13 December 2012


Surendra J. Patel
Six years back, an economist called Surendra J. Patel passed away. He seems to have been both prolific and respected in his day—the Hindu’s obituary of him, from which a bit is reproduced below, suggests so. Perhaps his major works are still sometimes read by economists and historians in a library or two. At Permanent Black, however, there would have been no reason for his writing to be remembered had a section in one of his essays not struck an editor here as unusually felicitous—in fact, as prose much more expressive than any that editors in scholarly publishing, weather-beaten and teeth-gritten by academese, expect to see in an essay on the economics of agriculture. To be fair to the late Dr Patel, this compliment cannot be laid as a charge upon his entire essay, the bulk of it being what Dr Patel meant it to be, namely, sound agricultural economics. Orwell and Woolf don’t lurk between its lines. The whole isn’t remotely a stab in the direction of economics as art. It is, still, an excellent essay about the poor which tells us precisely how poor the poor were in (naturally) colonial India.
Editors who find themselves publishing scholarly books often emerge from departments of English. They tend therefore to be the sorts of people who have their eyes constantly peeled for the literary element in what they’re reading, editing, and publishing. In India, where idiomatic English prose is melting away faster than Greenland, the discovery even of little nuggets of such writing makes these editors fall down weeping and give thanks to the Lord for small mercies. For some members of this profession, who live in a constant state of despair about the fact that their entire earning lives will pass by with them having time to read virtually nothing but academic prose, these rare discoveries of heavenly Manna upon the desert sands of scholarly writing can constitute the entire raison d’etre of editorial existence. (Obligatory footnote: Speaking of Manna, Philip Larkin remarks that the Israelites, coming unexpectedly upon it in their days of starvation, may have exclaimed: ‘And what the fuck is this?’)

In the years after Independence and well into the 1980s, when a lot of Indian history was economic history and the rural poor comprised most of the country, one of the issues that greatly absorbed historians was, to put it simply, 'Who made us so poor?' Surendra J. Patel was among the earliest to argue that it was British rule that did us in. For this he was soundly scolded by, among others, the economic historian Dharma Kumar, on the grounds that Indian princes and regimes before the Brits weren't exactly benign and full of fellow feeling towards those they lorded it over, and that if you looked at matters closely enough feudalism didn't look all that much sweeter than colonialism. It sounded a bit anti-national to, implicitly, equate the Mughals and the Brits, and much intellectual warfare ensued over how much worse Queen Victoria was than Akbar and Aurangzeb. The fight continues in different shapes and forms, the arch-defender of imperialism Niall Ferguson being now the devil incarnate-cum-punching bag for the bulk of Indian historians: if Ferguson hadn't done us the favour of existing, we'd have had to invent him.
Be all this as it may, what merely struck someone in Permanent Black as an unusually expressive passage lies within a subsection on bonded labour in an essay by Surendra J. Patel entitled ‘Agricultural Labourers in Modern India and Pakistan’. No one, to our rather limited knowledge, shone a torch on Indian serfs in prose as nice as this:

Bonded or Semi-Free Labourers
In the economic literature dealing with agricultural labourers, this class has been generally designated as ‘agrarian serfs’. It is true that such labourers, though free de jure, work under conditions which resemble those of serfdom and, in some cases, of slavery. It should be pointed out, however, that freedom is not denied them through the exercise of force by feudal aristocrats, as was the case with feudal serfs. Neither are they like the Greek or the Roman slaves, who were largely prisoners, captured from defeated armies or conquered territories; nor are they like the African slaves, who were turned into an article of trade by ruthless man-hunting expeditions. These differences make it necessary to examine the nature of their bondage and its causes in somewhat greater detail.
It is generally agreed that the immediate cause of acceptance of such bondage in India at present is the need on the part of labourers to secure advances of money. Thus what appears to be an immediate cause is monetary and not so much the combined sanctions of custom, tradition, and personal power of the master. The relationship between the labourer and the master should not have been, under normal conditions, different from that of a debtor and a creditor. The reasons for the present bondage, however, are to be found in the particular evolution of Indian society in the last century and a half, during which the would-be debtor has become so desperate and the creditor so exacting that what would have normally been a free and legally equal position between two equal parties, mutually executing a contract of debit and credit, has, in reality, turned into a status of virtual slavery for the former and absolute dominance by the latter. Since a monetary loan is the characteristic of the bonded labour system, it should be distinguished very sharply from slavery or feudal serfdom. This type of ‘monetary bonded labour’ could not have existed in the essentially non-monetary economy of pre-nineteenth-century India.
In this earlier society, there were menials and domestic servants whose subsistence was guaranteed by an allotment of certain acres of land, or by granting them the claim to a certain proportion of the produce of each cultivator. These traditional arrangements of guaranteed subsistence were considerably weakened during the period of disintegration of village communities; the displaced menials, in the absence of alternative occupation, were forced to seek some form of guaranteed subsistence. It was this compulsion that forced the menials to accept bondage. The advance of money, for marriage or any other purpose, was more in the nature of a mutual recognition that the system of bondage was approved by both parties. To say, therefore, that marriage, and the advance of money which is generally used for it, are the cause of the institution of bonded labour is like saying that the exchange of wedding rings between a man and a woman is the cause of their marriage.

