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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. [...]


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