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Sarvepalli Gopal: A Mixed Legacy

Partho Datta

By Sarvepalli Gopal. Edited by Srinath Raghavan
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2013, pp. 431, Rs. 895.00


The collected essays of historian Sarvepalli Gopal (1923-2002) has finally arrived, meticulously edited with a fine introduction by Srinath Raghavan. Raghavan and the general editors of the series, Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani make a strong case for a Gopal revival. They argue that he was a brilliant biographer, a pioneering historian of contemporary India, a fine stylist and master of English prose and most importantly, a liberal. The last they seem to suggest is in rather short supply in the ideologically polarized world of Indian academics today. Gopal’s writing career was remarkably long and by Indian academic standards a prolific one. He published seven full length books, the first published as early as 1949 and numerous other essays, reviews etc. He had a parallel career as a bureaucrat in the Ministry of External Affairs and played an instrumental role in setting up and guiding institutions—UGC, ICHR, NMML, JNU etc. As an editor he published many volumes of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru and also guided the Towards Freedom Project. He taught in England for many years and his books were published by well known foreign publishers—Jonathan Cape, Oxford, Allen and Unwin, Harvard etc. Indian authors writing in English today will envy this list: it is a sort of testimony to the standard of his work and also his reputation as one of Independent India’s foremost historians. Raghavan has had access to Gopal’s papers, carefully preserved by his wife Indira. His long introduction and by-and-large fair assessment of Gopal’s oeuvre is a pleasure to read but I can’t help thinking that in making a case for Gopal he has over-enthused. Raghavan doesn’t pay enough attention to the critical reception of Gopal’s major books and his place among his peers, i.e., other Indian historians.   Judging by Raghavan’s introduction, Gopal had a very privileged upbringing, including the best possible education in India and England. He was a brilliant student and prestigious fellowships and teaching appointments came his way throughout his career. He had a particularly warm relationship with England where he studied and worked for many years. Raghavan says that the celebrated Marxist historian Christopher Hill was an early influence but this does not show in his work which substantially consists of biographies of Viceroys and British colonial policy. Gopal wrote in the British Whig tradition, his evaluation of colonialism was ...

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