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The Political Turn

P.K. Datta

Edited by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rochona Majumdar and Andrew Sartori
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 369, Rs. 675.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Anthony Low in dramatic syntax announces in his fore- word that the academic world of post-1947 Indian subconti- nent was dominated by political ‘scientists’, while historians only dealt with events happening prior to that year. This has been recognized as a long-standing irony by Indian social scientists. But the irony also involves a certain serendipity. Historians have had the benefit of a prior theorization of the political of this period at a point when the commemorative decade of 50 years of Independence has pushed historians into reflecting on the post-1947 world. An additional blessing has been the present interest in freshly revisiting questions of politics and political history. The new political turn in South Asian history is nicely captured in this volume. The imprint of new or refashioned political concerns such as governmentality, sovereignty, law and democracy is evident in this collection that brings together a large number of subjects. Indeed so diverse is the collection that the editors required six sub-headings to organize the material. Naturally this poses a near insuperable task for a reviewer. Let me make my work manageable by rearranging the book according to two or three broad themes. I will start with a question that seems to be a fairly obvious one for historians and one that has been tackled in several ways by a large number of authors. That is, how much of a break does 1947 represent? There are two problems through which this question is tackled.   The first revolves around issues of sovereignty and citizenship. Uday Mehta’s article on ‘Indian Constitutionalism’ looks at its subject through a striking idea: the assumptions of its temporality. Despite its lineage in the 1935 constitution and the ‘transfer of power’ that suggests a strong continuity with the colonial dispensation, the constitution actually represented a massive break with the past on many counts, such as the universal adult right to vote, a federal structure and so on, above all, in the fact that all these were granted so as to produce a nation. It was this imperative—that in turn involved a strong constitutional emphasis on unity and social uplift—that Mehta argues, constitutes a different meaning of Hobbesian absolutism. This absolutism does not mean arbitrary power but the overwhelming preoccupation with the political as the means to fashion the future and work on history as the raw material to shape a nation.   Does the claim to revolutionary departure ...

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