The doyen of Indian historians

Print edition : April 27, 2002

PROFESSOR SARVEPALLI GOPAL, the doyen of Indian historians, was an architect of the Centre of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having called upon to organise the Centre by the then Vice-Chancellor, the late G. Parthasarathy, Prof. Gopal left Oxford University and assumed responsibility as the founder-chairman of the Centre. By virtue of his academic stature and contacts, he was able to persuade renowned historians of the day to join him in opening a new chapter in historical studies in India. Being a national university with international reach and high academic standards, the university, in the initial stages particularly, got the best talent from several regions. This prompted the Centre to initiate research in a big way on different regions. A considerable amount of research had already been done on region-specific histories. However, what was lacking in them was the focus on socio-economic and cultural aspects. For this, JNU historians rightly motivated research scholars to tap the Indian language sources - tracts, books, journals and newspapers - which had until then been more or less left unused, especially in reconstructing regional cultures. By developing regional historical studies, the JNU Centre firmly believed that they would contribute to the writing of a rich and comprehensive history of India.

Prof. Gopal's contribution to all this was commendable. The singular credit, however, was the introduction of Contemporary History as a special discipline. Though this genre of history was already pursued in Western universities, it did not find a place in Indian universities until then. Taking into consideration the methodology that obtained in the West, Prof. Gopal gave it a definite shape and content. Relevant sources were identified and particular care was taken to locate them in the National Archives and also in the regional archives. Private papers were acquired by libraries such as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and were classified and made ready for use by scholars. Studies in Modern Indian History were customarily covered in the curriculum until the 1950s. Post-Independence India did not figure in the syllabi and this serious lacuna was to be corrected by the study of Contemporary History.

The part played by Prof. Gopal in acquiring the enormous private archives of the late P.C. Joshi to the JNU was a significant effort in this direction. P.C. Joshi's archives is a treasure for those working on the Indian Left movement, in particular the Indian Communist movement, in the broader context of the international Communist movement. Following the example of JNU in this regard, later on several universities introduced many elements of Contemporary History, if not the whole discipline, as a part of their curriculum. Further, when the Ministry of Human Resource Development under the aegis of previous governments contemplated the preparation of a comprehensive curriculum and also a textbook on Contemporary History, Prof. Gopal was entrusted with the responsibility, with a committee of senior historians, drawn from all over the country, to assist him. Regional workshops had been held and considerable homework done in this direction when, ultimately, the project was put in cold storage by the present political dispensation at the Centre.

I had the rare opportunity to work under him for my research in the JNU. Not to speak of the exacting academic standards that he always maintained and his benign attitude towards scholars, Prof. Gopal became a role model for his students. Highly cultured in his relations with students, his research guidance was more suggestive in nature than something dictated from above. His meetings with me were once a week when he was in Delhi and these were brief and to the point. The few comments he would make were indeed illuminating and thought-provoking. He would insist upon the correct source materials and he found time to have a look at them and sometimes borrowed one or two rare sources to go through them as his mother tongue (Telugu) is the same as mine. He would never be content with a narrative or descriptive account but would put more emphasis on interpretation. This could be illustrated by my topic of research, "Kandukuri Veeresalingam, a biographical study", for my M. Phil dissertation. He, at the very first meeting, suggested that what is important is not just to write a biography but to portray the spirit of the times of the person being studied, the socio-economic milieu that threw up a historical figure and the way in which he endeavoured to change or influence it. Prof. Gopal, despite his "jovial and easy- going" exterior, was a hard task master in making scholars put in serious labour. For an extremely busy person with many commitments, it was amazing that he could bestow attention on the welfare of his students, looking into their personal problems and needs, if any. One could never see him getting angry with either his students or his colleagues at the Centre, even when the situation justified it. Democratic and collective functioning of the Centre was no doubt an achievement made possible by all the members. Prof. Gopal's contribution to it was phenomenal, which will be remembered forever.

Professor V. Ramakrishna is a former Secretary of the Indian History Congress, and now Visiting Professor at the National Academy for Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad.

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