Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Gentle Readers: A small discussion of Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book The Last Hindu Emperor (2015) that I gave on March 5, 2016

Thank you to Professors Akbar Haider Ali for the invitation to come today. To Professor Kamran Asdar Ali and Rita Soheila Omrani at the South Asia Institute for their hospitality. I am very pleased to be here today, and honored to speak about Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book- which is great, and you should purchase it, and read it immediately.

Let me start with a joke and an observation.

The joke was told to me by my advisor sometime ago in his class on Hindu Kingship.

I was in a rickshaw in India and I saw an ancient monument that I did not recognize, so I asked the rickshaw walay “How old is that building?” and he answered it is “five thousand and ten years old” and I said, “wow, that is very specific” and he said, “ji, I was told it was five thousand years old about ten years ago”.

Ronald Inden’s point in that telling was to mark the way in which totemic past (five thousand years) and material past (the monument) intersect with the re-telling of that past.

Now the observation. I was visiting Jahangir’s tomb located on the outskirts of Lahore in 2014. After spending a day at the tomb, I left it and hailed a rickshaw to take me back over Ravi into the city. As the rickshaw started to drive along the outer wall of the tomb’s enclave, I noticed a mihrab-like structure– almost like a chau-burgi– sticking out from the wall. Underneath the shade of the arch, there was a tea-stall. Puzzled, I tapped the rickshaw-walla and pointed at the mihrab and said, “yeh kab bana?” (when was this built). He looked over, and replied: “About three years ago. There was no tea-stall near here, so we are very happy that there is a place to get tea now.”

The structure, I was pointing, was invisible to my driver, for the tea-stall was occupying his field of perception. He had noticed only change over time.

These are two interlocked mentalités: our capacity to emphasize the durability of long durée past as well our capacity to notice only new-ness. These two capacities, the contestation between memory and history, as it were, lie at the heart of this wonderful work by Professor Cynthia Talbot.

We find ourselves in a specific historic moment, writ globally, when memory and history, community and politics, narrative and law are at loggerheads again. In the EU– specifically in Greece and Germany– we have the cities of refugees consisting of displaced, the dispossesed, the stateless, the deported and the exiled. That crisis, determined as it is by the political aftermath of Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, has prompted in Germany, France and Norway a stark battle to forget the history of “camp” from European memory.

In United States, Trump’s presidential run has triggered a specific set of re-memembrances as political theater. First and foremost, are the invocations of the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacist support for Trump. Trump’s theatricality does not, however, need to directly invoke the little remembered “Yellow Peril” campaigns of 1870s through 1920s when those of “Chinese and Indian” descent were barred from entering United States– for in his argument against immigrants from “terror prone” Muslim countries, all that is already implied.

In India, the Modi regime has opened up fronts over cow-protection, love jihad, reserved seats, and now academic freedom in JNU. The modes of the battle are familiar to observers of Indian history and politics. However, there is new-ness in that Modi is no longer merely the Prime Minister in India; his politics and world-view reverberate in diasporas especially the Hindu-American diaspora here. AK Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger, Jack Hawley, Andrew Nicholson and Sheldon Pollock are known adversaries for the Hindu-American Right. In either spaces (India or America), the power to interpret the past, and the capacity to point out historical contingency are met with rampant mobilization of masses and crowds. For the crowd, the totemic presence of the “Pakistani” on JNU campus or the “Swadeshi Indologist” on the Editorial Board comes with a specific understanding of historical injury, and thereby, present action.

What unites these three moments is not neo-liberal demaguogery but an argument for, or against, belonging. Who belongs where? who can ask for a right to be somewhere. We have been here before. Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” from 1795 was the cruel foil for Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida in the aftermath of the Mass-Killing of Jews and Roma peoples of Europe. In Arendt’s 1967 chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”– and its gloss by Jacques Derrida in On Cosmopolitanism from 1996– there was a critique of how the post-War nation-states had written out of their charters any category of Asylum which would allow the post-colonial world to impugn upon the recently-colonial world. Arendt pointed out, rightly, that this required an amnesia of the Roma people from the European imagination. Now, as the rhetoric in Netherlands or Germany or United States or India, turns to ripping valuables from the hands of the refugees, the history of the targeting of the Roma from 1930 Berlin to their 2009 expulsion from France, the insistent demands “Go to Pakistan”– we see what is clearly at stake.

