India’s Archives: How Did Things Get This Bad?

A farman or imperial directive issued by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb lies in a torn folder at the National Archives of India, New Delhi. The label reads, "It is very badly damaged and broken at places."
A farman or imperial directive issued by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb lies in a torn folder at the National Archives of India, New Delhi. The label reads, “It is very badly damaged and broken at places.”

Dinyar Patel

Why has modern India had such a difficult time preserving its history?

Tridip Suhrud, professor who has written extensively on Mohandas K. Gandhi, blamed a lack of historical sensitivity for problems in his state. Gujarat’s local maharajas and business families, he remarked, did not place much importance on keeping records.

A letter written by Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House, Mumbai on September 23, 1945, part of the Sabarmati Ashram archives.
Courtesy of Sabarmati AshramA letter written by Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House, Mumbai on September 23, 1945, part of the Sabarmati Ashram archives.

Consequently, there has been little interest in creating or patronizing archival institutions. Mr. Suhrud can only count three other scholars currently working at theSabarmati Ashram Library in Ahmedabad, the principal repository of Gandhi’s personal papers (properly preserved in a locked, temperature-controlled room, he noted).

Murali Ranganathan, an independent researcher, based in Mumbai, pointed out that the pre-colonial tradition of archives and libraries was extremely strong elsewhere in India: dynasties in Maharashtra, Assam, and Mysore kept vast collections that still survive.Beginning around 1900, he argued, Indians started to become too poor to properly maintain their collections, although several institutions, such as theKhuda Bakhsh Library in Patna and the Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur (Tanjore), have maintained excellent traditions of preserving pre-British era books and manuscripts.

A leaf from a rare undated copy of the Holy Quran written in Kufic script, believed to be from the 9th century.
Courtesy of Khuda Bakhsh Oriental LibraryA leaf from a rare undated copy of the Holy Quran written in Kufic script, believed to be from the 9th century.

Perhaps the most important factor has been India’s moribund bureaucracy. During the Raj, government archives were treated as repositories of sensitive information, carefully guarded by officials. This attitude did not change much after 1947. Bureaucrats censored scholars’ notes at the end of the workday. Remarkably, many files about nationalists, marked “confidential” by the British, remained inaccessible in the post-independence period. A certain colonial paranoia about free information access persists in the halls of many Indian government institutions.

The government, furthermore, failed to woo many of India’s qualified historians and preservationists, instead staffing its archives, museums, and libraries through bureaucratic and frequently highly politicized channels. As a result, many institutions remain what they were a hundred years ago — simple “godowns” (warehouses) of supposedly sensitive documents and artifacts, staffed by individuals resistant to innovation, openness, or a culture of scholarly investigation.

“When you think of the pace at which other nations are digitizing their archival collections, cataloging information, and disseminating knowledge to scholars and citizens, India is falling behind,” commented Durba Ghosh, a historian at Cornell University. “It is a shame that the Indian government has so severely under-invested in the improvement and maintenance of its archives. Given India’s growing prowess in software and technology and its aspirations for producing a highly educated public, the indifference to archives and India’s history can no longer be explained by a lack of expertise or wealth.”

Several private institutions have now harnessed increased funding opportunities, access to technology, and a new generation of trained archivists to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. Sabarmati Ashram and the Netaji Research Bureau in Kolkata, which has the papers of Subhas Chandra Bose, have digitized their collections, thereby preserving the letters of two of India’s preeminent independence leaders. One of the largest repositories of Jain manuscripts in the world, the Hemacandra Jnan Mandir in northern Gujarat, has also scanned its holdings. In addition to digitization, the Forbes Gujarati Sabha in Mumbai, home to a rare collection of Gujarati books and periodicals, has constructed a special chamber to mitigate the high acid content of Indian paper, one of the primary reasons why books in India fall apart so easily.

The digitization of manuscripts at the National Mission for Manuscripts in Delhi, which sources historical documents from Manuscript Partner Centres including the Forbes Gujarati Sabha in Mumbai.
Courtesy of National Mission for ManuscriptsThe digitization of manuscripts at the National Mission for Manuscripts in Delhi, which sources historical documents from Manuscript Partner Centres including the Forbes Gujarati Sabha in Mumbai.

In addition to the National Archives, other government institutions are finally following suit. Digitization has been a popular first step for preservation since proper temperature control remains a challenge for many institutions. The Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, for example, is housed in an open-air structure built in 1888. Suprabha Agarwal, who became director of the Archives in July 2010, tried to install air-conditioning but ran against the strict heritage laws governing the building. Even utilizing fans, she noted, is problematic since the breeze tears apart brittle documents. As a result, the Archives bought a fleet of scanners and has started digitizing its oldest and most damaged collections. Aside from sending her staff to training seminars, Ms. Agarwal has also lobbied the government to build a modern, fully air-conditioned structure for the Archives in a Mumbai suburb and hopes to relocate the institution here around 2015.

Some of Maharashtra's oldest newspaper such as "Bombay Courier" and "The Bombay Durpun" have been preserved by the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai.
Courtesy of Maharashtra State ArchivesSome of Maharashtra’s oldest newspaper such as “Bombay Courier” and “The Bombay Durpun” have been preserved by the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai.

Ultimately, Indian citizens themselves will need to play a much greater role in ensuring that their government properly maintains the country’s history. Mr. Guha is optimistic that this will happen. “It is now clear that a historical sensibility is developing amongst the Indian public,” he said, observing a surge in the number of history titles in Indian bookstores. “Now that more Indians are getting interested in history, people should play a part in helping preserve it. Private philanthropy is needed. Local pressure is needed for proper preservation.”

India has the resources and the talent, Mr. Guha noted, but the government needs to channel this into moribund institutions. “The leadership provided by Mushirul Hasan at the National Archives and Mahesh Rangarajan, the new director at the Nehru Library, shows that places can change,” he concluded. “If you have good archival historians in positions of authority, look at what can be done.”

(Courtesy: India Ink & Dinyar Patel. 
Dinyar Patel is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Harvard University, currently working on a dissertation on Dadabhai Naoroji and early Indian nationalism. He can be reached at dpatel@fas.harvard.edu.)

 

 

 

 


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  1. Pingback: Following A Lead From India | A Taxi Dog Diary

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