History may be the study of the past. But it is a discipline that needs to be deconstructed and analysed to comprehend the present. Author of two books, War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years and 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, Srinath Raghavan is one of India's leading historians. Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, Raghavn is a regular columnist, commentator and essayist.
Srinath Raghavan - 2015 Infosys Prize Winner
Raghavan was recently awarded the 2015 Infosys Prize in the category of social sciences. His next book India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45 will be published early next year. In this conversation, Raghavan talks about the purpose of historical research, the role of a modern historian, the wisdom of writing books and many other things.
You recently won the 2015 Infosys prize for research in the social sciences. Why are the social sciences, and research in the disciplines they encompass important? Do you think the social sciences in India are ignored? If so, then why?
This is a very large question and, to be honest, I am not sure I can pin-point all the problems with social sciences in India. But I would point out that Indian scholars have made significant contributions by any global standards - especially in sociology, anthropology, economics and history. Where we seem to fall behind is in building high quality research programmes within our universities; the best of our students still tend to go abroad for their doctoral work. There is also a problem with funding research in social sciences. Unlike Britain and other European countries, we don't have public bodies that are adequately scaled-up to financially support bulk of the research in these areas; and unlike the US, we don't have Indian private philanthropic foundations that provide significant levels of funding.
Both your books War and Peace in Modern India, and 1971 have deep historiographical layering, with archival research, individual interpretation and detached analysis. Once you decide on a particular area of research, what is your process – especially with respect to contemporary history where one sees many counterpoints, narratives, analysis and oral histories juxtaposed against one another? How do you begin on a particular topic and arrive at a conclusion? Walk us through your research and writing process.
This is easy to describe, though invariably more messy in practice! I am usually drawn to topics where either the conventional wisdom is quite strong or where important, large questions have been neglected. Increasingly, I am also interested in the question of synthesis: how do various aspects of a historical period or question hang together, and how does their interaction explain historical change? Once I begin working on an area, I tend to think constantly about the big questions and arguments even as I dig deep in archives, public papers and other sources. The importance of these materials for me is not just in their novelty and detail, but also in whether they support larger claims that could revise our understanding of the subject. I also start writing early - partly because I enjoy writing and partly because writing is crucial in helping me clarify my own thinking.
Contemporary history has its own set of challenges: availability of sources, persistence of strong public memory about individuals and events, accentuation of normal biases, and so on. The most important of these is the need for a longer and wider perspective from which to view the recent past. The contemporary historian has to anticipate the verdict of posterity rather merely confirming or disproving those of the generations still around. Only then can a work of contemporary history stand the test of time.
In the Prologue to 1971, you say, “This story is unlikely to provide nostrums for our current predicaments or answers to contemporary debates, but it can perhaps prompt us to consider whether we are even asking the right questions.” What is the relevance and greater utility of historical analysis in contemporary times? Especially with respect to military or strategic history.
AJP Taylor, one of my favourite historians, used to quip that the only thing we can learn from history is how to make new mistakes. While I wouldn't go so far, I do believe that there no straightforward 'lessons' to be learnt from history. Where historical work of this sort can help citizens or policy-makers is to give a sense of the importance of context, of multiple considerations that impinge on any decision, of the manner in which outcomes can widely differ from intentions, and of the effects of lessons (often wrong) supposedly learnt from the past. As Carl Schorske, another great historian, said, we need to “think with history”. This is particularly important in the domain of military or strategic issues because wars and crises are not (fortunately) frequent occurrences. So, our ability to engage critically with the past becomes quite crucial.
Coming to one of your books, War and Peace in Modern India analyses India’s foreign policy during the Nehru years. What according to you was Nehru’s greatest contribution to India – one positive and one detrimental? What is the relevance of Nehru, in the political, social and economic discourses of contemporary India?
