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In the Footsteps of Hind Swaraj. The Oeuvre of the Historian and Political Thinker Dharampal – 3

July 24, 2021 Authored by: Prof. Gita Dharampal

Having appraised remnants of pre-colonial structures,[1] Dharampal realised that these findings were indicative of well-functioning societal mechanisms for maintaining a beneficial social and economic equilibrium among diverse local communities. Consequently, he became increasingly convinced about the urgent need for an objective understanding regarding the detailed functioning of Indian society before the onslaught of colonial rule. Not only was he deeply sceptical about conventionally held assumptions concerning pervasive destitution at the eve of the British conquest. Perhaps even more crucially, he was seriously concerned about the concrete repercussions these assumed ‘degenerate’ conditions in the recent past had in the policy-making of modern India. About this detrimental state of affairs he formulated the following lucid statement: 

“This picture usually implied that our village folk and their ancestors had wallowed in misery for a thousand or more years; that they had been terribly oppressed and tyrannised by rulers as well as their social and religious customs since time immemorial; and that all this had mostly left them dumb or misguided, or victims of superstition and prejudice. From this we assumed that what we had to deal with was like a blank slate on which we, the architects of the new India, could write, or imprint, what we wished. We seldom thought that these people had any memories, thoughts, preferences, or priorities of their own; and even when we conceded that they might have had some of these, we dismissed these as irrelevant. And when we failed in writing on what we assumed to be a blank slate, or in giving such writing any permanence, we felt unhappy and more often angry with these countrymen of ours for whom we felt we had sacrificed not only our comforts, but our very lives.[…]”.[2]  

Recalcitrantly not accepting the modernist developmental notion of a “blank slate”, he adamantly considered “a more exact knowledge of the past” to be “a necessary foundation for future development”.[3]

Unfortunately, historical sources in Indian languages relating to the pre- or early colonial period were relatively inaccessible in the early 1960s. Yet, fortuitously, he had become briefly familiarised in the Tamil Nadu State archives with some insightful British colonial records. Hence, from the mid 1960s, living in London for family reasons, Dharampal decided to embark single-handedly on an exploration of British-Indian archival material. His archival research focused on documents emanating from the first commissioned surveys of the East India Company, lodged in various depositories spread over the British Isles. The principal ones he consulted were the India Office Library and Records and the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, as well as important collections in the libraries of the universities of Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester. This extensive archival record, indeed, constitutes one of the (only) positive inheritances of colonial rule.[4]

When reviewing Dharampal’s pioneering historical research, we need to evaluate this against the background of historical studies in the period of the 1960s itself, in India and the west. At this epoch, the analytical studies and innovative theories to be developed by Hayden White, Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, Ranajit Guha or others of the Subaltern Studies School[5] (just to name a few great minds that revolutionised historical scholarship) were still in the making and yet to influence the intellectual sphere. What’s more, not being an historian by training, nor for that matter a scholar belonging to academia, Dharampal, as he himself formulated it, “launched on a programme of somewhat laymanish archival research”[6] to discover or rather re-map the lie of the land in pre- and early colonial India. His search was inspired by Gandhiji’s conviction about the basic viability of Indian society and culture. Reinforcing this firm belief was his intuitive appreciation for the seminal role and function of history. He fully realised the crucial impact and significance history had for understanding a society’s past, and in particular the pre-colonial past of a colonised society such as India’s. Perhaps he was partially influenced by the Indian concept of itihasa with regard to its didactic function. In any case, viewing history as a record or narrative description of past events,[7] Dharampal considered it his role as an historian-in-the-making to reveal how Indian society had functioned at the eve of the British conquest and ‘to show what actually happened’. 

Impelled by the impression gained from his initial forays in the Tamil Nadu State Archives, he was intent to discover the following: namely, to what extent the empirical reality of early modern India – as depicted in the historical documentation – was at odds with the conventional but hegemonic image of a dysfunctional society propagated by late 19th century colonial historiography. And it was this master narrative which still exercised enormous influence that had to be contested, provided historical documentation revealed a different picture. The irony of the matter is that Dharampal attempted to achieve this contestatory goal by painstakingly deconstructing the official documents dating from the 17th century onwards, generated by the British themselves in the process of their reconnaissance and subsequent conquest of the subcontinent. 

Moreover, he soon realised that during the extended stages of colonisation (from 1600 until 1947) a heterogeneity of reports had been generated. This existing diversity made him intent on tracing the shifts in the British perspective on India that had taken place during a period of three and a half centuries. It was not long before he discovered that the records for the early years of British administration in India were the most revealing. Henceforth, he began to “treat the mid-18th century […] as a sort of benchmark point for the understanding of Indian society and polity”.[8] The wealth of first-hand accounts by zealous British officials – striving to gain a foot-hold in the recently acquired territory (commencing in Bengal, and quickly proceeding through the south to the west and the rest of the subcontinent) – contained not only detailed descriptions regarding the functioning arrangements of regional polities, but also empirical data on the political, economic and ideological strategies used to counter and undermine indigenous institutions. By critically ‘revisioning’ this historical documentation, and allowing the sources themselves to speak, Dharampal started engaging in an archaeology of knowledge (à la Foucault). His archival excavations uncovered a wealth of astounding material that had later been discarded, or disregarded, in the construction of the subsequent hegemonic colonial historiography whose influence still held sway in mainstream academia, to a greater or lesser extent. 

