He preserves Indian history

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He preserves Indian history
Rahul Sagar

WKND catches up with professor Rahul Sagar who has spent the last five years building a digital database of rare periodicals published in India during the 1800s


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 2 Jan 2020, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Jan 2020, 1:00 AM

Did you know there was a time when India debated whether it should be a secular nation? Or that there exists a record of the first essay written by an Indian female poet? These are just a couple of treasures to be found in the English-language periodicals that India's thinkers began publishing circa 1832. The catch? Very few of these records exist today - and hardly any of them can be found in India. Destroyed by both natural disasters and neglect, the majority of what exists is now said to be scattered across 120 libraries across the world. And it's been Abu Dhabi resident Rahul Sagar's mission to "correct that anomaly" for the last five years.

With the help of research grants, the global network associate professor of political science at NYUAD worked with a core group of project assistants around the world to scan library catalogues for copies of the periodicals that once dominated public life in India for half a century. The results - the rediscovery of India's intellectual history, if you will - can be found on www.ideasofindia.org, a digital resource that indexes the team's finds.
WKND caught up with the professor to find out what made him take on what was clearly an arduous, perhaps even little understood, project.

We're all familiar with history, but can you explain what intellectual history is about, in layman's terms?
Intellectual history is the history of ideas: how people have thought about politics, society and identity over a period of time. Each generation, era and culture comes to these questions differently at different times.
It's very rare for an idea to stay unchanged for very long. So, intellectual history traces how those ideas develop or transform over time.

Why should the history of ideas matter?
For two reasons. First, the things we take for granted today weren't always settled. There were debates and uncertainties, doubts and contrary points of view on all sorts of questions. Should a country be secular? Independent? Should it have a federal structure? When we look back on every country's history, we find these questions debated. Sometimes, living in the present, we forget they existed. So, it's good to be reminded of these differing points of view that we once considered [as a nation].
Second, it helps people in different countries around the world to understand how people came to the ideas they did - and helps us understand ourselves better too; for example, how we began thinking of ourselves as 'citizens' rather than 'subjects of an empire'.

Does any of it make a difference to the lives of people who aren't historians?
Absolutely. Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin once wrote that what a professor writes in the confines of his study can shake the world. What he meant was: when we think of ideas, we teach and share them with others - and because ideas inevitably spread, they can end up producing revolutions and change.
For example, it's only when we consider human dignity important that we start to resist circumstances in ways we may not have resisted before. Likewise, when we get on board with the idea of a nation, we cooperate in ways we may not have before, and start thinking of national pride, service, etc. That's the beauty of ideas. They change what we think our interests are, who we are, and so, change how we ultimately behave.

You spent five years building up this digital resource called Ideas of India. What made you take up what was clearly going to be a long, challenging project?
A lot of my early years, both as student and a scholar, were spent studying the rise of the West. I started to think of India's intellectual history around 2011. During a class on the subject, I realised we had very little sense of what it was, unlike the Americans, French, British and Chinese. In all those countries, you will find huge amounts of digital resources related to their intellectual history. Periodicals are well-preserved; libraries are well-run.
India, however, had not digitised its history. Most of its periodicals were ruined and neglected, and those that survived were scattered around the world. I decided to make it my mission to fix this anomaly. Why should there be this great ancient civilisation with a fascinating contemporary history, the first country to be a democracy, with so little known about its trajectory of intellectual history? That's how I started looking to tell Indian intellectual history - not just about a few bright stars in the night sky, but all the stars in the night sky.

It's amazing that copies of these periodicals are available in 120 libraries across the world, but hardly anymore in India. Why is that?
In 1947, when India became independent, 70 per cent of the country was below the poverty line. The British had left in a huge hurry, and there was an enormous amount of work to be done in putting governments together and providing basic social and political services. In the midst of all this, the world of academic research was left behind. It wasn't a priority - which is understandable when people are on the verge of starvation.
But the sad part is that even now, when India is on the verge of becoming far wealthier than it was 70 years ago, these periodicals are being destroyed by floods and fires, due to poor storage. So, initially, it was due to poverty - but, subsequently, it was due to an insufficient awareness of the importance of that intellectual history. If you don't know what exists and why it's important, you're not going to make any efforts to preserve it. The neglect is due to a lack of historical awareness.

Are you able to trace the evolution of Indian consciousness through these periodicals?
Absolutely. Reading essays written by the very first Indian thinkers - people who travelled long, dangerous ways by sea at a time when there was a social stigma against travelling abroad, especially among the upper middle class. It shows you how brave and resourceful they were at the time. There's something very admirable about the human spirit that can be seen in these essays: people hungry for change, doing all they can to improve their society and lives.
The most common feature, however, was the idea that India would not be modern if it did not improve the position of women, who didn't have much say in the public sphere, and were not educated in those days. The thinkers of the time looked at the changing position of women in other countries, the suffrage movement and emancipation, and said we had to learn to follow or risk not progressing. That hunger is what led to removing untouchability.
If a nation appreciates the need for progress and does not take the view that nothing can be better than what they have, that's the mark of a civilisation that is willing to advance.

Did you have any particularly memorable experiences along the way?
The day the first periodicals landed on my desk, I instantly knew I'd found what I'd been looking for. Why India became India; why its story of democracy has been both challenging and exhilarating. it was all in there. Nothing has since equalled that sense of euphoria and awe.

What have you taken away from this journey?
A really deep love and reverence for modern India, and the sheer capacity of its people to face up to a world in which they'd been colonised, disadvantaged... pawns in a much larger system. They said to themselves, "Let's roll up our sleeves and fix ourselves." They didn't give up or submit to fate. Perseverance and endurance are what I keep seeing in my study of these periodicals, and it's made me far more optimistic and admiring of this civilisation. India has greatness in it even today, and that's very uplifting.

Your vision is to make the entire content of these periodicals available for free to future generations. What are you hoping to achieve with that?
My goal is that every person in India - and around the world - should be able to access the ideas in these journals for free. They shouldn't have to pay or be gated from accessing what is fundamentally their intellectual heritage.
That's the next hurdle. We will likely need USD3-4 million to buy the rights from these libraries and reproduce the material in these periodicals to make them available online, so I'm currently looking for philanthropists to make that happen. In the same way that we make museums and art galleries accessible to citizens, I want these periodicals to be made accessible freely to all too, so every Indian can see who they are, how they came to be, and where they came from.

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