Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays

'Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays of Sarvepalli Gopal'  edited by Srinath Raghavan. Permanent Black, 444 pages, Rs 895.
Sarvepalli Gopal (1923–2002) was the most respected Indian historian of his time. His biographies of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan remain the finest political portraits written in the country. His writings on Indian history and politics are admired for their flair, elegance, insight and thoroughness. The present book gathers together 30 pieces ranging from analyses of imperialists such as Curzon and Churchill, to nationalists such as Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Patel, to novelist-democrats such as EM Forster and Rabindranath Tagore.
Apr 25, 2013

Remarks by Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon at the book release of  S. Gopal’s Collected Essays: Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats (Edited by Srinath Raghavan) on 23 April 2013
Shiv Shankar Menon

Srinath Raghavan has done us a great service by bringing together this collection of essays by S. Gopal. This volume is a timely reminder of the work of one of the best among an illustrious generation of Indian historians, who walked the line between academe and policy to the benefit of both. The editor’s introduction is a useful, accurate and objective summary and assessment of Gopal’s life and work.

Like most good books there is something in this book for each of us. Each of us will take from it what we can, what we find relevant, and what we understand of it.

For me reading the book was a constant reminder of the value of contemporary history, of the application of the historian’s craft and mind to contemporary events. GR Elton once said that one should wait two hundred years before attempting a history of events, (page 303). The simplest refutation of this view is in some of these essays by Gopal on twentieth century issues, on the national movement, and on some of the major figures of the early years of our republic. The essays make clear how the application of a historical temper greatly improves our understanding of our contemporaries and the issues of the day.

Nehru was one of those who realised the value of contemporary history and of the historical temper and approach to nation building and to India’s diplomacy. That was why he established the Historical Division in the Ministry of External Affairs and personally selected Gopal, who was then already acquiring an international reputiation as a historian, to head it for twelve years.

(For reasons I find incredible and incomprehensible the Historical Division was wound up by MEA in the nineties. This suggests that someone thought they knew all there was to know about the past! Some of our present difficulties may indeed be due to a lack of memory. I do hope that, as originally intended, one part of the doubling of MEA posts approved by the Cabinet in 2008 will be used to revive the Ministry’s memory and Historical Division.)

As head of MEA’s Historical Division from 1954 to 1966 Gopal led the Division’s work not just on diplomatic history but on the intersection of policy and history, making significant contributions to both. If we have a coherent historical account and an impressive accumulation of evidence on the evolution of the India-China boundary it is thanks to the work of Gopal, GN Rao and others in the Division. Gopal’s understanding of India-China relations, 1962, and Nehru’s China policy as a historical process is evident in his biography of Nehru, and his sense of continuity is strong.

Srinath describes some of this work as “advocacy”, (page 25). But that does not mean that Gopal sacrificed the quality or standard of his work, or that his China work was limited and directed by the requirements of advocacy. Having been fortunate enought to read some of it, I can only hope that the restraints of diplomacy and politics will soon change making this body of Gopal’s work also available to historians and others outside government.

What Gopal’s work in government shows is not so much the constraints of advocacy as the limits of contemporary history: in particular the need to come to quick judgements on the basis of insufficient evidence, and the limitations of contemporary witnesses and documents, many with a self serving interest in the outcome. Churchill said, “History will be kind to me, I intend to write it”. Fifty years later he seems to have been proved correct, even if only in the West. By definition the conclusions from studying contemporary history must be more tentative than those of purist historians who choose to deal only with the more distant past.

The attempt to write contemporary history is worth it not only for Churchill’s stated reason of reputation and fame. The attempt is essential if one is to be self aware or self conscious about what is now called strategic culture, and what Nehru’s generation called a sense of nationhood. An understanding of one’s own history, and of the uses it is put to, is a major factor in building one’s strategic culture.

You are aware of the argument, most vocal in the recent Economist but shared by several Indians, which denies that India has a strategic culture. I have argued elsewhere that this is an impossibility. To say that one has no politics is to make a political choice. It is the same with strategic culture. To say that you do not have one only means that you dislike the one you have.

But more significantly, the slightest application of historical mind shows this proposition to be in a long line of British historiography, of the Cambridge School of John Gallagher and Anil Seal among others, who thought that India was only a geographical expression, and saw India as a collection of irreconcilably antagonistic communities divided by religion and ethnicity. They emphasised local and provincial politics, thus contesting Indian nationalism and its unity. Anyone with a sense of history can see how these arguments justified imperialism. Gopal undertook a logical Liberal refutation of this approach which he saw as “draining Indian nationalism of all ideals and ideology”, (page 30).

The situation is not very different today though the argument that India lacks a strategic culture is couched in contemporary jargon. It takes an application of the historian’s mind to see where ideas like a lack of strategic culture come from, and what their purpose, their effect and their value is. The Economist gives the game away in the last paragraph of the same leader when it concludes that India can be a great power if it allies with the West and does what the West says.

Gopal’s generation of Indian historians were nationalists who consciously strove to be objective in writing history, distancing themselves from and even criticising the national movement adn some of its leading figures. The result was paradoxical. Some of their own generation, who were communal or identity historians, tried to question their patriotism. A subsequent generation accused them of being ‘statist’. Their very defence of secularism in the nineties exposed them to both accusations. Fortunately, both accusations are easily disproved and do not stand logical scrutiny.

The larger issue, as Gopal reminds us throughout these essays, is of our historical memory. Nehru and his Discovery of India are still our larger national macro narrative. Some of Gopal’s essays from the nineties suggest how that narrative was being eroded or chipped at. At the same time the narrative of the sixty-five years after independence is fragmenting. If we are to rescue our national narrative from the 140 character tweet, the thirty second sound-bite, and the conceptual simple-mindedness on complex issues that they induce, we must see a more conscious application of historical method to our current preoccupations.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. We see several memoirs by former civil servants and diplomats. How many display the sensitivity to the history and culture of others and ourselves that the earlier generation of Gundevia, KPSM, Dixit  and others did? Sadly one can count these on the fingers of one hand.

We also see international relations books without soul.  Because they lack the historical approach they fail to explain what we see around us. Braudel spoke of history being viewed from three perspectives of time: the moment when the event occurs; the context of the event which may go back a few decades or a few centuries; and, the long duration -- the build up to context which covers everything including landscape. Our international relations studies lack the second perspective of time and do not even consider the third. Yet how important landscape is to the India-China boundary and relationship as a factor in historical continuity.

That is why history, particularly contemporary history as Gopal practiced it, recognising the role and inter-relationship of individuals and policy in history, is essential for conscious and self-conscious decision making by government, for the political class and for the public at large.

I am grateful to Srinath for reminding us of this truth at a time when it is especially relevant. I dare to think that Gopal himself would have approved of, and been proud of, Srinath’s exemplary introduction. But he would probably have been too modest to say so.

I wish the book and its editor every success.

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