For people led by the above to ask where they can read the full essay, the answer may not, for now, be much help, because it was published in the Indian Journal of Economics, vol. XXXIII, July 1952. Are you near the Ratan Tata Library of the Delhi School of Economics? If not, wait a bit: the paper will be republished by Permanent Black in a collection edited by Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar, CASTE IN MODERN INDIA: A READER (Permanent Black, 2013). The indefatigable Sarkars have assembled this monument to caste, which will run to about a thousand pages, in two volumes. It will serve as a companion to their two-volume anthology, WOMEN AND SOCIAL REFORM IN MODERN INDIA, which has proved invaluable to students and teachers of gender relations in India over the past couple of hundred years.
Surendra J. Patel is one of several scholars resurrected within the Caste Reader. We feel additional affection for him because, being dead and having written this essay more than sixty years ago, his copyright had lapsed and we needed to pursue neither a live scholar nor heirs nor a literary estate for permission to reproduce his essay. For a publisher, literary turns of phrase make life bearable; not having to chase copyright permission makes it ecstatic.

Extract from THE HINDU of 19 December 2006
Surendra J. Patel dead

[…] Surendra J. Patel, an eminent Indian economist and distinguished international civil servant, passed away in Geneva on December 15. After completing his Ph.D. in economics in the United States, he briefly taught economics in Gujarat. He joined the United Nations in 1950 and served in various organisations in the U.N. system till his retirement in 1984. Subsequently, he worked in the World Institute for Development Economic Research (WIDER), a unit of the U.N. University located in Helsinki, Finland.

He was also a visiting professor at the University of Sussex in the U.K. and at Dalhousie and Saint Mary's universities in Halifax, Canada. Dr. Patel worked in many U.N. Regional Economics Commissions […] he published a five-volume study on technological transformation in the Third World (London, 1993). Dr Patel wrote his thesis on the secular trends in the evolution of the world economy.

He returned to this theme during the later stage of his career and produced seminal papers on the post-war trends in the evolution of the economics of the developing countries and on their arrival on the world economic scene. In spite of his preoccupation with international economic issues, Dr Patel remained concerned with the problems of India’s economic development. His works on the subject include The India We Want (1965), Essays in Economic Transition (1965), and Indian Economy Towards the Twenty First Century (1993). As a development economist, Dr Patel remained committed to equity, fairness, and justice in the international economic system, the philosophy reflected in all his works.

25 November 2012


Portrait of the historian as a young man

who not that far back in recent history was feared as the enfant terrible of Indian history, has just won the Infosys Prize for History 2012. Subrahmanyam's achievement is based in part on his utterly unusual genius for mastering virtually every European and South Asian language that the Indian historian needs. This has enabled him to range temporally from medieval to modern South Asian history, spatially from the Mughal to the Ottoman to the empires of Europe, and 'generically' from biography to travel literature to political thought to economic and cultural history to the acerbic critical essay. It may even be accurate to say, in fact, that no single historian of South Asia has ever been able to authoritatively span as large a terrain as Subrahmanyam. And the fellow's only just crossed his forties -- leaving, we hear, a fair number of fellow historians foaming at the mouth, specially as Subrahmanyam has never been famous for pulling his punches.

Speaking of unpulled punches, the extract below is taken from one of Subrahmanyam's irreverent essays in a book by him, Is Indian Civilization a Myth?, which Permanent Black will publish early in 2013. The extract gives a delightful glimpse of how this historian views some of his contemporaries, as well as the tongue-in-cheek and iconoclastic style that distinguishes some of his writing and removes him (when in this vein) from the more prosaic methods common to serious historical expression. 

