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Stanly Wolpert: A Historian We Should Read


Wolpert’s works

Stanley Wolpert is a historian who makes the difference


Z. G. Muhammad

In our generation, perhaps rarely any of one might have read it or heard about it. In my small collection of biographies, there is a purple coloured hardbound, with  pages turned to smoke yellow biography published eighty-eight years back by George Allen and Unwin Limited, 40 Museum Street, London. It has a foreword by father of Indian Nation Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.  The biography has been authored Mahadev Desai Gandhi’s James Boswell and personal secretary. Inside the cover of the book, there is a black and white picture of a man with a   Van Dyck beard,   dressed in black up-button long coat, a white pyjama, black astrakhan cap and shawl slinging on his shoulders. The picture is of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the man whose story is told by Desai in Queen’s English.

 In his eight lines forward to the biography praising Azad for his Islamic scholarship, Gandhi writes, “His nationalism is as robust as his faith in Islam. That he is today the supreme head of the Indian National Congress has the deep meaning which should not be lost of sight of by every   student of Indian politics.’ The ‘deep meaning’ that Gandhi mention, in fact, sums up the political situation that obtained at that point of time in British India.  Maulana Azad was elected   as President of Indian National Congress in 1940- he stayed at this position for six years. Those were the times when the communal divide in India had deepened, and the idea of a separate nation for the Muslims of the sub-continent had concretized in the shape of March 23, 1940 resolution adopted by the Muslim League in the Minto Park Lahore. The election of Azad as president   at this historical juncture was projected by the Congress as an answer Jinnah’s idea of separate nations for Muslims to the West. The League had accused Azad of allowing Muslims to be culturally dominated by the Hindu majority and Jinnah   described him as “Congress Show Boy” and “Muslim Lord Haw-Haw”.  ‘Lord Haw-Haw was a nickname of William Joyce an American broadcaster who broadcasted Nazi propaganda to Britain from Germany in 1940.’ The phrases used by Jinnah against Azad had stuck to the name of President of the Indian National Congress. The objective behind writing Azad’s biography was to blunt the sway of Jinnah’s phrases and introduce Azad and pluralistic image of the Congress to the West. In his introduction to the biography Mahadev Desai writes, “For Western readers, who do not know Maulana Sahib at all, the work should have obvious value… He has no traces of ill will against British people. It is, therefore, necessary for Western readers, especially the British, to know something about him”.

The purpose behind talking about this biography of archival value is to suggest that the memoirs were also authored for achieving the political objectives. In Kashmir also we had our share of biographies written with political purposes. In 1933, a year or less after the birth of the Muslim Conference, Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz wrote the biography of Sheikh Abdullah, who had just begun his political inning and titled it as “Kashmir Ka Gandhi”. In comparing him with Gandhi, Bazaz, of course, he had a bigger game plan which unfolded almost six years after its publication. Nevertheless, it does not mean that all the biographies about the political leadership of the sub-continent were written for creating a halo of greatness around them or for scoring some points on a political rival or countering political discourses that ran parallel to each other. There have been biographers who candidly and honestly told the stories of the leaders that wrote the destiny of hundreds of millions. The beauty of the top South-Asian leadership has been that they attracted internationally acclaimed historians to write their stories- one of them has been an American historian Stanly Wolpert. Because of his work on the Sub-Continent over a period of time he became a household name in political, academic and media circles.

Stanly as his friends called him died on February 19, 2019, at 91. In the din of the war cries that dominated the airwaves after the Lethipora blast the death of world-renowned historian of India and Pakistan was not reported in print or electronic media. It had been Gandhi, who had metamorphosed this marine engineering into a historian. On, February 12, 1948, the twenty-one-year-old engineer disembarked at Bombay port.  Thirteen days earlier Gandhi had been assassinated, on this day   urn of his ashes was emptied into   holy waters of Indian rivers and Bombay’s Back Bay. He had never before seen such emotionally charged   crowds who out of devotion for the assassinated leader vied to touch the waters in which ashes were drowned. It was his first tryst with Indian History. “That early encounter with India,” wrote Stanley, “Changed the course of my life.” On his return to his country, he bade adieu to his career in marine engineering for the study of Indian history and got passionately involved in it. In 1959, he earned his PhD and his dissertation, published as Tilak and Gokhale, was recognized as “the best book on the history of India originally published in the United States.”  

Throughout his sixty years career as a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, South Asia, India, in particular, remained subject of his writings, and he wrote about two dozen books on the region. Besides, three books that reflect on the conflict between India and Pakistan, one of his most significant contribution has been biographies of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Z. A. Bhutto.

 Like a spider artfully weaving his web, Stanly has spun the story of the father of Indian nation in his biography of him, ‘Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. From the piles of Gandhi’s writings, travel notes and reports of his meeting, archives he forthrightly maps his non-violent resistance against the British. He has subtly brought out certain aspects of Gandhi, which many of his biographers have chosen not to write about.

Stanly believes that ‘the truth about great men needs to be known and discussed. I don’t see anything wrong with their having failings’. He wrote about Nehru what no biographer in India would venture to mention about, so his biography of first Prime of India, “Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny, published by Oxford University Press, New York, despite being described as best was banned in India. ‘Jinnah of Pakistan’, by him is most quoted book about founding the father of Pakistan.

Three of  his works,   ‘India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation’?, ‘Roots of Confrontation in South Asia : Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Superpowers’ and Shameful Flight, The Last Years of British Empire in India are essential works for the students of contemporary Kashmir History. Last two chapter of Shameful Flight give genesis of the conflict. Nonetheless, it also provides an insight into Nehru’s mind, that he wanted to perpetuate Kashmir Dispute to drain resources of Pakistan to bankruptcy. The ‘Roots of Confrontation in South Asia’, besides giving an insight into the history of the relationship between neighbours is a critique of US policy towards the region.

To sum up, Stanly Wolpert is an essential historian for students of South Asia. 

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