Gopal’s narrative histories

A collection for all serious students of India’s post-independence history. 

GOPAL frontEarly this year, the Marxist historian and anthropologist Vivek Chibber published Postcolonial Theory and the Spectre of Capital, a complex and exhaustive critique of the work of the Subalternists, the celebrated group of historians that has in the past two decades come to dominate the Indian historical academy, particularly in the United States of America. While it is unnecessary for this review to discuss Chibber’s critique, it is interesting to come across so soon after his work a collection of essays that seeks to address, via a quite different route, the perhaps overweening impact of the Subaltern School.

Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays by Sarvepalli Gopal sets out to correct what it sees as a travesty. Sarvepalli Gopal, arguably India’s foremost historian in the decades following independence from the British, has been shunted into irrelevance by the steady production of Marxist historians and the great body of work that comes under the Subaltern School rubric. As the historian Srinath Raghavan explains in his entertaining and instructive introduction to these essays (Raghavan is the Editor of the collection), scholars like Gopal who favoured political biography as a means of exposition were summarily dismissed by Subaltern School doyens such as Partha Chatterjee, who argued that their work failed to use the theoretical tools and scientific method necessary for valuable historiography.

It is Raghavan’s argument that this is not the case: his assertion in the Introduction is that political history is an important form that has fallen off due to ‘fashion’—as social and cultural histories became increasingly au courant in Indian scholarship. He goes on to assert that Gopal’s work has been neglected because so few historians have been able to engage fruitfully with India’s experience in the years since Independence, and that future historians, when trying to study this period, will naturally turn to him and his studies of Indian political elites. One of the notable things about Gopal’s work is that he did not shy away from writing historical analyses of events that had only just passed. Raghavan sees the return of narrative histories as a portent that Gopal will rush back to relevance.

This collection of essays will agree with any student of Indian history because Gopal has flair for language and dryness of wit that well suits the telling of histories he favours. But it is fair to say that this collection also exposes the flaws with such a personalised approach. At times Gopal’s method does seem lacking, while some essays seem outmoded in their neglect of a central thesis. This is particularly striking in the two long chapters on the relationship between colonialism in India and All Souls college, a research institution in Oxford that nurtures aspirations towards the guiding of Britain’s domestic and foreign policy.

Gopal’s desire here, presumably, is to show how a small college in Oxford can have direct impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians. Because he is a writer who filters history through the political elites who help shape it, he builds this linkage through All Souls stalwarts like Lionel Curtis, who championed the idea of a world state with Britain at its helm, first proposed the system of dyarchy for India’s state legislatures and argued vociferously with Morley and Minto against separate electorates. The chapter moves on to Edward Wood, known as Lord Irwin during his time in India, and Lord Halifax during his stint as the Foreign Secretary in the 1930s, when he was one of the principal proponents of the appeasement of Hitler.

Irwin is a favourite of Gopal’s, which is clear in the affectionate rendering he receives in these essays, and his long battle with Sir John Simon (of the Simon Commission), another member of All Souls, is entertainingly retold. But as the battleground widens and the other figures who played great roles in the days before the Poorna Swaraj declaration, Indians and British both, start populating the narrative, one is left wondering why Gopal chose such an unusual lens – this remote place called All Souls – through which to view those years. As the college and its outlook came up time and again I had to consider how much it mattered which son of Oxonian aristocracy was handed the keys to the imperialist project at any particular time. It is only when we get to the end of the next chapter, past the contribution of Maurice Gwyer, the key draftsman of the crucial Government of India Act of 1935, and Leo Amery, Churchill’s Secretary of State for India, that illumination arrives: Gopal’s father, a philosopher-academic who became the second President of India, was a Fellow of All Souls, and the chapters seem, in part, homage to his memory. The scientific method might produce dry, un-literary records of the past, but to encounter analysis such as this, yoked, in a sense, to the writer’s own life, seemed a touch manipulative.

That registered, there is much that is commendable about this collection. In an excellent chapter, Gopal clinically portrays Churchill’s racism and duplicity, at a time when he was being lionised to the point of parody by American historians. There is a long discussion of Nehru’s thinking that might not break new ground for readers today, when so much has been written about our first Prime Minister, but does tell us about his struggles with formulating an ideology that could speak for the broadened revolutionary coalition Gandhi was building – his rejection of Marxism, his romanticised nationalism, his submission, along with the Mahatma, to the demands of the zamindars (which, ironically, reminds one of the first Subalternist, Ranajit Guha, and his understanding of the Indian bourgeoise’s compact with the landlord elite), the “facile optimism” he had in scientific temper and modernisation. There is mention of the feeble nature of the Cabinet under Nehru, but this I felt could have been delved into, considering how neutered that vital institution has remained through our years as independent India.

One section I found particularly interesting showed how much recognition there was pre-1947 that the Westminster model (first-past-the-post voting) might well cause serious problems in government-formation in a place riven along religious and caste lines. But while Gopal lauds Nehru for his courageous insistence that the franchise must be extended to all adults, he does not take him and the rest of Congress’ Brahmin elite to task for their assumption that most Indians would not be able to understand fairly rudimentary concepts like run-off voting.

There is more to the collection than can be discussed in a review. Another enjoyable essay explains how secularism, that cherished ideal of our Constitution, and now viewed, perhaps, as a static abstraction, was in fact sculpted by various moments and indeed disappointments Gandhi and Nehru faced up to in the years before Independence.

Let me end though with one carp: a second edition could do with including the year each essay was written. Since they span this historian’s long and prodigious career, and the essays are arranged by theme and not chronologically, it is hard to place his observations and conclusions in the correct context—for example, writing about Nehru in the 1970s is necessarily a different enterprise than writing about Nehru today.

Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays

By Sarvepalli Gopal (edited by Srinath Raghavan)

Orient Blackswan, 2013