As part of his doctoral research in the early 1970s, JV Naik began to investigate the history of the Prarthana Samaj, a religious and social reform movement that emerged in the 1860s in Mumbai under the influence of Dadoba Pandoorung (1814-1882).

Dadoba, a schoolteacher-turned-civil servant, was perhaps the first person to write an autobiography in Marathi. Edited by AK Priolkar and first published in 1947, the surviving text, which abruptly ends in 1847, is a valuable first-hand account of life in the 19th century.

Dadoba’s younger brother Bhaskar Pandoorung died in 1847, and as luck would have it, the last page of the text is devoted to him. Dadoba mentions in passing that Bhaskar, using the pseudonym “A Hindoo”, wrote numerous letters in the 1840s to English newspapers critical of the rule of the East India Company. Though scholars had been aware of this fact since the early 1920s when the autobiography was discovered, no one had actually attempted to trace them or thought of them as important.

JV Naik, working at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai and the Maharashtra State Archives, managed to discover a set of eight letters written by “A Hindoo” in the 1841 issues of the Bombay Gazette. In these letters, A Hindoo delivered a damning verdict on British colonialism.

“We cannot look on your Government in any other light than that of the most bitter curse India has ever been visited with. The whole wealth of India has been now transported to Great Britain, and we have no employment left us.

India has been got hold of by a race of demons who would never be satisfied until they have despoiled her of all her precious things and reduced her sons and daughters to total beggary.”

A quest for heroes

These letters prefigure the Economic Drain Theory, propounded a few decades later by Dadabhai Naoroji, and elevated Bhaskar Pandoorung as the first amongst the many historical heroes whom JV Naik came to revere during his career as a historian. Contextualising these letters and tracing the influences which worked on Bhaskar, Naik presented his first major paper at the annual conference of the Institute of Historical Studies in 1975. It was later published under the title “An Early Appraisal of the British Colonial Policy” in the Journal of the University of Bombay and brought Naik to the attention of many of the leading historians of India, including Bipin Chandra and Irfan Habib.

A selection of Naik’s essays published by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai in 2016.

Born in Portuguese Goa, Naik, like many Goans from “a typical lower middle-class household” who had no employment opportunities there, first made the journey to Mumbai in the 1950s. Since his family could not afford “two money orders,” Naik, who completed his matriculation from Goa, had to break off his education for a year until his elder brother completed his graduation. In an interview with the playwright Ramu Ramanathan, Naik “recalls his early days in Bombay studying at Khalsa College and Jai Hind College, brief forays in small firms, walking from Khotachiwadi to Fort to save on tram fare, and finally joining the Elphinstone College in 1960 as an assistant lecturer for Rs 168 per month”.

Much of JV Naik’s early research career was spent in dusty archives and libraries poring over crumbling newspapers and magazines in a quest for primary source material. Rigorous in his research, he strongly believed in the credo, “no source, no history”. As Naik continued to study early intellectual resistance to British authority in 19th-century Western India, his pantheon of heroes expanded to include many historical figures.

Some of them were relatively unknown such as Bhau Mahajan, the redoubtable editor of the Marathi weekly Prabhakar, founded 1841, and Ramkrishna Vishvanath, who astutely analysed India’s economic situation in the 1843 Marathi book Thoughts on India’s Past and Present Conditions and Their Impact on the Future. And there were others like MG Ranade, GK Gokhale, Jyotiba Phule and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who were national figures. All of them would have figured prominently in a book on early Maratha intellectual nationalism that Naik was then writing for the Indian Council of Historical Research.

However, Naik’s personal affairs took a sudden turn for the worse and in those adverse circumstances, neither did he finish writing this book nor could he complete his doctoral dissertation. When he finally managed to again pick up the threads of his research, these projects fell by the wayside.

This did not, however, affect his professional career. Naik, who had begun teaching at the Elphinstone College in 1960, later taught at the Ismail Yusuf College. When he retired in 1994, he was Professor and Head of the Department of History at the University of Bombay. In 2007, he was the General President of the Indian History Congress, perhaps the highest honour an Indian historian could then aspire to.

Naik (right) in conversation with playwright Ramu Ramanathan in October 2017.

The search continued

Though he concentrated his research on 19th-century Maharashtra, JV Naik occasionally ventured to the 20th century when he could find heroic characters. One of them was Raghunath Dhondo Karve (1882-1953), an uncompromising rationalist and militant atheist, who championed the cause of birth control and sex education in modern India. As Naik points out, the main thrust of Karve’s movement was women’s emancipation and freedom of sexual choice rather than mere population control.