Against this milieu, our field has produced three new works that speak to history and its contestation. I will not argue that this is a coincidence– rather that it is a confluence. The three works are Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014), Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2016) and Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 (2015).

What I would like to do today, is to first, speak on Professor Talbot’s book; remarking on the interventions that it offers to historians, and then present points of convergence and divergence with the other two texts. In my conclusion, I will try and answer why I see these historical works opening a critical new phase in South Asian historiography.





The story is simple enough: at some historical point a transition is memorialized between Hindu and Muslim political rule in India. This historical point differs for various communities– and Talbot’s book focuses on Prithviraj Chauhan who is cast as “The Last Hindu Emperor” by James Tod in the early nineteenth century. That is, he represents the end of the Hindu polity and arrival of the demonic Muslim one. Talbot takes the “idea” of Prithviraj as the subject– drawing upon Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux des memoire – a project launched in the 1960s by the historian Jacque LeGoff and sociologist Nora and deCerteau.

The project was explicitly nationalist– in that it sought to recognize the “constitutive” forms of French-ness, the Republic, the Nation, and a specific history of belonging that stretched from Michelet to Lavisse to Braudel and Bloch. The first volume, when it appeared in 1973, was already a response to the 1968 uprisings and the war in Algeria. Nora, and his compatriots, were then rescuing memory from history– a point of departure that I see here for Talbot’s work.

Talbot is not interested in separating memory from history per se and the approach is deconstitutive. Talbot faces an already formed idea of Prithviraj Chauhan and as a historian is interested in the formation of that idea, its forms and its social function. It is thus more cleanly seen as a Nietzschean project of genealogy: In his Untimely Meditations where Nietzche framed his critique, his concern was not with history or memory but with “triumphant historical culture”. Prithviraj Chauhan’s history and memory belongs to particular modes of triumphant historical culture, as Talbot beautifully demonstrates.

The earliest traces of Chauhan’s polity in Ajmeer and its movement to Delhi is traced through inscriptions, the earlier Prithviraj Vijaya conquest-epic, and the Persian chronicles of the thirteenth century such as Taj al Maathir and Tabaqat-i Nasiri and then Jain chronicles. Talbot moves through these sources to show various stages and strands of that fuller story of Chauhan which will not coalesce the Prithviraj Raso’s longer form in the sixteenth century associated with the bard Chand Bardai.

Talbot follows the Raso and its reception in Mughal texts, the ways in which it constitutes Rajput warrior and courtly culture in the sixteenth century. Talbot’s work here, in reading close the presence of Rajput family and warrior names and placing the acquisition of royal brides as political arms of the clan is remarkable. The Raso made the Rajput Great Tradition and there it emerges from the bardic Alha caste epics to the triumphant historical culture of Rajput courts. From there, the Raso is taken up by the court in Mewar and enjoys its most sumptuous visual and artistic form. Talbot thus is able to demonstrate not only the literary and mnemonic claims on history but its relationship to the political power.

The story in the second half of the book is what I have already called deconstitutive. Talbot traces the discovery of the text by the administrator James Tod and the marking of Chauhan as the “Last Hindu Emperor”. Talbot shows how Indian historians and philologists dealt with Tod’s claims about the Raso as well as how other strands of histories intersected with nationalist and anti-colonial claims in the twentieth century.

Talbot’s work thus demonstrates two key findings for us: first, that the historian of South Asia’s pre-colonial past must confront colonial forms of knowledge in her inquiry. This is a charge unique to the historian of the previously colonized world. The ‘discovery’ of manuscripts, inscriptions; the archeological forms; and the historical culture for India was determined between 1800 and 1930 and that reality remains our reality. The displacement of archives to London, Berlin or Cambridge and its attendant after-effect that a scholar be based in US or UK (where the monetary capacity to do research exists, or the capacity to read journals behind paywalls) is but one part of this.

