This is an excerpt from Dipesh Chakrabarty's The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth
The Fall from Grace of Sir Jadunath
Sarkar’s reputation as a historian survived the debates of his lifetime. Immediately after Sarkar’s death, the eminent Bengali historian, Professor N. K. Sinha, prophesied: “It is not likely that Sir Jadunath Sarkar will ever be displaced. His wonderful accuracy will secure to him immunity from the common lot of historical workers. So far as we can visualize, in the near future, in his chosen field, there will be only scanty gleaners after his copious harvest.” So probably it seemed in Calcutta in 1958. But even as Professor Sinha was writing these lines, a group of younger scholars at Allahabad, Aligarh, and Oxford were conducting research that would ensure that by the time someone like me came into the world of South Asian history as a young novice in Calcutta in the early 1970s, Jadunath Sarkar’s name would be all but forgotten among the prominent historians of India. Everybody, of course, knew his name and knew that he was without doubt once the greatest authority on Mughal India— particularly for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries— but his academic status suffered a steep decline in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. We dutifully bought copies of his five- volume history of Aurangzeb, his four volumes of the Fall of the Mughal Empire, and some of his other works when the Indian publisher Orient Longman reprinted them in the 1970s. But we did this with the knowledge that Sarkar’s approach to history had been discredited. Our teachers did not do emperors, battles, and the character of kings anymore. Unlike Sir Jadunath Sarkar and other historians of his time, they did not believe in the role of heroes in history. Heroes had been replaced by “causes.” As Satish Chandra said, “[Sir Jadunath] . . . projected Aurangzeb’s struggle to conquer the south as a Greek tragedy . . . [but] the search for causal relationships cannot be given up by historians.”
“Cause” was a code word for institutional analysis. Into the list of “causes” fell economy, institutions, parties and politics at the Mughal court, money, wages, exploitation, histories of the state and of revenue crisis, peasant revolts, provincial autonomy, and so on. Chandra’s generation studied the Mughals with an eye on the question of India’s transition to capitalism. Could India have become a capitalist economy on her own, without the mediation of British colonial rule? Were underdevelopment and “distortions” of Indian institutions results of colonial rule? Those were their (and our) questions. We were decidedly anti-empire in our attitude. We knew that Sir Jadunath was not. This transition in historiography is captured well in something Satish Chandra wrote in 1989, discussing “Mythifying History” in the Indian journal Seminar. For Jadunath Sarkar, “the personal qualities of Aurangzeb . . . became a negative point,” wrote Chandra; current research, he contended, showed Aurangzeb to be “neither a hero nor a villain,” but someone representing an old order that could not “recognize . . . the stirrings and incipient growth of a new socio- economic system.” Chandra’s criticisms were backed up by the work of his student M. Athar Ali, whose pathbreaking study The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb, a revised version of a PhD thesis submitted to the Aligarh Muslim University in 1961, was published in 1966. Ali emphasized the need to study in detail “all the elements of the structure of the Mughal Empire” before its decline could be attributed to what he called “text- book formulae” such as “personal degeneracy of the kings, luxurious life at the court, inefficiency of administration,” all reminiscent, as we shall see, of Sarkar’s analyses in his multivolume Fall of the Mughal Empire. The historiography of Mughal India underwent further significant changes with the publication of Muzaffar Alam’s The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India in 1986, based on research conducted under the supervision of Satish Chandra and S. Nurul Hasan, both trained at the University of Allahabad and later professors at the Aligarh Muslim University. As a matter of fact, much of the ire and sarcasm of Athar Ali’s introduction to the second edition of his Mughal Nobility was directed at Alam (and the perceived congruence of Alam’s propositions with those made by Christopher A. Bayly of Cambridge). Yet, it is interesting to see how, in spite of all the vitriol that Ali reserved for Alam and Bayly, Alam’s own