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The Demands of Contemporary History: A Comment

If the problem at issue is the way in which Indian history is currently conceived and practised, then where does the historical basis for that conception come from, if not from the serious distortions introduced by the vacillations of historians themselves?

DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200877Sasheej Hegde ( is at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.The Demands of Contemporary History: A CommentSasheej HegdeIf the problem at issue is the way in which Indian history is currently conceived and practised, then where does the historical basis for that conception come from, if not from the serious distortions introduced by the vacillations of historians themselves? Rather than respond to Ramachandra Guha’s article ‘The Challenge of Contemporary History’ (June 28, 2008), with whose general direction I fully agree, I would like to tease out some as-pects of the project he is advocating. Guha has over the years become a leading voice in India’s public life, bringing to the breadth of his concerns a rare verve and commit-ment to debate and prognosis of the “truths” confronting contemporary India. His impressive paean to post-independence India has recently appeared,1 and in work both preparatory to this contribution and since has laboured for what he terms a “contemporary history”. His main concern is to make historical sense of post-1947 India, for what can be done to enhance our knowledge of the history of India as an independent nation. The method that Guha recommends to achieve this aim is one that retains the historian’s respect for sources – specifically documentary sources such as private correspondence, official memoranda, court records, parlia-mentary and legislative proceedings, newspaper commentary and journal features, as well as scholarly accounts, al-though there is a point thrown in about oral testimonies as well.It is perhaps a hopeful sign that a varie-ty of scholars and organisations are now working experimentally and quietly in this vein. Perhaps too quietly: the scholar-ly public seems mostly unaware of these recent attempts to negotiate, with all due reticence and care, between the past and the present on behalf of the contemporary. These efforts are examples of what, I take it, the Economic & Political Weekly has been supporting for years: the participa-tion of scholarsas scholars in addressing issues too archaic and complex to be han-dled by politicians or even civil servants on their own. For these questions are less about borders and livelihoods or even armaments and peace and internal secu-rity than they are about history and about philosophical vocabularies. In response to Guha’s article, then, I would like to exam-ine one aspect of this negotiation as it con-cerns history and the acceptance of con-temporary history. Without doubt, sociolo-gists like me and historians like Guha could do with some scholastic and some not-so-scholastic changes of direction.What Sort of History?I am struck, in reading Guha’s essay, at how much the theme of “contemporary history” (by which is meant the period of Indian his-tory after 1947) is shot through with dou-bleness. In many of its forms, so he reminds us, contemporary history brings excitement and challenge: the possibility of confront-ing the “narrowness” of Indian history and historians; the certainty that the history of independent India “will be more diverse and more exciting than the post-war histories of France and the United Kingdom and the US”; the vital fact that the reader of con-temporary history is a critical reader (“an active participant in the historical dia-logue”); the imperative of resisting the compulsions and pressures of academic fashion; indeed, the defiance of writing a history which is “mostly unwritten”. This excitement and challenge also means forg-ing a “growth area” for the future, “for his-torians old and young, Indian and foreign”. Simultaneously, some forms of contempo-rary history are prized, even as the “dimin-ishing returns from working on the colonial period” is emphasised. The Republic of India as a political experiment is the supreme ex-ample, as indeed the charged political dec-ades and social changes of the 1950s, the 1960s and 1970s, both at the level of the nation as a whole and at the level of its states and regions. The reorganisation of Indian states and their consequent histories is another. Likewise, the writing of biographies of major “national” leaders and regional figures, as well as a history of institutions that have impacted on independent India.Some of these pronouncements may seem somewhat extreme, but that is not quite the point I wish to make. If discussions about changing Indian society proceed on the basis of ill-conceived or repetitive no-tions about colonial India which reinforce the stereotype of the benefits of British colonialism or its flipside, then Guha and his history colleagues have work to do.
DISCUSSIONOctober 4, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly78The history of India after 1947, they might say, is suffering because the package of ideas which it clings to depends on an im-poverished and Manichaean view of mod-ern Indian history. For this very reason, the engagement of the contemporary historian with less ideologically conceived versions of the past is vital, but I will get back to this later. What Guha does hint at, however,is the extent to which many of the solutions/answers he hopes to find through fresh thinking about the overall architecture of India after 1947 may in fact be there in the archives. There is yet a note of regret in his analysis – here again is the doubleness I spoke of early on – which stems from frus-tration (which is perhaps shared by others) with the level of debate about history in India today. But one of the things that strike the reader of Guha’s article is how much of his source material for contempo-rary history seems new and vigorous. The way forward for Guha-inspired his-torical research must be to go back to the areas he dissects, particularly all those fertile and creative minds of both the regime instituting India and of India’s states and regions, and re-examine them from the perspective of their own times. It is also perhaps striking that the contemporary his-tory thus conceived cannot abandon the terrain of political history, although it may seek to recount it in different terms. I am here reminded of the insistence structuring a parallel attempt at contemporary history, namely, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. As Khilnani poignantly stated in his intro-duction: “(P)olitics is at the heart of India’s passage to and experience of modernity. In a fundamental sense, India does not merely ‘have’ politics but is actually constituted by politics”. All the same, from the point of view of my comment, how is one to be eval-uating the compulsions of a contemporary history which cannot abandon the terrain of political history (although it might yet be capable of recounting it in “other” ways)? Tacked on to the demand for what was indi-cated earlier as a less ideologically con-ceived version of the past, I guess the chal-lenge of contemporary history translates into an overdetermined space of narration and argument. In what follows, I propose to examine an aspect of this overdetermined space, while avoiding to the extent possible (for reasons of space primarily) an engage-ment with the evolution of the historiogra-phy of Indian history since independence.Of Disciplinarity and ‘Limit Point’The recent revival of interest in the nation as an entity no longer arising from a politi-cal design in the service of the nation state has meant, for historians particularly (as indeed for the social sciences as a whole), a revitalisation of the space of their object. It has also meant the awareness that belong-ing to a community founded on a national identity is a fundamental fact of life in society; while also entailing, paradoxically perhaps, two further trends in the recent evolution of historiography both in India and elsewhere – the rebirth of political his-tory and a renewal of interest in the state. Solely on these grounds perhaps, it is very much a question whether a discrimination of distinct modes of historicity (or contin-gency, if you will) is usefully practicable in Academic Foundation 12½ x 3
