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The Historical Gadfly: Sifting Through Argumentative Indian Archives with Dinyar Patel

April 9, 2012

It’s not every day that you open up The New York Times in your browser to find an article about historians or archives, much less those beyond the United States. Many friends who are not historians – and even those who are – often seem intimidated by the prospect of working through musty obscure archives – even if they’re interested in new files that have come to light, like the recent opening of certain Ford Foundation archives in Sleepy Hollow, New York. So I was delighted to read more when I saw that Dinyar Patel, a PhD candidate in History at Harvard University currently based in Delhi, had written a wonderful series of pieces on the (for the most part dire) state of archives in India for the Times’ India Ink blog. A few phone calls and four and a half time zones later, I was able to connect with Dinyar to have a discussion for this latest episode of The Historical Gadfly.

Dinyar Patel, my guest on this episode of The Historical Gadfly

In this episode, we were able to touch on a lot of subjects that I think should be interesting not only to historians but to anyone with a passing interest in India, the world’s largest democracy, a land with a hugely diverse history and culture, and a country that few Americans have real in-depth knowledge. (Count me in the camp of the ignorant.) We spend some time discussing the history of Parsis in South Asia, leading us to spend a few minutes on Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi intellectual, the first Asian British MP, and a key early figure in the Indian independence movement. Many people will have heard of Mahatma Gandhi,  Jawaharlal Nehru, or Muhammad Ali Jinnah when they wonder of how South Asia got to look the way it does today, but Naoroji, who lived prior to many of these mid-20th century actors, was a key figure in the Indian National Congress ever coming into being, and in drawing the attention of British MPs to poverty and unequal trade in the Subcontinent.

Dadabhai Naoroji, subject of Dinyar's dissertation

In addition to talking about Naoroji, we go into depth on the state of archives in India today. As Dinyar has written in his articles, many of them are in pretty frightening condition. Many of the buildings that house contemporary Indian archives were themselves built in the late 19th or early 20th century and have not fundamentally been upgraded since then: bad news in a country where monsoons, high humidity, heat, and paper-eating insects are all common threats to documents. That’s too bad, too, since history often plays an important role in arguments about where India is headed today. The archives of many Indian leaders since Nehru are basically inaccessible, which makes it difficult to have transparent public arguments about what actually happened when, for example, the Indian government stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, or about the history of Kashmir. Even ancient figures like Shivaji, a Marathi king who drove the Mughals out of southern India and has become a symbol of Hindu solidarity, can present problems in terms of archival access. Not that the issue is always malevolence, although, as Patel notes, elements of the Indian government can retain a post-colonial paranoid attitude towards the sharing of information. More often, the issue is incompetent staff and the sluggishness of Indian bureaucracy.

There are some signs of hope: Mushirul Hasan, the Director of the National Archives in India, has made efforts to eliminate administrative malaise. But too often, the picture is one of hapless scholars wasting huge amounts of time trying to find documents that may not exist, looking at decades-old finding aids (little is computerized), all while archive-wallahs brew tea and sweep dust from the steps of the crumbling buildings, not doing any serious work. Still, if you can cope with all of these issues, there’s a universe of unworked-with material in the archives: if any enterprising future historians are listening, a knowledge of Hindu/Urdu and a second language can open up years of exploration and discovery into not just India but a broader South Asian, or Indian Ocean world.

South Asian history: not only India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, but a gateway to an entire wider Asian and Indian Ocean world

You can download the conversation with Dinyar here. (Note to listeners: I’m in the process of moving The Historical Gadfly to iTunes to make keeping track of episodes easier. With a little luck and the overcoming of a few technical snafus, it should be good to go and available as a free podcast from the iTunes Store in a few weeks.)

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