Researching contemporary history

In a persuasive article in EPW (the access to this link may be denied to non-subscribers later), Ramachandra Guha identifies the obstacles to the writing of contemporary history, and outlines how they might be overcome. These obstacles are the ban on accessing government records which are less than 30-years old, the inevitable biases and prejudices of authors and readers etc. Guha, however, is optimistic that it is possible to overcome these obstacles, by relying on private and institutional papers, periodical press, oral history, and official papers of other countries which have had close or contentious relations with India.

According to him, the period of independent India upto and including the Emergency can be viewed through a properly historical lens. Guha deplores that we do not have a single work by a historian that analyses or interprets the evolution of the caste system since independence. Nor do we have a historical study, he says, that can illuminate our understanding of how elections and electioneering have changed over these 60 years. The 50th anniversary of the formation of most Indian states was met with a resounding silence: No historian, living in any of the 28 states of India, thought it worth his while to write a social, or political or cultural or total history of the state he was working in, he says.

There are certain observations which I found interesting. Till the 1970s at least, he says, politics in India had a strong moral and ideological core – it had not become, as it is now, wholly cynical and instrumental. (Well, it is the degree of cynicism which Guha seems to imply. But it is debatable whether India then had a strong moral and ideological core).

Guha also challenges the prevailing myth that socialism was a consequence of Nehru’s prejudices. He says not only Bombay Plan asked for a strong and interventionist state, but they quoted the Cambridge economist A.C.Pigou to the effect that socialism and capitalism had to find a common meeting ground. There was, he says, an overwhelming consensus in favour of a self-reliant, state-directed, “mixed economy” model for India’s development. He blames the economic historians for not examining in a rigorous fashion, the economic policies of the successive governments of independent India. There is no reliable study of the formation of economic policy in independent India, he says. Historians have not written with depth or insight about the (often very fertile) debates among writers and social scientists in independent India; no Indian historian has written a proper historical study of our wars with Pakistan, he writes.

There is one issue on which the feminists, and some legal academics who worked on the Hindu Code Bill are bound to disagree with Guha. Guha challenges the view of contemporary feminist-academics that Hindu Code Bills, passed in 1955 and 1956 did not reform Hidu personal laws,they merely codified them, that is, brought them into conformity with what was assumed to be the Indian norm- north Indian, upper caste practices.

Guha omits to include Judiciary, Parliament & State Legislatures, and State and Central Executives (in contrast to leadership) as areas where research could be focussed on the first three decades of independence. No doubt, he refers to Granville Austin, but it is in the context of his exemplary use of private papers, official papers, newspaper reports, and oral histories.

Austin’s two major works, Working A Democratic Constitution and The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation are both substantial contributions. Yet, they are inadequate accounts as far as the history of Indian Supreme Court since independence is concerned. Cornerstone, for instance, was published in 1972, and has one chapter each to Executive, Legislature and Judiciary (of which Supreme Court is discussed in 8 pages) out of the book’s 13 chapters. Working was published in 1999, and the book’s chapterisation is in terms of issues, themes, and events. Of course, we have Supreme But Not Infallible (2000), and 50 years of Supreme Court of India (OUP-ILI). But these are edited volumes and cannot be a substitute for a proper history of Indian Supreme Court. Supreme Court in quest of identity by Govind Das (2000 -2nd edition)looks at the Supreme Court from the prism of political events, and is still inadequate.

Guha’s omission to include Judiciary (his list of institutions requiring historical study does not go beyond AIR and NDDB – what about Election Commission,on which too no scholar seems to be interested) among areas of potential future research does not surprise me. Even while deploring the lack of biographies on prominent and less known personalities, Guha fails to mention the need to write biographies of Judges.

I have found a general and inexplicable bias against in-depth writings on law, Courts etc. not only in academics but in journalism. This may be partly out of ignorance of the role played by law and courts in our lives, but also due to a general contempt (Guha is, of course, an exception to this)to things legal, because of the jargon which is usually associated with legal writings. The onus perhaps lies on the legal academics and journalists, to make their writings comprehensible to the non-legal community at large. I see it both as a challenge and an opportunity.

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