POLITICS
14/12/2019 8:27 AM IST | Updated 27/12/2019 7:41 PM IST

This Professor Has Built A Literal Treasure Trove Of India's Oldest Essays

Looking for a 19th century essay? You may find it here.

Ideas of India website.
The Ideas of India website is a database of Indian periodicals from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Rahul Sagar, a political science professor, has drawn a map that helps people locate close to 300 Indian periodicals with 300,000 essays, published in the 19th and 20th centuries and scattered all over the world today, as far afield as Tasmania and Mexico City. 

Sagar, a political theorist teaching at the New York University in Abu Dhabi, says it took him five years to create a database for the pre-independence periodicals and feature them on the Ideas of India website. “People should read these periodicals to see how diverse and vibrant and rich Indian intellectual life has been,” he said.

There are periodicals where the ideas that shaped modern India are debated, while others cover subjects like the Indian Jewish community, India’s links with Persia, India’s relations with Portugal, and why Indians admired Japan in the 1930s. The process of locating hundreds of periodicals, Sagar said, “has been rather Indiana Jonesesque…It was a giant jigsaw. If someone gives you a thousand pieces but lost the box.”

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Sagar lays out the history of periodicals as an invention of the British, but how, like cricket, Indians made them their own. He speaks of the lengths he went to find the periodicals and what the ideas in them mean for India today.  

“When you look at these periodicals, you can’t help but come away with the sense that there were so many paths open, some were chosen and others were closed… You look at the lines through history that intersect and bounce of each other,” he said. 

You look at the lines through history that intersect and bounce of each other.

How do you see your work in the backdrop of Indian politics today?

I  didn’t start this project with any critical or any political intent whatsoever. I started it purely out of a love for ideas. I love the history of ideas. I love the fact that people went through huge efforts to writing these essays, publish these periodicals and cultivate the public debate that I eventually benefited from. In a socialist- oriented journal, someone would say that I look forward to an India where everyone has a minimum of these things. In another journal, someone else would say that my India is one which resurrects its ancient glory where Sanskrit returns. Somebody else from a princely state writes that I can’t wait for the return of Dharm Raj, which is when princes rule according to moral law. And all these people were living, studying, educating, exchanging ideas with each other. They didn’t call each other names, or say they were fools or idiots. They disagreed but they were not surprised by the fact that they had different points of views. When you look at these periodicals, you can’t help but come away with the sense that there were so many paths open, some were chosen and some were closed. The ones that were closed can and did get reopened. And others that were open got closed. You look at the lines through history that intersect and bounce off one another. 

These periodicals deserve to be read by people whether they are Left or Right, old or young, radical or not, conservative or not. People should read these periodicals to see how diverse and vibrant and rich Indian intellectual life has been. What they want to make of that and how they want to apply to India today, I leave to them. I want to be the curator, not the messenger. 

People should read these periodicals to see how diverse and vibrant and rich Indian intellectual life has been.

Why did you undertake this project? 

I was very fortunate to have grown up in India for the first 12 years of my life. All said and done, there are many things that are yet to be done in India, many things that are very tragic and discomforting, but what I feel proud of is that India has had an outward orientation. It seeks to learn from the world. It seeks to engage with the world. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s, I could belong to debating clubs, I could listen to people arguing different points of views, read op-eds in newspapers. It was not imperfect. Many things were outrageous and egregious. My first political memories were of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. But setting those aside for a moment, there were other lovely moments of being able to engage with cultures. You had access to American magazines, going to the British Council or watching The World This Week. I’m grateful for those because there were many countries in which those things did not exist. I felt that I owed something to India. And for many years, I searched through how I would repay this civic debt that I had. I thought that I would do it by coming back to India and teaching or being involved in setting up a university. But when I stumbled across these periodicals and I read them, I knew I had found something that would affect many many people. It would allow people to see a side of India that they probably would never get to see. This is how I decided that I would repay the debt that I felt I owed India for giving me a home and a vibrant place to grow up in.

What I feel proud of is that India has had an outward orientation.

What are periodicals?

