Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Perspectives on Writing History, Historians and (of course) Tamil Historians.

Tamil columnist and writer P.A. Krishnan recently solicited his Facebook friends to help research on the 'sacks of Sri Rangam'. 'Sri Rangam', of course, refers to the Vishnu temple at Sri Rangam. One of the references, another person cited, was one Sakkottai Krishnaswami Aiyangar's 'South India and her Muhammadan invaders'. The reference and the topic occasioned a lively exchange on writing history and paucity of Tamil historians of academic stature. Krishnaswami, along with K.A. Neelakanta Shastri, is of a bygone era, however flawed, of academic excellence. That a researcher in 2014 has to harken back unto a book written in 1921 shows the merit of the book and, sadly, the lack of progress in adding new material ever since. I've nothing against the merits of the book per se but the preface shed a new perspective in light of Jeyamohan's recent admonition that Tamil Nadu has a surfeit of historians who are better classified as ethnic or tribal historians who mostly focus on those chapters of history which either concerns their own clan and especially those that they consider would benefit from either revisionism or re-telling.

What an author chooses to write is his/her own prerogative as long as truth shines through. Nevertheless, fealty to truth on selective pages of history is still selective truth telling. Aiyangar had dedicated the book to the Maharaja of Mysore "who devoted his life to the cause of hinduism and made it possible for the south Indian Hindus to be the Hindus they are to-day". Aiyangar quotes Lord Morley's dictum, 'we have no business to seek more from the past than the very past itself', and hopes that he has 'kept out all bias one way or another'. I'll refuse to take umbrage at sentences that characterize the Hoysala king's effort to repel Muhammad's invasion as 'patriotic effort' or calling the war a 'great national war of the Hindus'. Western historians of that era were more blatantly racist. That said, it is indeed interesting to note and ask if Aiyangar would've received the same patronage from the Maharaja of Mysore if he had chosen to write about untouchability or child marriage or Sati?

What kind of historians do I like? What kind of writing impresses me?

A historian earns respect, first, with painstaking research of primary material. A re-telling based on other books, while still valuable for a very lay reader, cannot be called history. Nothing impresses me more than those who comb through material, especially of an ancient kind, to bring to us a long dead era in all its vividness and thoroughness without partiality.

Two women changed the course of writing history in fiction and non-fiction. Marguerite Yourcenar's research into Roman emperor Hadrian is legendary. She practically reconstructed his library. Yourcenar's powers of fiction matched her ability to research and re-create an era that was little known or little studied. For over 50 years her 'Memoirs of Hadrian', though a fiction, remained the standard book to learn about Hadrian. Historian Anthony Everett quibbled that the book was over-rated when he wrote his history of Hadrian which was dry and did not unearth much that was unknown to Yourcenar. Barbara Tuchman set a new bar for popular history writing with her ground breaking analyses of the hubris of countries that rushed into World War I in her masterly written 'Gun's of August'. Neither woman had a degree in history.

Two time Pulitzer winner Bernard Bailyn recently documented a dark chapter of US history in his very meticulously researched 'Barbarous years'. Bailyn undertook painstaking research of logs kept in slave ships and pored over documents that existed centuries ago to recreate a tumultuous era.

Lyndon Johnson, born in a home that had no toilets, presided over what can be called the apogee of liberalism as President. Sweeping civil rights legislations, a horrendous war spiraling out of control, the remaking of American polity with dreamy liberalism where the themes of a very contentious presidency that was born in a moment of great tragedy in modern American history. Biographer Robert Caro is painstakingly marching through the Johnson years with a planned 5 volume biography. Caro's research was prodigious including scouring through every scrap of evidence to find out if LBJ had indeed stolen his first senate election victory with ballet stuffing. The verdict is 'guilty'.

