In the early 1970s, some of us Bengali historians were struggling against the weight of a cultural and political inheritance: that of the Bengal Renaissance on the one hand, and of the nationalist movements on the other. Both had enjoyed a long period of unchallenged ascendancy in popular estimation and in Indian historiography – except in very reactionary circles.
Born in a family with generations of modern, liberal socio-religious reformism behind it, and overlaid by a new Leftist content that my father had added, I felt, in a spurt of youthful rebelliousness, that Leftist values and Brahmo liberalism did not sit well together. So, a lot of the essays on social reform probed the limits of the so-called Renaissance heritage quite severely. I now find it interesting that even then I did criticise Rammohun Roy for not doing more about caste – a point that I developed more forcefully in another essay, “The ‘Women’s Question’ in Nineteenth-Century Bengal”. Of course, given the prevailing indifference to issues of social justice of those times, my references were all too brief. “The Women’s Question” was a part of A Critique of Colonial India but has not been included in the present collection. It took issue with Renaissance emancipatory claims about gender at a time when gender was not yet central to mainstream history-writing, feminist historians having barely begun their journey.
Along with those of Asoke Sen and Barun De, my writings provoked deep shock among Bengali Left liberals who felt – maybe with some justification – that this was iconoclasm of a totally unacceptable kind. A senior CPI activist even blamed me for betraying my father’s views on the Renaissance. Interestingly, without telling me, my father – Susobhan Chandra Sarkar, a towering teacher of history who had written much on the Renaissance himself – published a strong rejoinder rebuking the activist, justifying alternative readings of history, and saying that socialism should be a broad enough road on which many different people may travel together with ease.
This was also a time when “Cambridge School” historians had begun to question and problematise Indian nationalism.
With hindsight, I feel that they had a lot to offer, though I still believe that their blindness to popular anti-colonial struggles was a major and strange limitation. But they were practically the first historians to work with archival records and private papers, and they looked closely at local social contexts like caste. At the time, however, we found their cavalier attitude to Indian nationalism highly offensive. Since their writings emanated from a Western – worse, British – academic context, we all too easily slipped into branding them “neo-imperialist”.
Bipan Chandra (professor of history at JNU) and many others reacted against the Cambridge School by looking closely and respectfully at, and identifying profoundly with, the work of great nationalist leaders. I could not make myself go that way, and my article on Gandhian nationalism should make it evident. As the shining promise at the dawn of Independence began to dim by the late 1960s and early ’70s, and as a new wave of popular struggles began in various forms against the post-colonial ruling classes, I felt it was more important to explore the historical limits of mainstream nationalism, especially the class perspective of its leadership. The ongoing Vietnam War, and the residual excitement of May 1968, made quite a lot of us think for some time, independently and in isolation from one another, that the struggles of peasants and workers were more significant for national and social liberation than the leadership provided by the elites.
Already, Ranajit Guha had gathered around him a group of young scholars in England who were thinking on similar lines about how to re-vision Indian history. That was the nucleus of the Subaltern Studies collective, with which I, too, became associated for a while. When I visited Oxford for a year in 1976-77, I met the group, and I still remember the very exciting and stimulating discussions I had with Professor Guha at his Sussex home, where the two of us, once or twice, stayed up all night and I listened to him on the Indian peasantry, practically spellbound.
I was very fortunate to meet and strike up a friendship with EP Thompson and Dorothy Thompson that lasted till their death. I remember with enormous gratitude their great warmth and wonderful hospitality whenever my wife and I visited them thereafter. His magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Classes, had reached us, very belatedly, just before I went to Oxford and met him. That, and his later work, and the many discussions, political and historical, with him over the years inspired me as nothing else had ever done before or has since. The articles on Subaltern militancy and Adivasi struggles came out of those encounters.
As a teacher of history at Delhi University for thirty years, between 1974 and 2004, I thoroughly redesigned the course on social history.
It used to be focused on social reforms alone, but I brought in caste, adivasis, and other subaltern lives as well. With hindsight, I realise that this – especially the caste dimension – was really quite unprecedented for postgraduate history courses anywhere at the time. This was a great experience. My students and I explored these themes together through detailed ethnographic studies, Phule’s and Ambedkar’s writings, those of Periyar that had been translated, and whatever caste histories were then available. We also read a lot of social fiction together. I learnt much from my students, who came from diverse backgrounds and who often made my classes far richer by bringing in their own experiences and perspectives on social history and on the suggested readings. This was the blessed time before the semester system was arbitrarily imposed on the university and made such easy, prolonged, yet thoughtful classroom discussions over days and weeks impossible: something that had made us all grow intellectually. Perhaps the whole point of introducing the semester system was precisely to block that path.
Since the post-Mandal stormy agitations hit Delhi University most severely in the early 1990s, these discussions sometimes turned into extremely acrimonious debates among students and colleagues alike. But the classroom certainly gained in immediate relevance. My later writings on caste came out of that churning.
