30 May 2013


Ranajitda and the Mysticism of Knowing

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

What has always made Ranajitda unique in my eyes is his capacity to love prose that expresses the subtlest of ideas. I have not another teacher or a friend who would point to a sentence or even a phrase in a book, and instead of immediately moving on to its propositional content, would take time out to savor not only that which may have been simply beautiful about it but also dwell and exult over the way the sentence or the phrase or the word in question may have actually helped the proposition come into play. Sometimes, when he could, Ranajitda would break open a word – etymologically, grammatically, historically – to show how its multiple meanings not only destabilized the proposition we were trying to extract from it but actually endowed the proposition with a certain internal motility that we had not seen before. Heidegger would have been one of the thinkers from whom Ranajitda learnt this way of reading. But it than just a method of reading. With Ranajitda, it had become an art of living: pick up a book and read it slowly, and open up for yourself an infinite vista of human thought, a vast and unending network connecting names and minds from very different worlds and periods, a vision that takes one away from the cares and desires of everyday life. A vision of infinity, you might call it. If it is true that some mathematicians have known infinity, Ranajitda too, I suspect, has at least had glimpses of it.

All this became a matter of “talking cure” for me one winter evening in Canberra in 1991 when I had just been rejected for a professorship under circumstances that I had found unpleasant and unfair. Dejected on getting the news, I went to see Ranajitda that evening to have dinner with him and Mechthild. Mechthild, as always, cooked up a great meal and, as was her wont, left Ranajitda and me to talk in Bengali sometime after we had had our meal and had discussed my news. Still smarting from the sheer fact of having been rejected, I was perhaps speaking somewhat obsessively about how I felt wronged.

But then, gradually, something quite wondrous happened. As the evening wore on, and Ranajitda gathered himself into a shawl and reclined comfortably in his divan, our conversation drifted away from the topic of professorships and other academic hierarchies, from careers, successes, and failures, to Indian history, initially, and then slowly on to that much larger vision of arguments and propositions that all eventually blended into an infinite stretch of human thinking, something too vast to be grasped by the scale of any individual life, yet something that spoke of the necessary and eternal human desire and effort to make sense of that which, ultimately, always escaped his grasp. By the time the clock struck one – or may be two – in the morning, I could see how small my personal disappointments were. Ranajitda, the most wonderful teacher that he was in these moments, had enabled me to take the true measure of my individual disappointments, or even “successes.” I drove home feeling grateful. My small, human ambitions were not gone, to claim that would be to tell a lie, but their burden had been lifted. I was never again going to let them take away from me the vision of an infinity that Ranajitda laid out for me that night, an infinity before which all individuals stood small and bare.

Turning ninety is probably one human experience I will never have. But Ranajitda has always been well ahead of us. I wish him and Mechthild many more years of the rich life they have so generously shared with others.

Transcendence and the Subaltern

Milinda Banerjee

Assistant Professor, Presidency University, Kolkata, India

I first met Ranajit Guha, along with Mrs Mechthild Guha, at their apartment near Vienna in early February 2011. I was a doctoral student at Heidelberg then, and my supervisor, Gita Dharampal-Frick, had arranged the meeting. Vienna, luminous in snow, with its strange juxtaposition of the most imperious of architectural rhetoric and the most lyrically piercing of musical and philosophical-psychological languages, had proved to be a love at first sight. But the warmth that I received at the Guha home was something even better. As I got to know and converse with the Guhas, I could find, it seemed to me, a home away from home.

A day-long interview (later published in the website of the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University) revealed a Ranajit Guha to me who was inspiring, and also intimate, to think with. Guha told me in detail about how he had always been inspired by the human quest for perfection – and how this sometimes led to the self engulfing and destroying the other, and how (and this was what Guha was more interested in) sometimes it led the self to seek greater social justice, to reach out for a more altruistic engagement with others, and indeed to strive for continual upliftment. Upliftment is a poor translation of the Bengali term that Guha himself used – uttaran, a rather poetic word which brings to me the image of a bird about to soar. It is also a word that can be translated as transcendence. He told me at length how it was this quest for perfection which he had sought to discover in peasant rebellions, in popular religion, in Hegel (Guha could accept the Hegelian quest for transcendence but not its Euro-hegemonic anthropology that grounded upliftment in narrow political-social stages; the master-slave dialectic was also useful to think about the destructive as well as the creative potential of the quest for upliftment), and in Indian philosophy and literature, from Shankaracharya to Rabindranath Tagore and beyond.

