Across Time and
CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat has one thing in common with his predecessor E. M. S. Namboodiripad—a sense of history. I first read about the Marxist historian, Victor G. Kiernan, in one of EMS’s articles in the CPM mouthpiece, Deshabhimani, in the early seventies. He introduced the British scholar as one of the greatest interpreters of Marxism, whose understanding of the Indian situation was almost unparalleled.
Brought out on the occasion of Kiernan’s 90th birthday on September 4, 2003, this is a small collection of representative pieces from his prodigious writing "ranging over centuries and continents". The moving tributes by two of his contemporaries, Eric Hobsbawm and Harvey J. Kye, and by the Editor himself provide the uninitiated reader a glimpse into the greatness of easily the tallest British historian in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Kiernan’s essays on Marx and India, Marx, Engels and the Indian Mutiny, India and the Labour Party and After the Mutiny show the range and breadth of his scholarship. Even now, decades after these were written, these have not lost their sheen. The essays provide a fascinating perspective on such cataclysmic events as the Mutiny, the War and the impact of colonialism on Indian economy.
The quintessential Marxist that he is, Kiernan does not fight shy of holding a mirror to Marx’s writings on India, revealing even the gaps in these. Marx underestimated the religious factor, which he thought would be overtaken by the nationalist fervour. Little did Marx know or cared to know that the origins of the First War of Independence had a religious cause.
Kiernan sums up, "Marx’s writings on Asia may often seem to throw more light on him than on it. But he was, after all, a pioneer in trying to look at Indian history scientifically, about the first man to foretell an independent India, the first to see that its real emancipation must come from industry." It is a different matter that Karat’s followers in West Bengal and Kerala scuttle, rather than promote industrial growth.
While Marx saw all Britons in the East as so many Clives or freebooters, greedily cramming their swag into capacious knapsacks, Kiernan had the intellectual honesty to note that "a gradual change had been stealing over the (East India) Company’s servants, moulded for a generation now by Evangelicalism and Unitarianism".
Kiernan spent nearly eight years in India teaching at Sikh National College and Aitchison College in Lahore, the cultural and intellectual capital of the North. It was during this period that he befriended two of the greatest Urdu poets—Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’. It also helped him polish his Urdu to a point where he could translate some of their poems into English.
His essays on the two poets bear out that Kiernan is as much a literary critic as he is a Marxist historian. When most literary criticism is a litany of the same clichés, the same generalisations and the same summaries of the texts under scanner, he provides a benchmark for literary criticism.
Iqbal’s religiosity is misunderstood in India. In this context, Kiernan compares him to his "fellow-Punjabi and fellow-poet Bhai Vir Singh, born a few years before him; as deeply a Sikh as Iqbal was a Muslim, but penetrated by the bhakti, spirit as Iqbal was by the Sufic, and able like him in his best hours to leave behind the boundaries of any single community and enter a realm open to all men".
In the concluding essay, Reminiscences of India, Kiernan writes about his experiences in India. In a few pithy sentences, he is able to provide a portrait of the people who left an indelible imprint on him. Among them are Communist P.C. Joshi, Principal Nazir Ahmed of Lahore Government College and writer Rahul Sankritiyayan.
He has many interesting anecdotes to share. But the most poignant is a train journey he made in his last days in India from Delhi to Lahore. On the train were three officers—a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Hindu—who were found guilty at the INA trials at the Red Fort and discharged from service.
Kiernan remembers, "At every halt, jubilant crowds had gathered; at Lahore the big square outside the station was packed, every inch, by an immense multitude—it was quite a while before I could find a way out. Tragically, this was the last time that the three communities could feel their brotherhood; before long they would be at one another’s throats, the three heroes forgotten."
Across Time and Continents is a volume that will take the serious reader to the many books that Victor G. Kiernan authored, from Metcalfe’s Mission to Lahore to Tobacco: A History.