Asia Life | Society | South Asia

Saving India‘s Intellectual History Will Require a Massive Effort

Some of India’s historical sources are in dire need of preservation.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Saving India‘s Intellectual History Will Require a Massive Effort
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

They say that when a language dies, a world dies with it. The same is sometimes true of historical sources. A small world dies every time a work that contains rare information is lost. Think of a peasant who had become the first of his family to read and write, and went on to describe the story of his kin. With the perishing of this chronicle, knowledge unavailable anywhere else would have been lost.

India is one of the countries that is facing this challenge. Over the past years, some have warned that many valuable texts are at risk of permanent oblivion. I have conducted research in four Indian institutions that house archival materials – the National Archives, the National Library, the Nehru Memorial Library, and the Parliament of India Library – and thus I would stress that my own take is based on a small sample. I do not know enough to judge the general role of governments, to assess the mechanism of funds distribution, or to speak of other institutions or regions. But I can confirm with certainty that there are texts that must be promptly attended to.

This was most apparent in the old newspapers section of the National Library (in Kolkata). Newspapers from the pre-internet era are very helpful in following the lives and the perspectives of communities in given regions, below the level of major national and international news. Yet, most of the old newspapers held in the National Library are not preserved in any other form than the old prints themselves, neither digitized nor even microfilmed.

Take the daily I worked on, the Sanmarg. The newspaper’s 1950s and 1960s issues I read were in a worrying state. Some pages were covered with a maze of corridors, eaten through by insects. The paper crumbled to pieces upon being touched. I have tried my best to flip the pages by gently holding the very corners with the tips of my fingers (which made my work much slower). Even then, however, small corner pieces sometimes fell apart. One of the readers next to me apparently did not mind and flipped the pages of his newspaper in a rush, often tearing the whole pages in half. This made me think about the ethical aspect of my research: if my work on the newspaper is minimally adding to the destruction of its copies (and they may well be the only ones), should I conduct it? But if they are not saved anyway, will it not be better to at least read and describe their contents? Obviously, however, the best way would be to digitize these materials.

From what I saw, some other newspapers in the same archive are in a similar condition. Sanmarg is still coming out and is now a major Hindi daily in East India. In its beginnings, however, it was connected to the group of migrants from Rajasthan that settled in Kolkata (called the Marwaris) and used to be linked to a little-known party, the Ramrajya Parishad. Perhaps there are other and better sources on the life of Marwaris in Kolkata in this period, but information on this political party is extremely hard to come by. If the old issues of Sanmarg are lost, another small world will perish.

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And this is the case in India’s National Library. Some cases tell more positive stories but others are even worse. India’s smaller libraries are particularly underfinanced and some of their resources are in decrepit conditions. For a telling and saddening example, read Daniel Jacobus Morgan’s 2017 text for on the sorry state of the Saulat Public Library in Rampur (and no, this is not cherry-picking: it is far from the only such report I know). As one of its outer walls has fallen, and there was no money to repair it, all the materials of the library – including very rare Urdu and Persian manuscripts – were stocked in a single room. Morgan even quoted one of the library’s loyal readers who termed the institution a “graveyard of books.”

This, unfortunately, is not the only such graveyard in South Asia. The financial troubles of India’s small libraries are not new. As Rahul Sagar writes, “public and community libraries […] suffered grave neglect. With their holdings literally crumbling away, many of these libraries sold their invaluable archives as raddi (wastepaper).” Some of the opinion journals that “midwifed modern India” – Sagar sums up – are now only available outside that country.

It would be unfair, however, to declare that nothing is being done. A couple of years back the National Archives of India explored its digitization options, including digitization on demand. The resulting endeavor is the Abhilekh Patal portal. An online collection of digitized documents, it now holds over 280,000 pages of these resources in its virtual magazine. One can also suggest which documents should be digitized further. It is available from outside of India – although to start using it, I had to first come to the National Archives in person to apply for a login.

There are also lone lighthouses facing the rising sea of oblivion, people that do their best to salvage as much as possible. This group includes indefatigable individuals among librarians, public servants, and academics, but some less obvious figures with different motivations. I have been in touch, for instance, with Ankur Nagpal, a student who is a spiritual follower of a long-deceased Hindu saint and thinker, Swami Karpatri. Nagpal has been scanning some of Karpatri’s works (printed, but now hard to come by) and putting them on the internet — not to earn money, but to promote the holy man’s teachings (you can find them here).

There have also obviously been cases of researchers reading through rare collections and sharing their distilled findings. As it is impossible for a single human being to digitize such a forgotten archive, their work at least tells us what it contained, like a zoologist coming back from the jungle to tell us about endangered species, being unable to physically bring them to the outside world. One such instance in my own, small field of interest, is Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.

A recently completed project that needs separate mention is the Ideas of India database, by the already mentioned Rahul Sagar and a team of researchers. It is a searchable base of entries for 255 English-language Indian periodicals published during the colonial period. A large team of researchers has painstakingly worked over the past years to include descriptions of over 300,000 articles in it. A person interested in a given topic may search through keywords on the Ideas of India website, and check which old journal wrote on this subject. The database, therefore, does not contain full articles, but serves as a gigantic index that may help in locating them.

Let us be honest – by now it is clear that not everything from India’s written heritage can be saved. There must a way to decide which resources have priorities in digitization – such an uneasy choice will always be imperfect, and the process of selection will be painful. Solutions such as digitization-on-demand, while treated as auxiliary, at least make the process democratic to a certain degree, as researchers will indicate which resources they would like to be preserved first. Still, whole sets of resources, especially those languishing in smaller libraries, are not even indexed anywhere to be flagged for digitization.

What is urgently needed is, ideally, a gigantic initiative that would build on the Ideas of India model. Not only other resources – such as periodicals in Indian languages and manuscripts – should be indexed, but they also should be located and digitized. India’s smaller libraries would have to also be surveyed and, as much as possible, simply saved from extinction. But let us face it – such an initiative would require an enormous amount of money, work, and time. Knowing this, Rahul Sagar is now looking for donors to support the digitization project.

What initiatives like Ideas of India have shown is that the process must start with a very widespread surveying. Since there are not enough funds to save all sources, we should first learn which of them are most rare and in worst conditions, to cater to them first. The problem that will always remain is who gets to decide which of them are more historically valuable than others.