Against this we necessarily need different methodologies for writing the past. Different is perhaps a stronger word– I mean particular or specific. Such is the project that Talbot has undertaken– to demonstrate how historical event and historical memory have intersected within political and social structures of South Asia across the colonial epistemic violence. This work, while building on earlier scholars like Richard Davis, Romila Thapar, Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam, yet pushes us further to combine book history, manuscript codicology, material culture, literary culture, and historical memory as one fluid source-material for history. That is the real innovation and intervention of this book.

As such, I see this book to be methodologically between two new texts– Shahid Amin’s and Phil Wagoner/Richard Eaton’s. Like Talbot, Amin traces the memory of an eleventh century sufi-warrior Ghazi Miyan through another sixteenth century text and its oral revival in nineteenth century ballads in UP. Amin’s is less textual and he is not arguing against a dominant colonial historiography– rather Amin is working to situate history into the local. Amin demonstrates the demands narratives of belonging make on landscape, on family, on stories. His effort is thus ethnographic, fragmentary and captured within different modes. At the other end of the spectrum are the material remains of the past which are re-used in medieval Deccan. Wagoner and Eaton, re-construct (pardon the pun) how building and memorialization practices of Vijayanagar and Bijapur drew upon Chalukya past. Their micro-studies are dominantly architectural and surmise the social function of this past.

Talbot’s work, placed within these two, thus offers us a continuum– from oral and local history to textual and material history . The three works deconstruct the colonial depiction of insular Hindu-Muslim binaries while building critical new understandings of medieval pasts. They also demonstrate how medieval history of India requires attention and simultaneous availability of Sanskrit, Persian, Kannada, Telegu, Hindi and more literary cultures. The careful work of book history, of philology, or cultural and social threads in the text, and the pivot to attend to power, sexuality and gender are all demonstrated in Talbot’s work.

Going back to the question of belonging, these three books written by scholars with long engagement with Indian pasts constitute a challenge to the triumphant historical culture of Hindutva or xenophobia. They are also a methodological argument which will shape the next two decades of historical writing for India. We are grateful to Cynthia Talbot for the gift of her work, and I hope we can carry on in the exacting spirit that the book personifies.

Thank you.

XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Tariq Rahman for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIV, V.]


unnamedNayanika Mathur is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Cambridge and has held research fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. Her book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

Tariq Rahman is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests broadly include real estate, financialization, development, the state, genealogy, and Pakistan.


  1. Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Paper Tiger.

There is an intended double entendre to the title, Paper Tiger. On the one hand, the book is quite literally about paper and tigers. More accurately, it is about paper and leopards but the word in Hindustani – bagh – is the same for tigers and leopard and, furthermore, both these big cat species are protected and governed by the very same legal regime in India. Literality aside, the critical point of the title is to assist in a rethinking of the developmental Indian state. Paper tiger is an oft-used descriptor for the Indian state, particularly with regard to its puzzlingly consistent failure to implement its sophisticated laws, plans, and policies. The phrase, kaghaz ka bagh, was utilized, loudly and poignantly, during a fieldwork episode when a man-eating bagh terrorized the town I was living in for several months. At that point, I was repeatedly told that the Indian state is nothing but a paper tiger (kaghaz ka bagh). That phrase stuck and as I slowly started writing my dissertation, which eventually became this book, I found it an eloquent ethnographically-derived term that could be utilized to conceptually work through broader concerns with the execution of law, workings of bureaucracy, and the tabulation of success/failure in the contemporary Indian state.

Continue reading “XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur”

The Work of Humanities

Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski
Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski

A few weeks ago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrated its 50th anniversary, alongside 60 years for The Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and more generally a record of excellence in research on South Asia dating back to the foundation of University of Chicago in 1892.

