Historian and truth-teller

Jadunath Sarkar has not got his due as he was attacked by both Left and Right.

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published:December 10, 2016 12:00 am

Sitting in Jadunath Sarkar’s home city of Kolkata as I write this piece, I recall when I browsed through his works in my father’s eclectic and vast personal library. Navigating modern, medieval and ancient (early Indian) history it was and is fascinating to see how regional and national histories have evolved, the former often received short shrift in our desire to evolve a uniform, conformist national narrative.

December 10 is Sarkar’s 176th birth anniversary. It is worth recalling through two historical figures — Shivaji and Aurangzeb — how Sarkar’s monumental work was, in a sense, sidelined or some would say even marginalised. What did Jadunath Sarkar say about Shivaji’s coronation and his diversity-driven governance? And how would Indian rulers of today react? Why is his monumental work on Aurangzeb dissatisfying to the Left, constructing as it does a comparative narrative between that ruler’s reign and the more inclusive Akbar’s?

In my research on his work, used extensively in schools and training workshops, I have asked two questions: Was Shivaji himself a victim of the evils of caste, and was he not in every sense an inclusive and plural ruler as some of the Mughals were too? Here are some of the answers from books by Jadunath Sarkar. One of the oldest authorities on the Marathas, with two meticulously researched books on Shivaji, the historian has dealt with the tricky issue of how caste affected Shivaji’s acceptance as a formal (anointed by Brahmins) ruler despite his successful military campaigns and massive popularity.

He writes: “A deep study of Maratha society, indeed of society throughout India, reveals some facts which it is considered patriotism to ignore. We realise that the greatest obstacles to Shivaji’s success were not Mughals or Adil Shahis, Siddis or Feringis, but his own countrymen… Shivaji was not contented with all his conquests of territory and vaults full of looted treasure, so long as he was not recognised as a Kshatriya entitled to wear the sacred thread and to have the Vedic hymns chanted at his domestic rites. The Brahmans alone could give him such a recognition, and though they swallowed the sacred thread they boggled at the Vedokta! The result was a rupture. Whichever side had the rights of the case, one thing is certain, namely, that this internally torn community had not the sine qua non of a nation.”

No wonder truth-telling is not a favourite activity of the extreme right. Those who march today under Shivaji’s name, brandishing the bright saffron flag of an illusive and exclusivist nationalist past, would like us to forget the practical pluralism that guided Shivaji’s governance. Here’s what Sarkar says of Shivaji’s religious toleration and equal treatment of all subjects in House of Shivaji: “The letter which he wrote to Aurangzeb, protesting against the imposition of the poll-tax on the Hindus, is a masterpiece of clear logic, calm persuasion, and political wisdom. Though he was himself a devout Hindu, he could recognise true sanctity in a Musalman, and therefore he endowed a Muhammadan holy man named Baba Yaqut with land and money and installed him at Keleshi. All creeds had equal opportunities in his service and he employed a Muslim secretary named Qazi Haidar, who, after Shivaji’s death, went over to Delhi and rose to be chief justice of the Mughal Empire.”

If Sarkar’s rendering of Shivaji pricks the Hindu right, his voluminous work on the Mughals and especially Aurangzeb, has made him the unfair target of some Left and “Marxist” historians.

Sarkar wrote at the end of his vast five-volume study of Aurangzeb: “Aurangzeb did not attempt such an ideal [of nation-making], even though his subjects formed a very composite population.and he had no European rivals hungrily watching to destroy his kingdom. On the contrary, he deliberately undid the beginnings of a national and rational policy which Akbar had set on foot.” Akbar had successfully converted “a military monarchy into a national state”. Aurangzeb failed precisely on this score. Whereas the “liberal Akbar, the self-indulgent Jahangir, and the cultured Shah Jahan had welcomed Shias in their camps and courts and given them the highest offices”, the “orthodox Aurangzeb.barely tolerated them as a necessary evil”. The latter’s conflict with the Rajputs and “the hated poll-tax (jaziya)” lent Shivaji the aura of a Hindu “national” leader in the eyes of his contemporaries.

Shivaji or Akbar, Aurangzeb or Babur, it is strange and telling how we pick, and exclude, those aspects from the figures of the past that do not suit our own perceived contemporary realities.

It is when we as a society and people, are able calmly and confidently to appreciate the works of scholars — whatever side of the ideological spectrum we may place them — on the objective merit of their work, that a truly modern consciousness could be born. Sarkar, once the vice chancellor of Calcutta University, historian of India from the 17th to the 18th century, a moving force behind the Indian Historical Records Commission, and the forerunner of the National Archives of India, is undoubtedly one such person.

The writer is a civil rights activist, educationist and journalist

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