27, bringing to a close the early history of modern historical research in Maharashtra. However, Sarkar's clashes with some of the surviving historians of Poona, such as Datto Vaman Potdar (1890–1979) and scholars such as Surendra Nath Sen (1890–1962) and Shafaat Ahmad Khan, from Calcutta and Allahabad, respectively, but both associated with Potdar, continued for almost another two decades.

At the heart of these conflicts were clashing conceptions of nationalism. Indian interest in historical knowledge and research, from the 1870s onward, clearly had something to do with the rise of cultural nationalism in various forms in the different parts of the country. There was an emerging consensus that dissemination of historical and other forms of knowledge in public life was a crucial ingredient for building a nation. Tagore expressed the sentiment well while addressing a gathering of students organized by the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad during the years of the Swadeshi movement (1905–07). He 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.

For Tagore, the criterion for judging knowledge to be "true" was that it aided public life. Simply reading "ethnology" — Tagore used the word in English — was not enough, for instance. 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 books have become for us." The new knowledge was thus welcome because it could aid the formation of the nation by acting as a bridge between the educated minority and the nonliterate masses.

In Bengal, the likes of Akshaykumar Maitreya and Jadunath Sarkar shared Tagore's sentiments. They thought of the historian as a custodian of the nation's or the people's memories. Presiding over a conference of the North Bengal Literary Association at Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) in 1908, Akshaykumar announced a three-step program with respect to "scientific" history: "(a) knowledge had to be acquired, (b) discoveries had to be made, and (c) they had to be publicized among ordinary people in accordance with scientific methods." Otherwise, he feared, the scientific pursuit of history would be reduced to "mere argumentation among the learned." Addressing, in 1915, the History Branch of the eighth convention of the Bengal Literary Association held in Bardhaman, Sarkar similarly echoed Maitreya's and Tagore's sentiments about the need to make connections between education of the masses and historical research: "Some people say with regret that historical essays have banished the short story from the pages of the Bengali monthly magazine. If this piece of good news ... is indeed true, then literary leaders and the learned academies are faced with a crucial duty with regard to the development of the nation's mind. ... Our duty is to help tie together this newly-awakened endeavor to serve history, to contain and direct this initiative through advice so that the Bengali brain[-power] is not mis-spent." Such direction could come about only through the popularization of "scientific" history. It is perhaps with such popularization in view that Sarkar wrote for nonspecialist readers all his life in magazines and newspapers such as the Modern Review, Prabasi, and the Hindusthan Standard.

"The best way of cultivating history is the scientific way," Sarkar emphasized. The scientific way of writing history was "the first step in national development. The more we discover the real truth about the past, the more the minds of our people will proceed along the right lines. ... True history teaches people the causes of the rise and fall of nations, their health and illness, their death and regeneration." Having said this, Sarkar proceeded to notch up the rhetoric. He likened "scientific" history to the old medical and religious scriptures of the Hindus: "Without this mahashivatantra [lit., a Tantric text on the Great Shiva], this national ayurvedashastra [lit., Vedic science of life], this dedication to truth, and without an irrepressible urge for continuous improvement, there is no gain."

Brave and optimistic words, but the reality was stark. Making "scientific" history a popular preoccupation was not easy. Historians such as Sarkar and others would find themselves pitted in a struggle with many forces at once. First of all, while there was a broad agreement that "scientific history" began with the collection of original contemporary sources, there was no agreement on what else being "scientific" entailed. Of particular contention was the question of how sources, once collected, would be examined and evaluated. Would a poetic text be amenable to the methods of the historian? Would historical facts always end up supporting nationalist sentiment? In what ways could the methods of history help the nationalist movement along? Indian researchers differed vehemently among themselves in answering these questions, not because some were nationalists and others not, but because they subscribed to different imaginations of the nation. But there were some other problems as well, and some of these were quite beyond their immediate control. Access to original "official" sources was often made very difficult throughout India by some very restrictive policies of the colonial government. And most crucially, the academic neglect in Europe of "modern" Indian history (though not of ancient India or Indology) meant that this historiography was cut off from contemporaneous debates in European universities about historiography in general. Indian researchers knew about Ranke, though not in much detail. The likes of Sarkar, as we will see, read Macaulay and the Edinburgh Review and Gibbon and some Mommsen, and they read the English historian Gooch about historiographical developments in Germany. But the kind of rebellion against the Rankean tradition that marked the German academic scene in the late nineteenth century — for example, the one that we associate Jacob Burckhardt with — completely passed them by. Instead, when not too swayed by aggressively nationalist sentiments, they found their actual mentors in colonial administrator-scholars, some of whom, after retirement in India, took up academic positions in institutions such as the School of Asian and African Studies in London and wrote positive and encouraging reviews of Indian scholarship in journals like that published by the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain.

The Colonial State and the Problem of Sources

There is a long history, in British India, of the government's dragging its feet on the question of — as contemporary officials put it — "removing obstacles to historical research" in the country. Soon after they assumed the formal charge of India in 1858, the British formed a state that required documentation for its daily operations. "As early as 1861," says an official history of the Indian Historical Records Commission, "the Government of India appointed a Committee to report on their archives." J. Talboys Wheeler, who served the committee as its secretary, eventually published, on his "own account," a compilation titled Early Records of British India that the government allowed on consideration that this was a "literary venture." The question of throwing open the records of the central and provincial governments in British India was raised anew in 1914, on the publication of the Report of the Royal Commission on Public Records. The India Office now wanted the Government of India to take responsibility for the use by researchers of their own records. The response of the officials of the Government of India to this issue leaves us in no doubt that, from the very beginning, historical knowledge was a matter that touched some raw political nerves of the colonial administration.

Correspondence that passed between the marquess of Crewe, the secretary of state for India at the India Office, London, and the governor of Madras in 1913 clearly showed that the very idea of letting researchers into colonial record rooms had something unnerving about it for the administration. Crewe felt the need to reassure the nervous Madras government, whose officials were "under a misapprehension" that the India Office was proposing to "allow private persons unrestricted access to ... unpublished [public] records." He enclosed with his letter a copy of rules "regarding applications to search the India Office records," showing that no one was allowed such unrestricted access even in London. Every request, he said, was "carefully considered"; the applicant was "required to state the object he [had] in view" and, if necessary, to "submit notes or extracts he may have made" and was not "allowed to make use of any to which objection is raised."


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Table of Contents

Contents List of Abbreviations Introduction 1. The Popular Origins of Academic History 2. Debating Research 3. Hunters and Gatherers of Historical Documents 4. The Politics of “Unquestionable” Facts 5. The Statesman as Hero: An Imperial Aesthetic for a National History 6. Between Providence and Character: The Historian Himself 7. Archiving the Nation: Sarkar’s Fall from Grace 8. The Author and the Historian: A Conversational Reverie Acknowledgments Index

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