Rumours and the Historian

How does a historian negotiate with the politics of archiving when dealing with ‘war rumours’? I have come across this dilemma several times, now that I am ‘recording’ rumours as part of my study on the Quit India Movement in Bengal. This then leads to the second and related question – how does a historian record and negotiate with rumours?

This is an open blog post and I hope to have a lively discussion on this.

A brief note on sources – The Kolkata Police Museum, Police Archives

I have been researching and writing on the socio-political history of Bengal for more than half a decade now. I came across information about this archive in the same way as most scholars do- from the references made in a book. In this case, this was a unique reference, that I found only in the work of the historian Joya Chatterji. No other historian had previously mentioned this archive. Obviously, this archive had only been opened recently to scholars. But what surprised me, what the lack of references from this archive in subsequent works. The Kolkata Police Museum archive strangely was shrouded in mystery.

Seeking permission to access this archive led me into the corridors of the Kolkata Police Headquarters, more famously known as ‘Lal Bajar’. Standing at the entrance to this imposing red building, I meekly told the constable on gate duty, that I had an appointment with the Assistant Commissioner of Police. He gruffly replied – ‘Bara Babu erom bhabe dekha koren na!’ (The ‘Bara Babu’ doesn’t meet commoners just like that!). Having stayed in Kolkata for quite some time, I knew this was coming. I responded with an equal measure of pride (at my preparedness) – ‘I have an appointment letter.’

The Constable clearly was not happy, letting a ‘commoner’ through the hallowed gates at her first attempt itself! Nonetheless, I was quickly pushed into the ‘Ladies Room’, where two extremely chatty female constables quickly frisked me, checked my bag for weapons and then asked what I do (they had to call up the receptionist at the Assistant Commissioner’s office to inform who had come). When I told them I was a researcher, they stared at me wide-eyed and eventually one of them exclaimed ‘Baap re!’ (My God!). She called up the receptionist and informed her of my arrival. After a short wait, a plainclothesman came to escort me to the office of the Assistant Commissioner.

The sweltering heat of the summer months of Kolkata soon disappeared as I stepped into the air-conditioned hallway to the offices of the ‘important’ police officers. I was asked to wait in a lounge area, till I was called for. Soon, the plainclothesman returned and escorted me into the immaculately maintained office of the Assistant Commissioner. I walked in (unsure whether I should put on a meek or confident demeanor) and shook hands with him. He immediately put me at ease and started asking me about my research. He repeatedly ensured me that the Police Museum would be a valuable asset for any research on Bengal, and that he wished more scholars would come and work there. He immediately granted me permission to access the Archive. Well, to say the least, I was overjoyed.

The next day I made my way to the Kolkata Police Museum, which houses the Special Branch (Police Archives). After a warm welcome and several offers for tea, I was taken to the Reading Room and presented with a neatly organised four volume catalogue. The catalogue was not just neatly organised, it was plain neat – clean, no dust stuck to my fingers while leafing through them! For someone who had been used to handling dusty catalogues in several other archives across India, this was indeed a welcome break. Soon a member of the staff came to check on me, and I handed him some file numbers that I had hurriedly managed to take down. He disappeared with my request slip, and I settled into making a catalogue list for myself. Quickly I realised that this was quite a daunting task, this archive was a minefield!

I spent nearly two days after that finishing my catalogue of files, and three years and countless trips later, I am still wading through them. I am not exaggerating when I say that this archive is a potential sea of sources for anyone working on socio-political history of late colonial Bengal. And not just that – for a change, it’s utterly enjoyable to spend your time at this archive – the staff is incredibly polite and always eager to help. There are several street food joints close by – if you fancy a cake or some nibble along with your afternoon tea, there are local bakeries, and if you stick around till the Archive closes at 5pm, you will be able to enjoy some of the finest chops, samosas, and rolls that Kolkata has to offer in the evening!

I would recommend and encourage scholars working on colonial Bengal to definitely make their way there – You would be in for a treat!

Just another Kings Blog?

Welcome to my new blog – Politics of Protest in Colonial South Asia. Before you wonder if this is just another Kings Blog, or if this is just another academic broadcasting her work, let me assure you this is not. But before we go into what this blog is about, a brief introduction about who I am.

I am Dr. Anwesha Roy, and I am a Marie-Curie Fellow at the History Department, Kings College London. My doctoral thesis focussed on various modalities of communal mobilization in 1940s in Bengal, specifically delving into the inter-relations between hunger, caste and communal politics. I am deeply interested in ‘mass’ politics, ‘crowd’ behaviour and their linkages with elite leadership. For my current project as a Marie Curie Fellow, I focus on revolutionary praxis and practical scope of violence within the ambit of Gandhian mass-movements, specifically the Quit India Movement in Bengal in 1942.

That was me. But now let’s return to what this blog is going to be. First and foremost, this is going to be an interactive space, where scholars, including myself, will contribute on various issues about politics of protest in colonial South Asia. We shall discuss themes like nature of protest movements, relationship between elite leadership and mass perceptions in protest movements, and the relevance of studying these in the South Asian context today. Through these blog posts, we shall also develop an understanding of why studying history is relevant in today’s context, and what the public role of historians (and academics in general) could and should be.