Gradually it seemed as if layers were getting stripped away as the historian transformed into a poet of the self who was interested in describing the past and the present in so far as it could equip us to transform, to widen our selves, to become more just and equitable. There was a strange line that connected the subaltern peasants’ discomfort with their present condition, and their compelling desire to translate utopia into reality, with Indian philosophical and poetic notions about the self’s perennial search to go beyond exclusionary duality. There were times when I felt that Guha was functioning like those precolonial South Asian visionaries of social devotion whose quest for transcendence couched in theological vocabularies were accompanied also by mass pressures and campaigns to articulate and seek greater social and political equality in the empirical world. In a landscape of decolonization of worldviews, transcendence also perhaps offered to Guha a counterpoint and critique of colonial and neo-colonial Euro-hegemonic discourses about societal development and evolution, which often operate through narrowly deterministic perspectives, and are reductive of the richly textured ethical (rather than purely technical) emotions that transcendence conveys.

Since then, I have often spoken to, and corresponded with, Ranajit and Mechthild  Guha. Every time, I have been very moved by the warm affection they have shown me. But I am still haunted by that long conversation in a snowy Vienna  – the image that often comes to my mind when I think of Guha is of a self, a bird, that soars, that continually opens its wings in unsatisfied thirst for a luminous and clear sky. In Indian literature and music, one sometimes encounters a bird called the chatak which, it is said, can only satisfy its thirst by drinking from the clouds. Guha reminds me a bit of that bird. I do believe, I think as Guha himself does, that the quest for perfecting oneself, for being more just and embracing of the Other, is a quest that one cannot abandon, and that it can be a technique of resisting both totalizing narratives of development and control, as well as the despair of being mired in radical doubt and incredulity towards all narratives. Perfection, if critically engaged with, perhaps offers a third space entangled with, but also offering vistas beyond, both dogmatic authority and sceptical doubt.

29 May 2013

Shahid Amin and Chris Gregory on Ranajit Guha

90th Birthday Tribute to Ranajit Guha
Chris Gregory

Chris Gregory is Reader in Anthropology at the Australian National University

I was postdoctoral student in anthropology in Cambridge when Ranajit and his team launched their critique of elitist historiography in 1982. Ranajit was based in Canberra. When I returned to Australia in 1984 to take up a junior lecturing position in Anthropology at ANU I was looking forward to making his acquaintance because, among other things, my area of interest had switched from Melanesia to India.  I knew little of Indian history and I figured it was wise to swat up on his writings before I made his acquaintance; after all, his reputation in Cambridge was formidable.

I began with Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (EAPI), a book that bowled me over in much the same way that reading Marx’s Capital and Lévi-Strauss Elementary Structures of Kinship (ESK) had.  Like Capital and ESK, not only did the richness of the concrete empirical detail presented in EAPI reveal aspects of the human condition hitherto hidden, I was struck by the skills of the artist who created the work. EAPI, like Capital and ESK, is a work of great rhetorical beauty.  If Marx is a sculptor and Levi-Strauss a musical composer – Mythologiques is consciously modelled on musical forms – then Ranajit is a painter.  Look at the Epilogue to EAPI where the ‘common form’ and ‘general ideas’ of insurgency are likened to the ‘hues’ of a ‘visual pattern’ whose elements are in ‘agreement’ but which also ‘clash and contrast’. EAPI is quite literally the work of an artist.

But what struck me most forcibly about EAPI, and the essays that followed soon after, is that Ranajit is as much an anthropologist as an historian for his work contains a radical critique of anthropology in general and Levi-Strauss’s theories of myth and kinship in particular.  The first sentence of his article on the myth of Rahu boldly declares that ‘Religion is the oldest of archives on our subcontinent’.  This leads him to reformulate Lévi-Strauss’s proposition that ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’ concretely and historically as ‘many a myth can be identified as ... a figure of some ancient and unresolved antagonism’. When it comes to kinship Lévi-Strauss’s abstract study of elementary structures becomes the concrete analysis of the pragmatics of elementary forms.  For example his analysis of Chandra’s death gives new meaning to the notion a ‘joking’ relationship. Chandra as salhaj (WBW) had a joking relationship with her nandai (HZH) that went too far; he got her pregnant and made her pay for the breach of morality of which he was equally guilty. 

Ranajit’s work also contains a fundamental critique of the anthropologist’s comparative method.  The ahistorical nature of this method has long been critiqued but whereas the turn to history has seen many anthropologists forsake the field for the archive to become narrative historians, the paradox of Ranajit’s method is that he forsakes narrative history for the comparative method but one that is historically-informed.   Ranajit, in true Malinowskian style, is concerned with the ‘native point of view’ on insurgency and he found that many words from different languages and different places in India expressed that idea: bidroha, dhing, fituri, hool, ulgulan. His historically-informed comparative method revealed the ‘common form’ and ‘general idea’ behind these regionally-specific terms.

