A committed scholar with great command over the Urdu language, an encouraging and affectionate teacher, and a rationalist who was a thorough gentleman.
This is how contemporary historians remember V N Datta, one of the first historians of independent India who died here on Monday. He was 94.
Born in 1926, Datta was professor emeritus at Kurukshetra University and former general president of Indian History Congress. Among his most well-known works are ‘Jallianwala Bagh’, the first work on the massacre of 1919; ‘Amritsar: Past and Present’; ‘Sati: A Historical, Social, and Philosophical Enquiry Into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning’; ‘Maulana Azad, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh’; ‘New Light on Punjab Disturbances (2 volumes); and a biography of the revolutionary Madan Lal Dhingra and the Revolutionary Movement.
Stating that he “learnt a lot” from Datta, historian Irfan Habib said, “His strong rational positions are a good inheritance for historians. Prof Datta had a very modern education but also had a background in Urdu and Persian, and was therefore very well fitted to aspects of the history of the national movement, in which the basic documentation was often in Urdu. This was a very big advantage.”
Habib said Datta applied a “broad-minded approach to the national movement”. “On the one hand he could cite (Muhammad) Iqbal and also criticise him for his sectional views, and on the other hand he was also opposed to the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS types,” he said.
Ramachandra Guha called Datta a “pioneering historian of Indian nationalism and Modern Indian History”, and a “profoundly decent and generous man”.
“Like all good historians,” Guha recalled, “he was driven by curiosity, not by ideology. His memory is that of a first-rate professional historian, who knew the tools of the craft and had mastered them.”
Guha said Datta was “comradely, collegial and friendly”, which was at odds with the usual hierarchical structure in academics.
“His command over languages – particularly over Urdu and Punjabi – meant he didn’t rely on English language sources, unlike many other historians. He wrote both on the non-violent streams as well as the revolutionary stream. If you see his writings on the freedom struggle, he wrote on Madan Lal Dhingra, Bhagat Singh, but also on Gandhi. Because he knew Urdu, he also wrote on (Maulana Abul Kalam) Azad and (Muhammad) Iqbal,” Guha said.
“He also did a very important anthology of documents on Jallianwala Bagh. That’s also the duty of a historian – to collect documents and make them available for all scholars, not just for yourself,” Guha said.
He said that Datta’s work on the history of the Tribune newspaper was also important, as it was a biography of an institution, and not just individuals.
Former JNU professor Mridula Mukherjee said Datta’s role in setting up “a very good department of history” at Kurukshetra University was among his contributions. “He went there in the 1960s and remained there till his retirement,” she pointed out. “While he was there, the department was very active. They would hold regular seminars and the research output was also good.
“That’s a big contribution because away from the metropolis, it’s a big thing to create a department in a state which was newly formed.”
Mukherjee said Datta made the Indian History Congress a “very vibrant space”. She said, “He was very active even after his retirement, when he shifted to Delhi. He would visit the India International Centre library every day.”