These are good times for the study of India at the University of Chicago. Just two years ago, with much fanfare, the University opened a Center at Delhi (to go along with other global centers in Paris, Beijing etc.). A few years before that the Indian Cultural Ministry put in $1.5 million to install the Vivekananda Visiting Chair. Earlier this year, was another major gift– The Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professorship in Sanskrit Studies– a Chair that will be held by Gary Tubb.

These are bad times for the University of Chicago. In Feb 2016, the S&Ps rating agency cut its credit rating to AA- citing “persistent and expected continued operation deficits, high debt burden and adequate financial resources for the rating with additional debt expected in fiscal 2017”.

This was all pre-dicted. In 2014, Bloomberg reported:

… inherited an ambitious program to improve campus life while bolstering highly regarded academic programs. The institution stuck to the plan even as it suffered a 21.5 percent loss on endowment investments in 2009. Its debt has grown in the past four years to $3.6 billion from $2.4 billion. “We well understand that borrowing for some of these investments entails risk,” Zimmer, whose $3.36 million compensation made him the highest-paid private college president in 2011, said in a statement in August after local reporters obtained a copy of the proposed financing plan. “We cannot, however, scale back our academic and programmatic ambitions in a way that risks our future excellence as a university.”

As a result in 2015, the University claimed to look towards re-couping their losses by focusing on non-academic staff:

… it is signaling a bureaucratic revamp covering some 8,000 nonteaching staff members whose compensation has been growing faster than faculty pay and university revenue. “This means a change in how we think about administrative costs, not just a temporary adjustment of expenses,” Provost Eric Isaacs warned in an April memo to faculty and staff. At a faculty meeting the next day, President Robert Zimmer said support functions that had grown in an ad hoc fashion could be organized more efficiently, according to an attendee who asks not to be identified. Another faculty member, who also requests anonymity, says Zimmer, when pressed, “clearly acknowledged that people were going to be losing their jobs.”

It came then as no surprise that two weeks ago, a number of departmental administrators in the Humanities Division were given a month’s notice for the termination of their jobs– with the stipulation that small departments would now share administrative staff as part of this re-structuring.

One of those given notice is Alicia Czaplewski– center stage in that photograph above, taken at that gala dinner celebrating SALC few weeks ago. In her 23 years of service to the University, she worked for nearly all of those departmental Chairs. In 2011, Alicia was celebrated by her students and awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students. Alongside Alicia, Tracy L. Davis, administrator for Slavic Languages & Civilizations, was also given notice.

The students, and faculty, have a petition in her support that I urge you to read, if only to see how big an impact Alicia has had over the last fifteen years.

I want to, however, tell what it means to be an “Alicia” in a top private University at the Southside of Chicago. I have little to add about the so-called ‘corporatization’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ of the University. Such paeans are deeply ahistorical and ignore the very foundation of such private enterprises.

From 1998 to 2008, I worked in the administrative offices of University of Chicago– first five years for the Social Sciences Division and the last five for the Humanities Division. I worked at least 40 hours even before I became a benefits-eligible full-time employee in 2005. As a graduate student, I was hired at an hourly rate to build the computing administrative structure for the Divisions– payroll, accruals, reimbursements, procurement, accounts payable. This work introduced me to the administrative structures which remain invisible to students or faculty as part of everyday academic life. The systems was organized and run by people like myself, departmental administrators, finance managers, grant managers, secretarial staff, and facilities staff. For ten years, I worked almost exclusively with women of color and working-class women from Chicago’s suburbs. The average service time for these tremendous workers was never below a decade– with services rendered in 20, 30 and even 40 year cycles.

