Man of the people'

Print edition : September 23, 2011

AT a function organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research and hosted by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the eminent historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, D.N. Jha, Satish Chandra, Kesavan Veluthat and ICHR Chairperson Basudev Chatterjee paid rich tributes to R.S. Sharma. They all emphasised that he had influenced them in more ways than one.

Sharma was the founder-chairperson of the ICHR for five years. D.N. Jha, his pupil and colleague, recalled him as an institution builder who built the History Department not only at Patna University but also at the University of Delhi. He said Sharma was deeply influenced by the ideas of peasant leaders, such as Pandit Karyanand Sharma and Swami Sahjanand Saraswati, who led farmer and peasant movements in the 1920s and 1930s, and his interactions with Rahul Sankrityayan, the father of Hindi travel literature and Marxist theoretician.

He shared many of his personality traits with these people. He was a natural there was no artificiality in Professor Sharma. He was unassuming and simple by nature, said Prof. Jha. He said Sharma was keen to reach out to all kinds of people. He interacted with safai karamcharis regularly to try and understand their problems. Jha recalled how when Sharma was once convalescing in a Delhi hospital, some construction labourers trooped in to visit him. When Jha asked them what the purpose of their visit was, they said that they had heard that there was a Sharmaji admitted in the hospital who concerned himself with the poor. He was a man of steely will. He fought caste, communalism, revivalism and obscurantism. He was a fighter, said Jha. In 1975, the Indian History Congress (IHC), under his chairmanship, passed a resolution against the Emergency, the only one of its kind passed by an academic body.

Irfan Habib, also closely associated with Sharma, recalled how in 1977 at the IHC at Bhubaneswar, Sharma was criticised and textbooks authored by him were attacked. Sharma never reacted angrily to his detractors. He used to say that one should not simply criticise but also learn from what people had to say. Despite his known differences with R.C. Majumdar, one of the leading nationalist historians, Sharma had a particular respect for him and apparently the admiration was mutual.

Apart from narrating some very interesting personal anecdotes based on his interactions with Sharma from the 1960s onwards, Irfan Habib underscored how Sharma's academic effort was directed at countering the chauvinistic reconstruction of ancient Indian history. He encouraged everyone to adopt a scientific view, not with the idea of glorifying India but to find the truth. If a nation wants to progress, it must know its faults as well as merits, said Irfan Habib. He said that Sharma was a man of the people he had an intrinsic sense of the common man without wearing it on his sleeve.

Satish Chandra recalled his interactions with Sharma at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS): I spoke to him a couple of days before his demise. He made light of his illness. People like him are rare.

K.M. Shrimali, who teaches at the University of Delhi, said Sharma had a rare combination of humility and scholarship. He never hesitated to learn from anybody including a novice and would not shy away from acknowledging debts in his writings. When he joined the History Department of Delhi University, he thought of creative ways in which the department could be strengthened and expanded. He persuaded the then Vice-Chancellor to transfer a vacant post in Tamil Studies from the Department of Modern Indian Languages to the History Department and then created a post to teach South Indian history. Shrimali recalled that Sharma used to tell his students to write in simple, short sentences to say things in a manner that can be communicated to the reader. He said that in Sharma's book Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (1985), the most sophisticated ideas were presented without jargon. He had an excellent command over textual sources of all kinds. On the lighter side, Shrimali added that Sharma was hugely fond of Hindi film music, and he had an idea of that when on a road trip from Bangalore to Mysore, Sharma recalled complete songs. He was a great scholar and a greater human being, said Shrimali.

Prof. Kesavan Veluthat, a Marxist historian, who had read Sharma in his postgraduate days, recalled his first encounter with him, in the Delhi University library where he was looking for a book on Kerala history. I saw this tall person in a dhoti and kurta, and mistaking him for an employee, requested him if he could help me find the text I was looking for. He directed me to the exact place where I found what I was looking for. I then spotted him reading some heavy volumes. When I went to thank him before I left the library, he winked at me and said, Why should you thank me? I am just a reader like you.'

Romila Thapar recalled her association with Sharma at the SOAS, where she was doing her PhD on Emperor Asoka in what was a quintessential colonial atmosphere. He made her look at history differently and drew her attention to the writings of Rahul Sankrityayan. She recalled the mutual respect that R.C. Majumdar and Sharma had for each other and said D.D. Kosambi and Sharma had given a new direction to the study of historiography of ancient Indian history.

T.K. Rajalakshmi
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