A book review for The Pioneer
India isn't just about Gandhi
August 13, 2011
Windows into the PastBrown speaks of life stories as a new and more illuminating source of history, though she can be blamed for confining her studies to Gandhi and Nehru alone, says Claude Arpi
Author: Judith M Brown
Price: Rs 295
Judith Brown, one of the foremost experts on the 19th and 20th century South Asian history and politics, writes in her book, Windows into the Past: Life Histories of the Historian of South Asia: “History is perhaps more than almost any other discipline a contentious business, and inevitably political, because it deals with the past of women and men in society, and so has profound consequences for how people as individuals and groups interpret their pasts and presents, and draw on their pasts to try to fashion their futures.”
Nobody can argue against this, though in post-Independence India politicians or Governments have rarely looked into their past to shape their future. As a result, history has inherently got reserved for ‘specialists’ or ‘eminent’ historians, often out of touch with the reality of life.
This is, however, not the case in countries like China, where leaders like Mao Tse-tung were great students of history and would often refer to significant past events before taking crucial decisions. Interestingly, at a meeting called to decide the ways to “teach India a lesson” in October 1962, Mao opened the discussion by recounting the circumstances of the “one-and-a-half” Sino-Indian wars. “The first war took place in 648 AD when a Tang dynasty emperor dispatched troops to assist a legal claimant to the throne of a subcontinental kingdom. The Chinese force defeated the usurper, who was captured and sent to Tang capital Changan (Xian), where he lived for the rest of his life,” said Mao.
Then Mao spoke of the ‘half war’ that took place in 1398 when Timurlane attacked India. “This was a great victory, but was followed by the slaughter of over 100,000 prisoners and looting of all precious metals and gems across the land”, he said. It was a ‘half war’ because Timur was from Mongolia, then a part of China, making this attack half-Chinese.
However, Brown’s remarks that history is inevitably ‘political’ are true, particularly for relatively recent events of the subcontinent like Partition, described by her as “a deeply emotive historical event, playing a crucial but very different part in the national histories of India and Pakistan”.
Brown’s argument is that South Asian history has been “dominated by the themes of state and nation, as scholars sought to understand the nature of the imperial state with its institutional structures” from different perspectives. She rightly believes that “individual lives” have a tendency to be neglected. “Lives are also a significant source, particularly in the case of many of those who were prominent in the politics of nationalism and kept their papers for posterity in a conscious attempt to be part of the making of their nation’s history,” she says.
One can only agree with the author on this point. The history of a nation cannot depend on archival materials only, if one wants to understand the deeper sense of history and the role played by the men who changed the fate of a nation. Brown speaks of these life stories as “new and more illuminating sources”, though she admits that only recently “the history of the subcontinent has begun to be seen within the matrix of insights that are known loosely as ‘global history’... a complex global networks of trade, investment, migration, education, religion and ideology”.
Interest in personal lives is important, though one can find fault in Brown restricting the object of her studies to Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Why not Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Sri Aurobindo, among others, who participated in the ‘global’ history of the subcontinent, with their capacities, limitations and aspirations.
But there is a more serious problem in India. Just to take the case of the first Prime Minister, the ‘Nehru Papers’ are locked in almirahs in the Jawaharlal Nehru Library while the keys are kept by the descendants of the first (and only) dynasty of independent India. It is the same thing with the files of the Ministry of External Affairs that are closed not only to the general public, but also genuine historians.
India is one of the few countries in the world that refuses to declassify archival material and this despite the fact that the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament in 2005. Unfortunately, the RTI helps those who do not want India’s history to come out of the almirahs. Article 8(1)(a) says: “There shall be no obligation to give any citizen, (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign state or lead to incitement of an offence.” This paragraph is enough to make all the files of the Ministry of External Affairs, Defence and Home inaccessible to the public.
One of the most glaring (and foolish) examples of this outdated policy is the Henderson Brooke report. Hiding behind this clause, the Government forbids the people to know about the 1962 India-China War. One can understand why Nehru did not make the report public, as he might have had to take responsibility for the unpreparedness of the Army. But the report, classified as ‘Top Secret’ in 1963, continues to remain so today. Is it not distressing that 48 years after the event, the Government still gives a free hand to China to propagate its version of history?
The PMO has recently admitted that it has 28,685 secret files but has not declassified any in recent times. Though the Government officially swears by the rule to make files public after every 20-25 years, the policy remains unimplemented. The babus say they are holding on to the files to protect ‘national interests’!
These babus (and the politicians) have obviously never read Nehru’s works. On August 27, 1957, in a ‘Note’ to his Principal Private Secretary, the first Prime Minister commented about some persons having been refused access to the National Archives of India: “The papers required are very old, probably over 30-year-old. No question of secrecy should apply to such papers, unless there is some very extraordinary reason in regard to a particular document. In fact, they should be considered, more or less, public papers.” Ironically, the UPA Government is not ready to listen to Nehru.
Brown makes a valid point about ‘life stories’, but unless archives are opened to the people, a crucial element will remain missing.