Soviet Russia and Stalin have always interested Western historians. I'd highly recommend David Remnick's 'Lenin's tomb' and Simon Sebag Montefiore's 'Stalin'. Remnick traces the events surrounding the fall of Soviet Union. The Russian state was so silly in its functioning that Gorbachev canvassed support for his reform agenda by threatening to cut off access to grocery stores meant for politburo members. A grocery store access was such a privilege that members fell in line. Vive la Marx. Montefiore pored over the recently opened Russian archives to give a detailed view of the grisly Stalinist regime.

The above is a very limited genre of history telling. If I were to include other histories, say of science, the list is even longer. I'd like to mention two books of 'science history'. Rebecca Skloot's investigative and researched book on Hela cells, 'The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks' and Siddhartha Mukherjee's gripping tale of cancer in 'Emperor of Maladies'. Both are great personal favorites of mine. A lighter read would be Jon Gertner's book on AT&T Bell Labs, 'The idea factory'.

Though I remain an opponent of affirmative action and reservation policies (both are different) I remain an ardent advocate of diversity in the classroom and faculty. Affirmative action is a highly flawed albeit with limited effect in ensuring diversity. Why is diversity important?

Perry Miller is a legendary historian who, possibly, got the only posthumously awarded Pulitzer that too for a book he was yet to complete. Miller's students and their students in turn have gone on to win Pulitzers. Miller, an authority on New England history, his student and later Pulitzer awardee David Brion Davis recalls, 'never mentioned the moral horror of slavery in his course on America religion'. British historian Roy Jemkins's critically acclaimed biography of Churchill fails to mention how callously Churchill dealt with the Bengal famine that killed tens of thousands. Imagine, when those texts are taught, if a black or Indian student were to be in the class what the reactions would be, let alone if the teacher was one?

For centuries it was rumored that Thomas Jefferson had fathered  a child through his slave Sally Hemings. It took a black historian, Annette Gordon Reed, to write "The Hemingses of Monticello". The book won the Pulitzer amongst many others for its impeccable scholarship.

While it is one thing for Reed, a black historian, to write such a book it is another for a man like David Brion Davis, a white, to write much acclaimed history books on slavery running into 3 volumes. Historians who step outside their ethnicity and write of a different people always amaze me. On that score I'd say that I cannot think of an Indian historian who would have written, as William Dalrymple did, "The last Mughal". Dalrymple went researched records kept in dusty museums and ill preserved libraries in several countries. He pieced together the last days of Bahadur Shah based on records he got from a Rangoon prison.

Another kind of writing history that always interests me are those which are thematic in scope. Tracing events and reconstructing the past is interesting but a higher level is to weave such data to present a thematic tapestry.

Samuel Huntington and his student Francis Fukuyama raised an academic furore with their contentiously told books, 'The clash of civilizations' and 'The end of history'. Fukuyama's second volume about the rise of liberal democracy as a form of government is to be released shortly. In this category we need to add books like Thomas Kuhn's 'Structure of scientific revolutions'. One can argue about these books, even disagree but one cannot ignore them. These are the books that help explain the 'why' of events. In that category we should include Francis Spufford's entertainingly written 'Red Plenty' which explains what the Soviet economic system set out to achieve and why it miserably failed. Erudite Marxists would be eager to include the un-apolegtically Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm.

Marxism and what passes for Marxism are deeply repugnant to my sense of decency. I am yet to see a Marxist who, though building an edifice on reason and rationality, would face truth and accept what was wrong. P.A. Krishnan, an erudite Marxist, celebrated Lenin's birthday with a column 'Another Lenin is needed'. David Remnick, Russian speaking left wing editor of New Yorker, wrote in his profile of Lenin, for Time magazine's centenary edition, that 'Stalin was a lamb compared to Lenin'.