[...] the ‘Cambridge School’ in relation to the historiography of India and South Asia is a notoriously slippery object. It should not be confounded with at least two other ‘Cambridge Schools’: that associated with Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and the analysis of the history of political ideas (or ‘ideas in context’); and that associated with Joan Robinson and a form of leftist political economy. The India-related Cambridge School is variously associated in its foundation with figures such as John (Jack) Gallagher and Eric Stokes, continuing through Anil Seal, and encompassing a whole host of others such as Gordon Johnson, B.R. Tomlinson, and Christopher Baker, who often published both essays and acerbic book reviews in Modern Asian Studies, a journal created in the mid-1960s.
The ‘school’ never wanted to identify itself as such. It was instead identified in those terms by its targets and primary opponents, namely nationalist Indian historians who had written in the 1950s and 1960s of matters concerning the Indian national movement. The purpose of the Cambridge historians was seen as demystifying Indian nationalism, cutting the heroic mythical figures of the national movement down to size, and stressing the extensive collaboration of ‘native’ elites in the running of the British empire in India. A part of this was Lewis B. Namier’s notion of politics as really the affair of men in smoke-filled rooms, but the thrust was to stress the importance of interests over ideologies. In this process, British official papers and documents were diligently mined, but none of the historians trained in Cambridge (or Oxford) in the 1960s paid much attention to sources other than those in English.
       ‘Subaltern Studies’ on the other hand did identify itself as a project and was self-consciously run somewhat like a journal by a collective of Indian and a few British historians, initially based (to 1988) in India, the United Kingdom, and Australia. It emerged in the late 1970s and was linked in its early stage with Maoist student politics in India. It appears to have crystallized when a number of key figures, such as Ranajit Guha (born in 1923, and a clear generation older than the others, who were really his disciples), Gyanendra Pandey, and Shahid Amin found themselves together in, first, Delhi, and then England. At this point there was nothing transatlantic at all about it, apart from the paradox that Guha was funded for a time by the Ford Foundation in India. There were no American passport-holders or even academics who taught in the United States in the founding collective. In the 1970s, in the context of the Vietnam War, their entry into such a collective would probably have been quite unacceptable.
In its primary incarnation Subaltern Studies targeted both Indian nationalist historiography and the Cambridge School, alleging that both were profoundly elitist in their bias. The experience of common folk—peasants, workers, tribals——had been neglected by them in favour of a narrative where the high politics of the British–Indian encounter was the focus. There was no emphasis by Guha and others, though, on using vernacular sources; it was simply pointed out that even official British sources could be read in a manner sympathetic to the ‘subaltern’ classes. This enabled historians who worked solely with English-language materials, such as David Arnold, to participate in the project, a shared anti-elitist stance being sufficient for membership. It was a question of having your heart in the right place with regard to class politics; such thorny issues as gender had not yet entered the picture.
           The rapid, enormous, and somewhat astonishing success that Subaltern Studies enjoyed in the first half of the 1980s—its first volume came out in 1982—meant that it came almost immediately to attract the attention of established historians based in America who, up to that point, had largely been left out of an argument organized on a Britain–India axis. At this time the leading Indian history figure by far in the US was the Chicago-based Bernard Cohn, a left-leaning professor more comfortable with the essay than the monograph as his form of expression, and who had long proposed a meeting ground between anthropology and history in the context of South Asia. Cohn’s rivals for intellectual leadership in the matter of Indian history in the US were few: the chief one was Burton Stein, a Marxisant radical who sometimes described himself mock-seriously as an ‘anarcho-syndicalist’. After teaching in Minnesota and Hawai’i, Stein had decided in the 1980s to retire early to London, where he claimed he found the radical politics more to his taste than in his native United States. Other prominent figures included Robert Eric Frykenberg at Wisconsin, a conservative figure with a missionary background; those far more elusive and difficult to pigeonhole, such as Thomas Metcalf at Berkeley, and Ainslee Embree, a Canadian-born American who taught at Columbia. But it was Cohn who, at the prestigious University of Chicago, had the most loyal following and who had trained the largest number of subsequently noteworthy students. Both Cohn and Stein were initially attracted to Subaltern Studies, but only one essay by the former eventually appeared within the project (‘The Command of Language and the Language of Command’). It appeared at a moment when American universities were beginning to emerge as alternatives to Oxford, Cambridge, and London, as destinations for young Indian students wishing to do a doctorate. Stein’s essay of the time, on ‘peasant insurgency’ in Mysore, published in a far more obscure place in the same year as that by Cohn, took a much more critical tone with regard to Guha and Subaltern Studies. It concluded: ‘Guha’s purpose of bringing events and processes relating to peasant insurgency under serious historical analysis is correctly conceived and defended; I suggest here that his method is not.’ Stein’s essay was quickly forgotten while Cohn’s came to acquire a certain prestige. I can remember the sense of pleasure and pride with which some members of the Subaltern Collective told me—I was then a doctoral student in Delhi—that even the heavyweights of the American academy were now negotiating with them, and that while some of their essays were being accepted, others were being summarily rejected. It was a heady post-colonial moment of sorts, I suppose.
           The reaction to Subaltern Studies by the mainstream Indian nationalist historians, whether those attached to the centre-left Congress or the more Stalinist CPI (M), was immediate and violent. One can see this in the pages of  Social Scientist, in effect the literary mouthpiece of the Indian communists, and in the acid comments of iconic Marxist-nationalist historians like Irfan Habib. This rejection continues in many respects and consists in the main of accusing Subaltern Studies historians either of shallow romanticism, or of a radical culturalism that shares many traits with the far right-wing Hindu trend in Indian politics. (Later Subaltern Studies’ devotion to the figures of Nietzsche and Heidegger has really not helped matters in this respect.)
The reaction from Cambridge was more complex. The early figures of prestige, Gallagher and Stokes, were not active by this point in the 1980s, and Anil Seal and Gordon Johnson did not respond. A concrete rejoinder eventually came from C.A. Bayly who, having spent years as a marginal, often unshaven, somewhat cynical figure in a leather jacket claiming discomfort with the ‘Cambridge School’ label, had by the 1980s slowly and suavely emerged in a proper jacket, tie, and patent leather shoes as the dominant figure in Cambridge. Initially, like most of his contemporaries, Bayly had worked on the Indian national movement—his focus having been colonial Allahabad; but from the late 1970s he had decided to shift his attention to a far earlier phase, that of early colonial rule under the East India Company beginning in about 1770. This move, in which he was soon to be followed by his close colleague David Washbrook, meant that Bayly was by 1985 not really a central participant in debates on Indian nationalism and the critique thereof. So his response to Subaltern Studies was muted, consisting of a brief essay which pointed out that much of what Subaltern historians claimed to innovate in had already been accomplished by the best-known British radical historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. It was really a dismissive reaction rather than any deep form of intellectual engagement.
By contrast, in the same year, 1988, Rosalind O’Hanlon, a social historian at Cambridge who had in no way been identified with the erstwhile ‘Cambridge School’ and who worked on lower-caste movements in western India, emerged with a wide-ranging but broadly appreciative critique, pointing to conceptual blind-spots and lacunae in Subaltern Studies. Rather than a bi-polar field defined by a Subaltern–Cambridge axis of tension, what appeared to have emerged in about 1990 was an interesting form of fragmentation, with Subaltern Studies being the centre of attention where late colonial questions were concerned, but largely absent in regard to studies of pre-1900 India. Many debates of the time centred on quite distinct questions: there was for example a rather violent set of exchanges between historians of India on the one hand, and Immanuel Wallerstein and his disciples on the other, on the matter of ‘world-systems theory’ and its applicability to India (when had India entered the ‘periphery’ of the capitalist world-system being their grand question); while another central figure was the British Marxist historian Frank Perlin, who, in a series of exciting essays, proposed a radical reconsideration of the political economy of the eighteenth century [...]
It was at this point however that transatlantic geo-politics came to play a decisive role. It is usual to identify this with the so-called ‘Phase Two’ of Subaltern Studies, dated to about 1988, when the supposed engagement of the Subalternists with post-modernism began. Dipesh Chakrabarty, who in recent times has become something like the official historian of Subaltern Studies, describes these matters blandly:

