An interview with Sanjay Subrahmanyam, historian

Professor Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eminent Indian historian, has been elected to the Collège de France in Paris, a prestigious centre of learning, where he will hold a Chair in Early Modern World History. Educated at the Delhi School of Economics, Professor Subrahmanyam taught economics and history in India, France and the U.K. before joining the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2004 as Professor and Doshi Chair of Indian History. Earlier, in 2002, he was the first holder of the Chair in Indian History and Culture at Oxford. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. He spoke to Vaiju Naravane. Excerpts:

You are a historian of Modernity. What are the kinds of shifts and upheavals we are witnessing today?

In terms of political organisation, there have been many shifts and upheavals. The world I’m dealing with in the 17th century is still really one of monarchies. But the changes today are also visible in the technologies in movement and transportation, changes in notions of distance, social relations and what social groups are, down to the level of the family.

What about past and present migration patterns? How have these changed in the long term? How has the debate on migration changed?

Earlier, there were waves of migration that took place in the context of empire-building and imperial expansion. For instance, migration to colonial America, and even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was broadly within a matrix of imperial expansion. There were arguments made that we might not accept today: that these were “empty lands” being settled — arguments that were still being made in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. After World War I and the Depression, European or white migration became a minority phenomenon. What we are looking at now are often population movements from non-European parts of the world, and it is not being done in the context of political restructuring. Today’s constituted states are thus resisting, wishing to shape developments, preferring one type of migrant to another — racially, professionally, etc. However, if the world population density remains unequally distributed like this, there have to be adjustments. But it’s one thing to make broad arguments and another to come down to the fact of how people move and how they are allowed to move.

Do you see a great deal of international tension in the coming years? And how does that link up with the fear of Islam and migration? Are we going to see dual, interlinked tensions?

Yes, certainly. Currently, in the U.S., their main obsession is with population movements from Latin America, but in Europe, the matter is posed differently. At times, this question of Islam is an excuse. Look at the question of the Roma, or “gypsies.” This has nothing to do with Islam, yet absurd ideas, medieval myths of them being child stealers, are resurfacing. This is suggestive of a larger paranoia. In France and Italy, for instance, there are many Bangladeshis, but the public often does not perceive them as Muslims. On the other hand, the Turks, with whom the West has had dealings for a very long time, and who made efforts over the 20th century to abandon a part of their culture to become “western,” got nowhere when they tried to enter the European Union. Apparently, Greece has more in common with Europe than Turkey!

The question of immigration leads me to secularism, which has been one of your concerns. What is the main difference in the way secularism is practised in India and in France?

First, there are differences linked to the concepts of secularism and “laicité” and, second, with the institutional practices as they exist today. The conditions of the emergence of laicité are to be seen in the context of the religious wars — and a history going back to the French Revolution and its aftermath, where it was thought that the Catholic Church had a hold on power that posed a problem at various levels. Therefore, we get the argument that the State had to be extracted from the Church’s grasp. Even today, when the problem of Muslims and Islam is posed, it’s actually posed subconsciously in the context of the Catholic Church. When they talk of the veil or the voile in France, they are really thinking of the Catholic nuns, and many French see Islam as a symbol of oppression of women, as they once saw the Church.

In India, we are dealing with a situation where for a very long period of time, ever since the establishment of the first Muslim polities, you had a kind of shifting equilibrium between many different communities. Since there was no such thing as a constituted Hinduism with defining institutions, nobody ever saw the problem as extracting the state from religion as such. It was actually the problem of mediating and finding a balance between different communities and groups. The metaphor was often that of the king as the doctor and the kingdom as the body, where the doctor balances the humours in the body.

Is the flurry of anti-Islam and anti-mosque laws passed in France, Belgium or Switzerland a case of excess, of not respecting the balance between the many communities and forces that make up society?

Yes, it is a question of whether they are capable of redefining for themselves their way of thinking. Can France, in particular, get out of this “laicité” bind? Because it is really not the appropriate language with which to talk about relationships between communities. What French republicanism has produced is an extreme form of inflexibility, where they don’t have the appropriate conceptual tools to deal with a sizeable non-Christian minority. I once suggested to the great ire of the readers of Le Monde that the French might even want to look for institutional solutions in India.

How do you look at French schizophrenia — on the one hand, they are obsessed with the idea of decline and, on the other, of rebuilding their greatness through the propagation of the French language and culture overseas?

It’s not entirely unique to France. The division of Germany allowed France the space to develop their cultural shadow during four decades after the war. The Germans have largely given up on language, and now accept English while the British console themselves with the idea that the Americans have become their heirs. The problem for France is that there is no “overseas France” that really emerged. Moreover, the French have a system that is heavily dominated by the state even with regard to cultural production. So, when people talk of decline they are actually talking of the relative decline of the French state. France is facing a world that is hostile to state activity — Europe itself is diluting the powers of individual states. The question is: can we imagine a France where the state plays a lesser role? Even writers and thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu were ultimately the social products of state intervention, exemplifying its triumph whether they were critical of the state or not. They were not the products of strong civil society institutions.

You have been elected to the Chair in the Early Modern World History at the Collège de France. What are the specific issues on which you have decided to focus?

The Chair has been given a very broad definition and you then pick an overall theme for each year. The theme for this year is global history in the 17th century. The way in which history has typically been organised at the Collège de France has been either as national histories or “civilizational histories.” So, this is something of an experiment. They felt they were interested in my approach over the last 15 to 20 years, looking into histories on a more flexible basis, what I call “connected histories” — flexible histories from a geographical perspective.

Could you share some of the topics with us?

This year’s topics include the so-called global crisis in the 17th century, which some see as related to climate change, for instance. But I shall also treat specific questions. For instance, the 17th century is a great moment for the history of piracy.

A Frenchman called Alexandre Exquemelin wrote the most famous book on the subject. It was a phenomenon which had to do with the political conditions and contested sovereignty in Europe, and in particular, England in the context of the civil war; where you get contested sovereignty. Piracy is often a question of contested sovereignty, of a breakdown of the state.

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