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India Today, December 7, 1998
Dec 7, 1998


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BOOKS:
History Sheeter

Bullheaded Arun Shourie makes the left-right debate a brawl.

By Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Eminent Historians
ASA
Pages: 271
Price: Rs 350

Arun Shourie was once an academic. Educated in Delhi, he then did his PhD in economics in the US, with a thesis that was used approvingly by Jagdish Bhagwati. Shourie thereafter returned to India and abandoned academics for a successful career in journalism and right-wing politics. These facts are no secret and may be found on the blurb of this book, which also lovingly lists the many public awards he has received.

For a number of years now, Shourie has been making mincemeat of India's "leftist" intellectuals in public debate. I can recall seeing him demolish Upendra Baxi in a face-off on the Constitution at the University of Delhi some 15 years ago. This is the ferocious pitbull debating of St Stephen's and Hindu College carried into a political domain -- the same style that has produced Mani Shankar Aiyar, who is to Shourie what Parveen Babi was to Zeenat Aman.

This book, with its leering wink at Eminent Victorians in the title, commences with a series of expos -like chapters (which have already been printed in large measure elsewhere) in which Shourie details the petty financial and other misdemeanours of the historians who ran the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the '80s and early '90s. This is sordid stuff, in which a number of Marxist and left historians emerge very poorly either for having accepted projects on which they have not delivered or for having patronised dishonest clients. Shourie neglects to mention though that some historians today closely associated with the BJP were once members of the very clientelist networks manipulated by the "leftists".

Once these early chapters have been read (and there is no reason to believe what they recount is untrue), the book goes downhill rapidly. For Shourie has nothing to say beyond repeating the Islamophobic tirade of his henchman, the monomaniacal Sita Ram Goel who is referred to repeatedly in the text as "indefatigable" and even "intrepid". Goel's stock in trade has been to reproduce ad nauseam the same extracts from those colonial pillars Elliot and Dowson and that happy neo-colonialist Sir Jadunath Sarkar.

To add lustre to Goel's edifice, Shourie summons up the support of Naipaul, Hayek, Etzioni and even Gandhi. At one delicious moment, he "cites" a "leading commentator" who ostensibly told him of one of his books: "Brilliant, Arun, it was fascinating ... But you'll understand, I couldn't say all that in print. But really it is brilliant. How do you manage to put in this much work?" (page 201). When this preening is done, the book contains no real analysis of why history writing in India is in the poor way it is. Instead, Shourie blames it all on a combination of Marxism, opportunism and the inability to follow traffic rules.

Shourie has the ego and anecdotal reasoning of Nirad Chaudhuri married to the writing style of Robert Ludlum. Both are in ample evidence in this book. But serious thought of any variety has been replaced by spleen, hysteria and abuse. To quote Shourie himself, "Indeed, persons who are trying to work up a group find that instilling in its members the notion that it has been wronged is much more potent, and therefore far more useful than persuading them that there are rights which are their due" (page 235). What can one say but: physician, heal thyself.

 

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