Too many historians in India have obsessed about who is properly nationalist: Sanjay Subrahmanyam

The historian talks about the need to “complicate” our understanding of nation

Updated - May 31, 2020 02:01 pm IST

Published - May 30, 2020 04:01 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Sanjay Subrahmanyam is a historian specialising in the early modern period who currently holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at UCLA. In this wide-ranging interview, he discusses the problems of Indian historiography, his connected histories approach to pre-colonial South Asia that challenge certain trends in post-colonial studies (such as the Subaltern School), and how ‘modernity’ was a global phenomenon, not something produced in Europe and exported to the rest of the world.

How does your connected histories approach to pre-modern and pre-colonial South Asia impact our understanding of the region’s history? Can it be extended easily into the colonial period?

The most common way to approach the history of South Asia has been to make a relatively sharp distinction between what is “indigenous” and what is “foreign”. It is interesting to contrast this, for example, to approaches to Southeast Asia or Central Asia, where historians have always accepted the importance of circulation and movement, or what my late friend and colleague Denys Lombard used to call the idea of being at a “crossroads”. I believe that by bringing South Asian history into conversation with other histories, be they of West Asia, Central Asia, Europe or Southeast Asia, there is much to be gained. At the same time, it is also important to understand the extent to which different Indian regions were actually connected (or sometimes not connected) to one another through historical processes. In short, the political boundaries we find today have a history and a contingency. They were not etched in stone, and they are not necessarily the best way of defining the geographical matrices within which we study history.

Obviously, the nature of the networks and connections that were operative in the colonial period were different from what obtained in the centuries between 1400 and 1800, which are usually my main focus. But that does not mean that a similar approach cannot be fruitfully employed for certain purposes, as we see from recent Indian Ocean histories. Unfortunately, many prominent historians of the post-1800 Indian Ocean mainly use English-language sources, and this constrains their imagination. Those who don’t do that have often been able to make interesting finds, like Michael O’Sullivan, an economic historian from UCLA who has studied Indian connections with West Asia.

You have said that your intent is to “complicate” our understanding of nation and place in the early modern world. Is there still a place for national history in your understanding? And is it always the same as nationalist history?

Of course, national history too has its place, especially at an intermediate scale of thinking about history between the smaller micro-region and the larger macro-region. At the same time, there are many ways of doing national history, and one need not do it in a nationalist framework. Unfortunately, too many historians in India —– whether leftist, pro-Congress, or pro-BJP — have obsessed about who is and who is not properly nationalist. When the late British historian C.A. Bayly in the 1980s came out with some provocative (and very productive) ideas, people at once used a litmus test of nationalism on him. This was silly, not because he was infallible, but because nothing good could come from such a false debate.

Your provocatively titled 2013 book Is Indian Civilization a Myth? touches on a hotly contested topic in the current political climate. How does the book approach the concept of “Indian civilisation”?

In the book, I argued that an obsession with the idea of a “civilisation” in India (or for that matter, in any part of the world) quickly becomes a claim about the fixity of certain relationships and cultural values. The rhetoric of “clash of civilisations” used by Samuel Huntington and others stemmed directly from this conception. And as such, it is ahistorical or not useful for the purposes of the historian most of the time. I was especially influenced by an essay by the American historian David Ludden, called ‘History outside Civilization’, about the importance of mobility for South Asia. Basically, my point is that when people talk of “civilisation” they immediately fall into the trap of constructing a Golden Age from which we have deviated. They become fundamentalists defending that Golden Age. This is the same problem we see in some parts of Europe today, where people like Alain Finkielkraut or Éric Zemmour imagine that there was a pure European civilisation which is now being contaminated. As it happens, there is a dangerous alliance between some of these elements in Europe and similar elements in India. On the other hand, I have no problem with a word like “culture”, which allows for historical change and is far more flexible in its connotations.

Your theory of connected histories challenges certain trends in post-colonial studies (including the Subaltern School), which you have critiqued for seeing the Indian role as one of largely “reacting and adapting to European initiatives.” What is a better way of approaching these questions of interaction?

I believe that one of the greatest errors of post-colonial studies was that it transferred the entire onus for historical change onto the colonising (largely European) powers. By so doing, these authors simply reproduced the usual Hegelian clichés about how the non-European world was static and Europe was dynamic. I don’t think all Subaltern Studies authors fell into this trap, but some of them in their so-called “Mark II or second phase” — who were attracted by the writings of people like Mircea Eliade or René Guénon — certainly did. But despite these authors, and despite the writings of the young Marx on India (when he was at his most Hegelian), South Asia was not Sleeping Beauty waiting for Prince Charming (or Not-So-Charming) to show up. Using lazy shortcuts like throwing the previous thousand years of Indian (or for that matter African or Chinese) history into the ragbag of “feudalism” or the “Asiatic Mode of Production” is utterly self-defeating. Fortunately, in the past two decades or so, there has been a progressive revival of interest in Indian history in the many centuries before the British conquest.

You have suggested that the societies that existed in the Old and New World prior to 1800 were participants in a nascent modernity that was taking place organically and chaotically on a global level, rather than being engineered by European states. How does this challenge our prevailing assumptions about European colonialism?

What I wished to argue was that “modernity” was not something first produced in Europe and then “exported” to the rest of the world, as both European exceptionalists and post-colonialists would have it. Rather it was, as I put it once, a “global and conjunctural” phenomenon, produced by many forms of complex interaction. This does not mean that I wish to deny the existence of asymmetries of power, or that I am blind to processes of political domination. But it is important to understand that India was not “medieval” until 1757, when Robert Clive suddenly made it “modern” in a mango grove at Plassey. What that also implies is that for the non-European world, colonialism does not equal modernity. In fact, this misunderstanding lies at the root of many anti-modern movements found in the later 20th and early 21st. This is why, despite certain problems that go with it, I still like to use the term “early modern” in relation to India and other parts of the non-Western world to speak of the period even before colonial conquest.

The interviewer is a filmmaker, columnist and scholar. When not travelling, he hangs out with his cats, toucans and pet iguana.

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