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Secular historian - R.S. Sharma (1920-2011): A tribute by Suvira Jaiswal

6 September 2011

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Frontline, September 10-23, 2011

Secular historian

by Suvira Jaiswal

R.S. Sharma (1920-2011) looked upon the discipline of history as a vehicle for combating obscurantism and evolving a scientific temper.

THE passing away of Professor Ram Sharan Sharma on August 20 is an irreparable loss, not only for the world of history scholarship but for all those who envision and hope for a secular, rational and equitable India. There is hardly any aspect of early Indian history that has not been enriched by this renowned Marxist historian’s penetrating analysis reinforced by a wealth of data. A prolific writer whose books have been translated into several Indian and foreign languages, he had an insatiable urge for work. When severe illness overtook him in the last few months, his only regret was that life had become meaningless as he was not able to read and write any more, notwithstanding the fact that his latest book, Economic History of Early India, was published by Viva Books this year. However, Sharma was no ivory-tower intellectual. He continued until the end to take an interest in what was going on around him and to encourage and advise historians and academics facing political confrontation to expose the manipulation of archaeological/ historical evidence by the protagonists of Hindutva. A man of unimpeachable integrity, his devotion to secularism and the scientific spirit was part of his being.

Sharma was born on September 1, 1920, in Barauni village of Begusarai, Bihar, to a poor family and received his primary education in the village school. He had to struggle hard to acquire higher education. After matriculation, he managed to join Patna College, where he studied for six years and obtained a master’s degree in history in 1943. For a brief period, he worked as a lecturer in H.D. College, Ara, and T.N.B. College, Bhagalpur. He joined Patna College in 1946. He became the Head of the Department of History, Patna University, in 1958, a position he continued to occupy until 1973, when he joined the History Department of the University of Delhi as a Professor. He had been already appointed the first Chairman of the newly constituted Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, a post he occupied from 1972 to 1977. He served Delhi University until his retirement in 1985 and was the departmental head for five years.

After retirement, Sharma chose to return to Patna, where he remained until his death. In his long, illustrious career, he received numerous awards and fellowships. To mention a few, he was the Visiting Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University (1959-1964), Visiting Professor of History in Toronto (1965-1966), and recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1989, the Campbell Memorial Gold Medal (for outstanding Indologists) for 1983 from the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, and the Hemchandra Raychaudhuri Birth Centenary Gold Medal (for outstanding historians) from the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, in 2001. The Indian History Congress gave him the V.K. Rajwade National Award for his “lifelong service and outstanding contribution to the study of ancient and early medieval history”. He was conferred D.Litt. (Honoris causa) by the University of Burdwan and also by the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi. Patna University had made him its Professor Emeritus. He was a distinguished member of the National Commission for History of Science in India and of the UNESCO Commission on the History of Central Asian Civilisations and had also served as a member of the University Grants Commission. Through his association with these and other academic planning and policymaking bodies, he strove hard to give historical studies in India a scientific and secular orientation.

In the field of Indian historiography, Sharma was a trailblazer. His first major work, Sudras in Ancient India, substantially his thesis for the degree of PhD, approved at the University of London, came out in 1958. It was a pioneering work focussing on the history of the labouring classes from early beginnings to the end of the Gupta period. He studied the relationship between the changes in the nature of their subordination and disabilities and developments in the means and organisation of production processes. The second edition of this book, brought out in 1980, is a much larger and modified version that takes note of new evidence and investigations in archaeological and anthropological studies during the intervening period. Meanwhile, his Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India was published in 1959, analysing the origin, growth and nature of the state in ancient India in the light of historical materialism. The work has gone into several editions and each edition is richer with new insights, arguments and additional material.

Theory of feudalism

However, the publication of his monograph Indian Feudalism in 1965 caused almost a furore in the academia, generating intense debate and sharp responses both in favour of and against the applicability of the model of “feudalism” to the Indian situation at any point of time. The concept of “feudalism” was initially used by D.D. Kosambi to analyse the developments in the socio-economic sphere in the late ancient and medieval periods of Indian history. Sharma, while differing from Kosambi on certain significant points, added a great deal of depth to the approach with his painstaking research and forceful arguments. The work has been called his magnum opus. Criticism goaded Sharma into reinforcing his thesis by producing another work of fundamental importance, Urban Decay in India (c. 300 – c. 1000), in which he marshalled an impressive mass of archaeological data to demonstrate the decline of urban centres, a crucial element of his thesis on feudalism. It won him the H.K. Barpujari award instituted by the Indian History Congress. However, the redoubtable professor was unstoppable, and in his Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation (Orient Longman, 2001), he further rebutted the objections of his critics point by point.

Sharma applied the tool of historical materialism not only to explain social differentiation and stages of economic development, but also to the realm of ideology. His investigations into the “feudal mind” and “economic and social basis of tantrism” are thought-provoking, opening up new lines of inquiry. In an earlier article, he examined “the material milieu of the birth of Buddhism”, which now forms a part of his Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (Macmillan, 1983). The monograph, full of seminal ideas, has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages and has had 11 editions.

