Former PM Manmohan Singh, historians Ifran Habib, Guha keep in mind VN Datta


Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 2

Tributes poured in for late historian Vishwa Nath Datta who breathed his last on Monday with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laying a wreath in the memory of the departed soul and leading academics mourning the loss.

Remembering Amritsar born Datta, eminent historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted, “Professor VN Datta’s books on Bhagat Singh, Maulana Azad, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre are landmarks of historical scholarship. He was also a wonderfully generous human being. His work and example live on.”

In a heartfelt tribute, leading academic and historian Irfan Habib said, “The passing away of Professor VN Datta deprives the Indian community of historians of one of its recognised stalwarts. He had made events and aspects of the national movement his special field and whatever he wrote on it had the quality of definitiveness about it.”

“To me he coined in himself all the values one associates with the old Punjab – a composite culture based on Urdu as the common literary language – alongside an uncompromising attachment to modern secular values,” said Habib.

He said Datta’s secular outlook reflected in everything he wrote, whether on Sarmad, Jallianwalla Bagh, Azad or Iqbal. “It was a privilege to know him and learn at his feet,” Habib added.

Datta’s longtime colleague and historian JS Grewal remembered him fondly. “We have lost an eminent historian, a kind friend, and a generous host. My association with Professor Datta is more than half a century old. Without yet knowing him personally, I was struck by his enthusiastic discussions in the Indian History Congress Sessions. I never saw him in low spirits,” he said.

Noted litterateur Ashok Vajpeyi said, “Professor Datta was not only a scholar and teacher with unusual academic rigour and a deep-rooted vision, he was an intellectual who shared a pluralistic legacy with many others including such major writers as KB Vaid and Krishna Sobti. He would be dearly missed.”

Datta’s long career included his time as a contributor to The Tribune in which he started writing as a student at Lahore and went on to author “Off the Shelf”, a well-regarded column for years.

Among Datta’s most acclaimed works are Maulana Azad; Gandhi and Bhagat Singh; and Sati: A Historical, Social and Philosophical Enquiry into the Hindu Rite of Widow Burning.

The late academic’s daughter Nonica, an acclaimed scholar herself, told The Tribune of her late father’s unfinished works that include a book on the history of historiography; Ghalib’s Delhi; his Cambridge diaries and a biography of Sarla Devi, the daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s sister.

“My father had the correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarla Devi and was writing about their relationship. He was also eagerly awaiting the revised edition of Jallianwala Bagh, expected any time now,” Nonica said, recalling how her father gave up a lucrative government job to join the fledgling Kurukshetra University in 1960.

Survived by wife Kamala, daughters Nonica, Poonam and Anu and two grandsons, Datta, his peers say, will be remembered as a rare public intellectual with a cosmopolitan outlook, one who advocated a scientific interpretation of historical sources.

He was Professor Emeritus, Kurukshetra University, and formerly General President of the Indian History Congress.

With VN Datta’s departure, an era has ended, said Mohinder Singh, Professor and Director, The National Institute of Punjab Studies, New Delhi, of which Datta was one of the founder members.



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