Historian Jadunath Sarkar (1870-1958) has lately picked up the attention of scholars and biographers. There’s a renewed interest in Sarkar and his times and truths. In 2015, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty came out with a colourful engagement called The Calling of History, Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (University of Chicago Press). Chakrabarty was very explicit about his pursuits and engagements in the book and how the correspondences of Jadunath Sarkar and Govind Sakharam Sardesai (1865-1959) accidently caught his attention in National Library, Kolkata which led him to write his book. In Raghavan’s case, we may not be definite of his motivations. That’s a charge which may dictate the questions and dilemmas of this reviewer who is ascertain about doing a comparison of the two books, closely situated, but distantly connected. Chakrabarty only engages with Sarkar and Sardesai, but Raghavan brings in the third protagonist in Raghubir Sinh (1908-1991), who was a politician, prince of Sitamau and singnificantly a historian and associate of Sarkar.
The three historians who in the six chapters in Raghavan’s book are introduced to us, and then get entangled in their proximity. This proximity has been shaped in the disciple of History, its struggles and manifestation of it as heritage. The introduction is majorly by their work and how they were interlocutors for each other. Sarkar was undoubtedly the leader of the group and he surfaces in the book in a similar fashion. Other two, Sardesai and Sinh after being introduced biographically, lurch on Sarkar to build up their presence in the narrative. There are conversations, agreement to a larger world view, affirmation to facts and evidence as sacramental rituals of research, and sometimes disagreements with respect.
Raghavan primarily depends on correspondences, accounts of Sarkar’s students, and major works by these historians to contruct his accounts. Figures such as AL Srivastava, Hari Ram Gupta, KR Qanungo, NB Roy, VG Dighe, SR Tikekar, among others keep appearing in the triangulation of Calcutta and Darjeeling (Sarkar), Sitamau (Raghubir Sinh) and Baroda and Kamshet (Sardesai). The richness of facts and data in Raghavan’s account can flummox certain readers while it may please many others. In succinctly written first three chapters, readers come to know the three historians, their major works, their relationship to each other, and their world view. How did they go about writing histories, what guided their interest and what were their respective hurdles has been spelt out.
The last three chapters where Raghavan makes the narrative dense, sometimes terse, builds on the provious three. These are the chapters where contentious issues creep in. The moment we start reading ‘History as Discipline’ or ‘History as Struggle’, a reader with interest in history writing is compelled to ask why these debates start and end in these historians’ time only. To unpack this concern, we witness an apperance and working out of definite historical methods in Sarkar and his associates. A method which, in Sarkar, reflects the affirmation of nineteenth century German historian Leopold Von Ranke’s dictum wei es eigentlich gewesen (show what actually happened). The emphasis on ‘actually’ in Sarkar is his committment to truth. This truth, for Sarkar and others, can be recovered from documents, letters, contemporary writings, and it must be reproduced without any baggage of mediation and interpretation by the historian. Why this kind of historical method led by Sarkar and several of historians of his generation was lost gradually is something which goes missing in Raghavan’s account. And that’s why the last three chapters even after opening the gates of serious conversations, shy away from them. The questions like why Sarkar was marginalised and then perhaps dismissed by the later historians, and how is he located in the politics of historical knowledge today, is never an issue in Raghavan’s objectives. Nevertheless, these questions are crucial and that’s why scholars are returning to Sarkar today.
Questioning the Unquestioned
We can return here to the reference of comparison of Chakrabarty and Raghavan’s account which was proposed in the beginning of this review. Raghavan has shied away from answering a basic question. Why Sarkar should be revisted today when thanks to the interepretative histories done by Marxists in India, he had falled at the trapdoor of history?
While historians over the years were busy in manufacturing labels and categories to abuse their political nemesis, Sarkar reminds us that they have failed in their duty of making crude data available to others for furthering of social science analyses. This spirit of Sarkar would also require us to confront his Aurangzeb and also his Shivaji
Chakrabarty has framed his objectives in a way that (un)intented consequences of his account raise the alarm of dangers which history as a discipline faces today. Yes, there is a crisis of trust in History writing and historians’ craft among the people. The larger project of interpretative history which Marxists led after 1960s in India, which charted more significance to interpretation over the facts has played out as a partisan subject for the politically charged masses. And historical positivism which Sarkar championed and which later was downgraded and ridiculed by Marxists now seems to be the only way out of the mounting crisis. If History as a discipline has to reestablish its credibility, perhaps a turn to positivism is the way out. Historians like RC Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar appears today everywhere perhaps, because of this reason.
In 2020, as we are celebrating Jadunath Sarkar’s 150th birth anniversary, we should also celebrate the spirit of his work. As an archive builder, relentless collector and compiler of documents and primary sources, Sarkar makes a serious intervention today. While historians over the years were busy in manufacturing labels and categories to abuse their political nemesis, Sarkar reminds us that they have failed in their duty of making crude data available to others for furthering of social science analyses. This spirit of Sarkar would also require us to confront his Aurangzeb and also his Shivaji. Raghavan’s book about the three historians is timely, and we can learn a lot from his protagonists by revisiting their work. The book is really border line between non-academic and academic audiences and both can enjoy it depending on how one approaches the text.
(The reviewer is a research scholar at ZHCES, JNU)