My understanding of Ranajit’s work was half-baked in the mid-1980s when I wrote to him to arrange a meeting. I remember well our first meeting.  I found him to have an avuncular tolerance for the raw naiveté of juniors but little time for cooked dogmatism of his age-mates upon whom he would have no hesitation to pounce if provoked. Our meeting was the first of many memorable meetings over the next fourteen years.  We developed the habit of long lunches on Friday afternoons, usually at his favourite Tandoori restaurant where Prem, the owner, would spoil Ranajit, treating him, Indian-style, as a very special honoured guest.  Ranajit loves to think aloud and has an extra-ordinary capacity to do so in well-formed sentences.  He had in me a raw young scholar who was not only prepared to listen but felt incredibly privileged to be able to do so.  I do not know how it happened but after some years it only seemed right to both of us that a tape recorder be present at these sessions. (I am now in the process of digitizing and transcribing these.  When finished they will, as per Ranajit’s wishes, be deposited with his other papers in the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna.) Our conversations ranged over many topics: Gramsci, Marx, Heidegger, Levi-Strauss; Rahu, Pather Panchali; fate, death, god, language; caste, class, power.  I never had any prepared questions.  Indeed, I rarely asked a question.  The mere mention of the name of a person, place or idea would begin a train of thought that might go on for an hour or so.  

          I was privileged, too, to be a frequent visitor to his home where I learned more about his love of painting and anthropology, and where I met Mechthild, herself a PhD in anthropology.  The walls of his house contained some of his abstract paintings, the product of a period of his life when ‘he learned to see’, as he put it, and put down his pen and picked up a brush.  His interest in anthropology was not just with the history of ideas but also with the ethnographic nitty gritty.  He is keen student of Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic and is the only anthropological colleague of mine I know who is able to discourse for hours on how a Trobriand Islander uses a digging stick. 

Ranajit, it was a sad day for me in 1999 when I took you and Mechthild to the Canberra airport,  but it makes me very happy to see you reach 90 and to start writing and publishing in your beloved Bengali language.  I remember well when you told me ‘I can’t explain the urge to want to write in Bengali’.

90th Birthday Tribute to Ranajit Guha

Ustad Ranajit Guha

Shahid Amin

Shahid Amin is Professor, Department of History, 
University of Delhi

I first met Ranajit Guha in Delhi in1970. I was an undergraduate  reading History; on  leave from the University of Sussex,  Ranajitda was at Delhi School of Economics to research a book on Gandhi. I did not know about A Rule of Property for Bengal then. Dubbed a difficult text concerned with arcane matters, it was not much talked about by our teachers. What really pulled us radical students to Ranajit Guha was his iconoclastic Marxism. We  often gathered at his flat in  Riveria Apartments on Mall Road and subsequently at  24 Cavalry Lines,  where we would  parse an important article from Samar Sen’s Frontier, the fearless weekly  published from Calcutta. ‘On Culture and Torture’, Frontier, January 1971, was my first encounter with Ranajitda’s astringent prose.

             As a Ph.D. student  in England I met Ranajit Guha frequently. Two conversations from the mid-1970s  are still fresh in my mind. I was waxing expansively one evening  about my proposed thesis on  peasant economy and peasant politics in colonial North India. Ranajitda waited for the clatter of the Brighton-Lewis train that passed by his house on Egginton Road to die down. ‘But aren’t you ignoring the ornaments worn  by the women of the region?’ he responded with mock seriousness. ‘Why do you want to do a flabby thesis? Why not focus on  one   important crop, and see where it takes you?’ Collecting  a large amount of   material at the India Office Library and the provincial and district repositories was difficult enough; writing a connected narrative seemed like an impossible task. Thesis-writer’s cramp had set in. Ten pence coins on  the ready, I dialled Ranajit Guha  from a telephone booth. ‘Ranajitda, I have been trying very hard but I just can’t write.’ ‘That’s good, it means you have something to say’, were Ranajit Guha’s reassuring words.

            I converted  the thesis into a book manuscript and sent it to Ranajitda for his comments. Here are excerpts from a three-page letter that I received  in the spring of 1981:

I do think it is necessary to introduce in our work concepts … which can add  rigour to the writing of history. In fact I am sick of the cult of comfortable prose, the one that flows like sugarcane juice, and makes up Indian historiography the feeding bottle on which to suck infantile academic minds and put them gently to sleep … No, I am not asking you to indulge in comfortable prose … We do need conceptual rigour … But however rigorous the thinking, hence the writing, it can hardly dispense with the need for lucidity. 

In guru-shishya tradition I pass on the same advice to my Ph.D. students at Delhi University.


26 May 2013


The word 'legendary' is a great favourite in India. No-one is famous any longer, everyone is 'legendary'. A great teacher will seldom be referred to as a great teacher, he will seem to lack status unless he is referred to as a legendary teacher. Authors sometimes refer to their editors as 'legendary': to have had a legendary editor bestows status on the author. You can't nowadays be much of an author if your editor isn't legendary. So these days there is hardly an editor in publishing who, a year into his job, is not already legendary. In patriarchal India, such editors are invariably male despite the majority of editors in publishing being female. Memorable history and economics teachers, specially if they're Bong and have been at Presidency, are all legends. Is this an ungenerous view and the issue trivial? Indians can be likeably effusive. Their excessive praise may simply indicate strength of affection and regard.

