A historian’s centenary

Much of Gopal’s early work was in the realm of British policy in India and an examination of viceroyalties
Last Updated 24 April 2023, 19:49 IST

A historian’s centenary is not like a politician’s. There are no eulogies, at least not quite in the vein of the politician’s groupies. Instead, the historian’s oeuvre is assessed, the scholarship re-examined, and the work viewed from up close.

April 23 marked the centenary of historian Sarvepalli Gopal. Born in 1923 to Sarvepalli Radhakrishan and Sivakamu, Gopal was their youngest child and only son. At that time, Radhakrishnan was a much-acclaimed professor of philosophy at Calcutta University, where Gopal spent his early childhood. In 1931, the family moved to Waltair, when Radhakrishnan became the Vice-Chancellor of Andhra University. In 1936, when Radhakrishnan became Spalding Professor for the study of eastern religions and ethics
at Oxford, Gopal was admitted to the Mill Hill School near London.

In mid-1939, Gopal secured a place at Oxford to study history. Since the term was still some months away, Gopal returned to India in August. The outbreak of WWII the following month prevented him from going back and Gopal then began his studies at Presidency College, Madras. In 1942, he registered for a degree in law at the Law College. In 1945, with the war finally over, Gopal finally proceeded to Oxford for a BA in modern history. He later began doctoral work in Oxford in 1949, eventually teaching at Andhra University before joining the National Archives as Assistant Director.

In this capacity, in 1959, Gopal worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru in assessing and presenting India’s case in its boundary dispute with China. Historian Srinath Raghavan believes that Gopal’s work established a strong case for India’s claims on Aksai Chin, far stronger than China’s. Post the 1962 war with China, this dispute went in another direction altogether, but Gopal had done what he could as a historian.

In 1966, Gopal began to teach history at Oxford. In 1969, he was appointed Nehru’s official biographer by Indira Gandhi and in 1971, he returned to India to join the newly established JNU.

Besides his work on the Indo-China dispute, much of Gopal’s early work was in the realm of British policy in India and an examination of viceroyalties, all of which are considered noteworthy. Later, Gopal began to focus on Indian nationalism. His three-volume biography of Nehru hasn’t quite made the cut as an authoritative one, owing to Gopal’s inability to get over his awe of the subject. His work as editor of Nehru’s writings (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru), in the Towards Freedom series on Indian nationalism and in UNESCO’s History of Humanity, are considered his better work. But Gopal’s finest work is the 1989 biography of his father.

Among the criticisms of the Nehru biography was that it was opaque about Nehru, the person, as it chose to only shine a light on his public persona. The biography of Radhakrishnan, on the other hand, is as candid about his personal life as it is about his illustrious career. It hints at Radhakrishnan’s illegitimate birth, provides details of his extramarital dalliances, and does not hesitate to castigate him for the roundly patriarchal manner in which he went about arranging the weddings of his five daughters—they had no choice in the matter and in some cases, only met the groom on the day of the wedding. That these uncomfortable personal details don’t take away from one’s admiration of Radhakrishnan’s achievements as professor, scholar and statesman owes something to the mellifluousness of Gopal’s writing. Another work that demonstrates Gopal’s oeuvre as writer is Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, a collection of essays on topics ranging from history to literature and cricket. Gopal’s last significant contribution to Indian intellectual life was his work as editor of a volume on the rise of communal politics in India, Anatomy of a Confrontation (March 1992), which gathered perspectives on the matter from some of India’s finest historians. Gopal passed away in 2002.

Will Gopal’s record be reviewed as detailed in the beginning of this essay? Most importantly, will he be given a fair deal? Unlikely in the current climate that revels in the circulation of ‘alternative facts’.

As I said, a historian’s centenary is not like a politician’s. The politician at 100 is a carefully constructed fiction. A historian’s life is always grounded in fact. His afterlife isn’t any different.

(The writer is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.)

(Published 24 April 2023, 17:39 IST)

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