questions from his office at the Ecole Des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, where he is currently working on his 11th book, A History of the World Between 1350-1715. Excerpts from the e-mail interview:
The proposed celebration of the 500th anniversary of Vasco
da Gama's arrival in India has resulted in protests in certain
quarters in the country. Do you think these protests are justified
I cannot comment on the protests in their entirety since I lack
the relevant information. But it is clear to me that some of the
protests are a little silly, or ill-informed, and some are even
motivated by persons who have specific axes to grind. Others are
based on comparing Vasco da Gama to Columbus, which is a comparison
that is historically more than a little problematic.
The protests largely arise from the contention that Gama was
the forerunner of colonialism in India. Is this contention justified?
Vasco da Gama was not a clear 'forerunner of colonialism'
in India. Many things happened, and a number of contingent processes
intervened between 1498 and the second half of the 18th century.
It is simply not correct to draw a straight line between Gama
and Clive or Warren Hastings.
As I have shown in my book, besides,
Gama himself was probably opposed to the imperial ideology espoused
by the Portuguese state in his own period. This ideology was
not based on the idea of conversion (which is an idea that
gains ground only after about 1540) of Indians or Asians to Christianity,
or of large-scale land conquests (an idea that only enjoys brief
popularity between 1570 and 1610, or so).
It was an anti-Muslim
ideology, based on the idea of monopolising or controlling certain
trade routes, especially those in spices.
Do you think Gama was just an explorer who discovered the sea
route to India and cannot be held responsible for what ensued
because of his discovery? Or do you think he came for the specific
purpose of eventually capturing territories, monopolising trade
and converting natives?
At the same time, it is clear that Gama was not 'just an
explorer'. Socially, he was a petty nobleman, who led a politico-diplomatic
expedition. This expedition was intended to find Christian allies,
so that the Portuguese Crown could build an anti-Islamic alliance.
In fact, from this point of view, the Portuguese Crown had rather
a lot in common with the RSS and VHP, and so it is funny if they
should protest against the Portuguese!
What do you think of this tendency, especially in the right-wing
sections of our society and public opinion, to disown and disregard
colonial and invasive history? Do you think it is possible for
a people to selectively jettison portions of their past, no matter
how unpalatable? Do you believe the study and teaching of history
is greatly endangered by such a trend?
No society can 'jettison' parts of its past, even if
the process of remembering is often painful. Even the British
left a large number of institutions behind in India. Arguably,
it is the British view of Hinduism that the right-wing Hindu parties
in India espouse, in their ignorance of India's pre-colonial history.
As I have argued elsewhere, India's pre-colonial past was violent,
at times very violent. This sectarian violence cannot be ignored,
but we should also see what sort of violence it was, directed
by whom against whom etc.
At present, pro-Hindu spokesmen insist
on Muslim agents of violence, some others on European agents,
the dalit activists on brahmin violence etc. Each one is selective
in his reading. And this surely has a negative effect on the teaching
Do you think the opposition to Gama and the Mughals is a derivative
of their assault on Hinduism, their attempts to convert the native
Hindu populace? Would you characterise the opposition to the Gama
celebration as a purely Hindu response?
No, I believe that some self-appointed spokesmen of the Moplah
Muslims in Kerala are unhappy too. Let us be clear about one thing.
Gama was never interested in converting anyone. This was a later
phenomenon. Gama was interested in making money, in building his
career as a noble, and in acting out the orders of the Crown to
a rather limited extent.
I am not clear to what extent he can
be seen to symbolise the Portuguese, since he
was so often in opposition to the Crown. As for the Mughals, if
they wanted to convert Indians to Islam, they seem to have rather
made a mess of it! Except in areas like Bengal, the bulk of the
rural population remained non-Muslim. My understanding is that
the Mughals never believed that they could convert the majority
of Indians to Islam.
Do you believe Gama's arrival in India must be a matter of
celebration? Why? Do you believe it must be commemorated in some
way? Is it a matter of considerable historical significance that
the Indians must come to terms with?
No, not a matter of 'celebration' any more than we
should 'celebrate' Partition with its millions of
deaths, or the birth of Sri Aurobindo. Historical events are too
complex to be celebrated. To remember them on the other hand is
useful, because forgetting them is costly. We need to remember
the beginnings of direct contact with Europe via the Cape route
because it led (directly or indirectly) to a number of consequences:
social, technological, political, economic etc.
There is no doubt
that the opening of the Cape Route was an important event, even
if Adam Smith exaggerated its importance (as one of the two great
events in human history). Indians need to come to terms with it,
which does not mean that its impact was uniformly 'positive'.
Are you aware that a bilateral committee has been set up to
draw up a programme for the celebrations? However, the prime
minister has said the government will not participate in any such
celebration. Do you think the government stand is logical and
the commemoration of Gama's arrival must fall beyond the pale
If the government thinks it does not wish to be involved, that
is fine. But historians and social scientists are often supported
in one or the other way by the government and its institutions,
ICHR, ICSSR, CSIR etc. They should have the freedom to decide
Your study of Gama is considered to be the most significant
of its kind ever. How would you characterise his attitude towards
He had the attitude of many people of his time, namely some racial
prejudice, some religious prejudice (especially directed against
Muslims). By temperament, contemporaries agree that he was a hot-tempered
and violent man. Incidentally, he was also violent to the Portuguese
under his command, and to women (as we see in 1524, during his
third voyage). You might not have wanted him for your next-door
neighbour. But I have my doubts about whether you would have liked
to have Timur, or Toyotomi Hideyoshi as your neighbour either.
Do you think Indians are appreciative of Gama's legacy?
'Appreciative' may not be the right word. Indians are
poorly informed about the history of the 16th century. So are
the Portuguese. This is part of the problem, but not the only
problem. Unfortunately, it is not enough to have information,
but to think about it.
What significance does Gama hold for the people of Portugal?
Is he considered a major historical figure there? On par with
Yes, he is considered to be a major figure, a sort of 'national
hero'. This was partly a creation of Gama and his family,
partly a creation of the 19th century, and partly a creation of
the Portuguese dictator Salazar. But today, many educated Portuguese,
including those in the government, are aware that this is a simplistic
I am happy to say that Professor Hespanha, the head of
the Portuguese Discoveries Commission, said he liked the ironical
tone of my book about Vasco da Gama, and told me that he has been
using it in his own talks on Gama in Portugal. So, at the end
of the day, we do manage to communicate quite easily, because
there are people who have 'grown up' beyond silly nationalistic
reactions. Of course, there are people both in India and in Portugal
who have not. Unfortunately, I have no solutions to offer to such
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