Sushobhan Sarkar and Jadunath Sarkar, dead and gone many years and with their reputations still very high, might perhaps be legitimately accepted as belonging now in the legendary league. How about Sumit Sarkar? Retired for some years and having courageously seen off serious ill health, he continues to write and inspire. There is little doubt that he will in a few years join the brigade of legendaries; for now he is, at the very least, terribly famous. He happened to like a recent PB blogpost on the state of affairs at Delhi University and has just sent this message below to Permanent Black. It bestows legendary status on Permanent Black to receive a commendation from someone who is, well, if not yet legendary, undoubtedly on his way there:

"Thank you for your Blog on the deplorable conditions in Delhi University. This is nothing short of a systematic murder of a great public institution and is directed as a blow against the entire system of state run universities. You have described the vice chancellor's role with acuteness and precision." --- Sumit Sarkar, Retired Professor of History, University of Delhi

23 May 2013


We continue the 90th birthday tributes to Ranajit Guha with these two pieces by Nonica Datta of the University of Delhi, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak of Columbia University

Photo of Mechthild and Ranajit Guha by Nonica Datta


A Point in Time:  Purkersdorf
Nonica Datta
Nonica Datta teaches history at the University of Delhi

In February 2008, I travelled by train from Vienna to Purkersdorf to meet Ranajit Guha. I was excited about meeting him. I had taught myself to read his works. I had been inspired by his style, language, and critique of the Enlightenment. I was influenced by his exposé of elitism in South Asian historiography, and his engagement with complexity, ambivalence, and alternatives in history. Among my favourite essays were ‘Chandra’s Death’ and ‘The Small Voice of History’. On my train journey through the Vienna woods, some inner demons gnawed at me. What if Guha thinks I’m a Bengali and he just wants a conversation with one. My surname was often mistaken for a Bengali’s. But I wasn’t a Bengali, I didn’t work on Bengal, nor was I a star. I was a Punjabi. I was a teacher at an undergraduate college in Delhi University. As I tried to work this out in my temporary semi-bronchial state in the shivering cold, the railway station of Purkersdorf arrived. 
On my way to Guha’s house, I became a little nervous and somewhat awkward. As I climbed up the stairs, a giant of a door opened. There he was. A delicate looking man with deep expressive eyes, in smartly tailored trousers and a green pullover. I took a deep breath, walked into the house with Guha behind me. Soon the warmth and smile of Mechthild Guha made me feel easy. Mechthild, Guha’s companion for years, came across as erudite and attractive. I sat down to lunch anticipating the question about whether I was Bengali.  But there was none of that. After a couple of glasses of red wine, my awkwardness disappeared, and there we were, the three of us, talking, sharing. His library reflected the journey of his eclectic world, with books ranging from Pali and Sanskrit to Hegel, Heidegger, and Indian classical music. Guha’s remarks plainly displayed brilliance and depth. I was listening to a philosopher, a thinker, and not to a professional historian. Some more wine followed, allowing me to take in Guha’s imaginative leaps and theoretical reflections. I saw myself as Guha’s pupil, learning at the dining table, inch by inch, the rubrics and grammar of history. Mechthild enriched our conversation. I discovered another side of Ranajit Guha, a rare and innately gentle side. And his piercing sense of humour, his no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes my answers wouldn’t convince him, and like a great teacher he would gently correct rather than dismiss.
Ranajit Guha gave me some rare tips. Let me share some: first, to focus on studying the state, a point that I think arises from his deeply philosophical critique of the narrow politics of statism and statist historiography. Second, Guha asked me to read political thought. Just simply read Machiavelli or Rousseau, he said. And converse with friends who teach political science. In times when much is measured as ‘post-Derrida’ or ‘post-Zizek’, Guha spoke of intellectual openness and honesty. Third, he talked about the craft and practice of history itself—to write history as a literary narrative, and not to be enslaved to mere facts. And finally, he said my best teachers could be my students.
I was overcome with humility. I set out, having taken my leave of Ranajit and Mechthild Guha. Stepping down the stairs, I looked back. Ranajit Guha was standing at the door. I said in my broken Bangla, ‘aami aashee’. Guha replied graciously, ‘esho’.  The return journey was longer than I expected.
The phone woke me up the next morning in Berlin. ‘Is that Nonica?’ It was Ranajit Guha on the phone. ‘Yes, Professor Guha.’ Then started another amazing lesson. History, its loud clamour, its disjunctions, its small voice. I listened. Later, he said, ‘Nonica, all the very best. You are a good learner.’ Meeting him was empowering. It was as though, in those moments with him, my small voice had been amplified.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Columbia University
©2013 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

