Imtiaz Rafi Butt
ON 19 February 2019, Stanley Wolpert died at the age of 91. His departure from this life was mourned by thousands of his students and readers from all over the world. His death has reminded the masses that even in this age of hassle and thoughtlessness, there are brilliant minds that are revered and acknowledged. With his long and illustrious career of teaching and writing, is a wonderful story of self-discovery, interest and glamour. Stanley Wolpert with his dedication to the history and culture of India and Pakistan was even more near and dear to people of both the nations. Widely read and celebrated, his death is a great loss for lovers of literature and history combined.
Stanley Wolpert’s life is an extra-ordinary example of the fact how a single event can change the course of one’s entire life history. Stanley was born to American parents in Brooklyn, New York around 1927. Initially, he began his career in the field of the Maritime engineering. After completing his formal education, he served on the US Merchant Marine Ship. When all seemed to be going smoothly, Stanley made a visit to Bombay, India in February 1948 where he came across his life changing experience of interacting with the socio-political arena in Hindustan. At the time, Gandhi’s funeral rights were being performed and there was an outpour of emotional scenes across India. Stanley instantly fell in love with the lure of the sub-continent. It was a time when India and Pakistan, as newly created nations were coming to terms with the fresh realities, considering that the British had left the Subcontinent for good. Stanley was fascinated by the split between Muslim Pakistan and dominant Hindu India. More so, the contrast in the personalities of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Gandhi, created in him a scholarly affection for writing and studying Indo-Pak history. And that is precisely, what he did for the rest of his life.
On his return from India, Stanley took no time in giving up his career as an engineer and formally joined Indo-Pak history studies. He completed his B.A, M.A and finally PhD in history of India and Pakistan from University of Pennsylvania in 1959. From that point onwards, Stanley became a name in the world of literature as an authentic source on history and culture of India and Pakistan. In 1975, he was awarded with the Distinguished Teaching Award by University of California, Los Angeles, among many others. Stanley published around 15 books in his lifetime including 4 novels while also serving as the Editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of India.
The hallmark of his teaching and writing career were attention to detail, dispelling stereotypes, creating key links between past and modern events and finally giving due consideration to personal as well as professional circumstances of the people he wrote about. Stanley was a great admirer of charismatic leaders and took great pride in researching diversified contexts of events in history. In his autobiography of Gandhi, he wrote about aspects of Indian politics that no had ever mentioned. He openly pointed out the neglectful attitude of the British and communal Hindu extremism that actually resulted in partition. His book titled, “Shameful Flight: The Last Years of British Empire in India”, vehemently criticized the failure of the British Raj to co-ordinate a peaceful and just exit. And that the colonial policies of the British had massive human and political fallout, for which, it will take generations to fix the damage done. Despite negative publicity and negative criticism, Stanley continued his work without second-thoughts.Stanley’s book on Gandhi also met the same fate. In the book, “Gandhi’s Passion”, Stanley described Gandhi as an incidental leader. According to him, it was the circumstances which lead him to become the face of India’s Freedom. Stanley wrote what he believed in. Many a writers like Swapan Dasgupta wrote against Stanley in words as, “”Wolpert’s biography is not the work of a professional historian…. it is essentially a sympathetic assessment, a study of Gandhi the saint that only tangentially — and with some glaring factual inaccuracies became a leader”. Stanley never took such criticism to his heart and stood his ground throughout his life.
Another book that achieved Stanley a lot of fame and closeness to the hearts of Pakistanis all over the world was, “Jinnah of Pakistan”. Most popular line of the book goes, “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Fewer still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone can be credited with creating a nation-state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah did all three”. In contrast to Gandhi, Stanley repeatedly admired Jinnah and his classy and adroit technique of conducting politics. According to Stanley, there was no individual in the whole Muslim League that could match the skills and calibre of Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Stanely Wolpert was an exceptional American author, but he holds a close connection to the people of India and Pakistan. In my opinion, he should be an inspiration to younger writers who are sons and daughters of the Subcontinent, who can take the mantle and re-ignite the flame of greatness in discovering our rich past. The works of Stanley Wolpert will remain a guiding light to every person and student who wishes to know the complex and convoluted history of Indo-Pakistan and how we emerged out of the clutches of hatred, colonialism and treachery. Let us hope that in times come, there will be another Stanley Wolpert who will uncover our past and shed light on the future, in the process.
—The writer is, Chairman Jinnah Rafi Foundation, based in Lahore.
Imtiaz Rafi Butt