I worked with these women as they gave support, catering to the demands, whims, desires, and complaints of faculty who were paid hundreds times more and without participating in either the prestige economy or the benefits economy of the University on equal terms. Alicia, and her daughters, would pick up Speakers and Visiting Professors coming from India, at the Airport to save the department costs of taxi services. They would house them, assist them in cultural and legal translations; work late into the night, and over the weekend to help critical departmental business go forward. All of this was labor unpaid, and required, for the mere functioning of the department. All of this labor was done by Alicia, and Tricia, and Anne and every other departmental administrator for the sake of their Chairs and their tenured faculty. I bear direct witness to this labor and I know that it was done without any ‘cost-sharing’ with the University.

That was not all. Any Ph.D. program is necessarily structured to debilitate one’s sense of self-hood and sanity. Whatever sadism is intended by this ‘rite of passage’ the fact is that mental health services were not a part of Graduate Student benefits during my time at Chicago. Life– marriage, birth, death, divorce, trauma– had to happen off-screen and far away; there was no institutional ways outside of the tried and failed “leave of absence”. That task of mental health wellness for Graduate students, and faculty, was also the task of the women sitting in the departmental offices. They were the confidants, the shoulders-to-cry-on, the help, the surety of purpose for the hundreds of students and faculty. This too was uncompensated labor. In the petition, Alicia is called “the Foster Mother” (the building in which SALC is housed is Foster Hall). She was not anyone’s mother that attended or worked in Foster Hall. That she was asked to play that role is itself a condemnation of the way in which Humanities operated at Chicago. Her love and grace saved many a dissertation, and that work clearly won her devotion from the hundreds of students. That love, however, was not what she was being paid to do.

In my ten years at University of Chicago, there were many, many like Alicia who belonged to the South Side community and who served the University. When the University made a decision on how to face financially uncertain times, it relied a priori on an understanding of waste within its operation– redundancies, expired utilities, inefficiencies. To clear that waste, the most disposable people were these lower administrative staff. The access of such denizens of the South Side to a lower-middle class life, via employment at the University, has now ended at the University and the stories of retirements, lay-offs are all too common.1 In my ten years, I also witnessed the hiring and setting up of countless new “Deputy Deans” and “Associate Deans” in the Humanities– all charged with managing what was deemed unmanageable without centralization. I can assume that no cost-sharing is happening at the Divisional level.

The faculty at University of Chicago have been abdicating their governance over such matters for a long while now– and I do not know if the rally to save the SALC position will be successful. I hope that it is– but what about the Slavic position? what about the other redundancies? The financial crisis remains as do the newly built very tall, all glass structures erected by the University to house art centers or alumni relations. The time for tightening the belt is only for small departments, and those who run it, not for the grand funding campaigns and the constructions of the new New. The University is a university only if it can keep growing, keep expanding.

All that said, for the faculty and the students of SALC, there is no greater articulation of their engagements with the University than Alicia Czaplewski. They have all rallied to save her and I hope we succeed. I predict, however, that in not too distant a future they will be asked to save that department itself. It is already too late. Until then, I wanted to document the immense contributions of Alicia to the intellectual, social, and legal life at Foster Hall. We all owe her.

  1. University of Chicago is no friend to the community in which it has lived. It’s ethos “life of the mind” cherishes the fact that the mind is not attached to a body, and that body is not colored. The horror stories of its “largest University Police Force” are countlessly documented but less documented, or understood, is its neo-colonial restructuring of urban landscape in Hyde Park. The Urban Planning and Sociology departments worked closely with foundations to make the University part of the national conversation. See LaDale Winling, “Students and the Second Ghetto: Federal Legislation, Urban Politics, and Campus Planning at the University of Chicago,” Journal of Planning History (2011) The history of its refusal to allow a Trauma Center on the South Side is, in itself, a brutal history to behold. []


Here is a game we used to play in Berlin. The idea began with trying to combat the righteousness with which we each organize our thoughts on our intellectual projects. When asked to narrate this to someone else, and when someone else says, ‘have you thought about…?’, we either compartmentalize that feedback (‘I will look this up later’) or dismiss it for not being serious enough. How do we teach ourselves, and others, the art of empathetic listening?

So the game goes this way. We know that 7 is a magical number: the average time to completion of dissertation, the number of years on the tenure clock, the average number of chapters in a monograph. Among other things. So, 7 minutes.

