28 June 2013

Before the Atom Bomb

Coming in September 2013 from Permanent Black

It's a great new telling of the birth of nuclear India from the 1930s to the late 1950s. Jahnavi Phalkey is a lecturer in the history of sci-tech at King's College London and, long back, her PhD won the annual Sardar Patel Award for the best dissertation submitted at an American university on a South Asian topic. Since then she's been beavering away revising, discovering more material, rethinking and reformulating -- all the usual things that careful scholars spend years agonizing over before a publisher wrenches the script away from them. (JNU has at least two brilliant historians, Neeladri Bhattacharya and Indivar Kamtekar, who are still chewing their fingernails revising their PhDs: Permanent Black has assured them posthumous publication as well as medical expenses for possible onychomycosis. Curiously, these two share a birthday, so there may be something to astrology.)

Phalkey demonstrates with hard evidence and irrefutable logic that the connections so frequently argued between the Indian "peaceful nuclear explosions" of 1974 and the early years of nuclear research were at best tenuous and at worst non-existent. The folks at the TIFR Bombay, the IISc. Bangalore, and University Science College in Calcutta didn't have atom bombs in their heads when they set about trying to procure cyclotrons for their labs. Phalkey says the dots connecting them with the Thar Desert explosions constitute a falsely retrospective reading. The academic term among historians for making up a story when there isn't one is 'teleological argument'. A teleological argument is a very bad thing. Phalkey shows us how bad, and does so rivetingly. So, from her book we find out a lot about C.V. Raman, Homi Bhabha (the comprehensible first version), Meghnad Saha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, and others less famous; and a little bit about how historians cook up stories and, disregarding hard facts, make teleological arguments. Phalkey, broadly in line with the school of thought that includes Meera Nanda, shows science as a 'universal' pursuit much more than a culturally specific practice.

In brief, a book to look out for. Plenty of luminaries say so:

“Is there an Indian way of doing science? All too often, the answer to this question has raised the possibility of alternative scientific worldviews. Phalkey's outstanding study shows that the answer must vary according to the viability of alternative practices among scientists working in a particular discipline. Unlike their colleagues in medicine or the social sciences, Indian physicists have fully claimed as their own the universal practices of doing physics. And like big science everywhere, nuclear physics could only be done with state support. Phalkey shows with meticulous care the political desires that brought together the practices of scientific knowledge production and the priorities of state leaders. A valuable addition to the growing literature on the history of independent India.”—Partha Chatterjee

“Jahnavi Phalkey has written a closely argued work which shows the tensions inherent even within Indian nationalism on the matter of science. The book is empirically rich, using hitherto unseen private archives. Beyond this empirical richness, it is located squarely within an argumentative tradition of linking science and political economy, but also a tradition where science is never simply reduced to politics. Its fluent style and accessible character mean that this book can be read not just by historians of science but by all those who are curious about the many paradoxes of South Asian state-building and modernity.”—Sanjay Subrahmanyam

“By examining the emergence of nuclear physics in India between the late 1930s and mid-1950s, Phalkey unravels a complex story of competing individuals and rival institutions. She shows in lucid detail how a crucial branch of theoretical and applied science struggled, across the colonial divide, to function and find support. She presents a compelling picture not only of why some scientists failed and others succeeded but also of how the pursuit of nuclear science became a hallmark of India’s modernity and an adjunct to state power. An original, intelligent and timely book, Atomic State will help provoke a radical reassessment of what science in twentieth-century India was for and who were its beneficiaries.”—David Arnold  

“Jahnavi Palkey’s new work is a very important step in focusing in on the single field of nuclear physics in India and its practice around accelerators and cyclotrons from the 1940s. She uncovers a ‘messy social terrain of crises’, and explores how three accelerators at three labs actually came (and sometimes didn’t come) into operation. Using what she calls ‘the small instruments of empirical history’, Palkey makes clear the disconnection of much of this physics research and development from ‘building the bomb’, and shows other purposes and ambitions at work. The fascinating role of persons and personalities like Raman, Saha, Bhatnagar and Bhabha is not missed (nor of their lesser known colleagues of the time), leaving readers with a deeper appreciation of how these crises were managed, and to whose loss and whose benefit.” —Robert Anderson