The notion of a periodical as a journal of ideas that captures a particular period or time was a very British invention so to speak. Periodicals appeared in the late 18th and early 19th century. A very famous periodical named the Quarterly Review ran the entire 19th century. Periodical was a place where you made an argument and had debates. You provoked people with an argument or point of view and there was a back and forth. They came out periodically. That’s the other link to the name. Most periodicals were weekly, fortnightly or monthly. The most famous and important ones are monthly. They spent a lot of time curating and thinking about what was going to go into them. The entries were short and punchy. Very little rhetoric. And the editors were strict and didn’t take well to ad hominem attacks or partisan party lines. You really had to make an argument. 

What did periodicals have in them?

Many of them had an opening editorial. Then they would have four or five essays, the great signature essays of the month. These would not be on a single theme. They would be on a range of contemporary and historical questions — the condition of the British Empire in Burma, the discoveries of antiquities in Egypt, how should liberalism think about women voting — so it could be on a whole range of issues. Then, the great section of the book review, which is also something that becomes a central feature of our lives. The idea that you review books for the general educated public is a result of these British periodicals. Then, the other thing which is great fun if we look back were the advertisements and accounts of daily life — what historians call the history of everyday life. That was the mix things. The mix is a really fantastic peep into those worlds.  

When do periodicals start? 

The earliest ones were the Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Review, which appeared in the first decade of the 1800s. But they really take off in the Victorian era. This is the period between 1820 and 1900. That’s when they really explode in numbers and it’s linked to a range of things. There is increasing literacy, there is democratic reform in the UK, in England in particular. In the early part of the century, more men are eligible to vote and in the later half, you get the suffragette movement and eventually more women are able to vote. You get more and more people who are interested in politics and ideas. They are better educated. Incomes are rising rapidly. People have leisure time to read and think. People are upwardly mobile. They are aspirational. They are reading to have interesting conversations and partake in them. Growing up in India — you might have seen this as well — the big world of the clubs. The Gymkhana club and all of that sort of stuff. It comes from this era. We still have clubs that exist from that time in India like the Chelmsford club. These things were more prominent in England between 1800 and 1940-1950. Most of them are still around but not as central anymore. Back in the day, they were really central things. When you went to a club, you needed to talk intelligently about the matters of the day, and what people were saying and thinking. Tourism appeared in the 19th century. People would go on cruises. People would travel East on holidays. They would go to Hong Kong or Shanghai or India or Singapore. There was a desire to have knowledge about the world. And lastly, the British Empire was growing, so people had an immediate material interest in knowing what was happening in all these places. So all these things came together to produce an era in which these periodicals flourished.  

How did the periodicals catch on in India?

It’s a pretty remarkable story about the embryonic link between India and the UK as a result of colonisation. In the first 30 or 40 years of expansion in India, the East India company did not get involved in education in any meaningful way. They made small grants to what were oriental colleges, which taught Sanskrit to Hindus and Persian to Muslims. The idea was that you had a little bit of benevolence to what the Indian states did. Then, starting in the early 1800s… 1812 is actually the first call in the British Parliament for doing something for the upliftment of India. This is linked to the broader enlightenment period. The growth of liberalism in England. So just as upper class, wealthy, educated liberals in England are saying that we should invest in education for working class and poorer men and women in England, they started saying the same — although in more racial ways — about India. Some say they need to introduce Christianity, some say they need to introduce Christianity and English, some say it should just be English. Eventually, the decision is made to support English publicly and Christianity only sort of privately. British officials can encourage it and they can support it, they can go to church etcetera, but they are not to publicly support a religion. They were worried about having a backlash if they tried to proselytise.

In 1812, the first chunk of money is put aside to support English education in India, but the governor generals as they were called at the time were really worried about the backlash. The whole issue hangs fire for a while and then because of people like Raja Rammohan Roy in the 1820s, you start to get the beginning of private initiatives to educate Indians who are hungry to learn English so that they can get jobs in the East India Company as secretaries and assistants and even as peons. There are others who are keen to learn English so that they can learn law and medicine. Since the British have the money but are not doing anything with it, you have a few private colleges that appear in Kolkata and Madras and Bombay. When these colleges do well, the British realise there is hunger for English. In 1835, English education formally takes off. These early colleges are actually staffed by British faculty who read, write and subscribe to these periodicals, and show and fashion these periodicals to their students as ways to learn English, argumentation, logic, forensics. When the students saw these periodicals, it did appeal. They wanted to contribute to these periodicals but it was difficult. These periodicals were mostly centered in Britain. There were about 12 in India in the 1830s and 40s in Calcutta, Madras, Benaras and Bombay, but Indians were really hard pressed to get their essays in. You see very few. I’ve collected some of the very first essays which were written by Indians for these journals. The most famous one was TheCalcutta Review. You get the sense that there was some frustration. 