I met Ranajit Guha in 1984, in Partha Chatterjee’s house. (His directions were: “Turn left by the garbage dump.”) Samar Sen had told me the evening before that Ranjitda would like to see me and I couldn’t believe my luck.  Subaltern Studies was big news in radical historiography, anywhere. I was in awe. Ranajit Guha kept everyone, including me, to a high standard of performance. I have not always satisfied his perfectionism.  
My admiration for him has never faltered. To have turned the direction of the historiography of a place as important as India singlehandedly – I know the younger subalternists are not belittled by this comment – was a magisterial achievement. I have often said, to him and others, that A Rule of Property for Bengal came before an audience not yet ready to receive it. It is rather amazing to see the archival and theoretical work leading to it in The Small Voice of History.
Partha Chatterjee explains this at greater length and proposes a “paradox:” “a typically bourgeois form of knowledge was bent backwards to admit itself to the relations of power in a semi-feudal society.” I would like to think the paradox as a necessary performative contradiction of both colonialism and the postcolonial structuring of the polity, looking forward rather than backward.  This performative contradiction is breaking up the civil societies of the proto-socialist Scandinavian countries and the countries of the Eurozone as “visible minorities” stream in. And it is this performative contradiction that produces the class apartheid in education in the postcolonial nations that keep the largest sector of the electorate and the enforcers of the law outside of the right to intellectual labor.  Indeed, one may connect it with the performative contradiction in the working of capital itself – social productivity enabled by and requiring sustained subalternization – removal from access to the abstract structures of the state – nor merely proletarization. 
I was in Vienna a year ago, visiting Mechthild  and Ranajit Guha, and Ranjitda, who despises empty praise, quizzed me on A Rule of Property. I believe I passed the test. It is a book I re-read periodically, to remind myself how to track epistemological performance, always out of joint with later epistemic conclusions, never hoping myself to achieve such archival and speculative brilliance, of course.
I have left proof in published work how much his definition of the subaltern mattered to me.   

This was collectively repeated and endorsed in the celebration earlier this year of the 30th anniversary of the publication of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. The description of religion as the insurrectionists’ way beyond mere personal suffering toward “the world-historical” matters a great deal today, as does the construction of an “Ideal Consciousness” for the deserving and undeserving other by the Human Rights lobby and the self-selected moral entrepreneurs of the so-called international civil society as well as by the proliferation of “empty abstractions [in] tertiary discourse.”
It is a gesture worthy of a great Indian intellectual that he has now decided to write only in his mother tongue. There is a certain freshness in the specifically literary material – I am thinking of Kobir Nam Sarbonam – that is moving for this reader. He has wandered into my home there, and I can welcome him as a friend rather than work for him as a novice, as I did at a certain stage in my life.  And Doya brings me back to the novitiate, for it opens a corner of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in ways that I could not reach.
Happy Birthday, Ranjitda. We will keep reading you.

22 May 2013


Ranajit Guha is 90 years old on 23 May 2013. We give below the first of several short birthday tributes to him.



Richard Price

Richard Price is Ranajit Guha’s first PhD student. He is at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA.

I first encountered Ranajit Guha as a second year undergraduate at the University of Sussex in 1964.  I had always been interested in the history of the British Empire, and when he offered a class on “European Imperialism from 1870” I enrolled.   He became my mentor;  he served as my D.Phil. advisor, even though my topic (British working class attitudes towards imperialism in the late nineteenth century) was far from his main area of interest in Indian History. 
            From the very start Ranajit held a charismatic attraction for me.  Part of this, it must be admitted, lay in the exotic aura that he projected.  He was the first person I had ever encountered who had been part of the struggle for colonial freedom; he had been jailed by the British; and for many years he was active in the Young Communists of India.  More than this dramatic personal history, however, was the scholarly intellect that he modeled.  There were five key qualities that Ranajit Guha the historian embodied that were formative for my own thinking and for the way I try to practice history.  
            The first was how he treated history as something that could be thought about conceptually, as a process, and not as just a narrative progression.  His undergraduate course on  European Imperialism, for example, was not the usual course that began with the age of explorations.  It began instead with the theorists of empire and then went on to study the British, French and German cases within that context.  Ranajit was the first person to teach me that the problems of history could be conceptual, rather than being a problem of events, 
            Second, was the suppleness and rigor of his intellect. Ranajit demonstrated how theoretical conceptualization and rigorous archival investigation were not separate activities, but necessarily intertwined.  His own historical writings have provided elegant examples of that lesson.  A Rule of Property for Bengal is thus both an intellectual history and a study in the history of political economy.  And the rich social history of Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India provides the foundations for a typology of subaltern rebellion.
            Third, there was a spare asceticism to Ranajit’s intellectual being.  I remember how he told me that he had spent one cold English Christmas shut away in his apartment grappling with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.  I was not surprised.  Ranajit was perhaps the first person I met who privileged the world of the mind over virtually everything else; who demonstrated that being an historian was in itself a full-time profession.
            Fourth, and related to this, was an independence of mind and position that Ranajit projected.  He conveyed the importance of following one’s own star and standing as much apart as was possible from the seductions of professional pressures and fashions.  Ranajit is one of the few people I know whose stature in the world of professional history has been attained entirely on his own terms.  He has followed his own path throughout his life.
            And finally the single most lasting lesson I took from Ranajit was both small and large.  It was the importance of clarity and precision in writing.  The first essay I submitted to him was returned covered with red ink corrections of grammar, syntax and style.  I had never experienced such criticism before, and it was a salutary lesson in the significance of writing for thinking.    Until very recently, whenever I picked up a pen the memory of that experience come flooding back.  It was as if Ranajit was there to remind me that the business of writing history was no light or frivolous matter, but was a serious duty and responsibility.  