22 June 2013


Niraja Gopal Jayal
Professor, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Niraja Gopal Jayal
whose book CITIZENSHIP AND ITS DISCONTENTS: AN INDIAN HISTORY (Permanent Black and Harvard University Press, 2013) has been published to profuse critical acclaim, is interviewed here by 

Madhav Khosla

Madhav Khosla (PhD Candidate, Department of Government, Harvard University).

Q1. It is sometimes felt that a strictly legal conception of citizenship, as it were, can work against more participatory forms of citizenship. Do you feel that some inclusionary forms of citizenship are reflections of deeper failures?

A1. That, in a sense, is my point of departure in this book: equality is the premise and the promise of citizenship, but it is also, and precisely because of this aspiration to equality, an embattled and endlessly contested political project. Take legal citizenship: it is certainly true that the denial of legal citizenship can be gravely unjust, but its affirmation in law can also be worth little or nothing. As far as inclusionary forms of citizenship are concerned, it rather depends on what sort of inclusion is attempted and which inequalities the polity seeks to redress. We may be, and frequently are, satisfied with symbolic inclusion, without however aspiring to address the much larger challenge of structural inequalities which hold the key to equal citizenship.
Having said that, legal citizenship should properly be seen as a first, necessary, but far from sufficient condition of a robust conception of political membership. This applies to immigrants in affluent societies as much as to those who are nominally citizens in their own country but so desperately poor or discriminated against that their citizenship has little real purchase. The impediments to participation are not exclusively from legal conceptions of citizenship, but they can also emanate from the denial of membership in the political community.

Q2. Much of the current discourse around citizenship in India focuses on rights and their expansion. Do you think that India needs to be more circumspect in this regard – and that the enthusiasm with which matters are being set in stone might, as Bentham had famously feared, hold the potential for giving rise to illiberal outcomes?

A2. To the extent that Bentham was suspicious of natural rights, and saw rights purely as creatures of law, the current predilection (of both state and civil society) to give legal and even constitutional status to social rights, with no antecedent moral principles being corralled to justify them, can quite cheerfully cohabit with Bentham’s view. However, the real question is about whether we run the risk of illiberal outcomes with rights being cast in stone, and the question seems to imply that social and economic rights run this risk more than, say, civil or political rights, which are deeply and foundationally liberal. So, to return to the question of social and economic rights, thirty years ago this could have been quite easily answered with a nod in the direction of the then Soviet Union. Today, however, this is considerably more complicated. Except for those who altogether dismiss rights as appendages of bourgeois modernity, the interconnections and interdependencies between different types of rights have become stronger, whether in international covenants or in some of the new constitutions of the Global South. If anything, with new forms of state censorship on literary and artistic work, and of state surveillance using sophisticated technology, it seems that it is the civil and political rights and freedoms that underpin liberal politics that are endangered. Today, the possibility of illiberal outcomes appears less likely to emanate from social rights (to the implementation of which there are not only serious structural impediments, but also bureaucratic and social resistance) and more from the new forms of governmentality, and – literally – new technologies of rule.

Q3. In many countries, citizens, in any particular endeavour, are not reduced to a single identity. At the same time, however, the law itself does not focus on management through identities. The very idea is that one need not speak through one’s identity. What you do feel should be the relationship between immutable identities and citizenship?