[Ranajit] Guha retired from the editorial team of Subaltern Studies in 1988. In the same year, an anthology entitled Selected Subaltern Studies published in New York launched the global career of the project. Edward Said wrote a foreword to the volume describing Guha’s statement regarding the aims of Subaltern Studies as ‘intellectually insurrectionary’. Gayatri Spivak’s essay ‘Deconstructing Historiography’ (1988), published earlier in the sixth volume under Guha’s editorship in 1986, served as the introduction to this selection. This essay of Spivak’s and a review essay by Rosalind O’Hanlon (1988) published about the same time made two important criticisms of Subaltern Studies that had a serious impact on the later intellectual trajectory of the project. Both Spivak and O’Hanlon pointed to the absence of gender questions in Subaltern Studies. They also made a more fundamental criticism of the theoretical orientation of the project. They pointed out, in effect, that Subaltern Studies historiography operated with an idea of the subject—‘to make the subaltern the maker of his own destiny’—that had not wrestled at all with the critique of the very idea of the subject itself that had been mounted by poststructuralist thinkers. Spivak’s famous essay ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ (1994), a critical and challenging reading of a conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, forcefully raised these and related questions by mounting deconstructive and philosophical objections to any straightforward program of ‘letting the subaltern speak’.

This is a rather peculiar and narrow framing of a history of ideas shorn of any institutional or other context. It is as if the critiques that Roland Barthes had laid out much earlier, in the late 1960s, suddenly appeared full-blown two decades later on the consciousness of Subaltern Studies historians; the death of the sovereign subject, the death of the authorial voice, and of agency itself—issues that historians in France had grappled with and also come to terms with—ostensibly became the occasion for an extended bout of hand-wringing. Had such self-doubt about the future of history and historical practice been the real basis of a programme, it could hardly have been charged with as much self-confidence as it had.
This makes one wonder: what might the real context be that led from the diverse and dispersed field of 1988 to an imagined landscape where only two strong and self-assertive poles existed, Subaltern Studies and the Cambridge School? We must turn to the debates of the early 1990s and their larger framing to comprehend what really transpired. The central debate is undoubtedly that which took place in the pages of the Ann Arbor-based journal Comparative Studies in Society and History between Gyan Prakash on the one hand, and Rosalind O’Hanlon and David Washbrook on the other. It is here that one finds the origins of the imagined Cambridge–Subaltern duopoly.
This is how the debate ran. Prakash had, not long before, finished his doctoral dissertation on landless labour in Bihar, and the spirit cults associated with those who had died a ‘bad death’ at the hands of a landlord. The work was much admired; it was also less in the spirit of Subaltern Studies than of James C. Scott, the historian and political scientist at Yale who celebrated ‘everyday forms’ of resistance. However, in the late 1980s Prakash became the central figure in nudging Subaltern Studies into an initially post-structuralist (and then increasingly post-modernist) mode, or what would by 1994 be termed ‘postcolonial studies’ or ‘postcolonial criticism’. This meant weaning Subaltern Studies away, once and for all, from the social-history tradition of Thompson and Hobsbawm to which Bayly had insistently claimed they belonged. It also meant largely abandoning the fading field of economic history. Henceforth, ‘culture’ would lie at the heart of matters. In other words, for Subaltern Studies to enter the United States academy in force, it had in effect to take the ‘cultural turn’, and in no half-hearted way. If not, it would be indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill Latin American peasant studies: there being peasant rebellions aplenty between Nicaragua and Bolivia, a few additions from Bihar or Andhra would not change matters. Product differentiation was now of the essence; Ranajit Guha could not be confused with Subcomandante Marcos. In other words, as oral tradition would have it, if Gayatri Spivak can be likened to Ry Cooder, Subaltern Studies at this time should be compared to the Buena Vista Social Club. [...]