In the 1850s and 60s, as English education spread in India, Indians finally started to go abroad to study. Once they see these periodicals, they are trying to write for them in London, in Edinburg, but struggling. In the 1860s, you get this sudden explosion with Indians saying that now we know enough, we are going to start our own journals. We have had one generation of educated Indians, educated in England, we know what to do. They start their own periodicals and make a real success of them. And they boom after the 1860s.

In the 1860s, you get this sudden explosion with Indians saying that now we know enough, we are going to start our own journals.
Courtesy Rahul Sagar
The Madra Journal

In the database of periodicals you have created, who is the first Indian to have written?

One of the very earliest essays published in English was Goday Vencat Juggarow’s “Astronomical Tables and Observations” which were published in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science in 1835. The publication was of great significance, being amongst the earliest examples of the impact of modern science on Indians.

Courtesy Rahul Sagar
The Orient Pearl periodical.

Who else? 

One of the earliest piece I have is a poem from Kali Prasad Ghosh. 

The earliest piece I have is from Kali Prasad Ghosh.

The most interesting periodicals or a couple of them? 

It’s really hard to choose. I’m not saying it because this is my project or because I want to make it sounder grander than it is. They really are such phenomenal pieces of work. Each of these journals have such interesting specialisations. The Nizam of Hyderabad had a college called the Nizam’s College which had a periodical that was published only quarterly and had the most beautiful illustrations and essays about what was called the Anglo Islamic or the Anglo Muslim world which had British scholars who had become deeply interested in Persian and writing about India’s links with Persia. You get these niche periodicals. The ones that are clearly the most impressive are these three periodicals called The Indian Review, The Modern Review, and The Hindustan Review. In these periodicals, you see the idea — or rather the ideas of modern India — taking shape. Almost everyone who you could think of, who had public stature and wrote in English… there is a kind of metropolitan English language bias to these three periodicals… was writing, debating, challenging, questioning, issuing manifestos for what they think India should be like and where it should go. The crucial thing about these periodicals was that they had genuine national circulation. They had a pan India audience. They were widely read outside India, in England, by Indians in Fiji, the Carribean, Burma, Sri Lanka and the Far East. They quickly become your favourite because of the sheer cast of characters involved, the scope, and the canvas. 

The ones that are clearly the most impressive are these three periodicals called The Indian Review, The Modern Review, and The Hindustan Review.

You’ve read the periodicals?

I’ve read every issue of these three periodicals. For most of the others, I’ve read the most important essays in them. All said and done, I’ve read about eight to ten thousand of the essays of 300,000 in the database, which is a fraction. But I’ve looked at every issue of every periodical for this entire period.

How did you get your hands on the periodicals? 

It is a mixture of luck and resources and patience. The luck was that I had read about these periodicals in an essay Ram Guha published in An Anthropologist Among Marxists. In that he had written about The Indian Review as a place where Indian liberalism found its voice. That stayed with me. I never forgot it. In 2011-12, when I finally returned to thinking about India, and studying India, I asked the library at Princeton to dig it up for me. The very first one I found was lying in the University of Pennsylvania library. They shipped it over to us. The moment I opened the first periodical, I had goosebumps. 

They have to pack it in bubble wrap and put them in a box because the periodicals  are rare. Someone has to look after them and hand them over to you. Then, the whole process to return them. It would be $20-$30 to borrow each volume. I asked for another six and Princeton was like — okay, fine, but this can’t go on and on. They were shipping from Chicago and from Berkeley, and at the end of the summer, the library wanted to have a frank conversation with me on what exactly I was looking to do. 

Then, we started using this process called the ILL (interlibrary loan) where you can put in a request and say I want the table of contents of such and such journal — can you scan and send it to me. When I did this, I figured out that if I can look at the table of contents, everyone else could also more easily find out what they are looking for. But Princeton said that we still have to pay for these things. Someone has to scan and email them. It doesn’t cost $30 but it still costs $9-$10. We could not have keep doing that either. Then, I raised money, got a grant, put together a team and collected these journals from around the world. 

