Finding Truth in History: India’s Colonial Past

University of Chicago professor braves snowstorms to continue a History Department legacy

By Julie Oatfield /// Staff Writer 

It’s an honor, a privilege, and a minor miracle to welcome Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty,” said Professor of History, David Campion.

Braving snowstorms and webs of canceled flights, Dr. Chakrabarty arrived at Lewis & Clark to deliver the history department’s 52nd Annual Arthur L. Throckmorton Memorial Lecture held on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

The lecture series was established to “honor the achievements of [former LC professor] Dr. Throckmorton in the field of history and his many contributions to the college,” and continue his legacy by engaging students with some of today’s most influential scholars. Dr. Chakrabarty is currently the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College at the University of Chicago. As his title suggests, his work explores many disciplines: politics, international issues, and even poetry as integral parts of how history is created and told.

Dr. Chakrabarty discussed the ways Indian scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries interpreted their past. Especially under British imperialism, Rankean traditions (from German historian Leopold van Ranke’s methods of relying on primary sources to form objective, “true” history) became more influential in India. Interestingly, Dr. Chakrabarty himself was able to explore this “dispassionate, calm, lofty, objective voice [of Ranke]” by using examples of human experiences and their inherent subjectivity.

“Can you write my history if you haven’t shared my experience?” was the general sentiment the professor received while working with students of aboriginal descent at the Australian National University. This question is universal in writing any history at all, Dr. Chakrabarty noted.

Two scholars, Jadunath Sarkar (1870-1958) and Gorind Sakharam Sardesai (1865-1959) aimed to collect India’s national history, though with different approaches. Sarkar adopted more Rankean ideals of forming historic “truth,” whereas Dr. Chakrabarty described Sardesai’s goal as wanting “the world to know his people were good, worthy of the world’s respect.” Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses in each approach, the scholars compiled valuable insights on both positive and negative aspects of history.

“Writing history is a matter of self-examination for the country,” Dr. Chakrabarty said and “India has to face its bad history” as do all other nations in order work towards truth.

Selection of what qualifies as history was, and remains, a huge debate. Ironically, historian Sarkar became frustrated with Gandhi’s growing independence movement because it removed government focus and support from his research, Dr. Chakrabarty said.

Dr. Chakrabarty reminds historians and non-historians alike that if experiences are “not fact, then they’re still points of view. Sometimes you can’t resolve the conflicts between opposing points [of view]. Just live with it.” Dr. Chakrabarty stresses that because everything is connected to the narrative of history rather than an objective set of facts.

“I can write my history better as poetry,” one doctoral student in Australia told Dr. Chakrabarty.

If a writer owns their humanity and subjectivity, they can write history as seen from their point of view which will hold a certain amount of truth.

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