19 May 2013


Delhi University’s vice chancellor, Dinesh Singh, was once a well-reputed mathematician. His career suggests that there was a time when he knew things add up, that there are good and bad ways of getting things done. When he was a teacher of mathematics he listened to people, or at least managed a decent impression of possessing the capacity for hearing. So, when he became vice chancellor, even people who know that power corrupts were cautiously optimistic. Dinesh Singh, it was felt, might buck the trend. He seemed interested in wielding a sensible broom to improve things on the ground for students and teachers. There was no hint, at the time, of what was to ensue—that the broom in his hand would go between his legs and become a witch’s. Now, in the opinion of virtually every respected academic and teacher at the University of Delhi, and close by at JNU and Jamia as well—see the opinion HERE of the economist Jayati Ghosh at JNU, and HERE of the historian Mukul Kesavan at Jamia (incidentally, Mukul Kesavan, Jayati Ghosh, and Dinesh Singh were exact contemporaries as Inlaks scholars in Britain thirty years ago)—the clear consensus it that all it takes to destroy an entire institution is the missionary zeal of one fanatic mathematician who seems to listen to no one except those to whom he is beholden for his authority—or, to say it straighter, authoritarianism.

It would be difficult at the moment for bookies to offer decent odds on which of Delhi University’s teaching departments loathes the vice chancellor most. The likelihood is that if they offered the best odds for, say, the English Department—where the soundest faculty members will soon hate him enough to write papers comparing him to that earlier fallen angel, Milton’s Satan—the History Department would immediately be up in arms at having been insulted for insufficiency of venom. And they would have a point. 

One of the most academically dispiriting things to have happened to history teaching at Delhi University is the removal from the course of A.K. Ramanujan's classic essay on the multiplicity of Ramayana tellings in South and South East Asia, an event this vice chancellor supervised, disavowed responsibility for, and did nothing to reverse. We keenly await the papers on Milton’s Satan vis-a-vis Dinesh Singh, staking a claim for the English Department's supremacy in the loathing stakes; but the record suggests it is the History Department that, as Wodehouse may have said, gets the biscuit. 

This is very far from being only our opinion; it is much more clearly HERE that of Nayanjot Lahiri, she being a professor of history who, alongside her colleagues, has watched the spectacular emergence of Dinesh Singh’s fascist inclinations with dismay. Professor Lahiri’s outstanding colleagues include Professor Upinder Singh, Manmohan Singh’s daughter, whose integrity is manifest from her keeping clear of attempts to stop Dinesh Singh in his tracks despite the strength of her agreement with the History Department. Public intellectuals who have expressed much the same hostility to Dinesh Singh's seeming contempt for history and calculated obliviousness to the functions of a university include Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta, alongside the very many who have blogged this subject and written about it in various fora.

In order not to mimic Dinesh Singh, it is important for the repositories of sanity in the teaching community to listen to the vice chancellor’s views and arrive at their opinion of him after carefully considering them. His argument is that the times have changed, students need to learn different things in new ways, and since teachers resist change there is no option except for him to wield his broom as an axe. This message has been heard and digested by the best within the university, there being no shortage of fine teachers who have themselves argued the need for improving and modernizing old courses. Instead, the VC has handed them new ‘foundation courses’, framed by conspicuously ignoring all opinions that reputed and respected teachers may have wanted to give on what ought to constitute these courses.

It takes two to listen. When it is apparent that the party asserting power is deaf and cannot be bridled, the time has arrived for open and all-out war. This seems to be the state of affairs in Delhi University. It is, unluckily for the best minds at the university, a war they will lose. A little Constantinople will crumble; in 1453 it caused an exodus. In 2013 it may lead to early retirements and the movement of teachers to other universities. Having created all the conditions conducive to this, the VC is perhaps keeping his fingers crossed that this is what will happen next. The difficulty, both for him and the teachers, is the sheer number of teachers in Delhi University: there is nowhere for so many to go, or they'd go.

Writing on the value of T.S. Eliot's poetry in the larger context of the Great War and its aftermath, E.M. Forster said: "For what, in that world of gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?" The battle lost, it becomes even more important for the scholars affected to record the fact that they dissented and were swept aside, rendered subaltern. At some point, these slighter gestures of dissent, this voicing of alternative visions at the approach of insanity, will, if nothing else, show up precisely what kind of vice chancellor Dinesh Singh has been. To be scrupulously fair-minded, it is necessary to concede that, first, not everyone who teaches at the university is opposed to the vice chancellor's vision of the university's future: he has a claque of substantial proportions; second, it is reasonable to argue that as no course is cast in stone, each will with the accumulation of experience be improved; and third that, however unlikely it may now seem, at a time distant from the present the university may conceivably take a turn for the better, making this mathematician look very far from satanic. However, there are times when one's inclination is to say to the scrupulously fair-minded, 'Up Yours', and this seems one of those times.