Any answer to the first part of this question risks being reductive. But I would argue that Nehru's greatest positive contribution lay in nurturing public institutions in a new democracy. His most deleterious contribution was the neglect of primary education and public health. In thinking about his relevance today, I feel it is important to avoid the twin temptations of adulation and detraction. We live in a very different world from that of Nehru's and his specific ideas or policies cannot in be simplistically applied in our context. His larger commitments do, however, resonate with our times: the need for a deliberative democracy, pluralism and opposition to majoritarianism, focus on economic growth without losing sight of the worst-off, and securing a place for India on the high table of world politics.
In a more immediate sense, Indian politicians can certainly learn from Nehru's regard for the parliament as the cornerstone of our democracy. Even while he was practically in his deathbed, Nehru was requesting the parliament to come together and pass a constitution amendment bill. And this at a time when the Congress party's parliamentary dominance was unchallenged.
When it comes to non-fiction, especially history, each writer has her own perspective on a given issue. Your book 1971 is one among many coming out of India and abroad that delves into the 1971 War with Bangladesh. How different is a historian’s lens of analysis from the others writing on the same topic?
Historians too have very different approaches to writing on any given topic. Some like to paint miniatures; others are pointillists; and still others like broad brush-strokes on the large canvas. My inclination is certainly towards the big picture. I also believe that the job of the historian is to explain change over time. This may strike other historians as either too restrictive or old-fashioned, but I do think that historians have to be asking and answering large questions. This does not mean that I neglect individuals and their agency, but at the same time I am not very interested in uncovering subjective experiences. For instance, in writing about the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, I was keener on finding out how such a large country came into existence so suddenly--than in trying to explore what the crisis meant to this or that group of people in Bangladesh. As you note, there is a growing body of scholarship and non-fiction writing that is looking at precisely such questions. While I learn much from it, I don't see my self, doing that sort of work.
Do historians make good writers for the masses – especially for those readers who do not have a background in history? What is the strength of a historian writing a popular book, over a researcher from any other discipline?
History has always been a discipline that has had more traction in the public sphere than any other. This is partly because the subject matter is our collective past and partly because narratives remain central to all forms of historical explanation, including those that explicitly reject it. This is not to say that historians are necessarily the best public communicators. In fact, I think some top-flight scientists do a much better job than most historians and social scientist of conveying the complexity of their research to a general audience. Yet historians do benefit from the fact that their subject matter is not rocket science.
The historians I most admire are the ones who are committed to taking serious historical work to a large reading public. Good popular history has to be more than a well-told story. Analysis should not be pruned in favour of a narrative: the real challenge is to sustain an argument while engaging the reader. I can think of several popular historians who have shown us how this can be done. From an older generation: the late Eric Hobsbawm, Michael Howard, James MacPherson. From a younger generation: Mark Mazower, John Darwin, Adam Tooze. Among Indian historians, Ramachandra Guha has brilliantly succeeded in taking such history to a wide readership.
What is the subject of your next book and what inspired you to write on this particular topic?
My next book is on India during the Second World War. This is a subject in which I have been interested from my own time in the Indian army. My regiment, Rajputana Rifles, was among the ones that fought in a range of places in Asia, Africa and Europe during the war. And I have always been keen to explore further India's contribution to the war. Over the years, I have also come to realise the importance of understanding the impact of the war on India.
In our histories of the 1940s, the war itself barely comes into focus: we tend to think of that period as being a headlong drive towards independence and partition. So, my book looks at both what India did for the war and what the war did to India. It brings together political and military, economic and social, strategic and international dimensions of this story and shows how the war fundamentally transformed modern South Asia. It is striking that a historical event of this magnitude has yet to receive adequate attention from historians. You can practically count on the fingers of one hand the good books on the subject, including those by Yasmin Khan and Raghu Karnad that were published earlier this year. By contrast, solid books about the war in Britain, Europe or America pour off the presses every year. I think it's time historians of South Asia started taking war as a motor of historical change rather more seriously.
Sarah Farooqui runs the Takshashila Institution’s flagship course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). She is also the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.
She tweets as @sarahfarooqui20