Born in 1870 in East Bengal, Jadunath Sarkar was an academic and public intellectual who was a pioneer in the art of history writing in India. He was knighted in 1929 and became the first Indian historian to gain honorary membership in the American Historical Association. His comprehensive histories of Aurangzeb and Shivaji greatly shape modern India’s understanding of these two figures even if Sarkar was marginalised by much of academia after 1947 by India’s as postcolonial historians.

Noted subalternist Dipesh Chakrabarty’s recent book The Calling of History examines Sarkar’s career and uses that to understand and discuss the history of Indian history, as it were. Chakrabarty teaches history at the University of Chicago, and is the recipient of the 2014 Toynbee Prize that recognizes social scientists for significant academic and public contributions to humanity.

As history becomes keenly contested in India’s polticial space, speaks to Dipesh Chakrabarty to understand how the issues and debates from Sarkar’s time can help inform us today.

Why did you write this book? What drew you to Jadunath Sarkar?There were many reasons, actually. One of them was an accident, which is that I chanced upon several excerpts from letters that had passed between Sarkar and Sakharam Govindrao Sardesai, an eminent historian from Maharashtra. And those letters were all about historical research, the meaning of historical truth, what a good historical source was, what constituted a first-hand account, the merits of an eye-witness account versus old secondary accounts, relation between history and identity and that of history and truth. And I found these letters fascinating; found it fascinating that they were debating these issues in the later years of colonial rule, from 1904, the year they started working together, till when Jadunath died in 1958.

And my other reasons were very academic. Historians have stopped discussing these people. Jadunath has become a forgotten person, thought of as a communal historian by many in academia. Marathas thought of him as pro-Muslim in his historical accounts of Shivaji while Muslims thought him pro-Hindu. He did make some remarks against East Bengali Muslims after Partition that today we would regard as communal.

What were those communal remarks?
He thought that East Pakistan would lose terribly by losing all the Bengali Hindus because the Hindus were the educated class. They were throwing their talented “Jews” out, so to say. And in that assumption that East Bengali Muslims wouldn’t be able to do without Bengali Hindus, Sarkar’s biases came out. It is true that East Pakistan did suffer a shortage of good teachers, and other professionals for a while, but they eventually made up for it. Personally, I think the Partition of Bengal was unfortunate but then Sarkar did ally with the Hindu Mahasabha in those years, when it was demanding Partition. And you must remember, his son was killed in Calcutta during the communal frenzy of 1946-'47, stabbed by a stray Muslim guy, as he got off a tram in Dharamtalla, after which he died in the hospital. So, the Hindu-Muslim problem in Bengal had a personal dimension for him.

The letters I mentioned were fascinating, and they projected Sarkar as quite a character. But when I now look back and think about what drew me into the project intellectually, in today’s terms, it was Sarkar’s failure to understand the relationship between identity and history, that people might want to have a past that makes them feel proud of what they were (particularly Dalits or any other people who’d been told that they were inferior because of their pasts). This Sarkar didn’t understand. On the other hand, something he did struggle for is also vital in today’s context. He struggled for a space for reasoned argumentation about what was factually true about the past. Because sometimes in the clamour to have a past that glorifies our identity, not only do we make non-factual or factually wrong statements – like Hindus invented the aeroplane – we also claim them to be facts. Jadunath Sarkar understood that facts are not always given, they have to be inferred, you have to reason them out. He understood that establishing facts required the employment of logic, evidence and inference. And he struggled for that space. And I think that is a legacy worth remembering.

You mentioned a very interesting point: Sarkar did not understand the draw of identity in writing history. He had strong debates with a lot of Maratha historians on whether to valourise Shivaji, and even with Bengali historians in the case of Pratapaditya, the 16th century Raja of Jessore, who has been played up as a resistance fighter against the Mughals ­– a narrative Sarkar disagreed with. Do you see an echo of that struggle in India today as well?
History writing in India has predominantly been driven by identity politics, whether of low castes, upper castes, Hindus, or Muslims. And Jadunath was feeling the pressure of that. He didn’t realise that this would be the long-term trend. There was only a moment in our post-Independence history when Abul Kalam Azad, who was then India’s education minister, wrote to Surendranth Sen, the first director of the national archives, asking him to write a centenary history of the Revolt of 1857 from a non-partisan angle. Azad told Sen that now that the British were gone and Indians were independent, there was no further need to write this history in a partisan spirit. Sen didn’t have to take an Indian or nationalist point-of-view, he could write objectively. But that moment came and went and only ended up being a brief interlude.

Because the churning of our democracy, say, from the 1970s onwards a lot of political power has accrued to leaders of marginalised groups, low-caste and other oppressed communities. This churning has again brought to the fore questions relating to the relationship between identify and history writing or between identity and the past. Badri Narayan’s work on Mayawati’s polticis and the kind of history that she invoked, for example, emphasied Dalit claims to characters that they said were historical like Jhalkari Bai, who it was said did more fighting that the Rani of Jhansi. And sometimes they’ve even erected statues to unhistorical figures. Someone like Jadunath did not understand that there is a legitimate side to this. But it becomes problematic when you want to justify this legitimate claim to desrable pasts with the rhetorical moves of the discipline of history. It is only when we want to claim these alternative pasts as “historical facts” that could be proven by archival research that Jadunath’s struggle becomes more relevant to our times.

