'Not a question of bias'

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with Sumit Sarkar.

Sumit Sarkar, Professor of Modern Indian History in Delhi University, spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan about his involvement with the "Towards Freedom" project, sharing his perceptions of the issues raised by the Indian Council for Historical Research's (ICHR) decision.

When did you personally get involved in the "Towards Freedom" project, and what can you tell us about the procedures and principles you followed as an editor of the volume for the year 1946?

Our role in this project starts operationally only from 1989. The whole procedure that was laid down for us was that we would function as a board of editors. We met collectively and kept on doing so regularly as long as these manuscripts were being colle cted. As and when we submitted particular manuscripts, the ICHR would send them to Professor Gopal who would make suggestions and then we would have discussions and we would modify whatever was needed. Finally it would be sent to the publisher. I submitt ed my manuscript in 1995. None of us was doing this on a full-time basis, apart from Dr. Basudev Chatterji. The minutes of the council in September 1998, the same council which we now hear set up some kind of review committee, states clearly that my manu script had been received and transmitted to OUP (Oxford University Press) for publication. Contrary to all the charges that we made crores of rupees - the gap here between reality and fiction is so vast that one feels almost shy of exposing it. How can such absurd things be said? Not a paisa of ICHR money has passed through my hands.

What essentially was the purpose of the project - to capture and portray the mood of the country as it was progressing towards independence?

Yes, and I think also the title chosen is rather significant. It is not a documentation of the history of the freedom struggle. It is "Towards Freedom". That is to say, to document the last ten years leading to that peculiar combination of Freedom and Pa rtition that we had.

Part of the logic of the volumes, which Prof. Gopal has expounded very well in his general introduction, is that we should bring out the diversities. And the significance of the anti-colonial movement lies not only in the struggle against the British, b ut in the progressive broadening of the movement - how, in other words, democratic, secular and some kind of federal and social justice aspirations enter the canvas - the background, in short, to the Constitution.

What was the broad thematic arrangement for your volume dealing with 1946, and is there any reason why it should prove controversial?

Well, if they want to make something controversial out of it, it is something else. But one thing we were all agreed on is that these are going to be publications of documents. So whatever our personal views, we would keep them out. We decided to keep ed itorial remarks to a minimum. There would be a general introduction by Gopal which is common to all the volumes, a special introduction again by Gopal for that particular year, and then a brief introduction by the volume editor. Naturally we cannot do an ything without some presuppositions and assumptions, with which people can disagree. But the whole point of these volumes was that since a massive amount of diverse publications was being presented and editorial comment is being kept to a minimum, people can judge for themselves.

Now I was editing the 1946 volume. Can you imagine a volume of that type without documentation of the communal riots from August 1946 onwards? The way our critics are arguing, no doubt I will hear it said that there is too much on the communal riots whic h had nothing to do with the freedom struggle. Of course, they were not part of the freedom struggle, but neither was British repression. So do we leave these out?

As for the arrangement, in my volume, it is broadly like this - it is divided into two parts, the first dealing with British India and the second with the princely states. The principle I followed to save public money in what are very massive volumes, wa s to exclude material which has already been published and is easily accessible.

In the part dealing with British India, the first chapter deals with the documentation of directly anti-British movements. The early part of 1946 is full of these, the most famous one being the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) rebellion, or mutiny as it is called . There is a great deal of documentation on that available. Our critics will not like this chapter because in these movements Communists were rather active. At least the British thought they were very dangerous. The RSS is nowhere on the scene. What can I do?

Then Chapter Two deals with political organisations, as many as we could get hold of. It suffers from some limitations, like the Muslim League documents are all in Pakistan and we have no access to them. There is quite a lot on the Congress, a bit on the Communists and the socialist groups, something on the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Hindu Mahasabha.

The third chapter I think is about labour and peasant movements. Here the year 1946, up to about August, was a period of unprecedented labour movements, which even though not a part of the freedom struggle, were deeply feared by the British and met with their repression. We see the beginning of the Telengana movement and the Tebhaga movement in Bengal. These things are also part of "Towards Freedom". What sort of freedom are we talking about - freedom can be of many sorts.

There is the ideological agenda of the RSS and like-minded political groups to try and portray the Communists as non-participants in the freedom movement, perhaps even its adversaries. Do your selections in a way challenge that conception?

To the extent that the documents are there. Now the 1942 volume is not yet ready. When that is so, then a few other things will come out about the Communist role, which some people may find dubious. But in 1946 there was just no question about collaborat ion. In fact, the British felt threatened by the Communists. There is a lot of such documentation which one has to present. What can one do? It is not a question of bias. And in these movements, Communists as well as socialists and elements of the Congre ss are very much present.

