Historical research and discernment

Print edition : April 28, 2001
Ravinder Kumar, 1933-2001.

IN the passing of Professor Ravinder Kumar on April 6, social scientists and, in particular, historians, have lost an impressive scholar, a valuable colleague and an admirable institution builder.

Born in 1933, Ravinder Kumar was nurtured in a family of cultivated people with intellectual and social commitments. His father was a teacher of chemistry and an active member of the Society for the Propagation of Scientific Knowledge in Lahore. The family moved to Delhi in 1947. Following in his father's footsteps, Ravinder opted to study chemistry for his bachelor's degree at the University of Delhi. But thereafter his intellectual concerns turned from the world of chemical reactions and interactions to the even more complex, fuzzy and far less tractable world of human beings and their affairs. He switched to history and mastered the craft, first at Panjab University, Chandigarh, and then at the Australian National University, Canberra.

The results of his research work at these universities appeared in the 1960s in the form of two monographs - "India and the Persian Gulf" and "Western India in the Nineteenth Century". The latter established him as a front-ranking historian of modern India. It explored the intricate processes of social change in Maharashtra under colonial rule. The focus was on the interaction between local society - rural and urban - and the new state system with its new priorities, policies and institutions and its need to foster those social groups which could provide it with a stable base.

Ravinder found that in the countryside the introduction of the ryotwari system, along with improvements in transport and communications and the growth of markets, produced on the one hand a new but small class of rich peasants, much wealthier than their predecessors, and on the other a very large mass of extremely impoverished and indebted cultivators. The latter rose against their oppressors in 1875 and the chapter dealing with this revolt is a remarkable study of the dynamics of peasant insurgency in 19th century Maharashtra.

In the urban sector, inspired by contact with the new order and encouraged by deliberate acts of policy, the native elite began to change its intellectual and political complexion as a breed of "new Brahmans of Maharashtra" came into prominence, challenging their traditional brethren in the spiritual and secular spheres. Ravinder's book dwells with insight on how these developments in town and country decisively influenced the quality and direction of social and political change in western India over time.

Empirically rich, analytically rigorous and elegantly crafted, "Western India" was widely acclaimed as a work of major historiographical significance. Soon the University of New South Wales, Sydney, elected Ravinder to a professorship. During his tenure there, he made his mark as an inspiring teacher and research supervisor and many of his pupils - Don Farrell, David Baker, Lance Brennan, and Jim Masselos, to name only a few - became accomplished historians. Meanwhile, his own research work concentrated on political developments in the city of Bombay and on the changing profile of the social groups which participated in the Gandhian campaigns in the post-First World War period. Of the essays produced by him in the 1970s, "The Bombay Textile Strike, 1919", "The Rowlatt Satyagraha in Lahore" and "From Swaraj to Purna Swaraj: Nationalist politics in the city of Bombay, 1920-32" are outstanding pieces of historial research and discernment.

In 1978, Ravinder returned to India, hoping to join the history faculty at one of the universities in Delhi. But this did not happen and for a while he taught in universities in Shimla and Allahabad. In 1980, he was offered the directorship of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). His worthy predecessors here had already established a major archival library and under Ravinder it developed into a premier research institution as well. Within two years he had a scheme of fellowships in place and soon thereafter the Centre for Contemporary Studies was established at the NMML.

The NMML fellowships brought together scholars from various disciplines to pursue their research interests in an environment of intellectual excitement and lively academic engagement. Over the years several publications of exceptional quality have been produced by the fellows and ex-fellows of NMML. Apart from the regular in-house discussions of the "Occasional Papers" presented by the fellows, Ravinder also organised some memorable all-India seminars.

In the midst of his many administrative and institutional responsibilities, Ravinder found time to read widely and to write a number of articles and booklets, both empirical and reflective, on historiography, on the making of the Indian nation and its politicians, and of course, on his conception of India as a heterogeneous "civilisation-state" rather than a homogeneous "nation-state".

Intellectually humble, Ravinder was ever keen to befriend thinking people, eager to learn from and share his insights with them. For any researcher, talking to him was a rewarding experience; most sensibly, he was more interested in what was being said rather than who was saying it. Warm-hearted and compassionate, he strongly believed in the potentialities of the intellectual form of life and its practical social value.

With his death, Indian academia has lost a stalwart, one who was committed to the highest ideals of historical scholarship and to a liberal and humane vision of society. The loss is especially great at a time when the enterprise of historical knowledge is being sought to be manipulated for sectarian ends. For what rough beast is its hour come around at last.

Basudev 'Robi' Chatterji is Professor of History, University of Delhi.

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