Blackbeard, Sanjay S. Whitebeard, Simon Digby


He's won the Infosys Prize for History for 2012, so he probably is.

Academics write mainly two kinds of books: monographs addressed to their peers, and textbooks for students. The scholar who can entirely switch modes and provide entertaining English for the serious lay reader is a rarity everywhere. In India, Ramachandra Guha, Nayanjot Lahiri, Sunil Khilnani, and Mukul Kesavan are some of the better-known exceptions—teachers and scholars who’re well regarded for their journalism and magazine essays.
You would not think of Sanjay Subrahmanyam in connection with this bunch. A formidable economist who grew into a formidable historian and linguist—estimates of the languages in which he’s fluent remain inexact and it would take a supercomputer to tot up his publications—he’s usually associated with social science intellection at rarefied levels, including trade and maritime history, the social and economic aspects of early modern times, wanderers and savants who’ve traversed cultures and oceans, world history and the working of empires—in short, the sorts of elevated subjects that have non-specialist readers running for cover.
But, in fact, Subrahmanyam’s trajectory since the early 1990s shows what in the world of Hindi movies used to be called a ‘double role’: the ability to switch identities, become another character. Subrahmanyam’s transformation from academic prose writer to essayist-for-the-masses is as amazing as, and in keeping with, his language skills. He has been writing reviews and long essays that are not only wholly accessible to the general public, they’re also extremely entertaining, being leavened with a dry humour that can be excoriating.
Part of the reason Subrahmanyam has remained a hidden treasure on this count in India is that these prose pieces have been locally unavailable: they appeared in prestigious overseas places such as the London Review of Books. In part it is because visibility and stardom in the world outside the university campus now depend a lot on either winning prizes or writing fiction or both. Subrahmanyam must have won more than a prize or two but, as he charmingly puts it, ‘Unlike a large number of my contemporaries in Delhi University, I have never been tempted to write a novel or even publish a short story. Still, I do love literature, but  am certain that—as in the best Hindi films, like Muqaddar ka Sikandar—this is unrequited love.’

Permanent Black will, early next year, publish a collection which showcases this unsuspected aspect of Subrahmanyam.  

The book will take its title from its first essay, Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth?, in which Subrahmanyam tears into ‘golden age hallucinations’ among those in his profession, specially those with links to the Hindu Right. Later, in an essay titled ‘Secularism and the Happy Indian Village’, he more or less eats up Ashis Nandy and those who argue that ‘secularism’ is a European idea alien to India. Subrahmanyam provides examples from Spanish and other European histories (among Indian academics he is almost uniquely equipped to do this) to show that in fact ‘secularism’ is a rather indigenously Indian term with very little purchase in the West. 
        The book comprises twenty long essays over which Subrahmanyam tells us ordinary folk, with much intellectual exuberance and caustic elan, many of the things that he’s already expounded to the learned. It’s a book that normal human beings will want to look out for because it is so breathtakingly and unexpectedly wonderful to read.
        Why? Largely because its mix of wit and scholarship makes Subrahmanyam’s English prose in this book quite exceptional. Here is one example from an essay titled ‘What, Exactly, is an Empire?’ which includes a discussion of the work of a historian of empire, John Darwin:

Empire has been at the heart of his research and publishing career, as indeed of his teaching ... The work under review here departs markedly, however, from the earlier ones in three ways: in terms of its conception as a popular work, in its far larger (even global) geographical scope, and in its embrace of both the early modern and the modern periods. In his preface Darwin suggests that there are sound English, even Oxbridge, precedents for his work: he notes that his ‘first introduction to the fascination of viewing world history as a connected whole came as a pupil of the late Jack Gallagher, whose historical imagination was boundless.’ Elsewhere in the same prefatory text he relates his work to earlier literature on the rise of the West and European expansion, while acknowledging his debt to ‘the huge volume of new writing in the last twenty years (…) on global history.’ He adds thereafter that ‘it is not only recently that historians have insisted on a global view of the past: that tradition, after all, goes back to Herodotus.’ Did Herodotus ever speak or even reflect on a ‘global view of the past’ when he was presumably not aware of the earth as a globe? I rather doubt it. This may be a little generous, but probably not as generous as the reference to Gallagher, whose vision remained entirely confined so far as anyone can see to the later British empire of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its vicissitudes. This version of boundless imagination is possibly, like that of the placid dreams of the Empress of Blandings, based on the exuberant semiosis of a few enigmatic grunts.

The deployment of Wodehouse and his pig to give us the lowdown on the sometimes limited vision of Cambridge historians is sublimely more than one can expect from any academic.
       Sanjay Subrahmanyam may, however, disagree with this notion of there being an absolute distinction between his academic and popular prose. And if he does, there may be some truth to his opinion; it is, at least, a matter worth debating. One way of finding out is to read the essays he has co-authored with Muzaffar Alam in Writing the Mughal World, for those essays occasionally include the sorts of satirical gems that will be found in greater abundance once Is 'Indian Civilization' a Myth? is published. Here's a hilarious example on cannibal practices from a chapter titled 'The Mughals Look Beyond the Winds', in the Alam and Subrahmanyam book:

The cannibals' villages were scattered, but despite this it turned out that they were all related to one another. If one of them fell ill, they let time pass; and when the illness had advanced they killed the person and distributed the body parts amongst different families, with the chief (kalāntar) getting the head. These parts were then hung in houses, so that every major house had a few heads hanging in it as a sign of status. The more heads you had hanging in your house, the greater the signification of your power and importance. But matters did not stop with the traffic in body parts. When these cannibals gambled, they offered their own hands and feet as wagers in the game, and if they lost, their hands and feet were cut off and miscellaneous other pieces of flesh taken away in proportion to the loss. The other cannibals ate this flesh without hesitation; nor did the people whose task it was to carve up their fellows hesitate for a moment, or even think to discuss the matter afterwards. (A small parenthesis adds that they also ate pān leaves, or betel, in the area, as if to suggest that the cannibals were not entirely beyond the pale in the things they consumed.) Returning to the main thread of his discussion, Tahir continues: if you promised a part of your body in a game and then refused to give it up when you lost, it was considered a sign of great humiliation not just for the poor loser, but for his whole group (qabīla). Besides all this, there was also an annual day when the ruler of the cannibals and his people got together and ate human flesh (gosht-i ādam). On this particular occasion, a chosen man was rendered unconscious by placing a hand over his mouth. Occasionally, if he pleaded, they let him go and caught another, it being inauspicious to consume one who had expressed such a marked distaste at the prospect of being eaten. Then, the selected person’s body parts were cooked alongside other dishes, and if any in the group felt a lack of appetite facing such a choice repast, they lost status and were made to feel insufficiently cannibal.

IN SUM, Subrahmanyam is one of our most accomplished writers of English prose, and this should not remain only a suspicion. Writing the Mughal World  and Is ‘Indian Civilization’ a Myth? are both, in a sense, weighty books that you can also read simply for the pleasure of reading elegant English prose.



17 November 2012

Romila Thapar remembers an old friend

A few weeks before he passed away, Eric Hobsbawm 

and his wife invited Romila Thapar to the historian’s 95th birthday party in London. John Williams played the guitar. The gathered companions drank to the great man’s health. He was convivial and had all his wits about him—as seems evident in the pictures below. A century seemed possible ...
In her obituary below, Romila Thapar recounts what Hobsbawm’s work meant to her, and its intellectual legacy more broadly.