In another course on early modern Europe that I taught, I discussed some of the Annales writings. I was never completely convinced by their project of writing total history, but found the concept of histoire integrale, which imbues a very specific local community with a larger sense of historical depth, far more exciting.
We also studied early-modern German histories – especially by David Sabean and Hans Medick, among others – which explored the details of the everyday lives of ordinary people over a long duration.
The alltagsgeschichte tradition did not focus on individual lives but on broad patterns and habits of work and leisure. Carlo Ginzburg’s work, on the other hand, introduced us to the enormous excitement of microhistoria: a detailed study of an ordinary sixteenth-century Italian miller who, in a small way, preached doctrines that brought the wrath of the Inquisition upon him: a happy occasion for historians, as Inquisition officials recorded his life and beliefs in his own words and in the supplementary words of his fellow villagers, all ordinary men like himself.
In the early 1990s I read Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker with great interest as they identified working-class lives, work, and resistance in unexpected places: on board ship – which now appeared as a global site of capitalist production – in piracy, and in sailors’ resistance to ship authorities. These confused the boundaries between social crime and insurrection and made us rethink both on new lines.
Sometime in the mid 1990s I went on the first and last academic leave of my life (though I continued to take my university classes). I joined the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as a Senior Research Fellow, going back to my university after a year. But, in that year, reflections on many of my readings began to crystallise. Strangely, I returned to some of my older interests, but now in a different key: no longer so much to critique liberal reformism for its dependence on empire, but to see Vidyasagar against the context of contemporary orthodoxy, and reconfigure his agenda on education and gender in that light.
I did not go back to the Brahmo movement which, after all, had been a familiar world to me. But I approached a Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, who seemed remote and alien to my socialist, secular worldview. I found in the Kathamrita, a diary kept by his disciple (who recorded his conversations for years), a rare text and a window to a guru’s actual religious musings. Equally interesting was his following: not just the great nineteenth-century luminaries of Bengal, but also poor, lower-middle-class, little-educated clerks in modern government and mercantile offices, all from a world that had so far been ignored by historians. I pondered over what their guru – insulated from their work experiences and gruelling family responsibilities as he was – brought to their lives. And I thought about what highly sophisticated intellectuals found in his simple, rustic language and homely parables that so moved them. I especially probed the intermingling of different classes and intellectual-devotional orders around the figure of a single religious leader to reflect on the broader issues of a time of transition when the older hopes in liberal social and religious change had declined but the new energies of nationalism had not yet appeared. The intermingling of different lives became a point of strong interest – historians often study them in mutual isolation.
Microhistories alert us to unexpected undercurrents that work beneath the surface of events of conventional historical importance.
Much had already been written by Indian historians by this time on subaltern resistance, especially to the colonial state. I was becoming more interested in ordinary lives which sometimes flare into extraordinary deeds – not necessarily admirable – which cannot be classified as open resistance to power. In Ginzburg’s study, Inquisition records revealed this world. But in the absence of a huge bureaucratic apparatus that would be capable of keeping track of ordinary people, criminality alone provides us with similar stories which contemporaries sometimes recorded in some detail because of their sensation value. Accidentally, in the course of my readings on nineteenth-century religious and social movements in contemporary vernacular sources, I came across a newspaper report on a village scandal at Doyhata in East Bengal. It brought out a form of unorganised subterranean deviance which never led to any sect or movement, but to murder and mayhem for just one night in just one village. There were unexpected crossings of caste boundaries as a low-caste, uneducated, and poor guru inspired a high-caste, highly educated disciple to kill another and expose his own family women to the gaze of a stranger in a particularly gross manner. This was an improvised ritual and belief structure which would have left no traces at all in historical records, had it not involved violent crime.
I felt attracted to such small happenings that stuck out from the main historical plot structures and went against the grain of all expectations, or which came out of the realm of ordinary people and did not take on national or major religious dimensions. All this made me write about the Doyhata episode, which remains something of a personal favourite even now. I remember an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, shortly after it was published, which expressed surprise and dismay at what a Leftist and secular historian was coming to. But all historians are entitled to try and understand their Others.
Of late, labour histories have emerged as a most dynamic new trend in modern Indian historiography.
As I read the works of Chitra Joshi, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, Prabhu Mohapatra, Rana Behal, Ravi Ahuja, and many others with great interest, I recalled that my first book, on the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, did have a chapter on the early-nineteenth-century labour upsurge – well before systematic labour-history writings began in our country. I also recalled the animated discussions in the early 1970s with my younger friend Dipesh Chakrabarty, who had then just begun his research on jute workers. I wrote an overview of some of the recent works on Indian labour to see what had changed in labour history since then.
The pieces in the third section are very short tributes to historians and to a political leader who meant a lot to me.
So far, we Indian historians have written the histories that we wanted to write, following no agenda but our own. That seems to be a fast-vanishing luxury. I wish with all my heart all success to the present generation, and to the generations that will come after them, who struggle to write history as it should be written.
Excerpted with permission from Essays Of A Lifetime, Sumit Sarkar, Permanent Black.