The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Power, Politics, and the People: Studies in British Imperialism and Indian Nationalism By Partha Sarathi Gupta, Permanent Black, Rs 775

This is a volume of posthumous essays by one of India’s remarkable historians whose career was cut short by death just as it was beginning to bloom. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who has written the introduction to this volume, has memorably written that Partha Sarathi Gupta made a habit of standing first in examinations. This is undoubtedly one way how he is affectionately remembered in Calcutta. But what is equally true is that Gupta made a habit of standing alone among Indian historians. This came out of his professional commitment as well as his moral courage.

He refused to be lured by the fashionable. When all his friends and peers were doing Indian history, Gupta did English history. When all around him historians were pursuing social and economic history and decrying studies of policy-making in the highest echelons of power, Gupta refused to be dislodged from what he found interesting and what he thought was important. This could not have been an easy thing to do but Gupta did it without fuss or show. When he did turn to Indian history, alas all too late, he brought to the subjects of his research the same detailed archival research, the same devotion to details and facts and the same seriousness that had informed his work on English history. The essays printed here bear testimony to those virtues.

The essays reflect Gupta’s various research interests. The themes covered include imperialism and nationalism and their historiography; the process of decolonization; the Indian army in the imperial system; and culture under the raj. The last item was one of Gupta’s major concerns in his last years. Radio, cinema and music drew him. His essay entitled “Radio and the Raj” was a pioneering piece of research. He described how radio broadcasting had emerged in India before independence. The potential of the radio as a carrier of views was recognized by the raj and its opponents. But as Gupta argues, both the raj and its rivals were unable to use this medium. Jinnah however used the radio on June 2, 1947, when the details of Partition were first broadcast by Mountbatten and Indian political leaders were allowed to speak, to appeal to Muslims of the NWFP to vote for joining Pakistan in the proposed referendum. There are enough suggestions in this essay to feed a few doctoral dissertations.

Gupta believed that historical generalizations should always follow from facts and those facts should come only from the archives. He argued that this would ensure a modicum of objectivity. This would appear today to be a little naïve given the fact that records and archives are also imbued with biases and are often written up for particular purposes. But Gupta’s faith in objectivity gave his writing a certain strength. It was this strength that made him declare that even though he was against a teleological view of history, he considered the survival of humanity and the control of the environment by human beings to be the desideratum for history writing. Gupta upheld the values of the Enlightenment and thus believed that through adequate documentation and its proper analysis a truthful picture of the past could be presented and narrated.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee

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