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With the launch of ‘e-Abhilekh’, a Department of Archives website, almost 4 crore documents dating back to Mughal era are being digitised. Patriot finds out the importance of these documents

Ever wondered who owns the heritage buildings in Chandni Chowk? Or what the 19th century farmans of Mughal emperor Shah Alam II look like?

Documents like these and many more (4 crore), are now at your disposal with the launch of Delhi government’s Department of Archives’ website ‘e-abhilekh.’

It will provide the public a first-of-a-kind access to documents like the 500 pages of the 41-day trial of poet-king Bahadur Shah Zafar dating back to 1858. An old map of the railway network in Delhi to private manuscripts in Awadhi and Braj will also be uploaded.

Not only will the documents be available online, but the public can also download them for further research, or just browse through to know how the Capital functioned in the past.

Started with a budget of Rs. 29.46 crore, the project is being called the first-of-its kind in Asia. The aim is to help Indian scholars, foreign scholars and the general public. The interfaces too are separately designed for each one of the them.

One will also be able to find partition decrees and property papers which, according to archivist Sanjay Garg of the Department of Archives, will be helpful for legal purposes too.

“We have records since 1803 from the period of Shah Alam. We launched the project in 2017, we have to complete the uploading of documents by March 2020,” explains Garg.

The department has till now scanned 1.70 crore of pages of records, of which 60 lakh documents are already uploaded on the website.

“About 150 people are working on this project — we outsourced the digitising process to a company called Ninestars Information Technologies. We do the final quality control,” says Garg.

Access to the documents will not be wholly free. “We will include a payment gateway too, so that users can access high-resolution images. For now, we have only put low-resolution images,” says Garg. This payment facility is set to be included in the website by March.

While the project is for everyone, it specially targets students who are interested in history of the Capital or pursuing history as a career option. Students have been facing problems with limited first-hand resources for their research. The website will ease up that process, giving them one primary source.

Patriot spoke to Rohan Srivastava, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Maitreyi College to find out if these digitised archives will be really useful. He breaks down the initiative into two parts. “It will be very easy for scholars, particularly those who are interested in understanding land issues, that has been a problem since the 19th century in Delhi and the suburbs like Gurugram, Hissar and parts of Uttar Pradesh.”

Second, says Prof Srivastava, “It will give us clarity as to how this whole landscape which was basically a village scape, transformed into a more urban settlement. The agrarian relationship that developed around the vicinity of Delhi was not very clear even to historians.”

Also, “We do not have an answer how the linguistic plurality of Delhi was unshaped with the coming of English. These kind of questions will be answered by this initiative.”

College students are also looking forward to mining the data. Divisha Mohan, 20, a third-year student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, points out that “Getting access to primary source of documents is really difficult for undergrad students. We basically work off other people’s secondary resources and have to take their word for it.”

She thinks with this initiative, getting access to the primary source will help us in our own research, and validate the information. She also points out that there are places like Raza Library in Rampur which have primary source documents but are “kind of inaccessible.”

On the question of payment, which will soon be introduced on the e-abhilekh website, she says, “My parents can afford that but I think it’s unfair to a lot of students, because what’s the whole point of education then? Still, I think that digitising and cataloguing these documents is a huge step by the government.”

“I have been reading about Delhi and visiting different historical monuments,” says Abhishek Paliwal, MA History (Medieval) final year student in Ramjas College. “The subject is close to my heart. This project is a great initiative. As this is dealing with the later Mughals. Also, 1857 is an important watershed moment in Delhi as well as in the nation’s history. This will greatly help scholars, students as well as those seeking knowledge about Delhi,”

About the news that the trial papers of the last Mughal emperor will also be digitized, he says, “It’ll help to understand from a history student’s perspective the society of that time and how this transition from Mughals to colonial rule is happening. I am writing a paper on 1857 and one on the 18th century in India. So it personally will benefit me,” adds Paliwal.

Sahaj Parikh, an MA History student of Hindu College, is excited to see the documents on the website. He gave an example of historian Irfan Habib’s talks on Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan and the agrarian system. “He was influenced by European writings of French historian Marc Bloch. What we’ve been taught is that their models are outdated. We can no longer rely to what they say,” adds Parikh.

He adds that the older generation of historians were using Mughal sources, primarily Persian literary texts. He is eager to see whether the sources (on the website) “will corroborate what Prof Habib was saying or we will find a new perspective.”

Parikh also thinks that when it comes to paying for these documents, the government should have a special scheme for university students. His suggestion: “Suppose a university has a subscription to the website, then it could be free for the students.”

The Department of Archives insists that the fee will be “nominal.” Garg told Patriot that on the first day of the website, 74 users have registered themselves and it has had more than 3,500 hits.