THIRD DR S GOPAL ANNUAL MEMORIAL LECTURE
13 May 2014, 5 PM
By Nirupama Rao,
Meera & Vikram Gandhi Fellow in International Studies, The Watson Institute, Brown University
History, Howard Zinn once said, is an empty vessel and you can fill it in whatever way you can. My view is that we should have a sense of proportion about history, what is significant, and what not so significant. When we study the history of our relations with China in the decade until 1962, the debate often fixes on causation, the contributory and decisive causes leading to our defeat or, humiliation. But, of these, what is relevant to the living, and not the dead? What does that history teach us about today? How does it connect to us, today, and how we shape our future? There can be infinite meanings attached to what caused the war between India and China, but, what is the purpose for which we seek that meaning, or understand the cause of what happened? The purpose of asking this should be to seek answers that are relevant to us, today. What lessons are to be learnt about leadership, about public opinion, about logistical and military preparedness, about narrowing differences, and about negotiation? How can we deduce a new history for the future?
The historian, David Stevenson recently drew our attention [“Learning from the Past: the Relevance of International History”, International Affairs 90: I (2014) 5-22], to an interesting anecdote concerning Boswell and Johnson. In that story, we are transported to the rain-soaked, desolate moorland of the Hebrides, in which these two eminent persons are travelling. Boswell is peevish, imagining that Macbeth’s three witches would emerge from the murky surroundings. Monboddo House, their destination is a tumbledown ‘wild and naked place’. But the conviviality of their Hebridian host, Lord Monboddo, provides comfort to these tired travellers, and the evening conversation turns to history. Says Monboddo: “The history of manners is the most valuable. I never set a high value on any other history.” To this, Johnson says, “Nor I, and therefore I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use”. Boswell meanwhile, interjects to say, “But in the course of general history we find manners. In wars we see the disposition of people, their degrees of humanity and other particulars.” Johnson is still skeptical, saying “Yes, but then you must take all the facts to get this, and it is but a little you get.” And then, Lord Monboddo, the host has the final say, “And it is that little which makes history valuable”. History, any history, is about the book of life, as Samuel Eliot Morison once said. It is a jungle and a jumble of facts and impressions, and the history of the India-China relationship, is no exception.
Making history valuable: relating it to the “book of life”, is then the challenge and, defining the historian’s essential vocation the even greater one. How do we extract that “little” that makes history valuable and relevant to our present and future lives, from the passage of relations between two large Asian nations in the last mid-century? The India-China relationship in its early mid-20th century phase is a history of politics, of ideologies, of the disposition of leaders, and a history of war, the study of whose conclusions reminds us that it is we, us, who are exactly mirrored in those events and decisions, for we have not as yet, distilled the import of those events. That history has confined us in many ways, and if we are to build a secure future, we must untie our minds about it.
I am indeed honored to deliver the third S. Gopal Memorial Lecture at King’s College, today. The topic I have chosen, elicits more emotion than reason, especially in India. In S. Gopal’s own post-1962 writing, there is no personal account of his own role in those crucial years leading up to the war. In the service of the Indian Constitution and his government, he strengthened the policy brief on our border with China. It may, as some have argued, been a maximalist stand, but in consonance with his acknowledged reputation as a good historian, it was impeccably researched, a focused marshaling of fact, and imbued with certitude. It was a task, as Srinath Raghavan puts it, that stood at the intersection between history and foreign policy-making –where frontier history met foreign policy. Under Gopal’s stewardship, the Historical Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, which did the research for the Officials Talks of 1960 with China, rose “to the peak of its performance and influence”. [Raghavan: “Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats: The Collected Essays of Sarvepalli Gopal, 2013: 21] Read the rest