Secular textbooks

Sharma’s active involvement in issues of socio-political importance was another important facet of his life. In 1948, as special officer on deputation to the Political Department, he prepared a report on the Bengal-Bihar boundary dispute, which proved to be very useful in the resolution of the problem.

However, his lifelong mission was to expose the unscientific and biased nature of communal and chauvinistic reconstructions of India’s past in order to manipulate its present. Hence, he wrote textbooks and learned monographs in a simple, straightforward and lucid language, both in Hindi and English. He scrupulously avoided fashionable jargon in order to make his views easily comprehensible. He was firmly of the view that textbooks should reflect the consensus on important issues among authoritative experts in the field and have a rational and objective approach, inculcating the values of secularism and social justice enshrined in the Constitution.

This approach upset the communalist agenda, so a vicious attack was launched on Sharma’s Ancient India, a textbook written for class XI and published by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) during the Janata Party rule headed by Morarji Desai. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), at the direct behest of the government, decided to withdraw it from its list of recommended books. Nonetheless, as Professor Arjun Dev says, the NCERT continued to publish it until it was finally withdrawn along with other “controversial” history textbooks during the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance regime. The books were not restored even after the 2004 elections, as “for the authorities of NCERT, communalism had ceased to be an issue to deal with in school curriculum, despite the declared intention to “detoxify” the curriculum, Arjun Dev said. The textbook is now available in its new incarnation as India’s Ancient Past (Oxford University Press, 2005).

What rankled the Hindu communalist lobby most was the fact that Sharma’s textbook made no attempt to push under the carpet such uncomfortable facts as the inequities of the caste system, the practice of beef-eating in ancient India and, most of all, the mythical character of Ram of Ayodhya and Krishna of the Mahabharata, which, he pointed out, was definitively proved by archaeological evidence. Although these are well-known, authoritative, historical generalisations, the forces of Hindutva do not want to allow young minds to imbibe them as their main strategy to achieve political supremacy is to mobilise Hindus of different social strata by fostering their credulity in unreasoned archaic beliefs and exploit them for political purposes. Hence, textbooks promoting rationalism and a spirit of scientific inquiry pose a grave threat to their designs. Their virulent attack on Sharma forced him to come out with a booklet titled In Defence of ‘Ancient India’. But perhaps Sharma’s most memorable act in exposing fascist communal designs was his relentless endeavour to reveal the hollowness of the claim that the Babri Masjid was built on Ram’s birthplace. He drew pointed attention to the deliberate misuse and suppression of historical/archaeological evidence in the furtherance of such claims. At his initiative, the Indian History Congress began to pass almost annual resolutions from 1986 onwards, calling upon the Government of India to protect the monument.

In 1990, he published a booklet, Communal History and Ram’s Ayodhya, and in 1991 he presented to the Ministry of Home Affairs Ram Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid: A Historian’s Report to the Nation, prepared by him along with M. Athar Ali, Suraj Bhan and D.N. Jha. The outrageous destruction of the 16th century mosque is now part of our history.

Sharma wrote two books, Looking for the Aryans (Orient Longman, 1995) and Advent of the Aryans in India (Manohar, 1999), to demolish the myth assiduously cultivated by Hindu communalist historiography that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India and Harappa culture was their creation. More recently, when communal forces sought to get a new lease of life by creating a crisis over Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Sethu, by asserting that it was a man-made construction built by Ram and not a natural formation (the result of continuous wave action), the Government of India appointed a committee of three with two bureaucrats and a historian to examine the veracity of such claims. Sharma, who was the historian on the committee, submitted his report in December 2007 and thus helped in diffusing the crisis. Incidentally, work on the report occasioned his last visit to Delhi.

Sharma was a great administrator and institution builder and had the required perseverance, foresight and sense of purpose. As the Head of the History Department of Patna University, he radically refashioned the outdated syllabi, developed library facilities, held regular departmental seminars and made it a vibrant place for research and teaching.

His efforts led to the foundation of the Bihar Itihas Parishad, which became a registered body in 1975-76. He also inspired the formation of ASHA (The Association for the Study of History and Archaeology), which, as he remarked in the inaugural address given in 1996, aimed at fulfilling “the long-felt need of giving historical orientation to archaeology and archaeological orientation to history”. His lifelong association with the Indian History Congress is well known. He had been its general secretary and the general president of the 1975 session.

Above all, I remember Sharma as the quintessential teacher, a demanding supervisor with an astute understanding of a student’s capabilities and requirements. He taught us, through his example, to take a position and not remain neutral in the defence of truth and cherished ideals. He disliked jargon, verbosity and superficial intellectualism and looked upon the discipline of history as an important vehicle for combating obscurantism and evolving a scientific temper. Hence, he spoke and wrote in the language of the people and took up socially relevant issues. He had an impressive personality, tall, gentle and compassionate with eyes often twinkling in good humour. The void created by his death can never be filled.

Suvira Jaiswal taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University before retiring as Professor of History.

P.S.

The above article from Frontline is reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non commercial use.