position on Sarkar remained consistent with the criticisms that Sarkar’s work had already received from the generation that taught Alam, in which Ali was included. Alam described Sarkar’s attribution (and that of Sarkar’s mentor William Irvine, an Indian Civil Service officer) of “the decline of Mughal power” to “a deterioration in the characters of the emperors and their nobles” as failing to “lead us beyond the perspective of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ Persian chroniclers, with the difference that Sarkar also read evidence of a ‘Hindu reaction’ in the Rathor, Bundela, Maratha and Sikh wars against the Mughal[s].” “Sarkar’s views,” Alam concluded, “are to be set against the ambience of the times that lent legitimacy to communal interpretation of Indian history in the late- nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
However, a silent but perhaps the most magisterial dismissal of Sarkar came in the form of Irfan Habib’s 1958 doctoral thesis from Oxford, eventually published in 1963 as the awesome The Agrarian System of Mughal India, a classic in its own right, which played a key role in displacing Sarkar from the canon. Habib wrote about the “agrarian crisis” that plagued the Mughal Empire and contributed to its “destruction,” but he did so without any reference to Sarkar’s propositions in the latter’s Fall, as if the volumes did not exist for Habib. Sarkar features rarely in Habib’s book. No mention of him is to be found in the original preface, dated Aligarh, August 1962, and the few references in footnotes are mostly confined to Sarkar’s The India of Aurangzib (1901) and his errors of translation or his mistakes in dating events. The one time Sarkar figures directly in the text is in an appendix on revenue statistics, where Sarkar is acknowledged as one of the pioneers, after Edward Thomas’s The Revenue Resources of the Mughal Empire in India (1871), who “attempted a study of . . . [Mughal] statistics.” The reference, again, is to The India of Aurangzib. The India of Aurangzib was a work of Sarkar’s youth, published in 1901 when he would have been about thirty- one. The book was a product of the thesis that won him the prestigious Premchand Roychand Scholarship at the University of Calcutta, a fellowship named after a Gujarati merchant who “suddenly amassed a large fortune during the cotton boom of 1866 [precipitated by the American civil war] and spent much of it in various useful charities.” Sarkar obtained this prize scholarship in 1898, and the book version was published in 1901. The book contained partial translations of two relevant seventeenth-century Persian manuscripts Sarkar could locate in India, which supplied some key statistics of the late Mughal period: Khulasatu- t- tawarikh by Sujan Rai, who composed it between 1695 and 1699, and Chahar Gulshan (c. 1759–6 0), by Rai Chatar Man (or Chaturman) Kayath. Sarkar actually explained in the book how he had to translate “this work [Chahar Gulshan] without any critical apparatus of the text.” The “only copy” he could lay his hands on in India had “numerous” mistakes; some “proper nouns” were missing and the text was in “corrupt condition.” Sarkar was apologetic about his work even though it had involved an enormous amount of labor on his part. He pointed out in his preface that the title of the book did not “fully express its content,” and its size gave “an inadequate idea of the labour it ha[d] involved, especially in making out proper names and abbreviated Arabic word- figures (raqam) from badly- transcribed Persian.” “If the net results of the researches embodied in this work be imperfect and wanting in finality,” he pleaded, “I hope the difficult nature of the subject and our want of the requisite materials will be taken into account before sentence is pronounced upon it.” His very first chapter began with a formal “apology.” “Nobody can be more sensible of the imperfections of this book than the author,” reads the very first line of the book. Yet it was his hope that “nobody who knows what it is to translate a Persian work bristling with obscure geographical names from a single and incorrectly transcribed manuscript, will be hard upon” the author for “these imperfections.” The manuscripts available to him were unpublished and unedited, he often had “no second manuscript to collate [with] the one lying in front of him,” and the “Pandits and Maulvis” who helped him were “ignorant of historical criticism.” “The historical student in India,” observed Sarkar, “is thrown almost entirely on his own resources. He may, therefore, claim a partial, if not