Role of British historians in Indian historiography
By Manju Gupta
British Itihaskar Tatha Bharat (Hindi), Dr Satish Chandra Mittal, Madhav Sanskriti Nyas, Pp 260, Rs 200.00
In India’s history, the rule of the East India Company (1760-1857) was a period of suffering for the Indians. Though the latter kept on struggling against the British, they could not prevent themselves from becoming victims to their rulers’ political and religious aspirations. Apart from political supremacy, the British spared no effort to obstruct social structures and plunder and exploit, to create religious conflicts and destroy the cultural heritage of the nation.
The author of the book says that there were a few British historians in the beginning who wrote essentially provincial history, say of Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Punjab. Apart from Wilburforce, most of them were employees of the East India Company and not historians by profession. Thus they were supporters of the British Crown and depended on the Company’s mercy. Their sole aim was to amass wealth in India and take it back home to England.
The book begins with the description of the arrival of the first Europeans in Goa, which was then known as ‘Kashi of the East’. In the Middle Age, the Khilji and Tughlaq rules had established their authority on the nearby areas of Goa. In the 14th century, there was a constant tussle between the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagara and the Muslim rulers of Bijapur, Gulbarga and Berar. Soon Goa saw the advent of the Portuguese when on May 20, 1498, Vasco da Gama reached Calicut. He was the first European to touch the Indian shores. He had come with the sole intent to loot and plunder India, spread Christianity and take back home the famous spices of the south. It was the Marathas who continued to fight the invaders.
The next arrivals were the Dutch who were called Hollanders then. They came for transaction of trade essentially and gradually pushed out the Portuguese from the colonies the latter had occupied on the coasts. At this time, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the French entered the arena and established their bases in the south, particularly around Mysore and Hyderabad. The British then entered India in the form of the East India Company who came with intention of proselytising and carrying out trade by using India’s natural resources.
The author then categorises the British historians under different categories and these are – oriental historians under which he describes the roles of Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkinson, Henry Thomas Kolbrook, Sir John Shore, Horace H Wilson and others; utilitarian historians like James Mill, T.B. Macaulay (who considered India to be a land of dark faces and dark bodies, where trees even reeked and that even the steps leading to any house in London were any day better than the courtyard of a palace or a bungalow of Calcutta; incidentally the five pages on the impact of these historians make for very interesting reading; evangelical historians like Charles Grant, William Wilburforce (the activities and influence of the evangelical movement highlight its negative impact on India); romantic historians like Mount Stuart Elphinstone, Sir John Malcolm and finally, provincial historians like Lt Col James Todd, James Cunningham and Joseph Davy Cunningham. The book ends by describing the Mutiny of 1857.
This is a book which can be enjoyed primarily by history scholars and historians and can be used to serve as reference material in libraries and schools.
(Madhav Sanskriti Nyas, Apte Bhawan, Keshav Kunj, Jhandewalan, New Delhi – 110 055).
A new biography of Ambedkar
By Manju Gupta
The Betrayal of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Sheshrao Chavan, Authors Press, Pp 211, Rs 600.00
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was born as an untouchable, who had no respect, dignity or status in the Hindu society of the thirties. Therefore the only alternative before him was to get converted to another religion. He chose Buddhism because that was most suited to Indian culture and was in harmony with the Indian mind. He had said, “Hindu religion is a four-storeyed building; a person who is born on a particular floor is forced to live on that floor and also forced to die there, since there is no ladder or staircase to go from one floor to another. Therefore a person who has no honourable place in Hindu society, who receives no dignified treatment from other castes, has no other alternative but to get converted into another religion.”
Ambedkar fundamentally opposed the political domination of one community over the other. He said that in a caste-ridden society like India, with the numerical domination of upper-caste Hindus, the adult franchise would automatically empower the communal majority to capture the state machinery. In order to bring the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribs and Backward Classes on par with the Hindus, he floated the Republican Party of India but this party came into existence only in 1957, after his sudden death.
Prime Minister Nehru had made him the Law Minister but Ambedkar was not satisfied with the law portfolio. He said, “As a result of my being a member of Viceroy’s Council, I know the Law Ministry to be administratively of no importance. It has no opportunity for shaping the policy of the Government of India. We used to call it an empty soap-box, only good for old lawyers to play with.”
