April 10, 2021
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Remembering Professor VN Datta: A Quintessential Liberal

Dattasaab, as he was known in the academic world for decades, remained committed to the profession of a historian till the end.

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Remembering Professor VN Datta: A Quintessential Liberal
V. N. Datta (25.05.1926 to 30.11.2020)
Remembering Professor VN Datta: A Quintessential Liberal

Professor V. N. Datta was among the last vestiges of liberal scholarship, a tradition which is openly derided these days. He stood firm in his commitment to Indian pluralism, secularism and scientific reading of the historical past. Dattasaab, as he was known in the academic world for decades, remained committed to the profession of a historian till the end, writing on diverse aspects of Indian history. He has left us at a time when the past has turned more important than the present or even the future. His voice of sanity helped us to comprehend the complexities of history through his nuanced reading.

I will not delve into the biographical details as they have been highlighted severally by others. However, Dattasaab was born in Amritsar in 1926, in a Husaini Brahman family, was educated in Government College, Lahore, after partition he moved to Lucknow University and finally to Cambridge University for doctoral studies. His Husaini Brahman ancestry, which is a minuscule community, with close links with both Hinduism and Islam, is worth remembering. Husaini Brahmans are descendants of Rahab Dutt, who sacrificed his family defending Imam Husain in Karbala in 680 AD. Dattasaab’s work had a distinct mark of this eclectic ancestry.

In his long career as a prolific historian, he wrote on several crucial historical issues like Jallianwala Bagh and Bhagat Singh but the most significant contribution, which has not been surpassed till today, was his work on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Dattasaab was one of the last scholars of modern Indian history, who belonged to the Persian-Urdu tradition, though he wrote in English yet all his writings were enriched by diverse linguistic sources.

Dattasaab grew up close to the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, I am told his elder sister even heard the sounds of the bullets fired by General Dyer’s forces in 1919. He spent his childhood walking past the bullet-ridden park for years that surely must have made a huge impact on his sensitive mind. His urge to write about the gruesome tragedy finally culminated in a book Jallianwala Bagh in the 1960s, which was one of the first attempts to document the history of the horrendous day. May be Kapil Dev Malaviya was one of the first ones to write a short account called Open Rebellion in the Punjab (with special reference to Amritsar) in September 1919 itself. However, V.N. Datta wrote a detailed account, analyzing the massacre from several perspectives. He also co-edited an interesting volume later in 2000 on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, where he himself contributed an insightful essay on the ‘Perceptions of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre’. He categorically said that ‘the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre marked a turning point in India’s struggle for freedom.’ He is right to a great extent because it was now onwards that the freedom movement acquired its national character. He pointed out here that the traumatic event can also be seen as a clash between the rising forces of Indian nationalism and British imperialism, an expression of confrontation between the ruler and the ruled. Within this broad framework, he talked about several perceptions that have emerged over the past hundred years, viewing the tragedy from diverse angles.

Another important work we need to recall is his book called Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, published in 2008. This is an important little book, particularly in the context of the persistent debate on why Gandhi did not save our iconic revolutionary’s life. I did raise this issue in my own writings as well but left it as an ideological compulsion of the Mahatma. Dattasaab made a more serious attempt to explain the reasons and circumstances in which Bhagat Singh and his comrades were hanged and Gandhi, according to him, did his best to save their lives.

One of the most important contributions of V.N. Datta is his work on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, as I pointed out in the beginning. It was not an easy task, as most of his available writings were in chaste Urdu, mostly interspersed with Persian couplets, which was a challenge for any historian who decided to engage with Azad’s work. Dattasaab used his linguistic skills magnificently and produced an elegant biography called Maulana AbulKalam Azad in 1990. He engaged with Maulana’s early life in graphic details, particularly his relationship with his puritan Sufi father Maulana Khairuddin. He dealt with the father-son tension with immense sophistication and dignity. There is hardly any work till date which talks about Maulana’s ancestry in detail, his discomfort with taqlid (inherited tradition), which also included his inherited faith, which Azad gave up for a couple of years. Datta used both Tazkira and Azad ki Kahani Azad ki Zubani extensively, besides his other works, to produce a lucid account of Azad’s life, which is surely not a hagiography.

While talking about Azad’s early life, Datta narrates the influence of Syed Ahmad Khan that pushed Azad into “the agonizing task of rethinking about his whole religious outlook.” Azad did not stay here for long and as Datta says “he began to question the entire basis of religion and its place in life. His restless and insatiable curiosity began to probe deeper into the accepted system of religious beliefs.” Datta’s account of Azad’s discomfort and distance from the prevalent Islamic faith is so relevant in the present-day Islamic context. The need for ijtihad or independent thinking is the most urgent requirement, which Islam need to reiterate to bring back its vitality. Datta, through Maulana Azad’s life and experiences, stressed that Azad was extremely curious and asking perpetually the how and why of things like Ram Mohan Roy, he began to question the validity and justification of conventional and customary religion and would not be content with facile answers.

Dattasaab devoted a long chapter on Azad as a journalist. It is highly illuminating and informs us not only about his journalistic skills but also about Maulana’s commitment to nationalism, which evolved over the years and was finally articulated as composite or indivisible nationalism. His Al-Hilal was evocative about Hindu-Muslim cooperation to fight against the British. Datta writes that Azad, in his Al-Hilal, cited the example of Madan Lal Dhingra, who, inspired by the burning passion of patriotism assassinated Curzon Wylie, and sacrificed himself for the liberation of his country. Datta rightly concluded that “by eulogising Dhingra’s action, Azad justified the use of force in the political struggle”.

In 2007, Datta came out with a short and lucid booklet on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Sarmad, an interesting take on Azad’s defence of Sarmad and Dara Shukoh in a 1910 essay. The essay is a celebratory account of the two much ignored, if not much-maligned characters in Islamic history of India- Sarmad himself and his friend Prince Dara Shukoh. Sarmad's eclectic and Sufi Islam was always unpalatable to the empowered mullahs while Dara Shukoh was projected as a heretic in comparison to his brother, the puritan Aurangzeb. Dattasaab’s decision to engage with this essay was so pertinent for our times, which reflected upon the perceptive commentary of Azad on the twentieth-century Islam. Despite a few hundred years since both Sarmad and Dara were killed for reneging on faith, we are still executing fellow Muslims and others in the name of blasphemy. Datta concludes that Azad presented Sarmad “as a great humanist, a man of strong liberal spirit imbued with universalist outlook, transcending caste, creed and religion.”

V.N. Datta has truly left behind a void in the liberal, pluralist tradition of history writing and also a cosmopolitan scholarly vision. Among his three daughters, Nonica Datta is a senior historian herself who may take Dattasaab’s legacy forward, besides a large number of students he has left behind.


(The author is former Maulana Azad Chair National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal, and do not necessarily reflect that of Outlook Magazine)

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