A3. I think what you are describing in these countries is really the French ideal type of the past. The politics of multiculturalism of the last quarter-century suggest otherwise. I think it is important to recognize that this emphasis on the immutability of identities, and on conceptions of citizenship mediated by identity, is something in which citizens and states are complicit. There is a pact between states (who are eager to ‘identify’ their citizens and govern them additionally through laws that recognize identity) and citizens or their community leaderships which make these claims on the state. In such a context, the idea of a civic identity seems either terribly retro or politically incorrect.
I do believe that something valuable is lost when the civic identity completely drops out of the project of citizenship, but that does sadly seem to be the way things are in the present. The Occupy movements did seem to herald some possibility of change, but eventually turned out to be rather shortlived. Ultimately, a civic identity must be not only about identity, but also about solidarity, and civic solidarity is essential to crafting consensus on, say, redistributive strategies for a more equal citizenship.

Q4. Do you feel that the contests within identity groups merely represent new forms of elite power capture, and that the poor remain potatoes in a sack – unable to speak to one another or mobilize together? Does a focus on immutability run the risk of turning our gaze away from class, and those who truly lack the capacity to participate as citizens?

A4. It is very difficult to objectively distinguish between the genuine claims of oppressed identities and those that represent forms of mobilization for elite capture. The political scientists’ binary of primordialism vs constructivism simply cannot answer all questions. It is however true that the more strident claims are often made by leaders of already empowered groups that have learnt how to leverage identities by linking them to political and economic opportunity. This has, as we know, generated incentives for the invention of new identities. In that the state is the first and last port of call for arbitrating identities, we have not strayed too far from the colonial script. As for class, it is astonishing that despite the obvious and compelling overlap between class and horizontal inequalities, both citizens and the state are equally invested in the latter, and tend equally to disregard the convergence between them.

Q5. On a more personal note, can you us a little bit about your journey into this topic, both from your important earlier work, Democracy and the State (1999), and more generally? And, if possible, what we might expect your next project to be?

A5. The journey from Democracy and the State was fairly straightforward, though long and punctuated. In that book, I had argued that the quality of Indian democracy should be assessed in terms of its ability to provide for the meaningful exercise of the rights of citizenship. So the next logical question clearly was: what are rights of citizenship, and is citizenship about more than rights. This book attempts to answer both those questions. Going forward, I would like to explore a bit more the implications of the theoretical hollowing out of the state, which is at least partly an outgrowth of some of the citizenship literature and its fascination with transnationalism and cosmopolitanism. My worry is that while the questioning of borders and normative nationalism is very appealing, it can also be a little irresponsible because cosmopolitanism does not offer any convincing answers to problems of poverty, hunger, and disease, even as it lets the state off the hook completely.

Q6. (publisher’s question) Could you list a few of the books that have stimulated your ideas and intellectual directions?
It is hard to identify a handful of books that have influenced my intellectual formation. Two books that made me turn to the study of Indian politics in the 1980s were Partha Chatterjee’s Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse and Atul Kohli’s The State and Poverty in India.

I derive aesthetic pleasure from novels that are unusually structured, and speak to contemporary problems through history. Two of my all-time favourites in this genre are Iain Pears’s The Dream of Scipio and Amitav Ghosh’s In An Antique Land.

This may also explain why the books that I have hugely admired, without their necessarily having influenced me in any discernible way, are Hobbes’s Leviathan, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.  


  Citizenship and Its Discontents

An Indian History

Breaking new ground in scholarship, this is the first history of citizenship in India.

Unlike the mature democracies of the West, India began as a true republic of equals with a complex architecture of citizenship rights that was sensitive to the many hierarchies of Indian society. In this provocative biography of the defining aspiration of modern India, Jayal shows how the progressive civic ideals embodied in the constitution have been challenged by exclusions based on social and economic inequality, and sometimes also, paradoxically, undermined by its own policies of inclusion.

Citizenship and Its Discontents explores a century of contestations over citizenship from the colonial period to the present, analysing evolving conceptions of citizenship as legal status, as rights, and as identity.

The early optimism that a new India could be fashioned out of an unequal and diverse society led to a formally inclusive legal membership, an impulse to social and economic rights, and group-differentiated citizenship. Today, these policies to create a civic community of equals are losing support in a climate of social intolerance and weak solidarity.