We started with a pair AB. A would begin and speak for exactly 3 minutes– they can speak about the main questions animating their research or a particular chapter or whatever they wish. They are asked to speak at a normal pace (not rush) and speak to a peer audience. As the buzzer sounded, they stopped, and immediately B picks up. B picks up the narrative, and continue speaking about the project, adding questions, themes, concerns to As ideas but drawing upon B’s own expertise, ideas, concerns and delights. However, critically, B is asked to add, augment, grow, consider, elaborate and NOT deconstruct, destroy, deteriorate. B speaks for exactly 4 minutes. At the end, there is a 3 minute period when those listening (not A not B) indicate what they liked, and help elaborate and illuminate.

The exercise was built as an antidote to the generic workshop where a colleague’s paper etc is ‘critiqued’– that is, its gaps, elisions are pointed out for the scholar to address and what the listener feels is a lacunae is attended to. We wanted to have a place for anticipatory thinking where both as a speaker and as a listener, one tries to think alongside and in tandem to.

It was a fun game and some cool things happened and then we stopped. There was another game where we downloaded weird powerpoints (usually from .mil) and did karaoke with them.

Use as you will.

In Memoriam: Nasser Hussain

CM joins our colleagues in remembering Nasser Hussain, legal theorist and scholar at Amherst, who passed away on November 9, 2015. Today, Amherst College is holding a memorial in Johnson Chapel. These are heavy times– Shahab Ahmed, Nasser Hussain, Barney Bates, the Rudolphs– for students of South Asia. Yet, they have all forged a path forward for scholarship to follow, and for ideas to flourish. Hussain’s book (as mentioned below by Professor Datla) remains a critical intervention in South Asian studies. One trenchant example is Hussain’s reading of Counter-Insurgency manual. Hussain’s critical acuity and engagement with imperial politics in that piece is fully recognizable to the readers of his scholarship. Our hearts and thoughts are with the family and colleagues of Nasser Hussain. Please find below remembrances by Professor Datla, Baxi and Lokaneeta.

Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Associate Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

Nasser Hussain’s PhD dissertation and his first book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (University of Michigan Press, 2003), begins with a description of Pakistan’s post-independence legal crises– more specifically, the 1955 Supreme Court case that considered the Governor General’s dissolution of the constituent assembly and rule by decree. In doing so, this work proclaimed the centrality of Pakistan’s historical experience to attempts to understand the conditions of modern law, and the relationship between the rule of law and state power. This was because of the importance of the British Empire to the legal history of large portions of the globe. But it was also the case because in the history of colonial India one could see, perhaps more starkly than other contexts, how and why emergency law came to be. This study analyzed the tension between sovereign emergency and the constraints of the rule of law in a colonial territory even as it traced the impact of that tension on the development of western legalities more broadly. In British India, this pioneering work showed us, a conquest state spoke the normative language of law in ways that are of continued significance. The postcolonial peoples and states were shaped by that specific history, as well, the various contexts in which ‘emergencies’ are managed by global powers.

No ordinary South Asianist and no ordinary scholar, Nasser Hussain will be deeply missed by his colleagues, students, and scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents. Humble and generous, Nasser may have objected to us speaking too much about him as a person. But ferocious in his pursuit of ideas, he would have had a much harder time objecting to us making a first attempt to appreciate the influence of his contributions. In the months that follow, there will undoubtedly be more extended discussions and publications about the range of Nasser’s work and its continued relevance to discussions of history, law, the humanities, and politics in South Asia and beyond. Here we hope to offer an initial and diverse set of reflections on his profound contributions.

Upendra Baxi
Emeritus Professor of Law
University of Warwick and Delhi

The sad demise of Nasser Hussain, on November. 9, 2015, who taught in the Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought since 1996, signifies an immeasurable loss for the world of juristic learning. His outstanding work on the states of exception that stood for a ‘jurisprudence’ of constitutional emergency is still relevant to a deeply troubled world. So is his work (coedited with Austin Sarat) on forgiveness, mercy, and clemency. Close colleagues and students know him as a deeply committed teacher and as a pioneer in the field of law and colonialism.

