The intellectual legacy of Charles Allen
In his prodigious output of 25 books Charles wrote about many disputed issues in Indian history some of which have political implications today
Last week, I received news from two of my former BBC colleagues about the death of Charles Allen, the historian who had striven to present a balanced view of modern Indian history, and in particular, but not exclusively, of the role of the British in that history. In his obituary in Outlook, Zareer Masani, a historian himself and BBC radio producer as well as presenter, said Allen’s death “deprived modern Indian history of one of its best informed, most balanced, and yet most modest voices”. In his obituary published in The Guardian, David Loyn, my successor as BBC Delhi Correspondent said, “Charles never hid the dark side of Empire but wanted it fairly represented.”
In his prodigious output of 25 books, Charles wrote about many disputed issues in Indian history some of which have political implications today; so, I thought I would be justified in devoting a column to him.
He was a member of the sixth generation of his family to be born in India. His father was a political officer in the hills of the Northeast but he was educated in England. Extraordinarily for someone who achieved such distinction as a historian, he did not go on from school to university and he had no formal academic education. Allen first came to the public’s notice with his BBC radio series called Plain Tales from the Raj, programmes based on fascinating interviews with Britons who had served in many different occupations in pre-Independence India. The interviews were conducted between 1972 and 1974.
His books on the British Orientalists, late 18th century scholars such as William Jones — who founded the Asiatic Society in Calcutta to promote Oriental studies and suggested links between European languages and Sanskrit — argued that they had rediscovered India’s past achievements. This inevitably involved him in controversy with Edward Said’s famous scathing dismissal of Orientalism. Allen argued, “What Professor Said and his many supporters have consistently failed to ask is where would we be without the Orientalists? They initiated the discovery of South Asia’s past.” The past the Orientalists revealed is grist to the mill of political theories based on the concept of “India’s glorious past”.
Although Allen was no imperialist and was particularly critical of British racism inevitably, his view of the work of the Orientalists also challenged the schools of history, including Hindutva, which see no good in the British record. But the most prominent denigrator of the Raj is the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor. When speaking in public, Allen would point out that it was a British official, Sir John Munro, who persuaded the rulers of the two Kerala princely states, Travancore and Cochin, to moderate the oppressive behaviour of their Namboodari and Nair castes. This opened the way to the progress in their states that Tharoor is justifiably proud of.
The last time I heard from Allen, he said he was working on a book and hoped to finish it before cancer ended his life. Fortunately, he succeeded by working right up to the end. The book, Aryans, The Search for a People a Place and a Myth, will certainly ruffle feathers among politicians, especially in the Sangh parivar, when it is published next year. According to Masani, it is based on genetic data collected and analysed by Harvard University that confirms the DNA of upper castes in Northern India was Indo-European. This, of course, supports the theory of Aryan migration and challenges the Hindutva view.
The arguments about Aryan migration will go back and forth but there is no doubt that Charles Allen, like the Orientalists he admired, has deeply enriched the study of Indian history.