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A HISTORIAN’S HISTORIAN
- Histories that endure

Unlike 1919 (the year of the Rowlatt satyagraha), 1920 (Congress-Khilafat alliance), 1921 (non-cooperation movement), or 1922 (the burning of the police station at Chauri Chaura), 1923 is considered a somewhat quiet year in Indian history. But it was a significant year for Indian historians. On May 23, 1923, Ranajit Guha, the founder of the subaltern studies school, was born. Exactly a month earlier, on April 23, a historian who founded no school but still (or perhaps thus) commands our attention came into this world. His name was Sarvepalli Gopal.

Ranajit Guha (no relation of the present writer) was born in a middle-class home in East Bengal. He studied history in Calcutta, where he became a communist. Active in the student movement, he left the party after the invasion of Hungary in 1956. He published a specialized study of colonial land policy in 1963, but really became known only in the 1980s, through his editorship of the Subaltern Studies volumes and his own magnificent book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (published in 1983). In subsequent decades, he has acquired cultic status, his name and his work genuflected to by left-wing academics all across the world.

Guha’s near-exact contemporary, Sarvepalli Gopal, came from a family of the same economic class but much higher social status. As the son of the distinguished philosopher, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, he was thrown into the company of famous politicians, writers and thinkers from an early age. He studied in Oxford (where his father served as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions), and later also taught there. In the 1960s he published some excellent studies of viceroys and viceregal policy. In 1971 he returned to India, to take up a teaching post in New Delhi. Over the next decade-and-a-half, he published the three volumes of what remains the standard life of Jawaharlal Nehru. Then, in 1989, he published a penetrating, warts-and-all biography of his father, which may be the best among the seven books he published in his lifetime.

Gopal was a historian of power and of policy. He wrote of viceroys and of prime ministers, of the states they shaped and the countries they led. Guha, on the other hand, was principally a historian of the lower orders — of peasants, tribal people, workers. Yet despite this divergence in subject matter they shared some key attributes. Both were extremely industrious researchers, working long hours in the archives. Both wrote English with uncommon elegance. And both recognized that history was a branch of social science as well as a branch of literature.

Unlike the popular narrative histories that now flood the bookshops, the works of Guha and Gopal were analytically powerful as well as richly readable. The insights of political theory, sociology, anthropology, and even psychology were used to good effect in locating the actions of individuals and communities in their wider social and historical setting. While both wrote extremely well, these were serious scholars, not mere story-tellers; professional historians, not part-time antiquarians.

Since radical ideologies attract passionate support, Ranajit Guha has attracted a devoted cadre of men (less often women) younger than he, ever willing to proclaim him as a prophet and an oracle. There is no such cult around Sarvepalli Gopal, for two reasons: first, that political history and biography are now out of fashion; second, that the principles of dialogue and reconciliation that undergird liberalism have never really appealed to the young, who are attracted more to the extreme Right and the extreme Left, whose leaders and ideologues promise quicker and more complete results.

In truth, any student of modern Indian history has much to learn from both scholars. For human life is about the (arbitrary, erratic, brutal, compassionate) exercise of power as well as the (individual, collective, violent, non-violent) resistance to power. Some years ago, I read and much enjoyed the collected essays of Ranajit Guha, published under the title, The Small Voice of History. And I have just read Sarvepalli Gopal’s own collected essays, called Imperialists, Nationalists, Democracts, and edited for Permanent Black by the fine young historian, Srinath Raghavan.

In political terms, Gopal inclined slightly towards the Left without ever being seduced by the totalizing vision of Marxism. One might I suppose call him an egalitarian liberal. There is an essay here which shows a heightened self-awareness of the roots of his own privilege. Some scholars from Cambridge had claimed that the non-Brahmin movement of the 1920s and 1930s was a product of careerists and opportunists. Gopal, in spite of being a Brahmin himself, disagreed, going on to document the massive dominance Brahmins exercised in the economic, political, administrative, ritual, and cultural life of the Madras Presidency.

The book has several essays on Jawaharlal Nehru, which emphasize his contributions to the nurturing of democracy and secularism in India. Gopal admires Nehru, but sees very clearly that Gandhi was the greater man. He thus writes: “The Mahatma, though he borrowed much from the West, had the advantage of internalizing all his ideas and actions in the Indian experience, whereas Nehru was always in a way the outsider. He was always conscious of this, and it was one of the main elements in his deference to Gandhi.”

Again, speaking of Nehru’s love of speaking to crowds, Gopal observes that, “unlike the Mahatma, who was a strong man, providing strength to others, Nehru drew strength from popular idolatry.”

Gopal robustly defends Nehruvian secularism and its relevance to India today. He speaks of the conviction, which Nehru shared with Gandhi, “that the communalism of the majority community was far more dangerous than that of any minority in India”. For “Hindu communalism could masquerade as nationalism and could well degenerate into the Indian version of fascism”.

Writing shortly after the lifting of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Gopal remarked that “the developments of the two years from 1975 to 1977 have made the name of Nehru almost a dirty word in this country”. The name of Nehru has been further dirtied by the events of 1986-8 (namely, Rajiv Gandhi’s capitulation in the Shah Bano case and the Bofors scandal), and the events of 2009-13 (as in the incompetence of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the corruption promoted by their United Progressive Alliance government, and the crooked land deals of Robert Vadra). Nehru’s name has been so besmirched by his unworthy descendants, that it is good to have a robust defence of the core values he himself lived by.

The real revelation of this book is a previously unpublished essay on “The Paradoxes of Subhas Bose”. Gopal recognizes that history dealt Bose a hard, and even cruel, hand. In 1939, he was hounded out of the Congress presidency, and out of the Congress itself. Later, when “independence in some form or other became a certainty”, Bose was done out of what would have been a hero’s return to India by a plane accident. In the circumstances, writes Gopal, “it is understandable that his admirers should be aggressive in defence and resent even the slightest hint of anything other than fulsome praise”. Then he adds: “Yet Bose does not need emotional sympathy and has earned critical scrutiny.”

This Gopal then goes on to provide. He argues that Bose’s admiration for European dictators was a product of exile, which has “a wearing effect on the mind” and attracts one to “the discipline and authority of totalitarian rule”. He notes that unlike Gandhi, who subjected traditional institutions such as purdah and untouchability to searching scrutiny, Bose had a nostalgia for India’s past glories, real or alleged — pushing him towards a sometimes “indiscriminate acceptance of tradition”. In an illuminating aside, Gopal observes that the West appealed to Bose for organizational rather than ideological reasons. What he loved and admired about Europe was not personal liberty or intellectual freedom, but party discipline and volunteer corps.

Ninety years after his birth, and a decade after his death, Sarvepalli Gopal’s work as a historian endures. We should read him for the quality of his prose, for the depth of his research, and for the sheer contemporaneity of his concerns. Halfway through this book, Gopal quotes the closing lines of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, Gora, where the hero says: “I am, above all, an Indian. In me there is no conflict of communities, no struggle between Hindu and Muslim and Christian. They all belong to me and I belong to them all.” A hundred and more pages later, Gopal speaks of Tagore’s “broad humanism and repudiation of all sectarian barriers and prejudices”. For the poet had written, hopefully, of an India in which “high and low, Hindus and Muslims and Christians, all without exception can come together, mingling heart with heart, effort with effort”.

A historian’s choice of quotes can tell us much about the historian himself. These remarks from Tagore capture and echo Sarvepalli Gopal’s own lifelong commitment to a plural, inclusive, caring and compassionate India.