I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally but am deeply influenced by Nasser’s works. In the global context today, his analyses of colonial law, the linkages between martial law and massacre, and the aporia of the rule of law remain abiding and poignant. No ideologue, he has bequeathed us a legacy of critical legal thought under conditions of colonialism that also speak (beyond South Asia) to contemporary neoliberal authoritarianism and the necessity of taking social and human suffering seriously. Nasser Hussain speaks for all subaltern scholars when he depicts how basic human freedoms are obstinately, even obscenely, denied everywhere by the triumphant market and state fundamentalisms.

Jinee Lokaneeta
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Nasser Hussain’s death on November 9, 2015 has felt like a deeply personal loss but has actually left a void in a much wider intellectual and political community—regardless of whether one knew him personally or not. I met Nasser during my graduate student days and was fortunate enough to have him engage with my work and remain a supportive figure over the years. His insightful and brilliant comments, gently but firmly articulated-— often with a beautiful smile—- had a way of staying with me long after our conversations ended, and influenced my work perhaps much more than he (or I) realized. His comments and his work have been so fundamentally transformative, above all, because his work while being disciplinarily rigorous as a legal historian could not be contained by disciplinary boundaries in ways that was quite intentional, making his iconic book Jurisprudence of Emergency a shared legacy for all.

As a political theorist, what inspired me the most was his ability to utilize theoretical concepts (that may have emerged in very specific contexts and were therefore necessarily embroiled in debates on their utility elsewhere) and brilliantly apply them to extremely complex historical events in ways that do justice both to explaining the particular event and further developing the concept theoretically. An excellent example is found in the chapter from his book titled “Martial Law and Massacre: Violence and the Limit.” He uses Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence to analyze the relationship between law and violence in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre committed by the British in colonial India. Rather than understand martial law as a way to enforce law and order, Nasser argues that it actually represents a performative and foundational violence required to recreate the (colonial) state’s authority. The problem for the colonial state in dealing with the excessive force used in this massacre is that the event might reveal the foundational violence that lies at the heart of the rule of law; this the state attempts to conceal but struggles to contain. Martial law and massacre become reflective of the ambivalent relationship of law and state to violence.

Being a theorist and historian of the rule of law and emergency, it was not surprising therefore to see him play a prominent role as an educator, public intellectual and as a theorist to make sense of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba in the post-9/11 context. Nasser was a member of the group of legal historians that wrote an amicus brief on the right to habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees in 2004 (in Rasul v. Bush); he was also a part of a related virtual teach-in that included more than 200 colleges and universities in 2006. It was his concept of hyperlegality (See “Beyond Norm and Exception”) that eloquently explained the ways that law could actually enable the existence of a space such as Guantanamo even as most theorists turned to Agamben and Schmitt to term it a State of Exception, and political critics resorted to defining it as a “lawless” space. The ability to recognize what “rule of law” could accommodate in the form of new laws, regulations, procedures (prompting a continued struggle with the tensions within the law) in both colonial and postcolonial times was what Nasser’s work and interventions taught us…Grateful for the support over the years; the conversations shall continue, dear Nasser.

To Barney

Bernard Bate (Barney to all) was a profoundly gifted scholar of Tamil language and an anthropologist. He was currently a Humanities Fellow at Stanford– while being the HoS of Anthropology at Yale-NUS in Singapore. His sudden passing has left all of us who knew him and admired him and loved him in profound shock. He was 52. This is a great loss. Just a few days ago, he gave a wonderful talk at Berkeley on Tamil oratory.

Barney visited CM often and he commented with glee and I know that he liked the spirit and style of our work. Here is a tweet that captures his spirit well.

We will miss him. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

XQs V: A Conversation with Eric Beverley

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank our long time friend, Qalandar, for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIII, IV.]