All that said of Marxism I'd add that a Marxist interpretation of history is not to be readily rubbished. Indian school students learn of Moplah riots of 1921 as one in which Muslims butchered Hindus by the hundreds and converted many others at the point of a knife or gun. A Marxist historian presented a different angle. All the Muslims were penniless laborers toiling in the lands owned, exclusively, by upper caste Hindus. The riot was less about conversion and religion than about rebelling against landowners. It was, the author argued, an agrarian rebellion that took the contours of a religious violence. The role of economics in the partition is also a very valid interpretation.

A historian should pursue truth wherever it may lead. Nobody popularly associates the word 'radicalism' with the American revolution. One tends to think of the French and Soviet revolution as 'radical'. Historian Gordon Wood argues otherwise in 'The radicalism of the American revolution'. Newt Gingrich, a rising star in conservative GOP politics when the book was published in 1993, happily touted the book as evidence of America's innate conservatism. Asked about Gingrich's publicity in an interview Gordon Wood chuckled. Wood, like many US university professors, is probably not a conservative and even if he is one he is most certainly not a conservative of the Gingrich type. Wood had argued in his book that the American revolution upended social relationships and with its evolving focus on commerce as the unifying glue of a disparate society the revolution paved the way for a republic by papering over differences and appealing to an universal instinct in all men, making money.

'Revisionism' is a much reviled word in writing history. Yet, occasionally, there comes a revisionist history which 'revises' our understanding of the past with compelling new evidence or at least invites us to consider an alternative understanding based on newly uncovered uncertainties. The Declaration of Independence is, as historian Pauline Maier put it, America's most sacred 'scripture'. Every schoolchild learns "we hold these to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.-That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among men'. Professor Danielle Allen argues that the period, '.', after 'pursuit of happiness', was nothing but a printer's devil and does not form part of the document. Conservatives have argued for decades, using this scripture, that America was created to protect the individual and that Government is a corollary. Allen insists that by removing the 'period' "the logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights. You lose that connection when the period gets added'. A tectonic shift in understanding a sacred document. Allen, as I expected, is African-American and naturally is excited about according primacy to the place of Government in a nation.

Another instance of 'healthy' revisionism is a recent book on Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann the Nazi was kidnapped by Israel from Argentina and prosecuted in Israel for his part in orchestrating Holocaust. Marxist writer Hannah Arendt sat through the trial and wrote her immensely controversial book 'Banality of evil' where she suggested that Eichmann was not a man of intelligence and only acted upon orders as a 'banal' executioner of orders. It is a divisive theory till today. Nearly 50 years since Arendt's book Bettina Stangneth finally resolves the issue in 'Eichmann before Jersusalem'. Stangneth listened to hours of audio transcriptions of the trial and other audio documents, traced Eichmann's day in Argentina to reconstruct a man who was not 'banal' but a well read man with a keen mind. Stangnet had 'shattered' Arendt's theory.

All the above are examples I love. I also have criteria for authors I avoid.

I avoid, for instance, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson who churns out a book every year. When a historian argues that the dominance of the West is well nigh over and presents as evidence a picture of Obama bowing to a Saudi King I tend to recoil from the partisan attitude though I've great disdain for Obama myself. Anti-Obama books are a cottage industry as anti-Bush and anti-Hillary books used to be. I don't touch any of them with a ten foot pole. I've refrained from buying British conservative historian Paul Johnson's 'Modern Times' because he charges, based on the Chauri Chura incident, that Gandhi undertook his satyagraha protests with no concern for loss of life. Silly.

I prefer to buy books by authors who have devoted their lives to the subject and are engaged with the topic in all its dimensions and complexities. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky fail that litmus test. Both of their books, wildly popular amongst knee jerk anti-Americans and shallow Marxists, are shot through with defects.

With all of the above the backdrop let me now circle back to the issue at hand.

