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The Rediff Interview / Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam

'No society can 'jettison' parts of its past, even if the process of remembering is often painful'

Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyamis widely reckoned as one of the finest historians of his time, an expert on the Portuguese era in Indian history. His recent biography on Vasco da Gama has in fact been widely acclaimed as the finest biography of the Portuguese explorer.

The historian -- who is just 36 -- found time to respond to Archana Masih's 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 and relevant?

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 of history.

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 of government?

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 for themselves.

Your study of Gama is considered to be the most significant of its kind ever. How would you characterise his attitude towards Indians?

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 Colombus?

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 image.

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 people.

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