Another hero was Dwarkanath Govind Vaidya (1877–1940), the official historian of the Prarthana Samaj and the long-time editor of its mouthpiece, Subodh Patrika. Vaidya was the youngest person to become a member of the Samaj in 1896 and exemplified the moral and spiritual idealism of the Prarthana Samaj in his own life.

Surprisingly, there are no heroines in Naik’s pantheon. In one of his essays, Naik lists the many women who played a major role in shaping the social and political life of Maharashtra – Pandita Ramabai, Kashibai Kanitkar, Ramabai Ranade, Yesu Savarkar, Avantikabai Gokhale, Satyabhama Kuvlekar, Janabai Apte, Premabai Kantak, Mrinalini Sukhtankar, Lila and Annapurna Deshmukh, Dr Hansa Mehta, Usha Mehta. But he never attempted to make a serious study of their life and work.

Naik also continued to publish regularly on topics related to those ideas, institutions and personalities which emerged in the middle decades of the 19th century that have, to a large extent, influenced later events in the erstwhile Bombay Presidency and the modern state of Maharashtra. Writing in both English and Marathi for both scholarly and general audiences, Naik published over 100 essays and articles. By the 1990s, Naik had circumscribed his research within a restricted sphere and this reflects in his writing.

As Prachi Deshpande notes in the Economic and Political Weekly, his later essays “leave the reader curious about his take on the large body of scholarship and arguments regarding anti-colonial nationalism and colonial modernity in India from various perspectives over the last few decades”.

For Naik, the ultimate hero was Mahatma Gandhi. But it was no blind hero worship. He was conscious of the many contradictions in Gandhi’s life and character. Though he wrote very little about Gandhi, Naik was suffused with the spirit of Gandhi’s message. He was a trustee of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, a place most closely associated with Gandhi in Mumbai.

The teacher as guru

Many generations of students at the University of Mumbai profited from the erudition of Professor Naik. Recalling his passion for teaching, Prabha Ravishankar remembers that, “His lectures on the history of Maharashtra were so alive that we students felt we were transported to the 19th century.” Naik invested a lot of his energy in the doctoral candidates working under his guidance whom he encouraged to take a deeper look at the century using primary source material.

Many of them worked on Naik’s heroes; for example, Arun Joshi researched the writings of Lokahitavadi Gopal Hari Deshmukh (1823-1892) while Aravind Ganachari studied the life of Gopal Ganesh Agarkar (1856-1895).

Naik (left) with his student and musician Aneesh Pradhan and musicologist Ashok Da Ranade in September 2006

Many of his students elevated Naik to the status of a guru. Perhaps the last person to complete a doctoral dissertation under Naik’s guidance was Aneesh Pradhan who recalls the guru-shishya nature of the relationship.

“As a musician, I am trained in an essentially oral tradition in which the guru or mentor plays a central role in unravelling the mysteries of traditional knowledge and passes on the wisdom of generations,” Pradhan said. “But I realised in my association with Professor Naik that this was equally true in a predominantly textual tradition like the study of history if you had a mentor like him. His generosity and kindness to share his scholarship and wisdom with students like me is something that I will always cherish.”

A life in history

I first met JV Naik in 2016 when I undertook to edit his essays. Though Naik, then aged 82, had long ceased active research, he was keenly following the trends in modern historical research. He was particularly worried about the lowering standard of education and the poor quality of research work emerging from Indian universities. He was also very concerned about the increasing politicisation of history in India and its appropriation to score political goals.

In our conversations, he would often express the opinion that the foundational ideals of the nation had been betrayed by the ruling classes. Deeply religious in his personal life, Naik was aghast at the manner in which religion was being violently subverted in the public sphere.

A selection of Naik’s essays was published in 2016 by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai with the title The Collected Works of J V Naik: Reform and Renaissance in Nineteenth Century Maharashtra. Reviewing this book, Irfan Habib, Professor Emeritus at Aligarh Muslim University, remarks that “Professor Naik’s essays constitute an indispensable reading for both the researcher and the general reader interested in the ideological stirrings of Maharashtra that contributed so much to the awakening of India as a whole.”

A large part of the research for these essays involved the consultation of 19th-century newspapers and periodicals published in the Marathi and English languages, perhaps the last surviving copies of such printed material. A number of manuscript sources from private and public archives were also consulted.

Within the space of a few decades, the abilities of these repositories to retain these print artefacts have been seriously compromised. It is no longer possible to consult some of the material which Professor Naik used for his research; either they no longer exist within the repository or their condition has deteriorated to such an extent that they cannot be consulted. Many of the private archives have simply disappeared. Perhaps the best tribute for JV Naik and historians of his ilk would be the strengthening of our existing repositories and the establishment of new archives to further a better and broader understanding of our society and its history.