ELB_XQ_photoEric Beverley is Associate Professor in the History Department at State University of New York, Stony Brook. His book, Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c. 1850-1950, come out in 2015 with Cambridge University Press. Professor Beverley used to write for Chapati Mystery as Dacoit after being apprehended by Sepoy at a Chicago cabbie joint.


1. Over the last few years, there have been a number of books on Hyderabad in the years leading up to 1947 (e.g. Kavita Datla’s The Language of Secular Islam; Margrit Pernau’s The Passing of Patrimonialism; and of course your own)— what do you think is interesting (and/or relevant to our moment) about Hyderabad’s intersection with the modernity ushered in by colonialism?

Hyderabad, like other similar ‘minor’ states, provides a critical entry point for conceiving the making of modern South Asia outside of the rather strained and essentialized narrative of colonial or nationalist modernity. I think there are several aspects of the contemporary moment that make histories of Hyderabad particularly important now – I’ll describe three key ways this history is crucial for thinking about the past and present of South Asia and the world.

First, the history of Hyderabad (and other minor states) is critical to situating many contemporary developments in context. Historical scholarship on South Asia over the last few decades has tended to take colonialism and victorious statist nationalisms that prevailed in South Asia after decolonization as the relevant background for viewing subsequent political, social, and cultural trends, shifts, and conflicts. The limits of explanatory frameworks founded on colonialism and nationalism are becoming all the more apparent. The British dominated the subcontinent often using intensive coercion, but their power was regionally inflected in particular ways. Places like Hyderabad that were not under formal British rule maintained their own state institutions, and sheltered social and cultural domains distinct from those in Raj territory. Further, while the projects and paradigms that constituted Indian and Pakistani postcolonial nationalism were substantial and formative in many regards, the subordination of different parts of the new nation-states to these visions was highly uneven. Neither the history of British rule itself, nor of the policies of postcolonial nation-states, sufficiently explains many key trends in contemporary South Asia. Several dynamics bear out historical legacies other than those of the Raj: the enduring resonance of patrimonial political networks and particular kinds of alliances (the Muslim—Dalit alliance in the Hyderabad Deccan, for example), idioms of solidarity, and even forms of architecture or economic development in a number of places; broader trends such as movements for new provincial states or domains of autonomy in places such as Telangana, Swat, and Balochistan; the rise of radical Marxist autonomous zones in the old borderlands of minor states like Hyderabad or Bastar. Close attention to the history of places like Hyderabad provides basic historical context critical to developing nuanced explanations of these and many others dynamics.

9781107091191Second, the example of Hyderabad helps us move beyond pervasive stereotypes about the possible meaning of Muslim statecraft. Increasingly for the last few decades, and seemingly more so every day, various idioms of right-wing Islamism (from ultra-conservative to radical militant) have occupied a central position in global political discourse. Policy ‘experts’ and popular media cast these forms of politics, real and imagined, as the preeminent threat to stability and security in most of the world, and present them as proof of the incompatibility between Muslims (or at least those who regard Muslimness as a basis for political ethics) and most states and societies in the world. Viewed from Hyderabad, the widely varied dynamics of continuity and change from the early modern period, through the era of British colonial dominance in the region, and into the postcolonial period are visible in ways that they are not from the perspective of British India. Hyderabad provides examples of the ways that idioms and institutions of Muslim dynastic political authority remained resonant in South Asia owing to their vitality to existing state forms. My book, like the others you mention, traces the complex and productive engagements between Hyderabadi intellectuals and officials and dynamics in British India and elsewhere. I show that what we see in Hyderabad from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century represents an attempt to fashion a self-consciously modern state form founded on the idea of solidarity with other Muslim states, progressive principles such as inclusion and aid towards all segments of society, and technical and institutional innovation informed by contemporaneous global developments. Put another way, Hyderabad State provides a glimpse of very different manifestations of ‘the Muslim state’ than we have become accustomed to hearing about in public discourse.

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