Once seen by Western political scientists as an anomaly, India today is a site where every major theoretical debate about citizenship is being enacted in practice, and one that no global discussion of the subject can afford to ignore.

“The idea of citizenship in India promised inclusive community, but the country's enlivened politics have transformed that promise into a more fragmentary, divisive reality. In this magisterial analytic history, Niraja Gopal Jayal maps for the first time the concept's vicissitudes, and makes an essential contribution to our understanding of contemporary India and of political theory.”—Sunil Khilnani, King’s India Institute

“A contribution to our understanding of citizenship and democracy in India that is empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated.”—Amrita Basu, Amherst College

Hardback / 376pp / Rs 795.00 / ISBN 81-7824-371-7 / South Asia rights

19 June 2013




Romila Thapar and Amba

Partha Chatterjee as Bengali sage

Sanjay Subrahmanyam before his beard grew white

06 June 2013

All Permanent Black Books now on Amazon

In addition to retail bookshops, the COMPLETE PERMANENT BLACK list has in India long been available from our associates and primary distributors Orient Blackswan: www.orientblackswan.com

And Orient Blackswan has made virtually every Permanent Black book available at
www.flipkart.com, www.scholarswithoutborders.com, www.vedambooks.com, www.manoharbooks.com, and many other e-sellers of Indian publications

Not all of the above, however, agree to ship books to customers outside India

So the arrival in India of www.amazon.in, which replicates the swift downloads and manoeuvring ease of its counterparts in the USA and UK, will we think greatly facilitate the global online buying of books published in India, including of course the entire Permanent Black list ----- which is visible if you visit www.amazon.in and type 'permanent black' in their search box

And they're available at Indian prices (not marked up to dollar prices, as in the US version of amazon), often with a good discount offer

And for a few days delivery is free 

Go ahead, try it out

02 June 2013



My First Meeting
David Hardiman

Professor, History Department, Warwick University

I met Ranajit and Mechthild Guha for the first time in October 1971, soon after arriving in India as a young history student about to start my doctoral research on a history of the nationalist movement in Gujarat.   Although Ranajit taught at Sussex University, where I had enrolled as a postgraduate, I had not so far met him as he had been away on research leave.   Already, Sussex had been an eye-opener for me.  I had previously studied as an undergraduate at London University, where I was exposed to what I came to realise was a strongly colonialist interpretation of Indian nationalism.  Anthony Low – who was now my doctoral supervisor – Peter Reeves, and others at Sussex soon changed all that.   My eyes were however to widen yet more on meeting Ranajit in his temporary abode, a flat in Mall Road in Delhi.  Sitting in front of a shelf of the collected works of Lenin, he told me of a new peasant radicalism that had the potential to sweep aside the tired and discredited Congress regime.   He urged me to abandon plans to start my project with months of archival research in the big cities and get straight on the train to Gujarat, to live there and mingle with the people in all their joys and sorrows, feeling my way towards a clearer focus to my research.  The advice fell on highly receptive ears – for since 1967 I had spent many of my university vacations travelling rough in far-flung regions of Europe, Asia and Africa, immersing myself in local cultures, though superficially.  Now, I had a chance to do it in a more committed and satisfying way.  Before the end of that month I was ensconced in the Gujarat Vidyapith – the Gandhian university in Ahmedabad – dressed in khadi, learning Gujarati, and meeting up with old nationalists.  

Ranajit and Mechthild visited Ahmedabad in December, and likewise stayed at the Vidyapith.  Their stay coincided with the start of the Bangladesh War, with a curfew and blackout at night, and we sat together in the darkened rooms chatting for long hours.  He told me of Gandhi’s strengths and weaknesses, and what he considered good and bad history and scholarly practice.   Not only did I feel inspired, but he also helped me to begin to feel my way towards a very different approach to the history of Indian nationalism.

