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Debates on Indian History and Historiography

Rahul Govind

By Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 262, Rs. 595.00


Is Indian Civilization a Myth? is a collection of articles by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, most of which have been previously published in Outlook, India Today and the London Review of Books. Also included are two unpublished pieces that are autobiographical in nature, one piece originally in French and the other an interview which was conducted in Portuguese.   An insider to the debates on Indian history and historiography and familiar with Subrahmanyam’s academic work, when addressed in this collection, may well remain unmoved from a position already adopted. For instance, the controversial article in Outlook debating Ashis Nandy is a case in point that sharply brings out the difficulties that attend to the writing of history at a time and place like India where it is most alive. While Subrahmanyam may well be appreciated for demanding a rigorous documentation of arguments that are ostensibly made on historical grounds, what is less clear is the function of a historical argument in analysing contemporary reality. Subrahmanyam does not feel that historians are equipped to critique nationalism (p. 7); but is the historian’s task then merely pedagogical i.e., to correct others when they turn to history? And how is such correction to be evaluated when confronting Nandy for whom the very basis of such an endeavour (history as a method) is suspect and for whom an erroneous use of a category—such as the concept-term convivencia as pointed out by Subrahmanyam—in such terms may not be fatal to the point being made? Ultimately what is of interest is that it is not only Subrahmanyam the scholar who is troubled by Nandy’s use of history, but also the scholar-historian’s political antenna which detects what it sees as a curious complicity between the latter’s positions and those of the Hindu Right. While this is not the place to enter the fraught nature of a concept-word (history) that designates both referent (source/event) and sign (method) it might well be the ground for profound if ultimately incommensurable swordplay. Much of Subrahmanyam’s scholarship is fruitfully brought to bear on contemporary issues and yet the precise relationship between history as method and the contemporary or history and politics is rarely thematized as such; it is just about acknowledged in flashes of introspection, as when he responds in an interview, ‘No one can write a history that is totally devoid of political implications. However ...

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