Kizhvenmani is a small sleepy hamlet in an even sleepier Thanjavur in Southern India. On 25th December 1968 42 Dalit landless laborers were burned alive by upper caste Hindus (Thevars, I believe. Thevars, incidentally are listed as 'backward caste' thus garnering rich dividends of reservation policies). 23 of the dead where children. Till today there is no solid Pulitzer quality history book that would trace the events and its aftermath. Echoes of that massacre are still very much there. Two weeks ago a Dalit man's arm was severed for the sin of wearing a watch. It is common practice to prohibit Dalits, including children, from wearing slippers or riding a cycle when they go past colonies of upper caste members. It should be noted that K.A. Nilakanta Shastri would live for another 7 years after the massacre. Assuming he was in good health at the time of the event I'd not be surprised if the event, nevertheless, did not catch his attention.

"Children from lower caste walking with their slippers in the hand in the village Poovalamparuthi near Pollachi"
It took a black historian like Manning Marable, a supporter of affirmative action, to give a more detailed and unvarnished look at a complex person like Malcolm X. Marable was irritated with the embellished version that Alex Haley presented. It is easy to ask where is the Dalit Manning Marable or Annette Reed but one should go to what were the conditions that enabled an Aiyengar and a Shastri to become history teachers but prevented somebody like Theodor Bhaskaran.

Writer and columnist Theodor Bhaskaran wanted to become an archeologist but could not be one because one of the pre-requisites was knowledge of Sanskrit. Brahmins learn Sanskrit as almost a second language and have historically denied others a chance to learn it. Before one argues that knowledge of Sanskrit would be an asset to an aspiring archeologist and that there was nothing sinister in that requirement let us remember that that requirement existed for medical college admissions too. And, to be fair to Bhaskaran and others like him ignorance of Sanskrit is not a big impediment to an archeologist looking to analyze Tamil heritage and Tamil inscriptions. Incidentally, I am sure Aiyangar probably did not know how to analyze ancient Tamil inscriptions prior to becoming a historian and archeologist.

Stephen Greenblatt romped through history tracing the art of preserving books, book banning, monasteries etc in an attempt to retrace how Lucretius's poem was transmitted across the ages and how it became, in his opinion, the corner stone of Western civilization. I asked a visiting Tamil writer why such historical analyses does not take place in Tamil. He, not being familiar with English books or such writing, could not grasp what I asked and instead went on to his pet topic of how Kamban uses 100 words to denote 'quiver'. Before readers pelt me with replies citing Tamil titles please try reading Greenblatt's 'The swerve: How the world became modern'. The book won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

Every time I read the Sangam era poetry a yearning grips my heart. Whether it is Milton's England or Homer's Greece we've wonderful books in English that would give a portrait of the society, the culture and many other aspects of that time. The poems of friendship between Kapilar and Pari, and Kapilar's poems of desolation as he tries to get Pari's daughter's married after his death in battle, are fertile grounds to do a Greenblatt. Alas I've no hope of it happening. A number of books could be written on many themes on just the war anthology of 400 poems. Poems that extol friendship between kings and poets, poems that praise learning, a poem of universal brotherhood and much more are taught in trite fashion or with oodles of chauvinistic jingoism. Any attempt to do otherwise would require patient and painstaking research in many a hamlet that dots the landscape of Tamil Nadu. Forget about the Sangam era we don't have a good history of a recent poet like Bharathi.

P.A.Krishnan himself wrote a much discussed column on the controversy of impalement of 8000 Jains at the instigation of Saivaite savant Sambandar. The lore regarding the impalement arose from a Tamil epic. Krishnan, based on several sources (mostly western), had argued that that was a fabricated event and had no basis in history. Of course, since nothing could be said with certainty he left himself some nuanced wiggle room lest any new evidence crops up to corroborate the event. Nothing wrong with any of that. But, the article had a tad eagerness to 'set the account straight' on behalf of Hinduism. Even the proposed research on the 'sacks of Srirangam' he had averred was to correct some misconceptions including those propagated by fellow Marxists. A controversial book, in this context, is Romila Thapar's book on sacking of the Somnath temple. I am all for telling history however uncomfortable it may be but a broader canvas would've done justice to such a topic. Hindutva brigade repeatedly pulls up the 'Abrahamic religions', as they call it, for 'conversions' and take pride that such proselytization was unheard of in Hinduism whereas that is exactly what Sambandar attempted. Also, the article focused like a laser on the event of the impalement alone without the larger context of how Jainism was uprooted from a land where it had thrived for centuries.

