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.

One Reply to “State of the Field II”

  1. hey, what do you mean there are no more card carrying subalternists? surely there are professional historians who still believe in the incommensurability of the other, no?

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