But, on the other hand, what Jadunath didn’t understand is that there are multiple kinds of pasts and people have a right to speak of pasts which may not be the historians’ past but pasts that simply make them feel good about being themselves, particularly people who have been told that their past acts were responsible for their present injuries. For example, upper-caste justification for someone being lower-caste often assumed that the latter had sinned in their previous births. This thinking was once quite prevalent globally, that the pasts of subaltern groups were responsible for their present suffering. The British always claimed that they ruled India because Indians were weak and internally divided. And a response to that charge formed the bedrock of a lot of nationalist history that aimed to prove that we were strong and were not divided. Jadunath didn’t understand that process as a process of democratisation. But, on the other hand, if you have a democracy where you have no struggle for facts or fact-based reasoning, then that democracy will also suffer. You also need that space for rational argumentation. So it is in that question that I see the positive legacy of Sir Jadunath, having worked on this book.

You say that there is this resurgence of identity-driven history in India. However, a lot of your critics would say that your book is a mistimed one considering the Hindutva pressure on academia and Sarkar’s reputation, as you said, of being a “communal historian”. How would you respond to that?
I think the Hindutva claims themselves are very non-factual. So if you say we invented the aeroplane or the Mahabharat had an atom bomb, that’s not factual. Amartya Sen has already made this point. Whatever claims you make for Hindu glory should be verifiable factual claims and that’s why Jadunath Sarkar comes back.

It is not a monopoly of any particular group to claim glory, and upper caste Hindus can also do so. It can be legitimate in certain circumstances to say, “look, the world doesn’t respect me enough”. Because it’s a matter of perception. You might think that the Hindus are seen as weak, therefore they should project a strong past. But if you want to invoke the methods of history to justify the nonfactual claims that you make about the past, then a Jadunath Sarkar, I think, would be as dismissive of these Hindu claims – as he was with Pratapaditya – as he would be of non-factual claims coming from other groups.

So, to repeat myself, Sarkar did not understand that there is a relationship between diversity, identity, the need for particular pasts. But you must remember that this became a global realization only after World War II, when minority histories in the US, indigenous histories in North America and elsewhere, began to flourish.

Sarkar thus didn’t understand that the Maratha historians he was fighting actually represented something of the future to come. Perspectives were going to be more important than facts. Even when professional historians such as ourselves were fighting our battles in the 1980s – subaltern studies versus Cambridge historiography versus JNU historiography, which we called Marxist-nationalist historiography – the debates were all about points of view. We seldom debated the question of fact, whether facts were there, readymade, in the archives or whether they needed to be inferred. The kind of questions Jadunath was interested in had been almost forgotten by professional historians. Jadunath’s view was that you could be entitled to your perspective, but only so long as your facts were correct. And facts were not just given, you had to do research to find the facts out. And for Mughal times those were real questions. Where did a battle take place? Which village? There were many villages of the same name. How many hours did the amry march? Sarkar used maps, he would go to the terrain to work out the details of a battle. This kind of devotion to accuracy is missing today. We were brought up on EH Carr who said in 1958 that we don’t have to make a fetish of accuracy. But Sarkar’s first priority was accuracy. And there’s a legacy there to be retrieved, since the space to discuss facts rationally on the basis of evidence has been quashed in India’s democracy. In fact, the global historical trend since the 1970s has been to value testimony as history and Jadunath is a reminder that historians actually write history by questioning testimonies.

Did Sarkar get this pushback while writing Maratha history? Were there Maharashtrian historians telling him, you’re a Bengali, you can’t write our history?
Of course, he did. There was a lot of that. He was seen as a Bengali interloper. There’s a very interesting anecdote around this. In North India, in Hindi-Urdu, “Ji” is a honorific while “Rao” is the honorific in Marathi. Hence, “Shivaji Rao Bhonsle”.

When the Mughal scribes, writing in Persian from north India, took down Shivaji’s name, they excluded the “ji”, thinking it’s the Hindustani honorific, not part of his name. And Jadunath, because he worked with Persian sources, also used “Shiva”. This greatly upset the Marathas, thinking their respected hero had been insulted. So one angry Marathi critic, wrote back to Sarkar, asking “how would you feel if we called you just ”Jadu” and dropped “nath”?”

Sarkar had some very positive views about the British Empire. And you say that these have been “misunderstood”. What does that mean?
He thought that since the Muslims, i.e. the Mughals, had missed the bus on making India into a modern nation – for which he blamed Aurangzeb’s Islamic orthodoxy – the task then, in his view, passed on to the British. He assumed every country’s historical destiny was to become modern, become scientific and become a nation-state. And he thought that if Aurangzeb had been more curious, he could have built up on the earlier Mughals, who had united India with a central administration. He regretfully said that the Mughal court had seen European books but had still not imported even a single lithographic stone. So he used to feel very frustrated with the Mughals’ lack of curiosity about printing and modern scientific education. And he was convinced India needed them, so he thought British rule was part of destiny. His regret was that the two world wars forced the British to leave India before they had completed the job. That’s why, when Sapru asked him in 1945, “when should Indians get the vote”, Sarkar replied, “not before 1995”.

And he wasn’t alone in thinking this. There were many at the time. Gandhi himself was a proud and loyal subject of the empire that till 1915-16.

In fact, given his views, Sarkar didn’t like Gandhi and his mass politics which forced the British to quit. He once described Gandhi as a “demented son of a bania playing this hide and seek game with the British”. So I’d call Jadunath a nationalist, but not of the anti-colonial variety, which led many people to accuse him of being a loyal subject of the British Empire later on as nationalism become anti-colonial.