Ethnic histories, as Jeyamohan lamented, are what abound in Tamil Nadu today. Su. Venkatesan's supposedly well researched fiction 'Kaavalkottam', based on his caste members raised a few controversies. The book was based on a caste that was labeled, in the british era, 'thieves'. Thugee or thuggery or thievery was a prevalent custom of a group of people in those days for many complex socio-economic reasons. Nanjil Nadan, while praising the book, demurred 'the book seems to justify thievery. As one who hails from an agrarian heritage I find that a little hard to accept since I've seen first hand the difficulties of a farmer being robbed of his seeds'. Venkatesan, armed with a creative license, has an escape hatch.

Even the much acclaimed historians like Aiyangar and Shastri only specialized in plain history of reconstructing events mostly. They were hand maidens of then prevailing notions of history that they learned from British imperialist historians. In the 1930s Will Durant had started writing history in an integral manner in his magisterial 'Story of civilization'. Durant did not consider history as just recounting page after page of kings and battles. If one stacked Durant's 'Our oriental heritage', the second volume of his 'Story of civilization' and Nilakanta Shastri's 'History of South India' the latter would pale into insignificance.

 A thousand histories await to be written and yet I don't have much hope that that would happen.


1. David Brion Davis on Perry Miller's teaching http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/books/review/the-victims-revolution-by-bruce-bawer.html?pagewanted=all
2. New York Times Book Review of David Brion Davis's 'The Problem of Slavery' http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/books/review/the-problem-of-slavery-in-the-age-of-emancipation-by-david-brion-davis.html
3. Annette Gordon Reed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Gordon-Reed
4. Moplah Rebellion http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malabar_Rebellion
5. Keezhvenmani Massacre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kilvenmani_massacre
6. NYT article on latest book on Eichmann http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/03/books/book-portrays-eichmann-as-evil-but-not-banal.html
7. NYT article on Danielle Allen's analysis of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/03/us/politics/a-period-is-questioned-in-the-declaration-of-independence.html


Anonymous said...

The landlords do not belong to Thevar, but Naidu/Naicker. Irinjur Gopalakrishnan Naidu was the leader of the Paddy Producers Association during that time.

Anonymous said...

"Of course Tamil historians," except the only ones you mention are the long dead Aiyangar and Sastri, and a couple of novelists. And yet, one of the leading historians of the day, not just in Indian circles but globally, is a Tamil polymath with influential ideas not just about history but about the nature of historical texts. Not to mention the woman who goes into not just dusty archives but landmine-sown jungle landscapes to do primary research, as well as editing historical dictionaries and writing fascinating articles about the Cankam period. Or the several historians working on perhaps the hottest topic of our time, Indian ocean trade. Or speaking of amateurs, the non-historian who wrote a well-regarded biography of a woman who founded a major festival.

As with your comments on children's literature (which ignores Tara and Tulika) and protest music (which ignores Iyakka pattu, Ma.ka.i.ka, political parai music et al.), I wonder how someone who comes across as so disconnected is at the same time is so full of hasty judgements.

For someone who is always go on about how inadequate everyone else is, it behooves you to demonstrate a little more adequacy.

N Kalyan Raman said...

Thank you for sharing your views on history writing, Indian historians and especially Tamil historians.

I will confine my remarks to the sections where you have commented on the history of Tamil country and Tamil historians.

First, I find your remarks about KA Nilakanta Sastri highly inappropriate.