a plenary, pardon for his sins.”35 Meant probably more for his contemporaries than for researchers after his time, these words of “apology” did not win Sarkar much reprieve from the criticisms, if not the condescension, of posterity. Habib, then probably about the same age as Sarkar was when the latter published his The India of Aurangzib, rubbed the point in while rejecting Sarkar’s translation: “The Chahar Gulshan has not been printed, but the geographical and statistical portion was translated by Sarkar in his India of Aurangzeb [sic]. Bodl[eian] Elliot 366 is not only the earliest among catalogued MSS . . . but is also probably the most authoritative, being a copy of the original work and not of its later recension. Its reading has generally been preferred here to that of Sarkar’s India of Aurangzeb, which on the admission of the translator, was based on a carelessly transcribed manuscript and contains many errors in the statistical portions.” But more than his rejection of specific sources used by Sarkar, it was the themes that Habib worked on that signaled the remarkable shift in historiography I have already mentioned. Habib was avowedly Marxist— his very last footnote in the book is a reference to the Selected Works of Mao Zedong. He was “secular” (in the Indian sense of the word) and did not shy away from decrying “Muslim communalism”; and he sought the causes of Mughal decline in a revenue crisis of the empire and the attendant rebellions in the countryside. Habib was, however, not the first person to signal the shift. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the story of Sarkar’s fall from grace with younger generations of Indian historians had its origins in the decade before Indian independence in 1947. The Department of History at the University of Allahabad, where later historians like Satish Chandra and Nurul Hasan were trained, had a critical role in disseminating critiques of Sarkar’s approach to history. Chandra and Hasan both migrated later as teachers to the Aligarh Muslim University, where Muhammad Habib, father of Irfan Habib, began a “secular” and left-leaning tradition of historical research in the 1920s. “When I entered the portals of the Allahabad University in 1940 as an undergraduate,” recalls Satish Chandra, “the University had established its reputation as a centre . . . which attracted in large numbers those who aspired to enter the sanctum of the civil services.” The Department of History, “considered one of the leading centres of historical research in the country,” had Sir Shafaat Ahmad Khan at its head. Khan, who became India’s high commissioner in South Africa in 1940, was one of the main adversaries of Sir Jadunath Sarkar through the 1920s and the 1930s. After Khan’s departure from the scene, the intellectual leadership of the Allahabad school of historians passed on to Professor R. P. Tripathi, who, having trained with Harold Laski in London, was extremely critical of Sarkar’s focus on rulers and their ideas and characters. Apart from Sarkar’s personal dislike of Shafaat Ahmad Khan, what fueled this criticism was also the publication of the third volume of Sarkar’s History of Aurangzib in 1916, which had a heavy emphasis on Aurangzeb’s orthodox Islamic policies. Many read the book as a straightforward indictment of Islam. “Apparently,” writes Chandra, “R. P. Tripathi wanted . . . a critical study of the causes of the fall of the Mughal Empire” that would put Sarkar’s exclusive focus on Aurangzeb’s “religious policy” in “proper perspective.” For “it was well known that the Allahabad school of history”—and this must have included its founding leader, Sir Shafaat Ahmad Khan— “was bitterly opposed to Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s representation of Aurangzeb as a religious fanatic and his view that in a truly Islamic state religious toleration was an impossibility.” They never put their criticisms into print, but, as Chandra remembered it, “he was not spared in the lectures.” Sarkar returned the compliment later when Chandra, as a research student, went to work in Sarkar’s library. Sarkar, while generous in giving Chandra unfettered access to his library, also said to him: “The students of the history department at Allahabad are good and hard- working . . . but your teachers are lazy.” Chandra thought this a “gibe at R. P. Tripathi’s easy lifestyle,” but, as will become clear to the reader of this book, it could have been aimed at Shafaat Ahmad Khan as well. It is entirely possible that Tripathi owed some of his criticisms of Sarkar to discussions with his close colleague Khan.
