February 14, 2021

OBITUARY: Prof DN Jha, 1940-2021

Vishwa Mohan Jha

PROFESSOR Dwijendra Narayan Jha (DN Jha or DNJ in short), who fought shibboleths and superstitions all his life, was busy doing so when he took a break, had lunch, went for his siesta and breathed his last on February 4, 2021. On that count, the loss to the cause he stood for and served – by providing well-honed intellectual instruments for changing the world for the better – is indeed real and irreparable. The departure of anyone who has given all that he/she had to is indeed very sad, but the bereavement causes little loss to the cause as such. Not so in the case of DNJ.

An alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, DNJ moved to Patna University for his postgraduate and doctoral degrees. He had a brilliant academic career, and reached the summit of it (professorship) before he was forty – no mean achievement by itself, but, in point of fact, the least of his accomplishments.

DNJ published his doctoral dissertation in 1967 under the title Revenue System in Post Maurya and Gupta Times. It received attention internationally but somehow did not get the appreciation it deserved, with rare exceptions. It was moulded in the best empirical traditions of Indological scholarship, but also represented important shifts in perspective that were transforming the writing of early Indian history. DNJ went on to make notable and well-noticed interventions in a number of other areas in early Indian history – writing essays on temples as landed magnates and on merchants and temples in early medieval South India; critiquing Burton Stein’s account of peasant state and society in Indian history; historicising Hindu identity; writing bovine histories, and so on. However, the revenue system remains among his more important contributions (in my opinion the most important one) to ancient Indian history. In a detailed foreword that I wrote to its reprint last year, I underlined its historiographical and continuing importance and so need not go over it once again.

From what I have been able to gather, DNJ was already a Marxist when he joined Patna University. He presided over a Marxist Club there (with Dr PK Shukla as its secretary) wherein the evening lectures were delivered by luminaries from far and near, including MohitSen, Bipan Chandra, and Amiya K Bagchi, with the regular-enough presence of RS Sharma in the last bench of the audience. The club had a relatively short life and wound up after they left for Delhi. DNJ’s commitment to the Marxian cause however remained lifelong, unstinted, and militant.

It found its greatest fulfilment, naturally enough, in the academic world. DNJ threw himself heart and soul into the cause of the Marxist historiography epitomised by Sharma, of whom he was now a close associate, and D DKosambi, who early became and remained his ideal. Drawing his inspiration and strength from the duo’s works as well as from the institutionbuilding successes of Sharma, DNJ himself in turn became a veritable tower of support and strength to others. When Sharma’s thesis of Indian feudalism was challenged and debated, DNJ would organise its massive defence, in one edited book after another. He has no less than one felicitation and two commemoration volumes in honour of Sharma to his credit. Kosambi was commemorated at his birth centenary in a collection, slimmer but of equally impressive merit, a major specific purpose of which was to defend the guru from what was perceived to be unjust or mischievous criticism. Through the decades over which the armies of Kosambi and Sharma grew to become an intellectual force to reckon with, DNJ stayed in the saddle as the generalissimo – as the commissar, if you prefer.

On more than one count, DNJ’s distinctive place in Indology thus seems secure enough, even though there is no telling about the inscrutable ways of historiographical turns in South Asia.

In spite and indeed because of a widely-shared impression to the contrary, it needs to be said that DNJ was no hater of Hinduism and no abettor of Hindus. Persons closest to this hardboiled atheist counted quite a few devout Hindus. The Golden Age of the Gupta period is a myth in his Ancient India, but the greatness of Kālidāsa is equally real, as are the Ajanta ‘artists’ extraordinary powers of conception and technique’ or the fact of the Gupta period being ‘a landmark in the development of philosophical ideas’. Equally unnoticed remain his sensitive portrayals of Sanskritic culture in his feudal India. The ideological blinkers have patently been those of the observers, not the observed.

It is an old theme to which Prof Jhaendeavoured to make an original contribution in the Myth of the Holy Cow: how and why an omnivorous people came to subscribe to vegetarianism as the hegemonic principle of their lives. Ambedkar pondered over it in some detail, and PV Kane documented the transition in more than one context in his History of Dharmaśāstra. It is there in our ancient texts as well which seek to account for it in all kinds of ways – the great Charaka, for instance, invoked diarrhoea as the explanation. As we know, the charge of Hindubaiting was dropped by the courts, the scholarly worth of the book upheld by its reissue by the prestigious Verso Books. All this while, the unseemly and politically-suffused controversies and debates have taken a real toll on dispassionate pursuit of knowledge: there has been no real engagement, beyond angry rejections and feisty support, with this book as a piece of scholarship. As DNJ knew full well, more than one historical issue awaits satisfactory resolution or elucidation on the question of the cow in Indian history.

His was a crusade against Islamophobia – and not against Hindus or Hinduism – being spread through tendentiously-selective history or through outright falsification of it. It is this virus that has for too long been attacking at the vitals of the body politic, across continents. Local, regional, and national histories as well as the global discourses have helped to spawn its endless mutants. Its vectors are, as often as not, asymptomatic, people who have introjectedIslamophobia without being aware of it. Its victims are not Muslims alone, of course: among the biggest casualties has been the left, ie, the politics of the struggle of, by and for the deprived and the oppressed. Whoever will fail to see – though in point of fact everyone (including historians) has done exactly that – the tyranny of history in Muslims being called upon to ‘answer … for the sins, real or imaginary, of Aurangzeb, who lived and died two centuries ago, and other Mussalman conquerors and rulers who went before him’? In waging war on this virus, it is important to see, as DNJ did, that virulent denigration of Islamic histories is as one-sided as uncritical glorification of pre-Islamic India, but also that both are two sides of the same coin. If India – the idea of India – is to survive, it has to be a war without limit.

If knowledge is power, to interpret the world is to take the first step towards changing it, just as, if one did not want the world to change, one would still have to interpret it in a certain way. In reading Karl Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach – ‘philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ – DNJ would have agreed that the operative word here is ‘only’ and is underscored by the testimony of Marx’s own philosophy. Who can deny its (Marx’s) contribution to the world-historical transformations of the postMarxian world?