Romila Thapar

Eric Hobsbawm was the kind of historian whose work, although largely on the last three centuries of European history, was relevant even to those of us who work on a different space and time. The process of historical investigation for him was not restricted to a narrow engagement with a specific subject, but with having to situate it in an extensive horizon involving many peoples and ideas. This vision and the logical interconnections that he made were in part due to his unusual intellectual reach and in part to his creative use of Marxist analyses. These not only gave him a starting point for asking questions but also allowed him to bring his formidable intellectual perceptions of the past to bear on his historical generalisations. Historical writing was for him both an intellectual enterprise and an extension of understanding the mainsprings of human actions.
As an undergraduate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the mid-1950s, I was advised to attend Eric Hobsbawm’s lectures on Political Theory at Birkbeck College in the University of London. The first few lectures were on Utopian and Scientific Socialism. They were stunning in their lucidity and sparked off connections that made me think beyond the boundaries of a single discipline. I was too awestruck to start a conversation with him. Gradually this changed when some of us joined in with students who gathered round him for coffee in the Birkbeck cafeteria.
I subsequently discovered among my friends some who had migrated from Vienna in 1939 and knew him in London. Meeting him through these friends introduced me to another dimension of my understanding of Europe—the awareness of what had been a Central European intellectual tradition with Vienna as its hub, and its closeness to French and German intellectual life, rather than the British alone. Brought up as I was in an Indian Cantonment culture, I was more familiar with the British tradition than others among non-Indian cultures.  Hobsbawm was quintessentially the Central European intellectual, which in part explains his expansive intellectual vision. At he pointed out on a later occasion, British Marxism was more focused on the social sciences whereas continental Marxism by comparison gave greater space to questions of culture and philosophy.
Eric had a nomadic childhood. Born in Alexandria to a British Jewish father and a central European mother, his schooling took him first to Vienna and then to Berlin and subsequently to England in the 1930s when it became difficult for Jews to survive in Germany. In Berlin he recognised the fascism of the Nazis, not just their anti-Jewish activities but also their negation of the normal freedom of a citizen. He became a communist, seeing in socialism the only answer to fascism. This commitment remained with him all his life, even though in later years he was criticised for not resigning from the Communist Party of Great Britain (popularly known as the CPGB), when the USSR crushed the uprising in Hungary in 1956.
A scholarship to Cambridge to study history introduced him to a group of young historians, enthusiasts in their discovery of Marxism, who were trying to introduce the new social and economic history to readers more familiar with political and diplomatic history. They called themselves the British Historians Group to which the qualifier was added, of the CPGB. The group included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, George Rude, E.P. Thompson, Raphael Samuel, and some others. Their analyses of British history turned this history round, as it were, with analyses of class consciousness, property relations, and prevailing systems of religious belief and learning. The discipline took a new form. Hobsbawm was also elected to the more eclectic group, exploring ideas, who called themselves ‘The Apostles’ and counted as their members, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, J.M. Keynes, and E.M. Forster. Incidentally, this was also about the time that another group in Cambridge—Anthony Blunt et al.—were recruited as Soviet spies. Evidently, the British historians were seen as too independent by the USSR.
The British Historians Group started publishing the now well-known journal, Past and Present, in 1952. The modernisers of history could use it to express their views and reach a wider readership, as indeed they did. It  carried a variety of views emanating from Marxist analyses and related thinking, incorporating the connection of history to other social sciences. In later years it reflected other ways of thought that had entered the study of history, not all of which incidentally had the approval of the founders of the journal. Inevitably there were controversies, as for example on the question of whether history was to be largely a narrative of the past, or was to explain the past as well, or on the changes that post-modernism could introduce into writing history. Hobsbawm’s criticism of such approaches was that they did not ask questions and provide explanations, which for him was fundamental to historical research. The journal hosted debates. They were also keen to bring in comparative history and to publish articles on non-European subjects. Just when I completed my doctorate, Past and Present published my first article on Ashoka.
            This group of historians, as well as some others such as Richard Cobb and Keith Thomas, were supportive of our attempts to introduce social and economic history at our universities, as at Delhi University, for example. They came to India turn by turn during the late 1960s and 1970s, to give lectures and hold discussions on changing historical perspectives. This coincided with the period when Indian history, and especially pre-modern history, was being slowly liberated from the confines of Indology into the freedom of a social science.
Over the years since then, and trying to keep up with some at least of Hobsbawm’s publications, one has seen him emerge as what many scholars would regard as the pre-eminent historian of modern Europe. This was no mean achievement for a Marxist historian, as there were, and still are, enough people who are ready to dismiss Marxist historians without a serious attempt to understand what they have written.
It was problematic for Marxists to be appointed to prestigious academic positions with whiffs of McCarthyism wafting over from the US with the coming of the Cold War. Hobsbawm was appointed to Birkbeck College and chose to remain there all his professional life, not least perhaps because it had became a significant centre of inter-disciplinary research which was new to the British academic scene. This included the theories being put forward by Marxist scientists such as J.D. Bernal, who worked there, and J.B.S. Haldane, L. Hogben, and J. Needham, who frequently gathered there.
As a modern historian his major work has been the tetralogy: The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (1962), The Age of Capital 1848-1875 (1975) The Age of Empire 1875-1914 (1987), which he referred to as the long nineteenth century, and to which he added a fourth, The Age of Extremes 1914-1991 (1994), which he described as the short twentieth century. Acclaimed by historians of modern European history, across a range of ideological positions, these books have been described as showing an awareness of the deep structures of society and the nature of historical change.  Not that the acclamation overlooked what some have thought of as political weaknesses, though these were largely confined to The Age of Extremes. Events in Asia, for instance, could have been less marginal to this history. It is repeatedly reiterated that he glossed over the horrors of Stalinism in the USSR, and that he was somewhat dismissive of China. And yet in his essays of this period he was extremely critical of Stalinism.    
Alongside the tetralogy, and in other books and essays, his writing was seminal to historical writing in our times. His initial work had been on the Fabian Society and then on labour movements, Labour’s Turning Point (1948). From this he moved to another theme, examining archival and oral sources relating to peasant protests in England and in some areas of Sicily and Spain.  Two books based on this, which were widely read in other parts of the world as well, and especially in Latin America, were Primitive Rebels (1959), and Bandits (1969). These drew attention to the generally ignored protests of rural secret societies that tended to be localised, and sometimes reflected millenarian cultures. Such protests, he argued, occur in many parts of the world among the poor and especially at times of emerging capitalism. One could add that they occur with other major historical changes of earlier periods as well. The concept of social banditry is now familiar to Indian historians. Folk literature if viewed from this perspective may result in innovative suggestions, especially during the twilight of the medieval in the eighteenth century, or even currently where such movements are taking place in relatively remote areas.