So here, in the end, is a little homework exercise for future students of the new history foundation course at Delhi University, specially prepared by Permanent Black. It may be somewhat tough for university students, in which case the vice chancellor will, naturally, step in and dumb it down further:

1.    Using your own words, compare and contrast the career of your vice chancellor, Professor Dinesh Singh, with that of the Indian mathematician who became a famous historian, D.D. Kosambi. What lessons, if any, can you draw from the comparison? Try to find out why D.D. Kosambi failed to become a vice chancellor and why he failed to ruin the teaching of history. Does his failure in these respects suggest he must also have been a useless mathematician? (Remember to use your own words and for God's sake don't reproduce straight from Google.)

2.    Who was A.K. Ramanujan? Was he same guy as Srinivas Ramanujan? Or was he some different Ramanujan? In your own words, compare and contrast the two Ramanujans. After that, try to visit the Indian and foreign cities where these two Ramanujans were born and educated. There, please do your best to trace their descendants, if possible. Then interview all descendants which you encounter (one by one). Then, in their own words (since it is interview, you are allowed to use other people words), you write down all the interviews. Carry your phone with you and try to take picture of all descendants. Finally, try to explain in your own words why it is important for Indian vice chancellors to distinguish between Many Ramanujans.

15 May 2013


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Creative Pasts

The Black Hole of Empire




The Essential Writings

11 May 2013


Reviewed in THE TELEGRAPH, Kolkata, on 10 May 2013



(at this point we've run out of 'Re' titles so beloved of Indian historians, so why don't you just read on below while we think up some more)

The rare exception apart, the dead Indian historian is a forgotten Indian historian. Paradigms shift. Footnotes follow the new fashions: very soon not even Foucault will feature in them, never mind Subaltern Studies. So, Sarvepalli Gopal is dismissed all the more easily for inhabiting a framework that went out of fashion when Gramscian and feminist and Foucauldian perspectives became the new hegemonies. Can one still read a biographer of individuals and elites, viceroys and viceregal tenures? Ha ha ho ho, you must be joking! The very interest in Ripon, Irwin, Nehru, Radhakrishnan, and suchlike betrays the gatekeeper of a Jurassic Park, a Jadunathian thinly decked up as a liberal.

The bathwater thrown out, someone happens to notice there was also a baby. Sifting through bulrushes, he pulls out something that still looks good. This is what Srinath Raghavan, the author of War and Peace in Modern India, has just done. The result of his substantial ferreting in archives and the S. Gopal papers is the book shown above.
Is the resurrection worthwhile? Why should we read S. Gopal today? Here are some reasons offered by Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani:

In several respects, Sarvepalli Gopal stood out among the historians of his generation. First, by his industry. With rare exception, professors of history in our universities—even the most influential, the kind who become President of the Indian History Congress—do not publish more than one or two serious books each over the course of their professional career. Gopal published as many as seven: three on Nehru, one on his father, a book on British imperial policy, and separate studies of the viceroyalties of Ripon and Irwin. All were based on solid research into primary materials. Aside from these, Gopal initiated and was the first editor of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, a multi-volume project indispensable for an understanding of twentieth-century India. He also engaged in public debate, particularly in later life, and in the 1990s edited a book of essays on the Ayodhya controversy.
            Second, the English prose of most Indian academics is wooden. Gopal, who had immersed himself in the literature of the language, was by contrast a stylist with a wry turn of phrase. Though his mother tongue was Telugu and he spoke Tamil fairly well—as well as an Oxford-educated Brahmin could—he wrote almost entirely in English, crafting his sentences fastidiously and never doubting the continuing value of this imperial import in free India.
            Third, Gopal’s natural historical lens was the individual life, not impersonal structures and processes. Biography is a genre Indian writers by and large avoid, one reason being that it is exceptionally demanding and requires very hard work. Another is that the story of a life is just that—a story. Gopal relished long hours among old manuscripts in the archives and could write with flair: both traits essential for the biographer.
            Fourth, Gopal showed a willingness to learn from his own errors, an ability altogether rare among scholars of any nationality. His Nehru trilogy, majestic though it is, had two flaws. It was somewhat unfair to Nehru’s colleagues and opponents (most especially C. Rajagopalachari), and it was excessively discreet about his personal life. Edwina Mountbatten got all of one sentence, Padmaja Naidu not even that. Yet when he came later to write the life of his father, Gopal was completely candid about his subject’s extra-marital affairs: ‘I have shirked nothing’ was how he put it. Perhaps more important, the son was fair to Radhakrishnan’s intellectual adversaries. These included a Bengali who had accused the philosopher of plagiarism, and an English writer who had dismissed him as a windbag. 

