With the passing of SR Mehrotra in Shimla on July 18 at the age of 88, India has lost one of its finest and most tireless chroniclers of its struggle for freedom.

Mehrotra was born in Etawah in 1931. It was here that he first whetted his interest in the early figures that dominated the Indian National Congress. Etawah had been where Allan Octavian Hume – who was called the “Father of the Congress” due to his central role in establishing the party in 1885 – began his career in the Indian Civil Service. Hume presided over a remarkably enlightened administration in Etawah in the 1850s, forging close relations with local leaders and establishing free schools across the district. Mehrotra attended one of these schools in his childhood. In the 1930s, he recalled, Hume was still a household name in Etawah.

Mehrotra earned his PhD in history from the University of London in 1960 and published his first book, India and the Commonwealth, in 1965. Back in India, he began his life’s work of doggedly tracking down and sifting through the papers of Indian nationalist leaders. This was no simple task. Many important collections were in private hands and rapidly decaying. Old newspaper runs were being confined to the rubbish heap. Mehrotra took an active role in facilitating the transfer of such materials to institutions such as the National Archives of India and the newly-established Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

Early nationalism

His best-known work, The Emergence of the Indian National Congress, published in 1971, stitched together the story of early Indian nationalism from an extraordinary assemblage of primary sources. Many Indian historians have written off early nationalist leaders – men such as Hume, MG Ranade, GK Gokhale, and Dadabhai Naoroji – as ineffective, self-interested elites who throttled the Congress’ agenda until the rise of BG Tilak or Mahatma Gandhi. Mehrotra’s book demolishes this notion by highlighting the dynamism, vision, and patriotism of the first generation of the Congress.

Another weighty volume appeared in 1994: A History of the Indian National Congress, which pushed the organisation’s story up to 1918, on the eve of the Gandhian era. Increasingly, however, Mehrotra turned his attention to two figures from the Congress’ very beginnings, Hume and Naoroji. Hume’s own correspondence had been destroyed after his death in 1912, but Mehrotra, working with a Canadian colleague, Edward C Moulton, laboured for decades to track down surviving documents and letters that pointed to Hume’s commanding role in making the Congress a forceful exponent of Indian nationalist demands.

I first met Mehrotra through our mutual interest in Naoroji (the topic of my PhD dissertation). “I have been waiting for your call,” he told me when I first spoke to him over the phone in 2010. He had no idea who I was: he simply meant that he was waiting for someone to undertake sustained study of Naoroji’s career, which had been largely neglected by scholars.

SR Mehrotra and Dinyar Patel, the author of this article.

A few weeks later at the Shimla railway station, I met a remarkably energetic 79-year old man who, over the next several days, tutored me on the essentials of nationalist history and gave me mountains of documents to read. I scrambled to keep pace with him as he led me up and down Shimla’s precipitous lanes, pointing out various landmarks connected with Gandhi, Hume, Jinnah, Nehru, and others. In time, I joined him on a project to publish a volume of Dadabhai Naoroji’s papers, including records that Mehrotra had salvaged from Bombay godowns in the 1980s.

Mehrotra was a fixture at the National Archives and the Nehru Library. Through his mid-80s, he would arrive early in the morning at one institution after taking overnight trains from either Shimla or Etawah. He would furiously consult papers and then move onto the next institution. Around the same time, he began traveling to Saurashtra to research his last book, on Gandhi’s great friend and benefactor Pranjivan Mehta, which he released when he was 85. At a book launch in Mumbai, he is reputed to have spoken for 90 minutes without referring to any notes.

Mehrotra was, indeed, a walking encyclopedia of Indian history. But his brand of scholarship was a studied contrast to the works regularly taught and imbibed in elite universities in India and the West. Much academic Indian history is written through the narrow prism of arcane theory or particular ideologies. Mehrotra belonged to the grand old tradition of not giving a damn about the fickle winds of academic fashion. He wrote solid empirical history, letting the sources speak for themselves. Sadly, this means that many scholars in my generation are unacquainted with his work.

At Rothney Castle

Inevitably, Mehrotra spent his last years focusing on Allan Octavian Hume. When I last visited him in Shimla, he took me up the steep flank of Jakhu Hill to Rothney Castle, Hume’s old residence. Mehrotra was devastated by its neglected state. He accused a former Himachal Pradesh chief minister of connivance in destroying part of the complex in a botched attempt to turn it into a hotel. The irony was not lost on him: a Congress politician helping ruin the home of the Father of the Congress.

On Hume’s hundredth death anniversary in 2012, Mehrotra placed a commemorative plaque on Rothney Castle’s gate, which was quickly discarded by its current owner. He unsuccessfully lobbied Delhi officials to buy the house and convert it into a museum of the nationalist movement.

At Rothney Castle, one gets a commanding view of the neglect and indifference with which India treats much of its history. And yet here, under the cracked panes of a surviving glass house, was an octogenarian who still held out hope that India would one day properly remember one of its preeminent modern figures.

SR Mehrotra’s life was one long assault against the national propensity to destroy or manipulate records of the past. It is now time for the rest of us to take up his fight.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of South Carolina. His biography of Dadabhai Naoroji is due to be published by Harvard University Press in 2020.