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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 38, September 10, 2011

Remembering R.S. Sharma : Some Reflections

Tuesday 13 September 2011, by P.C. Joshi



In the passing away of R.S. Sharma the discipline of history has lost its leading, living representative of the older generation, of the same quality and stature as D.D. Kosambi and Sushobhan Sarkar.

D.D. Kosambi, however, was perhaps a lone scholar and researcher of exceptional calibre but confined mainly to a scholar’s ivory tower. Only in his later years did he turn into a leading promoter of the world peace movement. Sushobhan Sarkar was primarily a teacher of history having extraordinary erudition and teaching ability and left his imprint on several generations of students of modern Indian history without any significant contribution to historical studies. He prepared some Reflections on the Modern Indian Renaissance as a basis for serious research by his colleagues and students.

R.S. Sharma, by contrast, combined lifelong commitment to high-quality historical research on ancient India with equal commitment to high-quality teaching and imparting historical knowledge to several generations of students, a large number of whom grew under his care and guidance into serious scholars and researchers in their own right and enriched the profession. Further, he was also engaged for a large part of his life in nurturing and building institutions engaged in the teaching of history and historical research.

All three of them jointly made a major contribution in pulling out historical teaching and research from conventional historiography and thus transforming it into a front-rank discipline like economics traversing new paths and pastures. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that by setting an example in terms of reorienting historical research relating to ancient India, introducing new themes and methods in the teaching of history, and making historians aware of their responsibility of responding to the challenges of the present day by drawing necessary lessons from past history, R.S. Sharma was perhaps a step ahead of his eminent predecessors. While all three of them constituted a link between the pre-independence ideals and aspirations and the post-independence striving for thier realisation and fulfilment, it goes to the credit of R.S. Sharma that he endeavoured in diverse ways to evolve strategies and projects in the field of historical research and teaching; equally important, he was also engaged in communicating the lessons of history to the broader intelligentsia of the country that was losing its moorings in the ideals and values which had been thrown up by the freedom movement and which had given it intellectual strength and spiritual sustenance.

R.S. Sharma was foremost among the Indian intellectuals who wanted historians to realise that the discipline of history was not just about what happened in the past but what its lessons were for imaginatively and intelligently responding to the challenges of the present.

In the context of India’s long struggle against the semi-feudal and colonial past and its present status as an independent entity seeking a new future free from the burdens and constraints of past history, R.S. Sharma was also aware of the responsibility of formulating the agenda and projects of change in the light of the knowledge and understanding derived from historical studies.

Here the generation of historians to which Sushobhan Sarkar, D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma belonged has to be distinguished from the earlier generation of historians preceding them. It must be remembered that in the era of colonial rule scholars became historians not by accident but by conscious choice. The scholars in the colonial era conscioulsy chose history as a discipline with the conviction that this will help the intelligentsia to recover national self-respect as historians engaged in reconstructing India’s past in terms of its past greatness and glory. In contrast the historians of the radical school, to which D.D. Kosambi, Sushobhan Sarkar and R.S. Sharma belonged, consciously chose to understand the deeper socio-economic roots of colonial domination and the formidable socio-economic structural constraints on the path of national liberation and regeneration. R.S. Sharma defined the historians’ role and responsibility more explicitly as a conscious participant in the project of formulating a comprehensive agenda for change and of using historical knowledge for that purpose.

By rewording Marx’s famous dictum, the commitment of radical historians like R.S. Sharma can be expressed as follows: “Historians so far tried to understand the past. The need is to use this understanding for changing the present.”

ANOTHER clarification is necessary here to demarcate radical historians of one type of orientation from historians of a more radical variety. It has been customary among radical historians to suggest that the agenda of change in the present should be formulated in the light of understanding of the past. Here yet another refinement is called for. The study of the past can itself be conducted in several ways. A more genuinely radical way of studying the past or of formulating questions to study the past is that of selecting questions in the light of the overriding need of formulating strategies and projects for changing the present. This means not allowing the constraints and burdens of the past to dominate the present and specially the process of changing the present. This also means formulating the agenda of research into the past in a manner that yields insights into the interplay of the social forces and processes hindering or facilitating and accelerating change. To put the same thing in other words, the agenda of change in the present requires an agenda of meaningful study of the past; but the new agenda of study of the past also requires a perspective of change.

All this means a qualitatively different pers-pective on the nature and role of historical studies than what was characteristic of historians of the conservative tradition. It should also be put on record that this social interventionist perspective and approach to history as a discipline owes much to the influence of Marx and Marxists on the one hand, and liberal-radicals on the other; they jointly contributed towards effecting a break from conservative and non-interventionist historiography.

It has to be noted that the renaissance in the field of history as a discipline owes much to the impact of liberal-radical thought and values on the one hand, and Marxist thought and values on the other. It is no accident that D.D. Kosambi, Sushobhan Sarkar and R.S. Sharma were all Marxist radicals of the earlier generation when liberal-radicals and Marxist radicals were not hostile to each other but engaged in a fruitful intellectual dialogue. In fact, it should not be regarded as an overstatement that the flowering of historical research and its emergence as a front-rank discipline like economics owes much to the inspiration and motivation provided by the Marxist approach and worldview which was in constant dialogue and interaction with radical historical thought and worldview. It was a phase when exposure to Marxist thought and worldview acted as a powerful stimulus to the broadening of the intellectual horizons and release of creative energies. In sharp contrast to latter-day Marxism, the Marxists of the earlier generation relied mainly on the force of ideas and open-minded intellectual engagement than on narrow partisanship and building up of Marxist factions having a closed mind within academic institutions, research centres and cultural organisations. This was a new phase when Marxism, far from being a liberating force for the mind and spirit, had turned into its very opposite, that is, a force stultifying and dampening creative energies.

In the end it needs to be said that Marxist historians have to be as relentless and unsparing, if not more, in their self-criticism as they have been in their evaluation of historical events, processes and personages.

It has also to be recorded with some pain and anguish that R.S. Sharma, who served as a role model for generations of historians, has left behind him a mixed legacy. In his best years, he provided stimulus to young minds for fresh thinking and innovative work. In his later years, he was drawn into promoting conformism and in recruiting and promoting mainly the loyal and the like-minded into the institutions and organi-sations under his charge. Perhaps it was not entirely an individual aberration but a result of the formidable pressure exercised on the committed Marxist intellectuals by the Marxist political establishment. Intellectuals, however, cannot escape from their personal responsibility for not resisting but yielding to this pressure.

It is the task of the younger generation of historians to carry forward R.S. Sharma’s formidable positive heritage and make a break with its negative aspects.

I bow in respect and gratitude to the memory of one who was a positive influence on my life and with whom an intellectual encounter and dialogue was always very rewarding. I shall remain ever grateful to him for having involved me in teaching the economic, social and political thought of Gandhi to MA (Part II) students in the Delhi University for almost five years.

Dr Joshi, an eminent social scientist, headed the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi for several years. He is well known for his multi-disciplinary approach to social problems.

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