A great historian

Print edition : April 27, 2002
Sarvepalli Gopal, 1923-2002.

WHEN Sarvepalli Gopal passed away on April 20 after a prolonged illness, the world of history lost one of its erudite and devoted practitioners who served the discipline with rare distinction. The qualities that he brought to bear on the writing of history rank him among the best in the world. The loss also has a different resonance, particularly for the general public. For, in his death the country has lost a great liberal whose unfaltering and sane voice reminded us of the centrality of reason and humanism to a democratic and secular society.

Like many of his generation, Gopal was deeply influenced by nationalism, both by its anti-colonial character and by its inherent civilisational strength. His views were shaped by his association with and admiration for two outstanding minds of contemporary India: Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. A commitment to democracy and secularism, which Gopal upheld throughout his life - be it the trying days of the Emergency or of the rising tide of Hindutva - can be traced to the influence of their ideas. Nationalism to him was nothing but an embodiment of these ideas, which he explored in his historical research and writing.

Gopal was fiercely independent and patriotic. Indian academics working in prestigious universities abroad rarely leave their hallowed precincts to teach in Indian institutions with limited resources and facilities. Gopal was an exception to this general rule. From Oxford, where he was teaching South Asian History, he returned to India to take up a professorship in Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1970 when the university had just come into being. He exercised a decisive influence in the university, without ever being involved in administration. In fact, his name was in the panel for vice-chancellorsip three times but in his characteristic manner he declined to accept this nomination. He, however, took an active interest in academic matters, particularly in evolving the academic perspective of the Centre for Historical Studies. He was the guiding spirit, along with Romila Thapar and Bipan Chandra, in creating a new perspective in teaching and research in the Centre. Although he enjoyed the friendship of a large fraternity of foreign scholars, including historians like Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, he was quite critical of the hegemony of the intellectual and academic discourse of the advanced countries. He upheld the independence of the Third World intelligentsia. If the Centre for Historical Studies was able to develop an academic self-confidence during the early phase, the personality of Gopal was a major factor.

Gopal's early academic interest was in colonial history. After his initial works on the making of the Permanent Settlement and the administration of Lord Ripon, his major contribution to this field was the empirically rich study, British Policies In India, which unravels the nuances of the colonial enterprise in India in the context of the broader political forces and interests. It is mainly based on the private papers of British officials, the first book to use this source so extensively and in an innovative manner. To combine and complement the official documents with private papers is a difficult task, as the latter is replete with personal biases and, in some cases, even with racial prejudice. Gopal's admirable ability as a historian to judge the relative importance of sources and to interlink them in the narrative is best expressed in this work, which as a result is considered standard reference not only for colonial policies in India but also for the methodology of using private papers as a source.

Gopal soon discarded colonial history and found his forte in historical biography, which he pursued as a part of his interest in contemporary history. The three-volume biography of Jawaharlal Nehru was his first essay into this field. With Nehru, Gopal seems to have shared a special relationship. He met him every day during his tenure as the Director of the Historical Division of the External Affairs Ministry and understandably developed an emotional attachment and admiration. His admiration, however, had a larger ambience; it was just not confined to the individual, but what Nehru stood for.

For him Nehru, who sought to institutionalise the principles of democracy and secularism, symbolised the aspirations of the millions of people of the country. It is arguable that such an intimacy and attitude are inhibitive of a biographer's call of duty. Some do feel that Gopal has idealised his subject and has overlooked, perhaps deliberately, his failings and weaknesses. Be that as it may. But it is evident that the historian in Gopal has made no comprise where objectivity and truthfulness are concerned. That is why Nehru's biography continues to be referred to as a standard work in this genre, at least in its practice in India.

Gopal takes particular care to contexualise his subject, so that the biography of the individual is not divorced from the societal concerns. It is as much the story of the national movement and post-independence India as that of Nehru's involvement in them. Scholars might quarrel with him on the nitty gritty of events or about the political implications of Nehru's policies, but there is no denying the grand scale in which Gopal has conceived and executed the work or the manner in which he has brought out Nehru's vision of the future of the country. To an admirer of Nehru the dismantling of the Nehruvian dream by the new ruling elite could not but be painful. Gopal was indeed sad that the country was losing the legacy of the freedom movement and slowly but steadily slipping into dependence on the one hand and obscurantism on the other.

I consider Gopal's biography of his father, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and statesman, as his best work. Writing the biography of one's own father is itself a daunting task. This is more so when the subject is a renowned philosopher who has written extensively on the Indian philosophical tradition and a public figure who has occupied the highest position in the country. Gopal was quite alive to the problems he would encounter in his undertaking:

"This is a son's book. The relations between my father and me were closer and more continuous than is usual, in this age, between parents and children; and they brought with it, at times, obscure pains on both sides. Such close association enabled me to be witness to a great deal in the later years that has been recounted here. But I have tried not to be swayed by personal affection and have shirked nothing."

