Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser and best-selling author, will be one of the principal speakers at ARTH, a two-day cultural festival to be held in Delhi on February 8-9. He spoke to Gargi Gupta about platforms like ARTH, his books, and the need to relook at history. Edited excerpts:
You are an economist, urban theorist, environmentalist, historian, and you write fiction. How do you fit all these into your busy life?
I do not see the world in silos. Economics cannot be understood in isolation from politics, history, institutions and geography. It does mean that one has to understand many more fields of knowledge, which is hard work. However, major mistakes in policy-making are usually the result of taking a narrow view of things. In the last decade, this world view has crystalised into a philosophical framework based on 'Complexity Theory'.
Tell us more about your book on the history of the freedom struggle from the revolutionaries' perspective.
Most people know the names of a few revolutionaries, but they have the impression that they were isolated individuals on a brave but otherwise pointless quest. They do not realise that this was a large international network that systematically resisted British occupation for half a century.
Why do we know so little about this revolutionary strand of our history?
It was deliberately suppressed by both the British, and after independence, by those who came to power as it did not suit their political purposes. Most senior leaders of the revolutionary movement were dead by 1947 and were not around to tell their story. Punjab and Bengal, the two provinces that provided the bulk of the revolutionaries, had been torn asunder by Partition. Many of the key locations of their story — Lahore and Chittagong — are not even in India.
You hinted at a personal connection with the revolutionaries' history.
Both my parents' families had close links with the revolutionaries. So, the origin of my interest may lie simply in hearing some of the stories from childhood. However, it was only as an adult that I began to find bits and pieces of their story while researching other things. Gradually, I was able to piece together a very different picture of our history.
Is this, ideologically, the right time to attempt a revisionist look at Indian history? Where should it start?
I do not subscribe to the view that one should perpetuate colonial, Nehruvian and Marxist biases on grounds that any change will lead to a Right-wing bias. We need a new evidence-based approach by serious scholars who look at history with an open mind. And we need to start from the very beginning.
Is there any other book that you're working on?
Yes, I have a long-term plan to write a book on economics from a 'Complexity Theory' perspective. This approach of economics is gaining traction around the world but it is still early days.
Would you say there is a problem of credibility with some of the Right-wing view of Indian history?
Indian academia is entirely dominated by the Left — whether Nehruvian or Marxist. There is no ideological diversity in history departments which have ethnically cleansed almost all dissenting views. How can such an establishment be the judge of credibility? This is not to say that every alternative view is credible.
History remains a dead subject in academica. Your thoughts.
Indians — both young and old — are very interested in their history. The problem is that they can see that the textbooks and the mainstream narrative are blatantly false. Students can see that they are being fed ideologically-driven nonsense and therefore they stay away. Who can blame them? Make it a genuine exploration of our past and watch how history revives as a field of study. After all, I have no difficulty finding readers for my books.
What is the place of a forum like Arth in the discourse surrounding India?
I think platforms like ARTH are important as they create platforms for dialogue and new ideas. New ideas need to be tested by debate and discussion — only then will they become real contributions to know.