The database tells people that these are the periodicals which are out there in the world, the contents and where one can find them. 

That’s right. What I have produced is a map. So before this, we had no idea where they were and what was in them. If you don’t know there is an essay on gender and democracy written in 1880 by an Indian journalist who is sitting in London and watching the suffragette movement, then you’ll never go looking for it. And if you didn’t know if the periodical was in London, then you wouldn’t know where to go looking for it even if you know the essay existed. Once you have the map, then everything becomes possible. 

I go on the website and figure out the essay, the periodical and where it is located… say, at the University of Pennsylvania library. I’m not a student or a professor at Princeton. They won’t start shipping things to people around the world. 

I’ve had this query quite a few times from different users. People have been writing to me — over 1,000 emails — people who have found an essay by their grandfather…  the stories are phenomenal. A gentleman who has written in from Chandigarh, who is 89,  can remember reading these periodicals when he was a young boy. There are a few things which people can do. 

Step 1. There are two or three really great websites that actually have the full text of the periodicals on them. One is called archive.org, which is sort of the intellectual equivalent of Wikipedia. People around the world can scan periodicals that are out of copyright out of interest, out of a love for ideas. You can actually get the full text. There is an equivalent in India called the National Digital Library of India. They have spent money digitising content around libraries in India and it is a disaster. They have just scanned the entire periodical. It doesn’t have the right name. It has no index. You would never know which volume to look at for an essay on caste in Madhya Pradesh. They’ve just scanned the stuff and dumped it. Who can flip through thousands of pages looking for one essay? Now that you have the map I have built, you can go to archive.org or the National Digital Library of India and say TheModern Review Volume 38 and there is a reasonable chance the full volume will actually be there. That’s step 1. Now that you have the map, you’ll probably be able to make sense of the resources out there. 

Step 2 is that if you have a particular interest, your ancestors, or you want just three essays written by a young Indian poet who goes to the US and UK in the 1890s, then you can contact the library that holds them and the library will more likely than not scan them for you if you explain your background. I know a lot of these libraries that go out of their way to help patrons and people who are interested in these materials. They will not be able to ship you the entire periodical of course, but they could scan and send you a periodical. If it’s a one off request — you can’t email them every month — they could even scan it for free. But they don’t have unreasonable charges. It might be $20 or $30. That’s not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. But if it’s essential for your work, you’ll be able to get it. In the past, you might not have been able to get it. 

The third and last method is beg, borrow and steal. If you know a periodical is sitting in the University of Wisconsin or the New York Public Library, you ask an aunt, uncle, nephew, friends who happens to be there to swing by and help you get hold of something 

A gentleman who has written in from Chandigarh, who is 89,  can remember reading these periodicals when he was a young boy.

But eventually, the way forward is digitising these periodicals.

Absolutely. That’s now my goal. What is going to happen in the next six months… everywhere the full text is available, there are going to be links on the website saying if you click here then you can go to the full text that is available on say archive.org, or the New York Public Library, which has many of its resources freely available on the internet. Of course, this applies only to the famous journals, the well known ones. But if you are from Hyderabad and need a periodical from Andhra, I think those are going to be harder to find online. I’m going to have to engage in digitisation. I probably need between $3 to $4 million to conduct digitisation. Either the libraries will do it for me and I need to buy the rights from them or I will do it with my team. 

What were some of the most surprising places where you found periodicals in India? 

It’s a pretty tragic state of affairs in India. Most of the minor libraries that we checked — places in Assam, Punjab, Ludhiana, Amritsar — you can’t believe you have found this thing and you go there, but it’s all been lost, destroyed or pulped. In India, not surprisingly, we were successful in places where the libraries have at least some resources. Pune is one. Trivandrum is another. Then, Bangalore is a third. But those are not exotic places. The exotic places where you think you would find something that has been unchecked for some time, unfortunately, the ravages of time have taken a huge toll on places which were under resourced.  It may be the case that there are private or small public libraries which I have not yet stumbled upon that contain a treasure trove. It’s totally possible. There are many surprises while doing this stuff. There is a very interesting library called the Raza Library Rampur, which is an absolutely spectacular library. I’m sure 95% of the country does not know this library exists. What a gorgeous library it is. It has some really spectacular periodicals, but very few remaining. That strikes me as a pretty astonishing place and not an easy one to get to. 

There is a very interesting library called the Rampur Library, which is an absolutely spectacular library.

The bulk of the periodicals are kept in British and American universities?

Spread around the world. It’s definitely the case that the majority are between the US and the UK, over 70%. The remaining 30% was hugely scattered. We found things in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Tokyo, Tasmania, Adelaide, Durban, São Paulo, Zurich, Leiden, the University of British Columbia, the University of Manitoba, Mexico City. We found last surviving copies and we literally had to go to the corners of the Earth to get a hold of them. 

For example, there was a journal called The Indo-Japanese Association Journal, which is the most important journal if you are thinking about India’s very profound relationship with Japan. Between 1870-1930, India absolutely adored Japan and all things Japanese. It was the first modern Asian power and they all wanted to understand how Japan had become powerful in such a short period of time. Very few people know that Japan was India’s second largest training partner until the 1930s and then the British expelled Japanese trade from India because they did not want to support Japanese power and they did not want Japan to have an economic foothold in India. So this journal, it’s half in Japanese and half in English, was left in only two libraries in the world — University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. We recruited Japanese students in these universities to pick up these periodicals. It’s true for many others. 

Between 1870-1930, India absolutely adored Japan and all things Japanese.

But how would you know this journal was in the University of Tokyo in the first place?

Lots of manual labour. There is a consortium of libraries in the UK and the US. They have something called WorldCat which means World Catalogue and that’s a catalogue of libraries. It’s like a master catalogue. So, you can say I’m looking for TheIndian Review and it will tell you every library in the UK and US and some English speaking European countries that have this periodical. But they only have small pieces of them. So, you sit and go through every entry to figure out volume 1 is available in the Netherlands, volume 2 is available in London, volume 3 is available in Wisconsin. We had giant spreadsheets where every volume was available and we would mark we found this there and we found that there. That’s why it’s taken five years. It’s been massive amounts of manual hunting. And many libraries in the world don’t have catalogues that are in English or on WorldCat. If I had no luck finding it then I would start putting in the name of TheIndian Review on the University of Singapore website. If it didn’t come up, I would put it in the University of Hong Kong website. It takes time but at the end of the day you find it. It turns out that it is sitting in Durban. Now, I know where it is. The next day I would send out an email to the University of Durban and say I’m looking for an RA (Research Associate) and I need about five hours of their time — I can pay $12-$15 an hour — depending on whether they are graduate or undergraduate. I’ll tell them how to do it. I’ll explain on WhatsApp. I’ll send them a video. I’ll tell them how to scan this thing. I’ll pay them on PayPal. It was really in some ways, a slightly clever, slightly resourceful sort of getting a cheap and quick answer to a problem that looked quite difficult 

It’s been massive amounts of manual hunting.

But how do you know what you are looking for in the first place? Which periodical do you type into World Catalogue. How do you start? 

You start with the first ones you know. I knew The Indian Review, The Modern Review and The Hindustan Review. Those were the ones I found when I was at Princeton. Every periodical if you remember I said had a book review section. Well, there were not so many books in India, so they would very often review other periodicals. They would say there is a great essay in The Mangalorean last month and it says swadeshi is a bad idea, however, we disagree with The Manglorean…. we are in complete agreement with our colleagues in The Sikh Review. And you say oh wow, there was something called The Sikh Review, and there was something called The Mangalorean

It was a giant jigsaw. If someone gives you a thousand pieces but lost the box. You don’t know what the picture looks like but if you join the pieces that look like each other then eventually the jigsaw will start to make sense. The first 12 to 16 months were a real head scratcher. Every time, I found something, I would think this has to be it. There can’t be any more, but then there were five more and then ten more. It went from three to 256. I have another 10 more coming on. It’s now going to be 272 periodicals 

It was a giant jigsaw. If someone gives you a thousand pieces but lost the box.
HuffPost India
A peridocal about the Indian Jewish community.

One periodical led to the next – the jigsaw puzzle as you explained – but these are the periodicals that appear on WorldCat or online somewhere. There could be so many more out there. 