Backing up the reasons above, some choice samples of Gopal's writing appear below. They are meant to make you salivate.
On Lord Mountbatten as a prize ass
The shortcomings of the admiralty and the loss of a toothbrush were to him of equal importance.’

From Gopal's essay titled ‘Gandhi: An Irrepressible Optimist’
The white American singer, Joan Baez, in her autobiography published in 1966, reports a dialogue between her husband and their daughter aged 11:

‘Did Gandhi have a penis?’ she asked.
‘Yes’, he answered.
‘Did he have a vagina too?’
‘No,’ said Ira. ‘He was a man, and men just have a penis.’
‘Well’, she said, pausing in the doorway, ‘it’s just that he was so nice … I thought he might have had both.’

From the essay ‘History and the Search for Identity’
‘When Descartes said that the most eminent scholars of Roman history knew less about what had happened in Rome than Cicero’s housemaid, his intent was to denigrate the discipline of history as a whole: but in a way he was, without meaning to do so, recognizing the value of contemporary history. He was, one may say, echoing Thucydides, who had held that the historian could write with confidence only about events that he himself had experienced. Descartes was also, and again without deliberation, stressing the importance in historical testimony of such lowly creatures as housemaids. Great men, being prone to emphasise their role in destiny, tend to exaggerate their own importance both in their private papers as well as in their oral record; but ordinary men and women, by just being themselves with no self-deceiving memories, help in the building of social and economic history. Especially in our country, where illiteracy robs us of documentation at this level of society, oral evidence is of added value and provides a dimension to contemporary history which is lacking for the history of other periods; for illiteracy is not inarticulateness.’

In defence of the writing of contemporary history
‘As for the need for objectivity, it is possible, as much in dealing with the recent past as with any other period, to adopt a scientific approach, to collect and collate the evidence systematically, and to assess such evidence by rigorous and recognized methods. To the extent that a historian is aware of and can, in the examination of evidence, subdue his subjective elements, he can do this as much in contemporary as in any other history. Detachment is a mood born of self-discipline and not a matter of remoteness in time. Some of the most partisan historians in India and the world today are those writing of centuries long gone by … The study of history is, by its very nature, an incomplete discipline with ever-fading margins, not just in the shallow sense that new evidence is always coming to light, but that every generation has fresh interests and is putting new questions to the past. It is in this sense that Croce’s oft-quoted epigram, that all history is contemporary history, should be understood. The task of the historian is perpetually to re-examine, and even to re-judge, the past in the changing light of the present. He suggests novel hypotheses, establishes new connections, poses fresh problems. He does not seek an illusory finality but opens the way to further discussions. Acton, it will be remembered, set out to write a definitive history and ended by writing a few articles. On the other hand, because the civil war of the seventeenth century is still being waged in England, research and writing on the subject continue in an unending flow.’

From ‘The Crisis of Secularism in India’
‘It is easy to find instances in the history of ancient and medieval India of the desecration or demolition of institutions of religious significance. But such actions were not the monopoly of the followers of any one particular religion. A Hindu ruler of the eleventh century, Harsha of Kashmir, melted images in Hindu temples, and a Hindu general cut down the Bo-tree in Bodhgaya. Shaivites and Vaishnavites, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, Sunnis and Shias quarrelled and frequently pillaged each others’ shrines. When the Sikhs conquered Sirhind in 1764, they deliberately destroyed all buildings, including the mosques. There is no room for generalizations about bigotry applicable only to Muslims.’

From his review of E.M. Forster’s The Hill of Devi
'Relations between the maharaja and the paramount power were unhappy, and Mr Forster writes with subdued bitterness of the officials of the political department who, he says, were on the whole "an unattractive body of men" lacking courtesy, kindness, and sympathy. The maharaja finally fled to Pondicherry in French India, defied all orders of the Government of India to return, and in 1937 died in self-imposed exile and poverty. Mr Forster, ever a critic of the world of officialdom and power, blames the Government of India. "They were", he says in a magnificent sentence, "impeccably right and absolutely wrong." But it is difficult to see what else the government could have done. … But even if Mr Forster’s estimate of the maharaja cannot be unqualifiedly accepted, The Hill of Devi remains a book of intrinsic worth. It is written—this goes without saying—in prose of gossamer quality. To the social historian it is a valuable study of an India that has now disappeared. An interaction of private and public history, it gives vivid pictures of life in an Indian state, with its servility and intrigue, its backwardness and obscurantism.'

On cricket writing
‘To me, as no doubt to many others, the game and the English language have helped each other to increase the sum total of fascination. I still remember, for example, reading a long time ago a comment of Cardus on Duleepsinhji. “It is one of the delights”, wrote Cardus, “of an English summer afternoon to watch Duleep’s bat flash in the sun.” That sentence, with all that it leaves unsaid, has haunted me through the years.’