That is precisely what he has done, to bring to bear upon his work his erudition, experience and training to explore the life, achievements and failings of his own father by focussing on his personal relationships, public involvement and his interpretation of philosophical tradition. The objectivity he has maintained even while narrating unpleasant events is a very rare virtue among biographers. As such it deserves to rank among the best in the field of historical biography.

A major contribution of Gopal is the multi-volume selected works of Nehru, which he edited with meticulous care and consummate skill. His ability as a historian is reflected in the way in which these volumes were organised, material collated and references provided. He also brought to bear his experience and knowledge to give proper direction to the project on Towards Freedom, of which he was the General Editor. He was very distressed when the Indian Council for Historical Research withdrew from publication the volumes edited by Sumit Sarkar and myself. Despite his illness he sat through a protest meeting in Chennai and issued a public statement in which he described the ICHR move as unwelcome bureaucratic interference in academic matters.

Gopal was very concerned with the rising tide of fundamentalism in India, which he believed would erode the principles of secularism and democracy and would eventually endanger the unity of the country. Therefore discarding his reticence to take public positions on political issues he brought to the notice of the public the dangers inherent in the religious mobilisation around the construction of a temple at Ayodhya. He was a signatory to the document entitled Political Abuse of History, which sought to place before the people all known facts about the Ayodhya dispute.

Later he edited a book, The Anatomy of a Confrontation, which was an academic statement about the issues involved in the dispute. In the preface Gopal wrote: "Secularism is more than laws, concessions and special considerations. It is a state of mind, almost an instinctive feeling, such as existed, by and large, for many centuries in India, when Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and followers of other faiths lived side by side in general harmony, whatever the religions of their rulers, adhering to their own practices but influencing each other in architecture, dress, music, food and even in their religious evolution. Only by not living in a world of self-created myth but by facing the past with honesty, can we move beyond the tragedies which the corroding disease of communalism brings and face the future with confidence. It is the good fortune and not the curse of India that she is a land of many religions with a complex and diverse culture." His writings and speeches provided the intellectual sustenance for the movement against communalism. It was in appreciation of this role that I dedicated my book, A Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism to Gopal.

His opposition to communalism stems from his liberal conviction. So too his commitment to democracy. During the Emergency of 1975-77, despite being close to the government establishment he did not hesitate to articulate his opposition. At the Indian History Congress session at Aligarh in 1975 Gopal moved the resolution opposing the Emergency. While several senior historians were hesitant to support such a resolution, Gopal stated unambiguously that the Emergency was an assault on academic freedom. It was then rumoured in Delhi that he was likely to be arrested for this political 'indiscretion'.

As a colleague at the Centre for Historical Studies I knew Gopal for more than 30 years. Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt. If it is a rule, Gopal was an exception. For he went up in your estimation when you came to know him more and more intimately, because of the nobility of his character, his enlightened vision, and above all the dignity with which he conducted himself in the most trying circumstances. Almost everybody at the Centre sought his advice and indeed help in both professional and personal life. And he never failed anyone, even those about whom he was critical. For he was committed to the welfare of the institution and did not see the well-being and progress of his colleagues as divorced from those of the institution.

Gopal will be remembered by all those who were associated with the Centre during its formative phase. I wish that the Centre takes steps to perpetuate his memory.

After his retirement when he shifted to Chennai I met him whenever I visited the city. Despite his illness he used to be full of information about academic and political affairs. He was a delightful conversationalist who raised even mundane subjects to a high level of sophistication. It is difficult to reconcile to the fact that I will not see him again and will not be able to benefit from his wise counsel. But as the President K.R. Narayanan has said, Gopal's contribution to the discipline of history will endure. In the end, that is what matters for a scholar.

Professor K.N. Panikkar, a historian of modern India, is the Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.

President's message

I am deeply grieved to learn of the sad and untimely demise of Prof. S. Gopal in Chennai.

An eminent historian and a celebrated scholar, Prof. Gopal had contributed immensely to the historiography and the understanding of modern Indian history and significantly enriched the tradition of writing and teaching history to numerous students and scholars in India and abroad. Author of several landmark books, Prof. Gopal had taught in the reputed universities in the world and was internationally acclaimed for his scholarship, vision and depth of understanding of the discipline of history. In recognition of his talent and professionalism and his adherence ot objectivity, the Government of India had appointed him as the historical advisor and he discharged those responsibilities with great competence and distinction. At a time when correct interpretation of history is being subjected to controversy, the traditions set by the historians of the stature of Prof. Gopal need to be evoked for scientific understanding of our history so that future generations remain free from prejudice and passion while reading the subject and pursuing research in the field. Apart from his eminence as a great historian he excelled as a fine human being. He was a colleague of mine in the Ministry of External Affairs when he was Historical Advisor in the Ministry and above all a close personal friend whose friendship and counsel I have valued very much. In the passing away of Prof. S. Gopal, the country has lost a renowned and admirable historian whose path breaking research on modern Indian history will be long remembered.

On this sad occasion I extend my heartfelt condolences to the members of his bereaved family and to his numerous friends, associates, students and the wide circle of his admirers.

K.R. NARAYANAN April 20, 2002 New Delhi

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