As you probably know, Nilakanta Sastri’s master work, A History of South India ends with the fall of Vijayanagar. As opposed to contemporary historians, historians of the past normally specialize in particular regions and / or periods. Not all history is their province. Therefore, your remark that he wouldn’t have paid attention, as a professional historian, to an incident that took place only seven years before his demise at the age of 83, is not only gratuitous but ludicrously unfair.

As you might also know, the attempt to write history from a ‘subaltern’ perspective is of a relatively recent origin, a development that owes not a little to a Marxist worldview. Moreover, it is the modern era with its systems of highly granular and ubiquitous record-keeping that lends itself far more easily to the writing of “people’s histories” than the pre-modern past. Therefore, history of the pre-modern age is unavoidably the history of the individuals and their deeds. This is true of histories written everywhere. The historians you mention, Aiyangar and Sastri, cannot be faulted for not writing about child marriage or sati. It remains true that they have made very substantial contributions to our knowledge and understanding of a part of our past. Let us not demean them through counterfactual speculation.

And of course, you fail to mention why you think their work is flawed (“however flawed”).

N Kalyan Raman said...


Second: about Theodore Baskaran being “prevented from becoming a historian” because of the requirement of Sanskrit.

Although I have no personal experience of classic studies, many reputed western scholars have said that India’s ancient past (as well as ancient texts in any Indian language) cannot be studied without proficiency in Sanskrit. Even inscriptions from medieval Tamilnadu, ruled by Sanskrit loving Telugu and Kannada kings, are in Grantham and contain a profusion of loan words from Sanskrit. So the requirement is straightforward and nowhere near inapt as the requirement of Sanskrit for medical studies (which was eventually done away with, in any case).

In 50’s Tamilnadu Sanskrit was taught in government schools as an elective. Baskaran may not have gone to such a school and therefore missed out on learning Sanskrit. From this purely circumstantial lapse, it is quite wrong to infer that he was “prevented” from becoming an archaeologist.

Another thing: Your claim that “Brahmins learn Sanskrit as almost a second language and have historically denied others a chance to learn it” is completely wrong and baseless. The reality is that very few Brahmins outside of the priestly vocation are equipped to read Sanskrit, and what’s even better, they are not even going there. Existence determines Ritual chanting of slokas does not teach you the language. To learn Sanskrit, Brahmins have to make a special effort, just like anybody else.

It is also not true that Brahmins have historically denied others a chance to learn it. The literate in any society, usually the privileged few from the royal and landowning classes or religious establishments, have always had access to Sanskrit. Quite a few non-Brahmin Tamil scholars – specifically from the Vellalar community but also Chettiars - of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were well versed in Sanskrit. Moreover, in the pre-modern era, formal textual learning was highly restricted in all societies, in England as much as in Tamilnadu. Grammar schools for the children of working men of England were set up for the first time in the 18th century. Equally, the Vellalars and the Shaivites didn’t generously share their knowledge of Tamil literary works with the depressed castes.

Finally, given Baskaran’s distinguished career as a civil servant, his many achievements and honours, it is hard to think of him as discriminated against in any context 

Thank you

N Kalyan Raman said...

My last two comments were critical of the widespread tendency in Tamilnadu to take random pot shots against Brahmins often based on a sloppy understanding history and context. My objection is not to criticism of representatives of this or any other community for specific wrongdoing, but to the sloppiness underlying such pot shots.

Our engagement with Tamilnadu’s history seems to be confined solely to the anti-Brahmin narrative. We don’t have time for anything that does not bolster or further that narrative. From the point of view of writing history, this makes history not only limited but incomplete to the point of endemic dishonesty. If anything, this would be my concern about Tamil society’s engagement with history.

