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Sarkar of history — II

Jadunath Sarkar, Aurangzeb and Shivaji

Sarkar of history — II

Because of Jadunath Sarkar’s exceptional grasp over Persian, French, and Portuguese, in addition to English, Bengali, Sanskrit, Hindi and later Marathi, he became an exceptionally luminous figure among the historians of his time. More importantly, his profound interest in English literature helped him immensely in acquiring extraordinary proficiency in English prose, which makes his books of history a delightful read.

That is the prowess which the present generation of Pakistani historians needs to cultivate. As Winston Churchill once said, “the best way to create history is to write it”. Our upcoming historians must hone their skills of writing good prose and acquiring various languages. Undoubtedly, expertise in multiple languages is an imperative quality for historians to have.

Much of Jadunath Sarkar’s reputation as a historian is based on his 5-volume history of the last great Mughal, Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707), published between 1912 and 1924, and the 4 volumes of the fall of the Mughal empire, published between 1932 and 1950. The other two books of Sarkar that generated a lot of debate and some controversy are those on the 17th century Maratha hero and king, Shivaji (1630-1680): Shivaji and His Times and The House of Shivaji, published in 1919 and 1948 respectively.

These books have made Sarkar’s work particularly contentious. He is relentless in his criticism of the last of the great Mughal kings, which brought him in the cross hairs of historians like Shafaat Ahmad Khan and R. P. Tripathi, both of whom were from Allahabad. Sarkar and Shafaat Ahmad Khan already nursed malice against each other but things came to a head when the third volume of Sarkar’s History of Aurangzib got published in 1916. That volume underscored Aurangzeb’s proclivity to enforce orthodox Islamic policies. It contains material which can be read as a “straightforward indictment of Islam”.

It is pertinent to mention here that Aurangzeb remained a controversial figure not only in his own times, but received a great deal of flak from the Hindus who considered him an “intolerant” Muslim ruler in a predominantly Hindu land. Many saw Sarkar as having played a considerable role in fomenting such an impression about Aurangzeb.

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Quite contrary to the opinion held by Hindus, many if not most Muslims revered him for his piety and strict observance of Islamic sharia. Hence, among the educated Indians of the 20th Century, Aurangzeb proved to be an instrument of communal antipathy causing a cleavage between Hindus and Muslims.

Quite contrary to the opinion held by Hindus, many if not most Muslims revered Aurangzeb for his piety and strict observance of Islamic sharia.

“Shivaji Bhonsle also known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, was an Indian warrior king and a member of the Bhonsle Maratha clan. Shivaji carved out an enclave from the declining Adilshahi sultanate of Bijapur that formed the genesis of the Maratha Empire. In 1674, he was formally crowned as the Chhatrapati (Monarch) of his realm at Raigad.” By the early 20th Century, communal misgivings among the Hindus and the Muslims had peaked; Shivaji emerged as a symbol of Maratha and Hindu pride. All said, Shivaji was no less contentious a historical character than Aurangzeb and both of them became the subject of Jadunath Sarkar’s study. As a consequence, he incurred the wrath of both Muslim and Maratha historians.

When Jadunath Sarkar died in 1958, as a doddering old man aged 88, the eminent Bengali historian Professor N. K. Sinha prophesied, “it is not likely that Sir Jadunath Sarkar will ever be displaced. His wonderful accuracy will secure to him immunity from the common lot of historical workers. So far as we can visualise, in the near future, in his chosen field, there will be only scanty gleaners after copious harvest.”

But while Professor Sinha was eulogising Sarkar in these glowing terms, young scholars at Allahabad, Aligarh and Oxford were doing historical research that would ensure that by the 1960s and 1970s, Jadunath Sarkar’s name would be all but forgotten among the prominent historians of India. That was partly because of the waning interest in medieval Indian history, particularly with reference to the Persian Islamicate, a term originally coined by Marshall Hodgson to describe not the religion of Islam but to the social and cultural history of Islam and Muslims.

A small number of historians working on Mughal India were acquainted with his name and knew about the importance of his work, but his academic status suffered a steep decline immediately after his death. This was particularly so because the historians of the 1970s had withdrawn from working on emperors, battles and the character of kings anymore.

Quite contrary to Jadunath Sarkar and some other historians of his ilk — Shibli Naumani for instance — the new generation of historians did not subscribe to highlighting the role of heroes in history like Thomas Carlyle had. ‘Heroes’ had been substituted by ‘causality’.

Renowned historian of Medieval India, Satish Chandra is reported to have said about Sarkar, that he “projected Aurangzeb’s struggle to conquer the south as a Greek tragedy… [but] the search for causal relationship cannot be given up by historians”. According to Dipesh Chakrabarty, “cause was a code word for institutional analysis. Into the list of causes fell economy, institutions, parties and politics at the Mughal court, money, wages, exploitations, histories of the state and of revenue crisis, peasant revolt, provincial autonomy and so on”.

The succeeding generation of historians has studied the Mughal period as an age of transition to capitalism which relegated the role of personality to insignificance. The glaring questions posed to these historians were: Could India have become a capitalist economy on its own, without the mediation of British colonial rule? Were underdevelopment and ‘distortions of Indian institutions’ results of colonial rule? These historians, unlike Jadunath Sarkar, have been starkly anti-empire in their attitude. For Satish Chandra, “Aurangzeb was neither a hero nor a villain, but someone representing an old order that could not recognise the stirrings and incipient growth of a new socio-economic system”.

A similar tirade against Sarkar was continued by Chandra’s students, M. Athar Ali (in his well-acclaimed work The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb) and Muzaffar Alam in his The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India. However, “a silent but perhaps the most magisterial dismissal came in the form of Irfan Habib’s path-breaking work The Agrarian System of Mughal India, which virtually ‘displaced Sarkar from the canon’.”

The list of Sarkar’s detractors does not end here. Peter Hardy also found several faults with his broad brush analysis of historical events. Having said this, Jadunath Sarkar’s historical narratives are important on two counts. First, he provides a critical insight into 18th century India which was undergoing an important transition at the time. Secondly, the literary fervour of his prose adds the much needed spice to the bare bones of historical facts.

His style and fastidiousness for historical facts can serve as a source of instruction for the upcoming generation of historians.


Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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