Skip to main content

A foretaste of HARJOT OBEROI's second book, WHEN DOES HISTORY BEGIN?

THERE AREN'T TOO MANY HISTORIANS who write such a fine first book that the recovery time needed to write the second is twenty-five or more years. Harjot Oberoi's The Construction of Religious Boundaries (1993), won the Best First Book Prize of the American Academy of Religion and the Killam Prize, the highest research prize of the University of British Columbia. His book was widely recognised as pathbreaking for Sikh Studies in the way that, a generation earlier, Hew McLeod's pioneering work had been.

Thereafter, however, Oberoi was (as is well known) besieged by problems: the orthodox did not merely disagree with the argument of his book -- that modern Sikhism had been constructed from a fluid variety of identities in the Punjab region by the Khalsa Panth over a relatively short period in the eighteenth century -- they also threatened to silence him for marshalling the evidence for such an argument. And they sought actively to terminate his professorship at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

It was the classic case of, on the one hand, a historian of religion unearthing historical roots and the social processes by which doctrines and communities coalesce into a clearer and more distinctive shape, and on the other ardent believers, upholders of the faith, apostolic elites, vested interests, and fanatical fringes determined to keep the sanctity of the Word of God free of forensic examination. The Hindutva opposition to A.K. Ramanujan for "Three Hundred Ramayanas" and the Shiv Sena hostility to James Laine on Shivaji were foreshadowed by the uproar over Harjot Oberoi's book in the mid 1990s. Oberoi had to remain steadfast, stick to his guns, and keep a low profile. Backed up by the university fraternity and friends, as well as by the University of Chicago Press who refused to buckle and discontinue his book, he rode out the storm. No wonder it has taken an unusually long time for Oberoi to strike out with a second book, and within roughly the same fraught field.

Harjot Oberoi's second book, provisionally titled WHEN DOES HISTORY BEGIN? RELIGION, IDENTITY, AND NARRATIVE IN THE SIKH TRADITION will be published by Permanent Black in 2021. Read an extract from it in Scroll, "Gurudwara Rakab Ganj, which PM Modi visited, sparked an anti-government agitation 100 years ago", to see its relevance in the politics of the present.

 


Permanent Black asked Oberoi for any reflections he might like blogged in connection with his work. He sent us these:

I'd say that I was among the early lot of historians from the subcontinent who took the category and discourse of religion seriously. This goes back to the late 1970s. It was a time when, generally speaking, the leading historians were preoccupied with peasant resistance and strategic cycles of Indian nationalism. Here, economic history too occupied centre stage, but not religion. The famous debates in the pages of the IESHR and other such scholarly Indian journals were devoted to questions of colonial economy and what existed in India before the Raj . . .

Perhaps because of the horrors of Partition and India's secular departures, no one really wanted to look all that closely at religious consciousness. Also, the Orientalists like William Jones and Max Müller had been so obsessed with religion that postcolonial thinkers swung the pendulum the other way and an amnesia seemed to have taken hold in relation to religion. But this made it hard to understand things like riots and pogroms. They were explained away as legacies of false consciousness and socioeconomic deprivation.

However, some of the Western historians of the subcontinent in the postcolonial period continued to take an interest in religion. I think the prominent names here are Robert Frykenberg on Christianity in South India; Richard Eaton on Islam and Sufism; Kenneth Jones on the Arya Samaj; and my own PhD supervisor J.T.F. Jordens on Dayananda. And then there is W.H. McLeod on Sikhism.

. . . Some of these scholars were sensitive to religion because of their missionary backgrounds: Jordens was an ex- Jesuit, Frykenberg's family, if I recollect right, were part of the American missionary enclave. My point here is that Indian scholarship in the post-independence period should have stayed connected to understandings of religion, but the opportunity was missed. And this is rather ironic because of Gandhi's deep interest in questions of faith and religion . . .


Oberoi's book has just been edited. It will appear mid 2021. The facets of Sikh history and religion the author unearths, and the care and complexity with which he lays out his findings, will make his book seem worth the wait.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Recollections of Sunil Kumar (1956–2021)

    by Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Nayanjot Lahiri, Rukun Advani WATCH: Sunil Kumar speaking on Delhi   RUKUN ADVANI   Fourteen years ago, Sunil Kumar held a copy of his first big book in his hands: The Emergence of the Delhi Sultanate (Permanent Black, 2007). He hadn’t bothered trying to publish it with any of the big American or British university presses, though they’d all have taken it like a shot. It had been very long since anything substantially new and eye-opening had been written on the Delhi Sultanate, and Sunil, reckoned a dilatory perfectionist whose motto was much too fervently “Better Never Than Now”, was known to have been writing it for more than a decade. He could have had his pick of publisher. Some years later, he emailed saying he’d had enough of being a Reader at SOAS. He could have been in London forever, or moved on from there to the redder-leaved pastures of the Ivy League. By this time his book had brought him recognition as a s

THE GREAT AGRARIAN CONQUEST by NEELADRI BHATTACHARYA

BUY THE PAPERBACK       FROM THE REVIEWS   Review in SOCIAL HISTORY, USA by Benjamin Siegel The Great Agrarian Conquest represents a massive intervention into the contemporary historiography of South Asia, elaborating upon some conventional wisdom but upending a great deal more of it. Readers might well place this book in conversation with works like Ranajit Guha ’ s A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963) and Bernard Cohn ’ s Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge (1997), to which The Great Agrarian Conquest owes some preliminary inspiration. Yet what Bhattacharya o ff ers is a wholly original account of the transformation to agrarian colonialism . . .   Few volumes in South Asian history have been more awaited than this monograph, Neeladri Bhattacharya ’ s fi rst. One of the most celebrated mentors and researchers at New Delhi ’ s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Bhattacharya retired in 2017 after a decades-long career. His formal scholarly output, limited to sev

The Unfamiliarity of the Past

Joya Chatterji's most recent book is PARTITION’S LEGACIES . It was published by Permanent Black in June 2019.  In this wide-ranging conversation about her books and her career as a teacher, she begins with talking about what drew her to history in the first place. She answers questions put to her by Uttara Shahani (a research scholar at Cambridge University) and Sohini Chattopadhyay (a history researcher at Columbia University) 1. Why did you become a historian? Let’s start at the very beginning . . . . . . A very good place to start. But before I launch into my answer, I want to thank you both for such excellent questions. They all force (or encourage) me to reflect on a lifetime of work. From a personal standpoint, this is a great moment for me to think backwards and ask myself: what did it all add up to? So I am grateful for your critical but generous-spirited questions. Why History? Why indeed. My relationship with the subject is best likened to a love affair. I was introduce