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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 10, New Delhi, February 20, 2021

Jata Shankar Jha (1926-2021): An Obituary of a Historian | Mohd Hussain Ganie

Saturday 20 February 2021


by Mohd Hussain Ganie *

 Jata Shankar Jha (1926-2021), one of the eminent historians produced by Bihar, passed away on Thursday, 4 February, 2021. His death is indeed a great loss to the academic world. He was born in a village in Rajnagar, (Madhubani), on 22 August, 1926. After completing Masters and PhD in history, Jha started his career with K.P. Jayaswal Research Institute and retired from the same Institute as its Director in 1984. During his long association with the Institute, he was devotedly engaged in researching and writing several pioneering books, plethora of rigorous research papers and monographs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it was none other than Jata Shankar Jha who infused a new spirit in the KPJRI and kept its legacy of research and publication alive for the future generations.

Being a meticulous scholar, Jha seems to have been very keen to look into the hitherto unexplored sources to reconstruct history in its diverse fields: society, polity, education, economy, etc., of Bihar. One of the important contributions, however lesser known, of Jata Shankar Jha is that it was he who sowed the seeds of preserving the historical records of Darbhanga Raj Archives for the first time It was due to his efforts that the Government of Bihar, the new University of Mithila, the Union educational Ministry, The Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) the Nehru Museum (NMML) and the National Archives of India, etc., interested themselves in the records preservation; while the Raj authorities generously agreed to allow the records to be systematically arranged and freely consulted.

Although it is true that Jha did not write on India as a whole, but he tirelessly worked on the region (Bihar) which was once not only the citadel of Indian civilization, an epitome of the endless diversity of the Indian subcontinent, but also, in the words of Sir John Houlton ‘The Heart of India.’ He was perhaps quite aware that studying regional or microhistory history is becoming more and more popular as it inherits the potential of tapping varied kind of sources for studying the various aspects of history. Today, when historical remains are disappearing in the race of rapid urbanization and other challenges, there is a desperate need of the historians like Jata Shankar Jha who was always very enthusiastic regarding the preservation of historical records, and understood that the study of history is incomplete without the study of regional history. Microhistory, as defined by Sigurour Gylfi Magnusson and Istvan M. Szijarto (2013), ‘is the intensive historical investigation of a relatively well defined smaller object, most often a single event, or a village community, a group of families, even an individual person.’ ‘Microhistorians hold a microscope, as held by Jha, and not a telescope in their hands. It is not known (to me) whether Jha had taken into account/or was inspired by the work of Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms,(1976); yet he has taken into keen consideration, the credentials of micro-history writing. Focusing on certain cases, persons and circumstances, microhistory allows an intensive historical study of the subject, giving a completely different picture of the past from the investigations’ about various hitherto unexplored and under-explored areas to come near to truth. Moreover, ‘a very real danger that comes out besets inquiries into collective historic personalities is that on the basis of inevitably limited knowledge we make unfair generalizations and unwarranted predictions.’

Jha, developed his Ph. D. thesis (1961) under the supervision of renowned historian K. K. Datta), into a book (1979), Education in Bihar (1813-1859).The work aims to trace the changes brought out by the colonial government in the education system of Bihar in particular till the 1850s. Jha’s main line of argument is that the British education did not prosper in the period from the Charter Act of 1813, when the introduction of English education was discussed for the first time, till 1859 perhaps because of the public hostility to the foreign rule. The early part of the work although repeats the well-known general information, but in the subsequent section it provides a detailed account of government schools in the Bihar province and some material on local policy and vernacular education.

One of the significant discoveries in the book is the story on the proposed Hindu College for Tirhut, which somehow couldn’t materialize. It eventually went to Calcutta and now endures as the Presidency College/University.

However, he seems to be very inconsistent, as pointed out by Peter G. Robb (1981); he at one place claims that educational progress was affected more by a boycott of government institutions than by the appreciation of English education, at other, he argues that the main cause of failure was the lack of demand for English education, that is the paucity of opportunities it opened up in Bihar as compared with Bengal. The author seems to have been closely hanging around the theme of educational official documents and as argued by Robb, ‘treats his sources rather uncritically, content to repeat their findings without probing their prejudices, rather in the same way as he is eager to believe in the brilliant tradition of learning’ in Bihar before the advent of the British.

Another important work of Jha is the biography of Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh (1858-1898) of Darbhanga with an interesting title Biography of an Indian Patriot: Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh of Darbhanga (1972). He rigorously searched the under-explored documents to construct the much neglected side of the Maharaja. He at one place claim that Maharaja was a great patron of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha (1870). The philanthropic works, administrative abilities and management of his estate (Raj Darbhanga) were highly praised by his contemporaries and recently gained popularity by the efforts of historians like Jata Shankar Jha. It is interesting to note that before Jata Shankar Jha, both mainstream nationalist historians such as Pattabhi Sitaramaya, Tara Chand, R. C. Mujumdar and some historians who worked on Bihar such as K. K. Datta, R. R. Diwakar, etc. have surprisingly left out the contribution of the Maharaja. It was Maharaja who contributed fund towards the formation of the Indian National Congress (INC), Jha cites five letters by A.O. Hume and W. Chandra Banerjee, first President of the INC in 1885, to Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh between 8th December 1891 and 28th June 1895.