In the past few decades, however, beginning perhaps with the late J. F. Richards’s Mughal Administration in Golconda (1975), the tide has slowly turned for Sir Jadunath. Richards began his acknowledgments in the book with a glowing tribute to Jadunath Sarkar: “I have relied again and again on the writings of that master historian, Jadunath Sarkar. Today, in 1974, his narrative approach and his intellectual concerns appear a bit old-fashioned. Only a historian who has tried to develop an accurate narrative of political and public events, using fragmented sources typical of this period, can appreciate the magnitude of Sarkar’s contribution. He set the narrative frame for the late Mughal period virtually single-handed. Because I have been trying to fill in a peculiar regional gap in his narrative, I am most aware of his skills.” Similarly, Irfan Habib’s preface to a “second, revised” edition of his Agrarian System mentions Sarkar directly in the text as one of the pioneers to whom Habib now feels indebted: “In the preface to the first edition, I especially acknowledged my debt to W. H. Moreland and P. Saran. . . . My consciousness of the debt to them and to others like H. M. Elliot, S. H. Hodivala, Jadunath Sarkar and Ibn Hasan, has only grown with time.” Muzaffar Alam’s new introduction to a forthcoming edition of his The Crisis of Empire carries a detailed analysis of precisely the very sources that he once thought exposed the likes of Sarkar to the danger of simply reproducing the “biases” of the eighteenth-century chroniclers who wrote out their own experiences of the decline of the Mughals. But these changes have been slow to come. The consensus about Sarkar that one comes across in histories written in India even today reflects the dominance of the historiography established by the Aligarh and Allahabad schools. From questions related to the “character” of the emperor to “causes” and “structures” of the Mughal decline, the main direction of the historiographic movement away from Sarkar was clear. It is also entirely understandable that in postwar decades, when academic history was emerging globally as a branch of the social sciences and favored sociological explanations over literary ones, historians working on the decline of the Mughal empire should find accounts that assigned a determining role to the character of emperors limiting and restrictive. Indeed, the new consensus against Sarkar found a nice summary in S. K. Srivastava’s 1989 book on Sir Jadunath, which was based on his thesis submitted to the University of Delhi: “Jadunath in his efforts to highlight the religious orthodoxy in Islam as a factor for Aurangzeb’s failure, has totally overlooked some of the important aspects [sic]— the inherent contradictions of the Jagirdari and Zamindari systems, the tensions and contradictions within the nobility, and the social tensions which existed in the agrarian community.” If Srivastava’s position may be regarded as reporting what stood as the left consensus in India on Sir Jadunath in the 1970s and the 1980s, Peter Hardy, an English historian of Muslim India, who wrote a foreword for Srivastava’s book, provides an interesting case showing how long the post-independence consensus against Sarkar held. Writing as early as the 1950s under the intellectual influence— a little too heavy an influence, one might say— of Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1938), Hardy once accused the likes of “Doctors Lane- Poole and Vincent Smith, Sir Wolseley Haig [all colonial amateur historians] and Sir Jadunath Sarkar” of depicting “the history of medieval times as a succession of battles, rebellions and of depositions of one Muslim soldier of fortune by another.” These were, in Hardy’s eyes, antiquated approaches: “The working hypotheses of most modern historians— that a society must be studied in its own terms and that all aspects of the life of a people, a society or civilization are to be assumed to be interconnected and interdependent—seem not have greatly influenced . . . [their studies] of medieval Indian history.” Hardy’s position appears to have solidified further in the late 1980s, when he wrote a foreword to Srivastava’s book. Sarkar now looked to him like the epitome of a colonized intellectual— a middle- class person, “Indian in colour and blood, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”— a realization of Macaulay’s imperial dream. Not only was Sarkar someone who simply recycled British, colonial propositions about “medieval” Indian history— propositions that made the British feel good about themselves as rulers of India— he was anachronistic as well. He assumed “human nature” to be the same “in the present and the past”— that humans were “motivated by much the same passions and inclinations and prejudices”— and was therefore always engaged in “hurrying on his historical personages past their own contexts into his.” Hardy was convinced that C. A. Bayly’s Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770– 1870 had “shown Sarkar’s representations of the eighteenth century to be more rhetorical than historical.” While Sarkar’s work, Hardy thought, was still “essential reading for the tiros,” it was “vital” that he should be shown to have (“as have the rest of us,” Hardy qualified) “feet of clay,” so that “subsequent historical investigation” was not “trampled into the earth.”