Soon after the couple left, I took another train-ride, this time on a narrow-gauge steam train that chugged through the lush countryside of Kheda District in central Gujarat, with its little fields hedged by cactus and fruit trees, and peasants with rustic carts drawn by magnificent white Kankrej bullocks.   I stayed in the heart of this region – the Charotar – in a Gandhian ashram, and was taken by old nationalists of the Patidar community to meet their fellow freedom-fighters.  Within less than a week I had determined the subject of my research – it was to be that of the peasant nationalists of Kheda District.  I could never have grasped the spirit of such a project sitting in an archive.

In this way, I found my subject.  Although the Patidars on whom I now focussed were – I quickly found – at an opposite pole to any revolutionary class as envisaged in Maoist theory, they were at least peasants, and peasant studies were about to burst on the scene as a major academic topic.   Ranajit had facilitated my being in the vanguard of this new approach, and soon I was to go to go on an engage with a much more obviously subaltern group, that of the adivasis of the hills and forests of the Gujarat borderlands.  Without his initial intervention and ongoing inspiration, none of this would have happened in the way it did, and I would have been greatly the poorer for it.

This I can never forget. 

Homi K. Bhabha
Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English, Harvard


Nobody walks the thin, sharp line between being an iconoclast and becoming an icon with greater flair than Ranajit—my cherished mentor and dear friend. To change the self-understanding of a discipline by radically rethinking its archive of political agency and its narrative flow of events demands something more than scholarly courage and political commitment. Such historic acts of the interpretive imagination unlock frameworks of disciplinary legitimation—the order of things—and disclose the power of ideas and actions that have been attenuated or camouflaged or sublimated in their struggle to survive the onslaught of hegemonic or dominant forces. To retrieve such acts and ideas into the annals of history demands a rare kind of charisma. And it is this quality of charismatic authority that drew the most gifted historians of India around Ranajit. The rest isn’t just history, it is Subaltern Studies.

I owe Ranajit much more than any scholarly tribute could convey. Ranajit ushered me into my academic career. As soon as my appointment at Sussex was announced, Ranajit invited Jacqueline and me to lunch in the warm and beautiful home Mechthild and he had made in Brighton. I had only ever seen Ranajit on British television trouncing Mrs. Gandhi during the Emergency. I was quite unprepared for the pastoral pundit who revealed himself while walking us meticulously through Mechthild’s magical garden of herbs and vegetables. At lunch I understood why terroir mattered so much to Ranajit—wines were matched with seasonal dishes of great delicacy and the freshest of flavors.

All this indulgence and benevolence caused me to relax more than I should have because I was also quite unprepared for the mischievous irony that Ranajit was about to unleash on that occasion, and on many other memorable occasions since those early years. The resonant voice becomes a tad lower and smaller, the face tilts, and the unusually expressive eyes become ever so slightly hooded: “You see, unlike you, I am no ‘the-o-rist.’ You use these sophisticated concepts, make all these complex speculations and references… I belong to another generation, a much more straightforward, simple intellectual tradition…” Not to accept Ranajit’s playful provocation is to forego one of the most stimulating and dramatic intellectual experiences you are likely to have. Never resist the hypodermic jab delivered by our Ranajit; the flesh may quiver but it immeasurably increases the life of the mind. Never fail to listen carefully to “the small voice of history” (to cite one of Ranajit’s signature essays) because when he speaks, the sober surfaces of scholarly sententiousness are swept aside and a Nietzschean flame singes all that is obvious and otiose.

My dear Ranajit, I lift a glass to your health as I did in Vienna some years ago, toasting you with my favorite Muskateller. You drank graciously but not as fully as I had hoped. The next time we lunched, you made it plain: “No more Muskateller. Try my drink, Poire Williams, eau de vie.” So Poire Williams it was, and Poire Williams it will be when we meet again.

I wish you and Mechthild many years of companionship. I wish you both many more unread volumes, and many more books as yet unwritten, and many more pieces of music as yet unheard. I wish this for you both as I wish it fervently for the rest of us.

With love,