The revolutionary portent of the discoveries made by Dharampal’s expedition into the not-so-distant past – of a functioning and relatively prosperous society – became forcefully apparent to him. Significantly, they belied the hitherto propagated images of pre-British India as a poor, disorganised country, lacking in political, economic and social vitality. Simultaneously, he was astutely aware of the political impact these historical revelations could have for the present. This explains his urgent need to communicate to his contemporaries back home the findings made during this archival voyage back in time: “What I learnt from day to day” he writes in one of his essays, “I tried to share with some friends in India including Sri Annasaheb Sahasrabuddhe, Sri R.K. Patil, Sri Ram Swarup and Sri Jayaprakash Narayan.”[9] The thrill of excitement he experienced through his archival findings can still be sensed in his writings written 30 years later. The history of 18th century India was being remapped: A new territory was unfolding before his eyes. – Some British reports he also sent to Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia who quoted from them in a Lok Sabha debate in the spring of 1967. The discussion concerned in particular the revamping of the Delhi police; thanks to the historical record supplied by Dharampal, the stark equation to Lord Ellenborough’s reorganisation of the Indian army after 1857 could be pointed out: Dramatically, Dr. Lohia highlighted the colonial heritage of independent India’s law and order measures to the assembled parliamentarians. 

Appreciative of the political insights that could be drawn from his findings, including their applicability as caustic criticism of contemporary undemocratic developments, Dharampal pursued his archival mission with renewed zeal. With meticulous precision and scholarly integrity he ploughed through thousands upon thousands of pages of British documents, getting Xerox copies, and otherwise copying the historical sources word for word in long hand, and then back home typing them out on a small Olivetti type-writer (in those antediluvian days without digital cameras, laptops and scanning). This constituted the beginning of his own archival collection that was to amount to ca. 40,000 sheets of precious documents, a large amount of which is still waiting to be closely analyzed.[10] So consumed was Dharampal by the desire to know every inch of this territory of the past, that day after day, despite many adversities (including lack of funds), he would commune 10 to 12 hours at a stretch with his archival treasures. The routine of his life was determined by the opening hours of the libraries and archives. His regular absence from the family home led my younger sister to state one day in kindergarten that her father was 100 years old, for he was a resident of the British Museum!

[to be continued …]


Source: Gita Dharampal, “Introduction” in Essential Writings of Shri Dharampal (New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 2015), pp. 7-11


This extract has been published with permission from Publications Division, Government of India


Notes and References

[1] Such as the bees-biswas panchayat (= village council of 20 parts) which was still (in the early 1960s) partially operative in some villages of Rajasthan, as well as the organisation of Tamil rural communities as samudayam villages in which individual shares in the cultivable land were redistributed periodically (a practice known as Kareiyeedu) in order to maintain a degree of equity of livelihood among all members of the village community; according to local reports, samudayam villages had still been in existence in the 1930s; and British revenue surveys from the late 18thcentury mentioned that 30% of all villages in the Thanjavur district were of the samudayam type.

[2] Extract from Dharampal: “Some aspects of earlier Indian society and polity and their relevance to the present”, a series of three lectures delivered on 4th-6th January 1986, Pune,; these lectures have been reproduced in this volume (pp. ) as an extended essay, first published in New Quest, 1987, Nos. 56, 57 & 58. Also translated into Hindi, Marathi & Tamil (for details, see below), and republished in: Essays on Tradition, Recovery and Freedom, vol. V of Dharampal, Collected Writings, 5 vols, Other India Press & SIDH: Mapusa, Goa, 2000, repr. 2003, 2007, pp. 1-49.

[3] Quoted extracts from an unpublished note “The Problem of Apathy: En Enquiry into the Beginning of British Rule”, written in March 1965, 12 pp.

[4] Admittedly, though a lot of this material (as well as other even more substantial documentation) is also lodged in various Indian national and state archives, it is unfortunately less accessible there.

[5]  A few crucial titles may suffice: Michel Foucault’s L’archéologie du savoir [The Archaeology of Knowledge] (1969), Hayden White’s Metahistory (1975), Michel de Certeau’s L’écriture de l’histoire [The Writing of History] (1975), Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983), Subaltern Studies (1982 ff).

[6] Quoted from a slim brochure by Dharampal entitled: India before British Rule and the Basis for India’s Resurgence, Gandhi Seva Sangh: Wardha, 1998, p. 9.

[7] Indeed he understood itihasa not as mere historical legend, but more so as the narrative of what happened, which is strikingly similar to the Rankean explanation of history [Geschichte] as a narration of what happened, ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen ist’. Thereby he was perhaps attempting to dissolve the asymmetrical distinction between itihasa and the modern enterprise of History.

[8] “Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity”, op. cit., p. 12; cf. the essay in this volume, pp. . This crucially valid evaluation has become current in academic history, but only during the last decade.

[9] India before British Rule, op. cit., p.9. The note he circulated was entitled “Nature of Indian society (ca. 1800) and the foundations of the present structure: A note and some illustrative material”, April 1967, pp. i-ix & 1-74.

[10] Stored away in steel cupboards of the Gandhi Seva Sangh library in Sevagram (Wardha, Maharashtra), I would like this valuable archival collection (along with a sizeable number of books, journals and letters) transformed into a research library, in the very near future. In the meantime, large sections have been digitised (a digital copy being held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library [NMML], New Delhi, as well as by the Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon) so that this historical material, once catalogued and indexed, can be more readily accessible to interested researchers. Moreover, an original version of the archival material is lodged in the office of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), Chennai, of which digitised copies are accessible through their website: http://cpsindia.org/index.php/dh-archive.


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