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Indian Historians Are Not Lazy

The noted historian isn't worrying about William Dalrymple's charges

Indian Historians Are Not Lazy
Indian Historians Are Not Lazy

In responding to William Dalrymple's criticisms of Indian historians for their apparent lethargy and obscurantism, one needn't feel overly indignant. It's always good to have one's weaknesses pointed out. The difficulties in dealing with documents in Persian and Urdu, especially when written in cursive hand, are always to be kept in mind. It is generally expected that a historian, whether British or Indian, or any other, must combine the work of decipherment, transcription and comprehension with his own work. In serious historiography none of these tasks can be farmed out.

There may be found in Persian/Urdu written in the cursive hand (Shikasta) four possible variants, and one has to know by context what word represents the form at a particular place. If one wants to write a history of the French Revolution, one not only needs to know French but should also be able to read cursively written documents in the French of the time. Unfortunately, there are very few people left who can read Urdu and Persian, particularly the Shikasta script which was once taught in schools but is no longer being taught since Independence. If Dalrymple is able to do so, he belongs to a very small number of people who are competent in this; and their number is steadily declining. That is one major reason why archival material is not being used as widely as it should be, and not because historians are lazy. When Urdu was killed by a conscious policy, a large part of our past was naturally locked up for us.

The revolt of 1857 is not my field as a specialist, and so I cannot say how far the stack of 20,000 documents in Persian and Urdu in the National Archives has stood "virtually unused". The 20,000 papers may or may not have been discovered for the first time by Dalrymple and his colleagues—it is hard to tell, especially if they haven't been catalogued and are therefore inaccessible to ordinary historians. While as described by Dalrymple, these must be extraordinarily useful for the history of Delhi in 1857, the number of collections of Mutiny Papers in Urdu, Persian, Hindi and English must be massive. There is an enormous amount of documents scattered across district headquarters—in the state archives in Allahabad, Lucknow and Bhopal and elsewhere. So enormous is the mass that all the documents are not even completely listed in any one place as yet. Every genuine find of documents is to be welcomed. But it is also a fact of life that documents continue to fall into obscure corners. Some years ago, I found a British historian ruing the fact that the private papers of one of the leading British Free Traders of the 19th century could no longer be traced. However, it is important that the National Archives should arrange for the documents to be catalogued and made available on microfilm, so that a historian working anywhere can read and use them. This has been made possible in France for huge collections of documents relating to the French Revolution. I understand that the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has recently started a project to track all the available collections of documents, including the printed papers, relating to the 1857 Revolt, but that's just the beginning.

Cataloguing all the documents will take years, and even then the task is unlikely to be complete. I may also mention that it is perhaps unfair to say that there have been no pioneers in the use of the raw indigenous documentation of the mutiny. Syed Athar Abbas Rizvi published from 1957 onward six volumes of documents (including one index volume) devoted to the Rebellion of 1857 and culled from various archives. Many of the documents he used were translated by Rizvi himself from the Persian and Urdu. And where originals were not available in Persian or Urdu, he reprinted the official English translations. Rizvi tried as far as possible to project the rebels' point of view. One must also remember that, under British rule, unfettered work on the mutiny was not possible. The official archives hardly ever encouraged enquiries into them. V.D. Savarkar's book on 1857, written in London, was banned. But after Independence, there was a spurt of books on 1857. Apart from Rizvi's six volumes, there were works by S.N. Sen and R.C. Majumdar. All three used Indian documents, though both Sen and Majumdar had to use translations because they themselves could not go to the originals in Urdu or Persian. But their books were based on material that had not been used in the British period. Rizvi even wrote a book in Hindi on Delhi during the mutiny that is largely based on archival material. In 1957, Souren Roy (as 'Talmiz Khaldun') published a paper on 1857 based on documents from the National Archives. In fact, the whole emphasis of Indian historians since Independence has been on presenting the rebels' point of view. While the work may not be as brilliant or as profound as one would like it to be, the number of research theses on 1857 and published monographs is not negligible. Many research papers too have appeared. As for the study of rebel consciousness as well as ordinary people's responses to the upheaval, I would particularly like to refer to Rajat K. Ray's The Felt Community, which draws on a very extensive array of sources.

I am not sure if I would endorse the demand that using the British sources is a kind of sin that needs to be avoided. Some data—fiscal, financial, military and administrative—can come only from British sources, since these could be assembled only by a government, and the British governed India. Ignoring or bypassing such material would mean that we will not be able to understand the "aggregates", and such phenomena as the regular transfer of wealth from India to Britain, the maximisation of revenue, the 'free-trade' imports of British manufacturers causing the industrialisation. All of these would be missed if British documentation is not studied and analysed.

Percival Spear and 'Talmiz Khaldun' were doubtless pioneers in English in trying to look at the Mutiny in Delhi from the eyes of the Delhi court, citizenry and the sepoys. The fact that the sepoys had to live and get the money out of the Delhi citizenry always created problems for a city under siege by an implacable enemy. This was a situation partly specific to Delhi. But even so the role of the mutineers in facing these difficulties has been well underlined by Prof Iqbal Husain, for example, in his essay on Bakht Khan.

The reference to Bakht Khan brings me to consider Dalrymple's rather unfortunate assumption that the Wahabis and Muslim sepoys were somehow the precursors of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This ignores the vital fact that religion in 1857 was the medium through which a growing resentment against the multiple inequities of the British rule was expressed. Ray brings this out fairly well. The Bengal Army sepoys throughout maintained a surprising inter-communal unity among them, a fact noted by Syed Ahmed Khan in his Asbab Baghawat-i Hind. He admitted that the Hindu and Muslim sepoys, having shed their blood together for their British masters for so long, were now so closely linked to each other in a common brotherhood that they could not but fight till the end once the uprising had begun. Such anti-colonial spirit suggests analogies as strong with Vietnam as with Iraq or Palestine. It would be too narrow to see it in a 'jehad' framework of our own creation.

How far do we deal with people in the mass or seemingly impersonal factors on the one hand, and take up individuals who by chance appear in our records, is an important issue of historical method. Sir Lewis Namier and his supporters raised this question in British historiography with their cult of private papers. But the history of everyday life would be misleading if the larger factors that generally escape notice in material on everyday life are ignored. We may remember that it was from using British official statistics that the early Indian nationalists deduced the process of increasing pauperisation under British rule, forcing Lord Dufferin, the viceroy in the 1880s, to order a wide-ranging inquiry into the conditions of the Indian poor. The inquiries largely confirmed the nationalist case, as William Digby's ironically titled Prosperous British India so well showed.

Ideally, history should combine the study of individuals with information on the larger issues. My grouse against the Subaltern historians is not only their use of an obscurantist terminology (which Dalrymple comments on), but their tendency to stress communities and localities and forget the 'aggregates'. Studying one weaver will not give one the story of the distress of Indian weavers under the regime of British Free Trade. For that, one would need to examine customs statistics, censuses, price-reports—mostly from official records. The story of 19th century Indian 'deindustrialisation', a factor behind 1857, among others, can be built up largely on the basis of records of this kind alone. After all, our past (the Mutiny included) is the collective legacy of the whole Indian people, and not just of certain specific fragments of it.

William Dalrymple Responds: Forgive Me, Professor, For Trespasses That Aren't


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