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200879discussions about contemporary history and sociology. This point will elude Guha and other historians; it surely escapes sociologists and political scientists. Undeniably, what the Annales histori-ans in the French tradition of historiogra-phy tried to do – and I think it is befitting that we should be alluding to this tradi-tion of historiography because, for all their concern about the historical method and the modes of doing history, they did not quite repudiate contemporary history – was precisely to discriminate between distinct modes of contingency/historicity. The basic thought – and I am refracting, of course – was that we could think of the different modes of doing history (econo-mic, social, cultural and even political his-tory) as a limiting case of doing something that subserves (or preserves) the histori-cal. For after all, if the goal is apprehend-ing history as a whole, one of the best ways around of achieving this goal, if available, is just to be doing it. I am suspending the reference to objects or notions that the Annales historians thought the historian can or ought to use; but at any rate, even with such a reference, the various modes of doing history can be seen as closed in on themselves – each as subserving itself, and, what is more, with reference to history as a whole, resisting the temptation to talk about conceptual vocabularies while turning instead to making them work.2 If so, then, even if the argument for a mode of doing history (in Guha’s instance, a contemporary history) is contentious, it must still be plausible.To be sure, there is a principled way in which contemporary history and the picture that supports it can be defended against any such oscillation. This involves appeal to what could be called “the limit point”: the idea that for all the innovation that history as a discipline has been able to show – as indeed the linkages that the discipline has been able to forge with the social sciences – it cannot refrain from connecting the past, where it situates its objects, with the present, from where its questions arise.This notion of a limit point, it must be added, need not be confused with the boundary question, namely that a limit or threshold has been reached beyondwhich it is neither desirable nor possible to proceed. But then, it must be recognised that Guha inflects the point methodologi-cally rather than disciplinarily,althoughit is not entirely clear whether it is exclusive-ly the historian’s mastery of sources (spe-cifically, documentary sources) that he is interested to foreground and/or exploit as a vital mark of difference distinguishing the contemporary historian from the soci-ologist or political scientist. One could, of course, eschew the disciplinary and/or methodological point, working cross-dis-ciplinarily across the space of history and the social sciences, and with categories of “old” and “new” ways of doing history and the social sciences. Yet, this could make for a messy dialogue of disciplines, to say the least. At any rate, within the limits of any discussion about history as a disci-pline or practice – or even contemporary history per se – it makes some difference which view is taken concerning the very important question of whether what counts is the attitude a discipline actually has or the attitude it would be reasonable for it to have. Without doubt, Guha vacil-lates, as most would.More specifically, then, the idea of a limit point operative in contemporary his-tory in the Indian context, as Guha man-dates it, is the requirement of less ideologi-cally conceived versions of the past. This phrase “less ideologically conceived versions of the past” – doubtless, not traceable directly to Guha, although can be inferentially so posited – is itself one of the difficulties, but the question that it is used to amplify is not itself too obscure (even if shot through, as always, with dou-bleness). It is whether, starting from a state of historical knowledge that could be termed ideological (that is to say, issuing from a moral and political judgment), and adding to that state a cognitive pronounce-ment (as constituting an advance in our knowledge or understanding of specific phenomena), it is conceivable that an ex-pansion should then occur in the scope of the historical. The argument for contem-porary history, as Guha conceives it, seems to take it that the answer to this question must be negative. And so, I suggest, do many others, even those given to diverse and separate modes of doing history or sociology.Historians, for long, have been engaged in a reconstruction of the sovereign political community and the history it has made for itself. What this amounts to is an examination of the histories of the peoples inhabiting a national space as they have shaped these for themselves and shaped one another. The term “national” sets up an emphasis on the state and polity that has dominated these histories, seeking to control and unify them, but the new modes of doing history, I realise, recounts this story in ways designed to problema-tise it. Whether there is such a thing as “national” history is an open question, al-though the overall tendency of this mode of problematisation is never all too pre-cise. It may still seem that Guha is an Indian nationalist, albeit a moderate and self-critical one; and one need only traverse the affecting depictions of his India after Gandhi – as also the essay I am commenting on – to gain a sense of this description. As such, he is doing no more than what the arguments against domi-nant historiographies are doing, that is, asserting baldly against existing trends in history and affirming that a contemporary history gives us no reason to be eschewing history – and a political history, at that – but does give us a reason to do whatever will recast thepolitical; that is, take it away from the space of the ideological or re-inscribe the ideological. In the section to follow, I attempt to give some body to this formulation. Needless to say, I shall have to be brief, having exceeded all my limits.The ‘Subject’ of NarrationWe began by pressing the claims of con-temporary history, while going on to im-plicate from within Guha the rudiments of a position from which to characterise the enterprise, conceived not just temporally but also as a relation of demanding. And yet, there are all sorts of intricate elements attaching to the project as so conceived. Guha’s recent historical work tends to be framed within an intellectual reading of academic trends and of previous genera-tions of political commentators and intel-lectuals, but it is neither classic “history of ideas” nor a cultural history of political dis-course. Guha is interested in the nuances of political rhetoric, but his sweeping narra-tive style should not be taken as a sign that he is a cultural historian of politics. Accord-ingly, even as he predisposes contemporary

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