That’s not all I have done. When you train as a historian, you learn the tricks for tracking things down. When libraries receive these periodicals — even if they have lost the periodicals — they still have the catalogues from those days. There is no periodical, there is no content, there is no table of contents, but the name still exists. I went to libraries both in the US and the UK that had catalogues of the books they used to own in the 1860s. For example, in the US, there is a famous catalogue called the Union List of Serials in Libraries of the United States and Canada, edited by Winifred Gregory.  I would just sit and flip page by page. I would circle everything that looked like a possible periodical because I know what period I am looking for. I know which country I am looking for. I have a sense of what kind of name an Indian periodical would have and certainly I know where it would be published in India. I would just flip through catalogues. Not just WorldCat, but physical card catalogues, physical book catalogues, from the 1860s, 1880s, 1900s, 1920s. I’d check every 10 to 15 years.  It has taken months and months. In fact, the 12 to 13 journals that I am adding are ones that I found that way. They were the hardest ones to track down because I found them using card catalogues. 

I found one of the first periodicals ever published by the Jewish people in India. It was called The Jewish Advocate. I found, I think, the first and only English-language Goan periodical that talked about Goa and its relationship with Portugal and its relationship with India. It’s called The Popular Magazine. I found a periodical called The  Iran League Quarterly which is about the Iranian community in India settled in Bombay. This process has been pretty thorough and exhaustive. I’d be surprised if there were many surprises now. There could easily be I’d say about half a dozen, dozen periodicals that I have never come across. But given how much time and energy has been put into it, searching around the world, I’d be surprised if there were more than a dozen periodicals that I’ve missed.

I found one of the first periodicals ever published by the Jewish people in India.

This is very Indiana Jonesesque, the whole thing.

You are not the first person to say that. I found stuff that I have not yet made public. I found some very valuable manuscripts, some very rare things. I literally had moments when I had an RA call me from a library and say I have found this thing, it looks weird, it doesn’t look like what you had said it would be, can you have a look? I open up my WhatsApp and look at the picture and say —oh my god, I can’t believe we found this thing. One hour later, I’ve packed my bag, I’m on the way to the airport and I fly to this library in India, so I can see it for myself and verify that it is the thing it is. 

I have found five or six very rare things that I will make public in the next six months. I need to prepare. I need to put them online. I need to explain the context, and the significance of what I found. So yes, the whole process has been rather Indiana Jonesesque. Not intentionally but that’s just how it turned out to be. 

The whole process has been rather Indiana Jonesesque.

Because all these periodicals are in English, there is an elitism to this? The people who wrote them back then and the people who can and choose to access them now. 

I think so. For that time, absolutely. Organized politics, particularly the Indian National Congress, was dominated by people that were well educated in English and the sciences. Most of them were lawyers, doctors or journalists. It is a fact that in decolonizing societies… this was true for America as much as it’s true for India. When America was going through its revolutionary struggle, the revolution was led by the elites and landed gentry and people that had resources, education, time, a sense of history, connection, networks. It is as true for India as it is true for Kenya or South Africa or Singapore. But it was not that everyone was wealthy. Many of the famous people lived in near poverty — people like (Gopal Krishna) Gokhale, like (Mahadev Govind) Ranade. Some of the famous figures, who were famous at the time, were professors or small town country lawyers or doctors. They were not very wealthy people but they were not poor. 

But the story begins to change the closer we get to independence. The more periodicals there are, the more varied the voices become. They get more diverse, socio economically diverse, sociologically diverse as the 20th century rolls on. Today, when we think about a much more literate, a much more aware, a much more historically curious India, I think English is not as much of a bar today as it was back then.These periodicals are written in a very accessible way. They were never academic, they were never highbrow in the sense of using jargon to intimidate readers. They were very liberal and democratic and open in their style of writing. Not smearing, not arrogant, not particularistic. They were always warm and friendly and people made their arguments expecting people to read them and reply. 

They get more diverse, socio economically diverse, sociologically diverse as the 20th century rolls on.
Courtesy Rahul Sagar
A periodical about the Parsi/Zoroastrian community in India.

In your piece published in the Scroll, you mention a conversation about with Pratap Bhanu Mehta about looking beyond finding canonical texts like the Republic and the Prince, but in the Indian context. 