It is not my fault after all that both in the direct struggle for freedom and the other kinds of anti-British activity, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha are conspicuous by their absence. These right-wing Hindu movements share with the Muslim League a part icular honour - they were the only groups that were never repressed by the British. At some period or the other, every other movement came under some kind of repression. The Communists first became legal in 1943. Immediately after Quit India, for instanc e, they were not repressed. But that is rather exceptional.

This is one kind of absence of the Hindutva forces from the movement towards freedom. The bigger absence of course is that they have no role in the broadening of the content of the freedom struggle.

Essentially, then, your compilation was a threat to the conception of the Hindu nation that is now being constructed?

There are some fears that they would have. They might be afraid that their absence would be noticed in any kind of objective documentation of ''Towards Freedom''. But there is in a sense a deeper agenda, which threatens not only ''Towards Freedom'', but also all notions of intellectual and cultural freedom. Basically, what these people want to bring back are old-fashioned, discredited notions of what history is all about, that is, Indian history as divided neatly into Hindu and Muslim periods, defining periods by the religion of the rulers. That was the dominant way in which partly due to colonialism and partly on account of our own contributions, history was taught and studied for a long time. The national movement would then be understood like a stor y of cops and robbers, of great leaders and great villains.

Things have changed since the 1950s. And in this, the Marxists have made a signal contribution but not only Marxists... I think we need to make the point that relatively few, perhaps even a minority, of these eight volume editors would consider themselv es Marxists...

And you?

I must say that I am old fashioned enough to think it would be a badge of honour to be called a Marxist. But various scholars, all modern and liberal, have made major contributions. This is why modern Indian historiography, starting with D.D. Kosambi in the 1950s, is acknowledged the world over - wherever South Asian history is taught or studied - as quite on a par with or even superior to all that is produced abroad. And that is why Irfan Habib or Romila Thapar or R.S. Sharma are figures respected even in the most diehard anti-Communist American universities. They cannot be ignored if you are studying South Asian history.

To return to the thematic arrangement of your volume, could you tell us what are the further contents?

Yes. Chapter Four in Part One deals with communalism. It documents the communal riots from August 1946 and the anti-communal mobilisation. Gandhi figures in a major way here. One could of course write a full volume on that, but I have already referred to his role in my Modern India as his finest hour. Apart from this, there is, ample evidence, of efforts being made by other groups to stop the communal bloodshed. There is for instance an area north of Noakhali with a very powerful peasant organisation, o verwhelmingly Muslim, which stood guard and were able to block the spread of riots.

The second part of the volume in some ways would be the most original part, focussing on the princely states. We see that in British India direct political agitation died down a bit after about February-March 1946, partly because the nationalists and the British had got involved in direct negotiations and partly because of the fratricidal riots. But a lot of things are happening in the princely states, in a much more feudal atmosphere. On this I have got a lot of rich material. These rulers were in many ways the bulwarks of the British empire. And without the struggles against them, sometimes under the leadership of movements like the States Peoples Conference, Indian unity would not have been achieved. It was not achieved just by federalism, though it certainly made a contribution. There was a combination of pressures from below, which the Congress and particularly Sardar Patel were able to utilise. So these movements are important for the free India that emerges in 1947.

So this is a conception of history that goes beyond the "good king, bad king" comprehension to an understanding of the mass of the people as participants?

Yes, it is a much more total conception.

Would you say that it is an idiom of history-writing that develops with the evolution of democratic ideas in society and that the effort to extinguish it represents a threat to democracy?

Absolutely. And academically, it can mean disaster. I would say that there has been a collective failure on the part of our community of historians, in the sense that not enough of these ideas have been effectively spread at what could be called the "low er" tiers of education and culture in general. At the school level, at the popular level and in the less endowed universities outside the metropolitan centres, the old views still exist and they are being reproduced. And of course over the last ten years they are being reproduced in a much cruder and offensive form through the media and the RSS propaganda machine.

So you think there has been a disjunction between the profession of history writing and the way in which history is perceived?

I would suggest that as the Nehruvian dream began to fade, as Congress regimes moved away from the project for independent development and some kind of social justice - notably during the Emergency of course - we get the substitution of those commitments with rhetoric. More and more we are taught to look at the nation as something of a myth, as just a map, a cult or a flag. This of course the RSS takes over and develops much further. But what is the nation? Is it a map or a flag, or is it living, suffer ing, dying, struggling human beings? It is this kind of nationalism that I think is useful both for human beings and for history.

So you think your project would contribute to the broadening and revival of that view of the nation?

I would hope so. But more accurately I would put it negatively. The Sangh Parivar fears it might do so. I make no great claims for how effectively it does so.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment