Imagining post-Indian histories


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NATION states immensely invest in production, mobilization and disciplining of memories. It would be naïve to think that such investments – ideological, financial, institutional and otherwise – do not affect the texture of produced historical knowledge. While authenticity of particular histories is determined within the professional discourse in reference to established standards of coherence and correspondence,1 the social authority of historians is formed within the materialities of placements, publications and commissions.2 In the political structure we inhabit, these materialities are largely supervised by the state. It is only through a critical recognition of the complex interplay between the jargons of authenticity and the social sources and modes of professional authority that an effective move beyond the present-day Indian historiography can begin.

The point is simple. There are pasts to which we do not have any access without some kind of training. For a sizeable section of the population, the discipline of history is the principal pedagogic mode of that access. In committing them to recollection of such pasts, it also takes pains to ensure that they do not go off the rails, that is to say, through history, memories are structured, organized and circulated in sanctioned, authorized ways.

There are, at least two distinct levels of authorization: one can be called authenticity, primarily involving the members of the professional tribe, and the other authority, concerning the larger framework of the institutions and power relationships within which the tribe has to operate. Without reducing the correspondence between the two levels to a mechanistic and direct cause-and-effect connection, it is possible to appreciate the productivity of their relationship.

But what the liberal chimera of a ‘pure’ disinterested history often tends to forget is that there exist definite structural limits to our much trumpeted academic freedom of teaching and research and that these restrictions do not necessarily work in a spectacular way. Withdrawal of a couple of Towards Freedom volumes or closing down of a Kerala Council of Historical Research or deletion of a few passages from textbooks are not the only modes through which the discipline experiences state violence. There are subtler and everyday violations that simultaneously circumscribe and facilitate history’s movement.

Let us consider an innocent example: the foundational categories of our textbook histories, namely, ‘ancient India’, ‘medieval India’ and ‘modern India’.3 These are certainly commonsensical devices, so commonsensical that one runs the risk of missing the role of the serious ideological labour that goes into their making. For the majority of our historians (whether secularist or communalist), these are empty and matter of fact categories. As long as one does not define what one chooses to fill the categories with, we are told, the classification constitutes the mere form, not the content, of history.



I disagree. Precisely because the form has already announced the content. In forcing numerous pasts to pass through the grid of these categories, the historical discipline requires the children of families and of state to confirm to the produced memories of an always-already existing India that has stayed alive from the ancient through the medieval to the modern period. There might be competing and conflicting narratives, depending upon how one chooses to expend one’s spleen, but by strategically locating itself as the site, rather than the object, of these narratives, India has come to be the degree zero which history not only starts from but also has to return to.4

This essay understands ‘futures’ not as an inevitable eon, which awaits us out there in the ineluctable sequence of linear time, but as moments that have to be actively created within the career of the discipline to escape the circularity of logic through which we have been taught to connect the pasts and the present. At this point it must be added that one cannot merely historiographically break out of this circle. The correspondence between authenticity and authority is too deep to be disrupted by a bare change in the narrative.

It would be utopian to conceptualize ‘India’ simply as a suppressive ideological frontier that shuts resistant accounts of our otherwise recalcitrant pasts out of the professional imagination. India performs as an institutional and productive frontier too. In systematically encouraging production and circulation of a national history, the developmentalist post-colonial nation state has spawned a massive plexus of specialized establishments, conferences, grants and assignments.



These are not merely hotbeds of ‘self-serving’ cabals and coteries, as a narrowly repressive view of power might tempt us to believe.5 No history is waiting for us outside of or prior to this network. The fact that the state is the chief author of the institutionalization and formalization of the historical studies does not mean that the authorial intention can fully realize itself in an absolute closure of the discipline.

History, in other words, is not a mere function of the state in spite of the latter’s tremendous effort at instrumentalizing the discipline. Of course, the state substantially draws on the historians’ aggressive faith in the complete interpretability of the pasts to bring a sense of finality and stability to the selfhood it claims to embody. But in order to produce that continuity and constancy, the historical discipline has to stabilize its own norms and rules, regularize its procedures of differentiating between the true and the false, the relevant and the extraneous, the fundamental and the ephemeral.6



Formalization of knowledge protocols performs a dual function: on the one hand, it helps history ‘wear a face of regularity, order and coherence’, thus rendering the pasts meaningful and mobilizable within the statist rhetoric; on the other hand, it specifies the ways in which such mobilization might occur and accordingly constrains its flexibility. Disciplined knowledges do not merely pursue but also violently inhibit and contest the fantasies of the state. This contestation works at the same time as a resistance and a corrective, as a challenge to the state and a stimulus to its enhancement. The history of the discipline, we must clarify, overlaps with the history of the state, but the two are not identical.

One can possibly see here the necessity of walking a difficult path between a homespun liberal foundationalism and an easy, vulgar Foucauldian relativism. The fiction of professional expertise and competence is constituted within the stabilization of discursive rules. By the use of the word ‘fiction’ I am not suggesting that the professional skill or methodology is only a bag of tricks, an empowered cluster of conventions and stereotypes. Rather the word simply insists that the claims of historians’ authority make sense only within a code that is contingent – both in terms of dependence and chanciness. While it is alarmingly lazy to say that the professional procedures are too arbitrary to handle the ‘equally plausible fantasies between which we cannot make a rational choice,’7 neither can we join the liberal historians in their unreflexive celebration of esoteric skill or utopian defence of the discipline’s absolute autonomy.



If in the context of the ongoing communalism controversy, it is disturbing to see the cavalier logic rapidly winning in the graduate coffeehouses of the metropoles, it is equally painful to witness the way the Marxist historians are echoing the Nehruvian groan about the ‘infringement of the academic rights and freedom of the historian.’ Even the Marxists, it seems, have expected the state to be disinterested, at least in the field of history. After reading The God That Failed, we might like to remember, as Edward Said remarked, ‘I want to ask: Why as an intellectual did you believe in a god anyway?’8

Gods, believers know, retain their hold over us even when we go against them. The most modern of gods, the nation state, is no exception. In their bid to mobilize ‘public opinion’ against the open use of state power in ‘rewriting’ history, many secularist historians are smuggling in an old Nehruvian line of reasoning, which conveniently fails to disengage secularism from the residue of statism. This is connected to their enthusiastic participation in naturalization of the state ideology in the preceding decades.

At one level, there is an unmistakable evocation of the figure of the essential nation (the sole point of disagreement being this is syncretic, not Hindu).9 At another, there is an indiscreet valorization of the esotericism of an expert knowledge,10 happily forgetting that the myth of a self-perpetuating expertise only serves to repress the material context of the professional practice and gives it a corona of ideality and disinterestedness.

I am not suggesting a false binary between a liberating dilettantism and an oppressive professionalism. My argument is that if we do not qualify the autonomy of the discipline as strategic (not absolute), then we run the risk of sliding back into the naïve objectivism that the state has always tried to establish through history (‘this is the right way to know the past of the nation’). As a theorized project of knowledge production history must remain contestable, refuse to pretend closure, and open itself internally to the play of contending interpretations.



It must be clear by now that this is neither to justify the recurrent premeditated state violence against specified secularist historians, institutions and texts nor to overplay the element of ‘purely interpretative difference’ in the debate. What is important to note is that the Hindutva preachers, like the Holocaust deniers, are increasingly trying to establish their claims within the discipline of history, professing allegiance to the ‘facts’ and methodologies of research. We shall be mistaken to think that since this evidently – and I am tempted to add, fittingly – subjects them to scathing professional criticism, we can continue to believe in an uncompromising expertise operating independently of the traffic between the profession and its principal patron.



Even if stabilized rules, for the moment, resist untried fantasies, this stability is not a transcendental given; it is a product of decades of professional labour within the structure of patronage, a fiction intelligible and convincing only within the language of political investment.11 Unless chained down, to rephrase Plato, the beautiful statues of Daedalus might indeed begin to fly in the night.

The success of the communalists lies less in the fact that they have received the official green signal to ‘rewrite’ the national history than in the suggestion that they have compelled the secularist professionals to shrink back to an insular definition of history: as if textbooks are pristine, preideological sites; as if it is only a government, not the state, that the discipline needs to rethink its relationship with; as if invocation of a politically deactivated scientificity can effectively answer the blatant trampling of evidences. The state has made us unlearn that we can defend secularism without naturalizing it.

Such a defence against the effacement of human labour, on this reading, has to be crucially set against the institutive violence of capital. It is from its location and configuration within the regime of global capital that the nation state accumulates its potency of naturalization. Imagining ‘futures’ as simply postnational and post-disciplinary without specifying this connection not only inhibits the critical scope of the contention but also threatens to obscure the present international division of intellectual labour.12



The ever increasing preference of the post-liberalization academic generation in metropolitan India to research in the history and South Asian studies departments of the western (chiefly American) universities is structured within this division. Read within the event of impressive transnational success of the Subaltern Studies series (which has inaugurated a critique of the interconstitutive connection of nation state and history without always exposing itself to a trenchant introspection in similar situational terms), this unequal circulation between metropole and periphery is gestural of the profundity of the politics of producing ‘postcolonial native informants’.13

At issue here is not so much a nostalgic-nationalist emotionalism around ‘brain drain’ as the overdetermination of the historical discipline itself. Within the domesticating folds of the first world academia the critique of the national in the historiographical threatens to operate as a discursive correlate of multinational capital, the critique of empiricist objectivism begins to contribute to increased (ex)portability of the abstracted local, the critique of teleology works to impede translation of histories into transformational politics. Commitment to the discipline, in whose name this new professionalization operates, turns out to be premised on an indifference to the exploitative nature of the globally hierarchized system of knowledge production.



To embroider upon the previous sentence, India does not form a stable unified pole in this hierarchization, tragically receiving the brunt of globalization of academia and privatization of theory. Rather, as the widening chasm between metropolitan and mofussil histories in the country suggests, the economy of memory cannot be monitored evenly at all points.14 The academic map of India, those who inhabit it know, is deeply fractured along multiple but overlapping axes of privileges. Surviving under the aegis of an enthusiastic collaborator ‘postcolonial’ state which increasingly constrains its citizens’ access to academic opportunities, we need to be sensitive to the political investments in professional standards of sophistication. Erasing the small town intellectual productions out of the respectable academic discourse, or better still, dismissing them as ‘substandard’, ‘conventional’ and ‘unscientific’ restores an odour of modularity to metropolitan high theory.

With the unstated agreement over the idea that the ‘regional identities’ are somewhat less real and stable than ‘the national’, the ‘local histories’ are conveniently appropriated within the high discourse as inadequate but useful pointers to locate underworked areas of research, spot unused sources and know little facts, which can then be scraped, gleaned and carried to the big city seminars. Globe trotting native informants need situated native informants. It is this material hierarchy of production of historical data that underwrites much of today’s well-meaning research and our imagination of ‘futures’ cannot elude an intervention at this point. To be able to write, in other words, we must move beyond writing.

‘Beyond’ returns us to the odd word in the title: ‘post-Indian’. ‘Post-’ is ‘the trope of our times’, we are told. ‘For there is a sense of disorientation, a disturbance of direction, in the ‘beyond’: an exploratory, restless movement’15 that we must keep alive in order to unsettle the serenity of received categories. It reflects, does not resolve, the crisis of confidence in the foundational fictions. At the risk of being taxed with an absurd imprecision, it sustains our suspicions of producing programmed histories. Absurd, because ‘post-’ also reduces the imagined histories to ‘prepositional time’:16 the frontiers of ‘Indian history’, which they try to spill over, cross and indeed shift, continue to govern their problematic. And they are not ashamed either. ‘When no known language is available to you, you must determine to steal a language – as men used to steal a loaf of bread.’17



1. These shorthand terms are in Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 122.

2. Apart from Keith Jenkins’s more general discussion, Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) has discussed this point in the specific historical context of the United States.

3. These are not merely the titles of the state-sponsored National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks, almost all the history departments in the country are organized along this line.

4. It must be simultaneously clarified that this tautological structure is not peculiar to the Indian case. Since the nineteenth century, the principle of organizing human history along national lines has quite consistently functioned to methodically underplay the contingency of the modern regime of nation states. Among many historians and theorists of history who have dealt with the naturalization of the present through nationalization of the pasts, White deserves a condensed citation: ‘Historiography is, by its very nature, the representational practice best suited to the production of the "law-abiding" citizen. This is not because it may deal in patriotism, nationalism, or explicit moralizing but because in its featuring of narrativity as a favoured representational practice, it is especially well-suited to the production of notions of continuity, wholeness, closure, and individuality that every "civilized" society wishes to see itself as incarnating, against the chaos of a merely "natural" way of life.’ Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 87.

5. Cf. Rudrangshu Mukherjee, ‘Clio is an anarchist’, The Telegraph, 26 February 2000.

6. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language (1969), trans., A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

7. Mary Fulbrook, ‘Fact, Fantasy, and German History’, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute Washington, 26, Spring 2000.

8. Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (London: Vintage, 1994), 84.

9. Consider, for example, Irfan Habib’s solemn statement on the ICHR controversy which closes with the following lines: ‘One does not have in mind only the honor of the National Movement, or the cause of academic freedom. The battle is for the nation’s mind, and that concerns the future of us all’ <www.ercwilcom. net/indowindow/sad/>. However, it needs to be emphasized that in his latest book, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Relocating Postmodernism, Hindutva, History (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002), Sumit Sarkar has determinedly polemicized against secularist preoccupation with the national.

10. Reference to ‘eminence’ and ‘stature’ of the assaulted secularist historians is a usual rhetorical ploy. See Habib’s statement.

11. I think Foucault is acutely pertinent here: ‘The essential political problem for the intellectual is not to criticize the ideological contents supposedly linked to science, or to ensure that his own scientific practice is accompanied by a correct ideology, but that of ascertaining the possibility of constituting a new politics of truth.’ Michel Foucault, ‘Truth and Power’, Power/ Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Colin Gordon ed. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980), 133.

12. Sumit Sarkar raises this point about the postnational. Beyond Nationalist Frames, 187 and passim. In his ‘critique of the privatization of theory and the de-politicization of pedagogy’ Adam Katz points out how ‘"post-disciplinarity" corresponds to the postmodern liberal politics of identity, which requires modes of knowledge "flexible" enough to manage the contradictions of post-welfare state capitalism.’ Adam Katz, ‘Postmodern Cultural Studies: A Critique’, Cultural Logic, 1: 1 (Fall 1997).

13. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Calcutta: Seagull, 1999), 360-4 and passim.

14. Partha Chatterjee, ‘History and the Domain of the Popular’, Seminar 522 (February 2003), 31-34 unambiguously recognizes this point. But his prescription of bilingualism for the high academicians appears as a quick formalist exit from the complexities of ‘opening up to, as well as confronting, the popular.’

15. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 1.

16. This phrase occurs in the context of the postcolonial in Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995), 11.

17. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes trans. Richard Howard (London: Macmillan, 1975), 176.