A canonical text is a text that many people read that affects and shapes a culture and a time and an idea and a way of approaching politics. What I was doing when I first started thinking about teaching India, I looked for what I thought would be canonical texts in India. I thought (Mohandas) Gandhi, Dadabhai Narojee, Mahadev Ranade are famous so I will teach their stuff. But that’s not how intellectual life looked at the time. It wasn’t like Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj, and everyone around him went — wow, this is great, let’s read Hind Swaraj and we are done. Instead, if you actually read the stuff around that time, very few people took Hind Swaraj seriously. For people whose goal for the past 30 years was to modernise India, they thought Gandhi was an anarchist. But if we don’t actually read these texts (periodicals), we don’t read what the bulk of educated India was thinking and writing about. We end up with a very warped sense, a very limited, a very partial and parochial sense of what Indians really thought. That was the point that he (Pratap Bhanu Mehta) was making and he was bang on. If you pick up Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, it has nothing about women. But there were actually journals written and edited by women that were already in circulation by the time Hind Swaraj came out. 

Ask yourself if Gandhi’s views were so dominant, then how come India became everything that was in some way the opposite of what he said. He didn’t want modernisation and states, and he didn’t want large entities, but we ended up with a very large public sector and a modern economy. He didn’t want large electoral democracies, we ended up with a large electoral democracy. He wanted panchayats, we have no panchayats of any meaningful sort. He wanted businesses to run on a kind of a trusteeship basis but we ended up with large industrialists. If you read these periodicals, you will see that people didn’t agree with him. They were socialists who were far more influential in the world of ideas and had many more readers and believers and they said India needs to have a large industry. Women were writing periodicals and said like hell are we going to take on the roles that you are saying. We want to vote, we want to take part in public life, we want to be working, all of these sorts of things. 

There were actually journals written and edited by women that were already in circulation by the time Hind Swaraj came out.

But does India have canonical texts of the scale and influence the Republic or the Prince have in the western world? For most people, would it not be the Ramayana and the Mahabharata

We have our civilisational anchoring texts. There is Kautilya’s Arthshastra and the whole shastra tradition that comes after him. There are series about statecraft that are absolutely sublime. On the broader questions of ethics and public life and conduct, there is the Gita. Obviously, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, you mine for all sorts of things. They don’t just speak to politics, they speak to culture and religion, ideas of charity and benevolence, revenge, war and just war. Those two epics are endless, but we don’t have canonical texts outside the Arthashastra and the shastra tradition. We don’t have canonical texts in politics because the closer you get to the actual history of Indians thinking about politics, the more you see the diversities dissipate. India is such a large, vibrant, diverse, plural country, with so many issues and questions on the table at all times, that it is hard to imagine a single canonical text capturing all those diverse interests. The real challenge is to be able to notice, chase and access those diverse points of views. 

You also write that after 1947, these periodicals went through mass extinction and people hungered for the news of the day. What changed?

I think it was an impatience of a certain sort. We had waited so many years to rule ourselves and now it’s time to do it. Enough talking. Let’s roll our sleeves up and get down to it. There were expectations that India was going to transform quickly and rapidly. I think there was a hunger for action and a sense that the big debate had been had. Nehru having become prime minister, his idea and vision, which was only one of the competing views, becomes somewhat more enshrined in the early first decade or two of Indian politics.

In his piece about the website in The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, “We are obsessed with history, but not so much to deepen our understanding of how we came to be, but to ransack it for our purposes.” Your thoughts. 

It’s a tricky area. I completely agree with Pratap. There have been faults on all sides. It’s hard to answer a question like this without offending everyone. One of the tragedies of the last 30 to 40 years has been that when there has been a crisis of legitimacy, we’ve tried to use history as a way of legitimising policies and positions on all sides, Left and Right. And you try to use history to legitimise the decisions you want to make today. I think that is what Pratap means by ransacking history. When you selectively take bits and pieces of history out of context, out of their rich and diverse surroundings where they were contested, and you make it look as if they were uncontested. That’s a very dangerous way to use history. The other side then also goes searching throug

h history for their definitive evocative event. You get two competing narratives, with two competing accounts of history, engaged in a zero sum battle. When you ransack history, you tend to lose the middle ground. When we move away from that attempt to tell one perfect narrative where everyone agreed on everything, then we stop the destructive cycle of competitive history, my history versus your history. Instead, we look at the complexities. We accept difference and we try and come up with policies, consensus and settlement that speaks to our needs today.  

(Editor’s note: This interview is part of The Idea of India, HuffPost India’s monthly newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here).

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