State of the Field II

Irfan Habib, senior Mughal historian, has some thoughts in The Hindu, Subaltern studies a challenge to historians [via Naim Sahib]:

Talking to The Hindu on the sidelines of the 69th session of the Indian History Congress, which concluded on the Kannur University campus at Mangattuparamba on Tuesday, Professor Habib said globalisation was accompanied by an immense ideological offensive.

On the one hand, there was globalisation and on the other, “you are telling every country, along with every cultural community within that country, that your culture is different, your history is different,” he said.

Subaltern historians such as Ranajit Guha believed that only local alternative communities had history. That meant India did not have a history and even the working class did not have a history.

Professor Habib said the subaltern concept was similar to the view that Indian values were different from western values and, therefore, it could not be understood by western methods. That was the view of Edward Said, who said that oriental history could not be studied with critical tools fashioned in the west. That also meant that an Indian could not study Arab history. The post-modernist view was that every culture must have different tools.

According to this view, Marxism was a meta-narrative and rejected by Professor Said, subalterns and post-modernists. “British historians will never think of applying these methods to the British history. They are applying it to Indian history,” he said.

I think “talking on the sidelines” is awesome. But the critique rings hollow to me. The cultural relativism angle has been run to ground, no? He’d be hard pressed to find a card-carrying Subalternist nowadays.

While he raises a fair point about communalism not infesting the ranks of professional historians, he also seems to miss the point. The domestic consumption of non-academic historians has never rivaled that of the arm-chair variety. Bar Thapar.

State of the Field

update: On FRIDAY, JANUARY 2, there will be a roundtable discussion of the state of the field, moderated by David Ludden and possibly others. The event will be held in THE HILTON NEW YORK, NEW YORK SUITE (4TH FLOOR), FROM 5-7PM.

I will be there. See you all there, too.

Thinking out aloud about the historiographical landscape of current South Asian studies is a pretty silly thing to do at Medici’s coffee shop (“Obama Eats Here!”). You get all kinds of unsolicited advice – what do you mean Burton Stein’s History of India is under-appreciated?

If most of the 80s and all of the 90s can be given over to Subaltern Studies in particular and Postcolonial Studies in general, than how will we look back on these 00s?

Since 2000, I think these four titles are significant and merit (ed) widespread attention (in chronological order):

1. Dipesh Chakrabarty. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

2. Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Textures of time: writing history in South India 1600-1800. New York: Other Press, 2003.

3. Richard Eaton. A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

4. Sheldon Pollock. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

It is instructive that the latter three are concerned largely with the pre-modern. But maybe, this shows my bias more than a trend. Casting widely, I think the following would have to be on, again, my list of “significant” works on South Asian history since 2000.

  • Ronald Inden, Daud Ali and Jonathan Walters, Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia (2000)
  • Ayesha Jalal, Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 (2001)
  • Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, Refashioning Iran: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and Historiography (2001)
  • Cynthia Talbot, Precolonial India in Practice: Society, Region, and Identity in Medieval Andhra (2001)
  • Nicholas Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (2001)
  • Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (2004)
  • Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India 1200-1800 (2004)
  • Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space, 2004

Romila Thapar, Somanatha, the many voices of a history (2004), Partha Chatterjee, A Princely Impostor?: The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal (2002) and James Laine, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (2003) are of special interest to those of us who dabble in questions of memory and history.

Most recently (and this may very well be controversial), I think William Dalrymple and his The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 is going to leave a mark on the field. Hopefully, a positive mark. Looking ahead, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History is going to be monumental.

What would you add?

Birds of War

fp-02The aftershocks of Mumbai continue. The incursion, last week, of Indian jets into Pakistan’s airspace has galvanized the predictably jingoistic public, once again behind the Army. The Pakistan Airforce has started running low-flying sorties over major cities (Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad). Newspapers are reporting that crowds cheer when the planes fly over. The major airports have cancelled flights – at least, for the duration.

Over the last two years, the armed forces of Pakistan – the titular leaders – rapidly became a dirty word. Musharraf, corruption, failure to secure the cities, operations in Baluchistan and NWFP, all contributed towards an emerging discourse of “Army is bad for the country”. We saw the culmination of such sentiments in the February election and the resignation of Musharraf.

I am afraid those advances are now lost. On Pakistani blogs, the machismo of the “Pakistan, Fuck Yeah!” crowd is, once again, dominant. India is, once again, a militant target. Even the nascent student movement, which had taken to the streets during the Lawyers Movement, has donned the green colors of civil defense.


It is all frighteningly familiar. And here I was, hoping for change.


“The only way to stop these people is to take their money, so I say take the artifacts and sell them,” she said. “I’d ask any scholars who have a problem with that whether they have any family members that have been victims of terrorism. If not, they don’t have any right to raise an argument.”

An account of the intersections of the Chicago Persepolis Project and the global war on terror appears in Chicago Magazine: Gwenda Blair, Paying with the Past.


bahar-i danish

Bahār-i Dānish (Garden of Wisdom) by Munshi Ināyat Allah Kanbuh in the mid-seventeenth century. These are hikayāt (tales) of a romance between a prince Jahandar Sultan and a maiden Bahrawar Banu, translated by the narrator into Persian. Think Sheherzade, but with a Munshi.

I was delighted to find this on Google Books – though, it is scanned backwards, and is hard to read in the browser. The scanned edition is from the famed Naval Kishore Press, produced in 1879. Take a look at the way the text, the footnotes, and the notes intermingle on that front page. I absolutely love the upside-down notations. The day our web reaches this level of textual interminglings, is the day I will worry about print.