Let me explain. In spite of being politically engaged with the caste question for over a century, largely but not solely through the Dravidian movement, we don’t have a single historical study of castes, a historical account of the various caste groups in Tamilnadu over the past 300 years, which need not at all be a matter of speculation. We’ve had a handful of western scholars writing on the subject and one “The History of the Nadars” by Robert Hardgrave Jr. Otherwise, we have NO coherent account of the social history of Tamilnadu over the past three hundred years, especially in terms of caste groups. Instead, what we have is a load of untenable rubbish, retailed in the service of one enduring political agenda.

The following are some illustrative questions that the average person interested in the state’s social history may seek answers to:

How do we characterize hegemony in Tamil society? Surely, more is involved in societal hegemony than ritual supremacy and government jobs? Such as land ownership, commerce, access to capital and credit (banking), politics, media, and traditional institutions perhaps?

How did the Vellala castes (including Naickers and Reddiars) come to own nearly all the arable land in the state? Which castes worked in their lands, and on what terms?

How and when did certain caste groups become untouchable? How and in what circumstances did some untouchable caste groups overcome the stigma (Pallis and Shaanars in the 19th century)? What does this say about the “rigidity” of the varnashrama dharma? Were relative caste positions negotiated in myriad ways prior to the inception of Justice Party / Dravidian movement?

What does the raid on Sivakasi in 1899 by a coalition of landowning and intermediate castes against the wealthy Nadars of that town say about caste relations in Tamilnadu?

How did the different caste groups practise caste discrimination? Against whom? What did they get out of it, in social and economic terms? In short, how did caste manifest itself in social relations and in relations of production?

What were the major caste groups that gained from an engagement with the British? What was the nature of engagement in each case? Apart from Brahmins, we have to look at Pillais, Mudaliars and Nadars and Gounders.

What was the position of the Mudaliar community in the period 1900-1950? What was the extent of their landholding? What was the extent of their participation in government and politics, in secular professions and institutions? What was the scale of their social influence, especially by way of media and education?

There are of course many other possible lines of enquiry

Eradication of caste is an essentially secular project. It won’t be achieved till we are able to write a secular history of our society, focussing honestly and completely on issues of fairness and discrimination, of social justice for all.

But all the beneficiaries of the present casteism (of whom there is a large number in the sphere of opinion-making) will not let it happen. Only Dalit intellectuals are capable of writing such a secular history, not the pretend-Ambedkarites who are busy muddying the waters.

Athenaeum said...

Dear Kalyana Raman,

Please check my replies at http://t.co/oZrqZbS05W

Anonymous said...

The following comments are by Tamil writer and columnist P.A.Krishnan. -- part 1

Dear Aravindan,
Here is my response. I tried to post this on your blog, but it keeps asking funny questions to which I don't know the answers! If you wish so, you could post it yourself.
P A Krishnan

I will confine myself to Four points:
1. Neelakanta Sastri: Firstly, I don’t think you are being fair to him when you say that “If one stacked Durant's 'Our oriental heritage', the second volume of his 'Story of civilization' and Nilakanta Shastri's 'History of South India' the latter would pale into insignificance”. Sastri didn’t set out to write the history of civilization. His book is about a tiny part of this world. Secondly, Durant had rich material, embarrassingly so, with which to write history. Sastri didn’t have that luxury. Thirdly, Durant comes from a long tradition of historians who date back to the times of Greek civilization. I am sure you have read Herodotus. Fourthly, Sastri’s is primarily a text book. It is incorrect to expect literary merit or a grand torrent of ideas in it. The only fair comparison would be with another text book, say, that of JB Bury on Greece. Stacked alongside Bury’s book, Sastri’s could still look pale in your eyes but I am sure its paleness will not be insignificant.
2. Sanskrit vs Tamil: Professor Champakalakshmi, in her masterly introduction to Sastri’s book, says that while the great synthesis of the northern and southern linguistic traditions is indeed one of the most fascinating aspects of Indian cultural process, it is now increasingly recognized that these processes owed much more to regional languages and traditions than has been granted by traditional scholar. I fully support her. But then, Sastri was a traditional scholar and he had arrayed in his support a phalanx of evidence. It is for the modern historians to break that phalanx instead of calling him names. I am not saying that you are doing that! It is in this context that ethnic history becomes important, which is my next point. (To be continued)

Athenaeum said...