Ambedkar resigned from the Central cabinet which “was a miscalculation, which cost him and his country dear. Had he stayed on as Law Minister, he would have done both his community and country a service,” says the author.
On reading the book and going through the various speeches made by Ambdekar, it seems what Nehru had said about Ambedkar presents his personality in a nutshell.
(Authors Press, Q-2A, Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi–110 016; [email protected])
Arabs and South Indian geography
By Manju Gupta
Arab Geographers’ Knowledge of Southern India, Dr Syed Muhammad Husayn, Nainar, Other Books, Pp 183, Rs 450.00
Dr Nainar claims to present a comprehensive survey of the knowledge that India possessed as described by Arab geographers, with special reference to southern India. He says that the Arabicised forms of South Indian names of places and persons are so varied that it would have been difficult to make progress, but for his knowledge of southern Indian and of the Dravidian languages. He tries to reconstruct India from the narratives of Arab travellers.
The Arab travellers/authors are grouped under five broad groups – eight writers beginning from Ibn Khurdadhbet to Mas’udi and Abul Farej form one group; Istakhri, Ibn Hawqab and Maqdisi another; Biruni is in a class by himself; five writers from Idrissi to Abul Fida form another separate group and in the sixth group, Ibn Battuta stands apart.
The second group of writers belonging to the 10th century was becoming more and more scientific though the first group revealed adequate knowledge of the Indians, their habits, customs, religion and religious sects. They speak mostly of Sind, and Hind indeed is given a subordinate place in their writings.
The third group includes al-Biruni who is one of the best writers of the 10th century and his “description of India is unparalleled. He is not surpassed in the field of his study by anyone either before or after him,” says the author of the book.
The fourth group quotes Biruni for longitudes and latitudes from Al-Qaanum-al-Mas’udi written by Biruni and Kitab-al-Atwal whose author is not known.
In the fifth group, the best known Arab traveller is Ibn Battuta.
Talking about the ethnological aspect, the author says that the Arab travellers did not touch upon race and language but regarding caste, religion and customs, they did give information but most of it “on Hind and its people is mixed rather indiscriminately with that in China and the Chinese.”
The author then gives the views of these Arab travellers regarding keeping of beard, character, cleanliness, manners, slaughtering of animals, food, drink, marriage, polygamy, fornication, circumcision, occult sciences, pilgrimage, sanyasis, transmigration of soul, etc. Information is presented through narratives by famous Arab travellers, giving a fresh perspective on this land of many cultures.
(Other Books, First Floor, New Way Building, Railway Road, Calicut–673 002, Kerala; otherbooksonline.com)
Exchange of ideas
By Manju Gupta
Between Friends: Letters Exchanging Ideas, Vol. 2, Margaret Chatterjee, Promilla & Co., Publishers/Bibliophile South Asia, Pp 84, Rs 200.00
This is a compilation of letters through which ideas are exchanged. The letters writers are Sidonie and David. The theme running through most of the letters is philosophical with the two philosophers under discussion being Kant and Karl Jaspers.
The volume begins with a longish paper on Kant, who, is one of his papers of 1784, gives a clarion call to man to release himself from his self-incurred tutelage which is “the call of the Enlightenment itself, the demand of reason”. Kant is well aware of the disposition of man – which is to cling on to the shackles of self-incurred tutelage. In another paper published three years earlier, Kant discovers the antinomies within reason and looking back, he mentions in a letter to Christian Garve in 1798, that it was the antinomy of pure reason, for example, that there is freedom in man versus there is none such “that first aroused me from my dogmatic slumber and drove me to the critique of reason itself, in order to resolve the scandal of ostensible contradiction of reason with itself.”
David in his letters compares Kant’s life with Jaspers’ origins and Sidonie responds in her own way. She then raises the issue of fundamentalism and asks, “Is not fundamentalism an example of deliberate rejection of choice, a wilful donning of blinkers?” She adds that a fundamentalist chooses to wear blinkers and this amount to refusal to consider alternatives for himself or to grant that others may think differently.
However, this book would interest only those who are familiar with Kant and his works.
(Promilla & Co., Publishers/Bibliophile South Asia, C-127 Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi – 110 017; www.biblioasia.com)?