From where I sit - History men's impact on events

October 1, 2009

That scientists and economists influence government is well known, but what about historians' effect on public policy?

A biography of Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909), titled An Indian for All Seasons - The Many Lives of R.C. Dutt, raises this question. The book was released recently; sadly, its author, Meenakshi Mukherjee, died of a heart attack the day before its publication.

Professor Mukherjee was well known for pioneering the study of Indian writing in English and for her stint as chairperson of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (2001-04). In her final book, she trespassed into areas fiercely guarded by economic historians, Mr Dutt having been one of the first Indian members of that tribe.

The biography argues that the historian also lived many other lives: as an officer of the elite colonial Indian Civil Service (he was the second Indian to join it); as a writer of historical novels; as the translator into English of the two major North Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; as an advocate for the rights of Indians in England; and as Councillor of the princely state of Baroda in western India.

In Baroda, he got the chance to implement what he had suggested in his historical writings. His Economic History of India (1902) had analysed and critiqued British economic policy in India. That he was very much in the public eye for this reason is evident from a 1904 open letter published in the national newspaper, The Times of India, which voiced the general expectation that the "radical land-revenue reformer" would work his theories in practice.

With support from the enlightened ruler of Baroda, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the historian was able to carry out badly needed administrative reforms. These included the separation of the judiciary from the executive, and the establishment of district village boards.

Were there other Indians of his ilk? It seems there were. In independent India, K.M. Panikkar, the historian-administrator, also served a princely state and wrote plays and poems.

Just before he became India's Ambassador to China in 1948, the historian wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru arguing that the Archaeological Survey of India should conduct field research in Rajasthan in order to find forgotten sites of the Indus civilisation.

Partly as a consequence, the discovery of Indus sites has been a major achievement of Indian archaeology. But it is unlikely that the initial funding would have been allocated if the University of Oxford-educated Professor Panikkar had not proposed and the University of Cambridge-educated Mr Nehru disposed.

While the Prime Minister had a strong sense of history, it is also true that he was not always receptive to the ideas of historians. For example, one historian, D.D. Kosambi, strongly argued for his Government to underwrite research on solar energy. His advice went unheeded: Mr Nehru came out in favour of atomic power.

It is only now, nearly 50 years later, that a national mission aimed at increasing the use of solar energy has been announced by the Government. Ironically, it will be called the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission. Surely someone in a Government headed by an academic economist should know that this is one naming that India's arch-liberal, Mr Nehru, would never have approved.

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