The Invention of Tradition (1982) was a collection of essays by various scholars, edited by Hobsbawm together with Terence Ranger. Its long introduction argues that much of tradition, as indeed social identity as well, is invented and changes through the generations. Contemporary political movements draw on the myths implicit in these supposedly older  traditions to claim legitimacy which gives them the sanction to direct the movements. In a sense this also touches on Max Weber’s argument about the way forms of legitimacy change with the requirements of the time as well as drawing on a presumed past. Few historians today regard ‘tradition’ as self-generated, unchanging, and continuous, preferring to explain how and why it began, who were its authors, and what its purpose. Although this book was not the only work on the subject it did tend to make the discussion more focused.
A selection of his essays, early and late, was put together and published in 1997 as On History. The range is again extensive, some essays making a deeper impact than others. Nationalism and history was the subject of Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990), but in the essay his succinct statement is worth discussion: “history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past it can always be invented.”Among the examples he discusses are Mortimer Wheeler’s book, Five Thousand Years of Pakistan, where 5000 years are more impressive than 46, and the dispute over the Babri Masjid. I recall a lecture that he gave at Columbia University in New York in 2004 where he discussed the Babri Masjid issue with clarity and precision as a process in creating a myth crucial to a political message at a particular time. Myth is reinforced by claiming it as social memory, but this too is constructed—as it need not be what actually happened but what people think had happened.
            Nationalism forces historians to become political actors, he says. They have to present the counter-arguments for those wishing to know them, even if such people are few. We in this country have seen this debate spill over into the controversy over history textbooks, and more recently over other textbooks. Nationalism can also go towards endorsing identity culture and become identity nationalism, pertaining to a particular community. Then the requirement is identity history which can end up in anachronism, omission, and falsehoods. This can only be countered by a sharp dichotomy between fact and fiction and the supremacy of evidence, and the historian’s function as a ‘myth-slayer’. “History  is being invented in vast quantities … It’s more important now to have historians, especially sceptical historians, than ever before.’
In an early essay on what historians owe to Marx, he considers the changes in historiography a hundred years after Ranke. Among those underlined by Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Hobsbawm quotes, were a turn towards social and economic history, social forces as explanations of change and class consciousness. Hobsbawm argues that this was the transformation of history into a social science. He comes down heavily on those who describe historical materialism as economic determinism, dismissing this view as a form of vulgar Marxism, other elements of which he lists as mechanical applications of the notions of base and superstructure, class struggle, and historical inevitability.
Essays of both historiographical and general interest feature in a more recently published collection, How to Change the World: Marx and Marxism 1840-2011 (2011). Included here is his Introduction to an earlier book, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, which had clarified some of my fog about modes of production. In discussing epochs of historical development his primary point is that the modes do not necessarily have to be accepted as they are described at any one given point in Marx’s work, since Marx and Engels continued to revise and refine them, as he shows. They were not envisaged as a single ladder which all societies climb, rung by rung at different speeds, eventually arriving at the top. The Asiatic Mode he rather dismisses, referring to Karl Wittfogel’s version and the Chinese Communist Party’s support of it, and mentioning its inclusion and exclusion in Soviet writing, and refers to the views of E.M.S. Namboodiripad and D.D. Kosambi in passing. He has more to say on the famous debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in various parts of the world from Japan to the United States. The theory of historical materialism he says requires only that there be a succession of modes and not necessarily of a predetermined order; but of course, whatever the form, it has to be supported with factual evidence. It is worth recalling that flexibility in envisaging variant modes has led some Marxists working on pre-modern societies, such as Emmanuel Terray and Geoffrey de Ste. Croix, to explore early societies in interesting ways. 
Among the more provocative essays in this collection are those on the influence of Marxism in Europe from 1880 to 2000.  What interested me most is the one on the era of anti-fascism where he discusses the impact of intellectuals as migrants, swelling the numbers of the existing Left and giving another direction to European culture and thought. He also underlines the rejection by the Left, but rather sotto voce, of socialist realism, despite its acclaim in the USSR, and the cultivation of jazz despite strong Soviet disapproval. Hobsbawm’s own interests ran contrary to Soviet definitions of culture. He had a small but impressive collection of Indian miniature painting (far removed from socialist realism), which he had picked up in various flea-markets and at affordable sales in the 1950s. In later years he regretted that he could not afford their inflated prices, but saw them in exhibitions. His interest in jazz (Dixieland) began in his student days when it was a novelty in Britain. He was the jazz critic for the New Statesman writing under the pseudonym of Francis Newton—taken from the name Frankie Newton who was the drummer for Billie Holliday, and a Left sympathizer. Jazz for him was the ‘unanswerable sound’, so he had little use for rock and pop. His book, The Jazz Scene (1959), is among the more perceptive books on jazz and jazz musicians.
            Hobsbawm writes that the context of Marxism in the late twentieth century was so different from earlier times that its specific character in the anti-fascist era has to be underlined, particularly as Marxists since the 1960s have had access to something like ‘a giant super-market of Marxisms’. There was a need for a fundamental rethinking of Marxist analysis which became possible only when the increasingly dogmatic orthodoxy of Marxism in the USSR broke up and the assumed superiority of political authority over scientific statement was opposed. Small educated groups began to discuss what they saw as problems. I remember attending the Dialectics of Liberation Conference in London during a long summer month in 1967 where such groups were addressing each other. The pluralism was palpable. This he describes as the radical wave in the core capitalist countries, and was concerned that their efforts would hardly dent capitalism or fascism. Yet the pluralism to some degree reflected a changed historical context.
And then there were his memoirs, Interesting Times (2002). The title he said came from an old Chinese saying, that if you wished to curse someone you wished them to live in interesting times. The book captures his trajectory both as a historian and as a Marxist. Extra-curricula activities (although he would not have seen them as such) were advising Neil Kinnock of the British Labour Party or Lula da Silva in Brazil, with varying effect. There were friendships with thoughtful people from many places. Being invited to their home always held the excitement not just of Marlene’s welcome but also some surprise as to who might be coming for dinner – it could be Pierre Bourdieu or it could be Immanuel Wallerstein. He writes of being distanced from the CPGB and being more attuned to the thinking of the Italian CP and perhaps therefore of Euro-Communism. He did not hesitate to take positions where necessary in his historical writing that were contrary to various CPs, which is in part why his historical writing was of the best. Staying on in the CPGB, he says, was not an endorsement of Stalinism but a holding on to the promise of the October Revolution. Perhaps it was a futile dream. In 2009 he stated that socialism had failed, and now capitalism was bankrupt, so what comes next?  Ultimately his historical writing has not changed the world, but it has undoubtedly helped us to understand the world.