Jata Shankar Jha’s wide scholarship again comes to the surface with the publication of his another pioneer work Early Revolutionary Movement in Bihar (1977). It was actually the long essay ‘Early Revolutionary Nationalism in Bihar’ published in the Journal of the Bihar Research Society (JBRS, vol. 55, 1969) which was later developed in the book form with a slight change in the title replacing ‘Nationalism’ by ‘Movement’. The author provides a detailed account of the early revolutionary movement in Bihar after the partition of Bengal in 1905. Keeping aside the reasons behind the emergence of the movement, the author delves into the factors which influenced the movement in Bihar and found that the movement could not receive the proper response in Bihar at par with other states. He also traces a brief account of some revolutionaries in Bihar such as Dr. J. N. Mitra, Babaji Thakur Das and Kedar Nath Banerjee and others. He says in the beginning of the work that after the 1857 uprising, Bengalis made a great impact on the political life of Bihar and says that despite the fact that Bengalis led much political influence in Bihar, they were unable to become the natural leaders of the Bihar people owing to their exclusiveness. Not only this, he was amongst few who first noticed that in the last decade of 19th century and first two decades of 20th century, which was crucial phase in Bihar’s history, many caste associations (Sabha) began to organize their members through various programs and initiatives.

Another best known work of Jha was the Aspects of the History of Modern Bihar (1988). This book is actually a compilation of the three lectures delivered by Jha as the K. P. Jayaswal Memorial Lecture. Here the author collected evidence from the archives and the newspapers of the period. The main focus of the work remains on the contribution of Bihar in the formation of Indian National Congress and Bihar’s relation and association with it in its nascent phase.

 Jha’s other historical works include his book-length essay History of Darbhanga Raja (1966) which undoubtedly proved quite helpful for subsequent scholars. Even it forms the backbone material for Stephen Hennigham’s A Great Estate and its Landlords in Colonial India: Darbhanga, 1860-1942 (1990) and Hennigham’s essay ‘Bureaucracy and control in India’s Great Land Estates: The Raj Darbhanga of Bihar, 1879-1950, (Modern Asian Studies, 1983). In order to promote further researches in the development of education in parts of Bihar, he publishedsome crucial primary documents (1972) as Beginnings of Modern Education in Mithila: Selections from Educational Records of the Darbhanga Raj, 1860-1930.

One of his widely known essays is ‘Anti-British Connection of the Khuddam-i-Kabba in Bihar’(1975). The essay documents the emergence of ant-colonial movements in late 19th and early 20th centuries among the Muslim elites of Bihar. He was perhaps the first historian to put forth the fact that how the Muslim hostility and resistance in India and Bihar in particular was increasing against the British activities during the Turko-Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and subsequent inter-war period (1914-1918) which became more piercing due to the campaign by the Anjuman-e-Khuddam-e-Kaaba (the society of the Servants of Kaaba) of Maulana Abdul Bari (1878-1926) of Firangi Mahal, not to be confused with Abdul Bari of Bihar. He highlighted that a large number of Anjumans connected with the Khuddam-i-Kaaba in different parts in Bihar such as Gaya, Jahanabad, Purnea, Muzaffarpur, etc., and their role in mobilizing funds and their increasing resistance against the foreign yoke.

The other well- articulated papers include ‘Early Printing Press and Newspapers in India’ (1964). The essay makes a content-analysis of Urdu newspapers of Bihar to comprehend the socio-political churning in the late 19th and early 20th century Bihar. He also pointed out an important fact that the first press in Bihar was introduced by the Christian missionaries when they opened a litho-press at Muzaffarpur in 1846 and rightly said that no such Hindi press was there till then . His other essays include ‘Early Revolutionary Nationalism in Bihar’, (1969), ‘Education in Bihar’ in Comprehensive History of Bihar, edited by K. K. Datta with Jata Shankar Jha (1976), ‘The Darbhanga Raj Records Office’, Proceedings of the Historical Records Commission, (XXXIV) ‘A Peep into the Darbhanga Raj Archives’, (1958).

His essays ‘Origin and Development of Cultural Institutions in Bihar’, (JHR, Ranchi, 1965), ‘An Unpublished Correspondence Relating to Bihar Hindu Sabha’ (JBRS, 1968), reveals the social base and backdrop of the organization; ‘Some Rare and Unpublished Documents in the Darbhanga Raj Archives on “Linguistic Problems”(Modern India, 1968), cites evidence pertaining to the dissensions created by the colonial government between the Urdu and Hindi protagonists; the then Lt. Governor of Bengal (1871-74), G. Campbell (1824-1892) hurling abusive expressions against Urdu, in his speech at Muzaffarpur in November 1871.

