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'Doing' the History of Social Reform

J. Devika

Edited by Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 465, Rs. 1495.00


This useful volume brings together a number of important essays on the history of social reform in different parts of India. The two volumes promise to offer more comprehensive coverage with essays from the southern and north-eastern parts of the country. Extensive use of judicial archives is made use of in many of the essays, like Tanika Sarkar’s essay on the controversy around the Age of Consent Bill, Padma Anagol’s on women’s oppositional voices in nineteenth century social reform debates, and Lucy Carroll’s on the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856. Others, like Prem Chowdhry’s essay which juxtaposes the effects of British administrative policy and the influence of the Arya Samaj in Haryana in coercing women into levirate practices, and Anand Yang’s essay on sati, make innovative use of different source-registers to both improve empirical knowledge and critical understandings of these phenomena. The volume also contains close and innovative readings of the writings of central figures of social reform—Vidyasagar (in Sumit Sarkar’s contribution) and Pandita Ramabai (by Gauri Viswanathan). Sekhar Bandhopadhyay presents a useful reading of the orthodox opposition to widow-remarriage in Bengal, which throws light on reformist ‘failures’. John and Karen Leonard’s contribution on the Telugu reformer Viresalingam is a much-needed biographical essay on this important but lesser known figure of Indian social reform. Geraldine Forbes’s account of women’s education in India and Madhu Kishwar’s critical description of the Arya Samajist efforts to ‘uplift’ women are well-known essays, by now essential readings for graduate and postgraduate students in history and other disciplines as well.   The volume clearly aims for more than just a comprehensive and neutral picture of the growing literature on social reform since the 1980s. The essays contribute directly or indirectly to the critique of now powerful strands of historical research on social reform which emphasize the discursive limits of modernities, shaping social reform endeavours, and later, nationalism and postcolonial political movements as well. The criticisms levelled against such writing—for example, that it denies agency to women, clubs together liberal and revivalist social reformers, and treats the shifts from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries in too cursory a fashion—find strong echoes in these essays. However, a fuller and more direct engagement with these features would have been very useful indeed. Lata Mani’s essay on the official discourse, described in the introduction as ‘...

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