P.A. Krishnan's comments Part 2:

3. Ethnic History: Champakalakshmi, quoting D D Kosambi, and says that no generalization for India as a whole is valid without a proper assessment of regional historic developments. What is true for a region is also true for the ethnic communities that live in that region. Thus ethnic history is nothing to be scoffed at. When analysing an ethnic community, one will of course have to place it in the broad space of the region it inhabits and study its interactions with the other communities of the region, but one will also have to analyse the internal dynamics of the community. Otherwise, the study will be incomplete. An ocular specialist will fail in his job, if he doesn’t take into account the body’s general condition. But a specialist is still needed, if our eyes are to be saved. A generalist who looks contemptuously at ethnic history is like a fanatical practitioner of old systems of medicine who doesn’t recognize bacteria and viruses. It is one thing to lament at the fact that we have no competent general historians, but quite another thing to sniff at ethnic history. All history, whether ethnic or general, will have to be objective, there is no doubt.
4. Brahmins and Sanskrit: Your faith in the Brahmin scholarship is touching but let me tell you that more than 99% of the Brahmins of the last century were illiterates when it came to Sanskrit. I am however of the view that a basic knowledge of Sanskrit must be a necessary qualification for any person trying to do a Masters or a PhD in Indian Archaeology. While Tamil is the language of majority of inscriptions in Tamil Nadu, those in Sanskrit are not small in number. Moreover, the number of works in Sanskrit that emanated from the Tamil country is huge. Since you are generally of the view that anything that is set as a standard in the West should also be set as the high bar for lesser human beings to jump over, let me cite an example from Berkeley. This is the QR for a M A in
“An undergraduate major in Classical Languages or its equivalent is pre-requisite to the M.A.; if an actual Classics B.A. is not in hand, then the equivalent amount of Greek and Latin must have been read. At the time of entrance into the program, strength in one ancient language may be allowed to compensate for some deficiency in the other.”
I would like to add by way of information that Madras University hasn’t had a Brahmin Vice Chancellor since 1923 and in its more than 150 years of history, Brahmins were Vice Chancellors only for eight years. During the period in question, the VC was Dr A Laksmanaswami Mudaliar - a legend in education He was the twin brother of the Justice Party leader, A Ramaswami Mudaliar.
It surprises me that a person who expects Olympian standards in everything is prepared to relax them when it comes to the study of archaeology in the backwaters of civilization!’
You have spoken about Sanskrit being a prerequisite for admission to courses in medicine. I shall be grateful for the source of this information.

Unknown said...

"All that said of Marxism I'd add that a Marxist interpretation of history is not to be readily rubbished. Indian school students learn of Moplah riots of 1921 as one in which Muslims butchered Hindus by the hundreds and converted many others at the point of a knife or gun. A Marxist historian presented a different angle. All the Muslims were penniless laborers toiling in the lands owned, exclusively, by upper caste Hindus. The riot was less about conversion and religion than about rebelling against landowners. It was, the author argued, an agrarian rebellion that took the contours of a religious violence."
is in line with the shallow blog
As an administrator I had access to hundreds of reports of the period covering the Moplah rebellion in Malabar. Except for Sir Sankaran Nairs book little research has been done. Moplahs were not the only labourers, there were plenty of poor Thiyyas too. In the whole episode Mahatma Gandhi's role was despicable as well as irresponsible as it was he who supported the retrogade Khilafat movement which had nothing to do with poor labour. The blind admiration for millennial thinkers like Marx should not be used to misinterpret events without basis. even today Indian Marxists are unwilling to see the mass murders by the Soviet leaders as well as Mao. Where is the honesty in Scholarship?