 The importance of Jha’s seminal works could be also measured in the sense that how he evoked the other scholars to delve into the history of this region particularly the landlords of colonial India such as Darbhanga or the history of education and early phase of nationalist movement in the Bihar province and the development of cultural institutions of the region. The Australian historian working on Bihar peasants and landlords, Stephen Hennigham (b. 1950), acknowledged that his only predecessor to delve into the Darbhanga Raj Archives for a major research project was none other than Jata Shankar Jha.

 Clive Dewey, while reviewing Jha’s three works together, aptly observed,
“Dr. Jha has now sunk three shafts into the history of this dynasty: an outline account of the Darbhanga Raj, from the first Chaudhuri-Kanungo in the early sixteenth century to the last maharaja (d. 1962); a biography of the most interesting maharaja of modern times; and a substantial introduction, a selection of documents connected with the Raj’s patronage of education between 1860 and 1930. All are competent, if unpolished, pieces of original research; required reading for any student of Mithila’s affairs. But their significance extends beyond their contribution to our knowledge of Maithil history. They represent a dual breakthrough in the historiography of Bihar. They are based upon a kind of source material, till now almost completely neglected; and the very choice of subject steps outside the modern Indian historian’s conventional frame of reference.”

Jha’s works are still quite helpful in tracing the history of the region for present scholars. For instance, Bihar and Mithila: The Historical Roots of Backwardness, by J. Albert Rarabacher (2017). However, I have come to know that, ‘in recent decades he had begun to almost hate being felicitated, honored or garlanded. The professional bodies like the Indian History Congress (IHC) never felt like listing his meticulously well researched books in its ‘awards of best books’ or by offering him to be a sectional President. He too did not feel like obliging the IHC’s proceedings with his essay or by attending its annual sessions. Both, it seems, preferred to remain averse to each other.’ It would be quite injustice and remiss on the part of those scholars working on the region for not acknowledging (which is a rising trend in our times) the life-long contribution of this great historian in academia.


Clive Dewey’s review-essay, in, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 10, Issue 03, 1976, pp. 453-460.
Gylfi Magnusson, Sigurour and M. Szijarto, Istvan, What is Microhistory? Theory and practice, Routledge, London &New York, 2013.
Jha, Jata Shankar, History of Darbhanga Raj, (Reprinted from the Journal of the Bihar Research Society), Patna, 1966.
Jha, Jata Shanka, Beginnings of Modern Education in Mithila: Selections from Educational Records of the Darbhanga Raj, 1860-1930, K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute (KPJRI), Patna, 1972.
Jha, Jata Shanka, Biography of an Indian Patriot: Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh of Darbhanga,  Maharaja Lakshmishwar Singh Smarak Samiti, 1972.
Jha, Jata Shanka, Mazharul Haque, Publications Division, Delhi, 1976, co-authored with Qeyamuddin Ahmad (1930-98).
Jha, Jata Shanka, Early Revolutionary Movement in Bihar, (KPJRI), Patna, 1977.
Jha, Jata Shanka, Education in Bihar (1813-1859), KPJRI, Patna, 1979.
Jha, Jata Shanka, Aspects of the History of Modern Bihar, (KPJRI), Patna, 1988.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘The Patna Conspiracy of 1857’, IHRC, XXII, Patna, 1956.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘A Peep into the Darbhanga Raj Archives’, Indian Archives, XII, pp. 45-50, 1958.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘Early Printing Press and Newspapers in India’, Journal of the Bihar Research Society, (JBRS) 1964.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘Origin and Development of Cultural Institutions in Bihar’, Journal of Historical Research (JHR), vol. 8, Ranchi, August, 1965.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘An Unpublished Correspondence Relating to Bihar Hindu Sabha’ JBRS, vol. LIV, 1968.
Jha, Jata Shanka, ‘Some Rare and Unpublished Documents in the Darbhanga Raj Archives on Linguistic Problems in Modern India, (Special Issue)’, JBRS, pp. 238-254, 1968.
Jha, Jata Shanka,‘Early Revolutionary Nationalism in Bihar’, (JBRS) Vol. 55, pp. 158-188, 1969.
Jha, Jata Shanka,‘Education in Bihar’, in Comprehensive History of Bihar, vol. 3, edited by K. K. Datta with Jata Shankar Jha, K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna, 1976.
Jha, Jata Shanka,‘The Darbhanga Raj Records Office’, Proceedings of the Historical Records Commission, XXXIV, pp. 33-41.
Partington, Gordon Geoffrey ‘Historical Generalization’, The History Teacher, 1980, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 385-400.
Robb, P. G., Jata Shankar Jha: Education in Bihar (1813-1859), 1979, (Review), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol, 44, Issue 2, 1981, pp. 398-399.

* (Author: Mohd Hussain Ganie, Research Scholar, Department of History, AMU, Aligarh)

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