Prof. VN Datta (1926 - 2020)

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Prof. VN Datta (25 May 1926 - 30 November 2020)

An Obituary


In the passing of VN Datta the world of history in the Indian subcontinent has lost an outstanding scholar. Datta was born in 1926 in Amritsar. He was educated at Government College, Lahore, Lucknow University and Cambridge University, UK. Datta was Professor Emeritus, Kurukshetra University, where he set up the Department of History in what was to become the newly founded state of Haryana, after leaving a lucrative position in government service. Besides a short stint of teaching at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, in his early career, he was also a Visiting Professor at a number of universities including Moscow, Leningrad, and Berlin, and Resident Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Author of several pioneering works on modern India, his first work, Amritsar: Past and Present (1967), was a local history of the city of Amritsar through a meticulous use of municipal records. This was followed by his second book, Jallianwala Bagh (1969), a landmark classic on the massacre of 1919 that was based on original sources and till then unknown documents and unpublished records, which were discovered by him, such as the two volumes of the Disorders Inquiry Committee Evidence (Volume VI and VII) to which the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, General Dyer gave an account of his actions. These volumes at that time were withdrawn and suppressed by the British government, as they included consolidated secret reports. Datta was the first to bring these volumes to the notice of scholars. Later, he edited them as New Light on Punjab Disturbances in 1919 (1975).


His other works included A Nationalist Muslim and Indian Politics, Being the Selected Correspondence of the Late Dr. Syed Mahmud (1974); Madan Lal Dhingra and the Revolutionary Movement (1978); History of Kurukshetra (1985); Sati: A Historical, Social, and Philosophical Enquiry Into the Hindu Rite of Widow-Burning (1988); Maulana Azad (1990); Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Sarmad (2007); Gandhi and Bhagat Singh (2008). His last book was a monumental piece of research work, The Tribune: 130 Years: A Witness to History (2011). It was a result of his lifelong engagement with this prestigious newspaper that played a pivotal role in India’s freedom struggle against British rule. Datta contributed regularly to The Tribune, for which he started writing since 1946 as a student in Lahore.


VN Datta had an illustrious career as an eminent academic and public intellectual of independent India’s first generation of historians, who were trained in the confluence of British Empire and free India. He had witnessed the transition of a colony into a postcolonial reality. His engagement with the variegated history of Punjab, in particular, was shaped by his rich experiences in pre-partition Punjab. His craft was honed within a vibrant Urdu-Persian tradition that influenced his eclectic and open-ended perspective enriched through his sensitivity to connect and situate Punjab within a larger cultural tradition of the subcontinent. As a witness to Partition of 1947, his writings reflect the transformations and continuities in Punjab’s fractured history without compromising its unique and syncretic pasts. His perspective was not swayed by any singular ideological framework, and, in fact, demonstrated a sensitive understanding, on the basis of a meticulous study of archival sources and rare vernacular texts, of personalities, events and spaces.


Bringing a biographical approach to the writing of history, Datta further developed his method through his study of Maulana Azad, Gandhi and Bhagat Singh. Here he moved from Punjab to an all India canvas, and combined microhistory with macrohistory. His literary and historical rigour offered a critical appraisal of Mohammad Iqbal, Maulana Azad and the 17th –century sufi mystic Sarmad. Some of his scholarly articles especially ‘Punjabi refugees and the Urban Development of Greater Delhi’ (1992); ‘Iqbal, Jinnah and India’s Partition: An Intimate Relationship’ (2002); ‘Lord Mountbatten and the Punjab Boundary Commission Award’ (2002) have encouraged subsequent generations of scholars to undertake further explorations. Datta’s much acclaimed work on ‘sati’, the practice of widow burning in India, was part of his research work at Cambridge University, UK, where he closely worked with Herbert Butterfield, the internationally renowned British historian. This work has been commended by scholars as a precursor to the later feminist interventions.


Datta’s large body of work cannot be accommodated within a narrow historical framework. His writings display a constant interplay of biography and history; experience and language; personal and political; literature and narrative. The idea of united Punjab that he was committed to was a combine of cosmopolitanism and vernacular modernity that was more tied to a cultural rather than a territorial idea of India. This was the idea that disturbed the mainstream nationalist story, even while meaningfully engaging with it. Invoking the local, popular and national, Datta constantly approached the master narrative with skeptical curiosity. Writing in the 1960s and 70s, when the nationalist discourse was in full sway, Datta, in tune with works like Tom Kissinger’s Vilyatpur, a local study of a village, brought a refreshingly different perspective on Punjab and South Asia. This was the time when ‘subaltern’ historiography had not yet appeared on the scene, and ironically, it never acknowledged the works of Datta and Kissinger despite their claims of invoking the local against the national.


VN Datta’s passing is the end of an era. An era that was tied to a rare kind of cosmopolitanism and depth of research. His daughter historian Nonica Datta says, ‘VN Datta simultaneously lived in many worlds. A historian who was influenced by the liberal traditions of the 19th century and democratic freedom of the 20th century. A historian who grew up with the aura and sounds of gunshots of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. A historian who saw the horror of Partition (1947); a historian whose canvas was not confined to Punjab because he juxtaposed the local with the national and like a detective historian (as he liked to call himself) he saw the tension between the two. A historian who believed in an inclusive and modern idea of India (as exemplified in his classic biography of Maulana Azad).’


VN Datta died in New Delhi on 30 November 2020. He will be much missed.


[compiled from conversation with Prof. Nonica Datta, CHS (JNU)]


Obituaries for Prof. Datta have also appeared in several other newspapers, magazines and journals;

  1. Sudhir Chandra in the Economic and Political Weekly:
  2. The Wire:
  3. M Rajivlochan in the The Tribune:
  4. S. Irfan Habib in the Outlook:
  5. AG Noorani in the Frontline: