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Historiography and Historians


Partho Datta

MODERN SOUTH ASIA: HISTORY, CULTURE, POLITICAL ECONOMY
By Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 274, Rs. 625.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 9 September 2014

This is an outstanding text-book, now in its third edition (previous editions in 1998 and 2003) and has many endearing qualities: lapidary prose, a lucid conspectus of the latest research which makes very useful and insightful connections and a lively engagement with historiography. Particularly interesting is the sustained critique of subaltern historians.   Bose and Jalal make a very convincing case for exploring continuities beyond the barrier of 1947 and for this edition they have brought the story of South Asia up to 2010. The edition also has a revised annotated bibliography which includes many young historians with significant published work in the last decade. And somehow William Dalrymple too has found a place! Perhaps this is an acknowledgement of the power of the narrative and the biographical approach both of which Indian historians in the academy are generally loath to adopt. The last edition had important additions on Muslim society and politics and in the present one the text remains more or less the same, however there are significant excisions.   My favourites include the chapters on the eighteenth century (Chapter 5), 1857 (Chapter 9), Social Reform and Nationalism (Chapter 11) and Partition (Chapter 17). Chapter 5 bears the strong impress of the pathbreaking revisionist research of Christopher Bayly. The Aligarh School, well known for characterizing this period as one of inevitable decline, is put on the defensive in this chapter. In the colourful language of the authors, the eighteenth century ‘does not appear any more as a dark valley in the shadow of towering empires’. The account of 1857 is also judicious in the way it draws on the work of distinguished older historians S.N. Sen and Eric Stokes as well as scholars like Gautam Bhadra and Tapti Roy. The authors acknowledge that the Revolt was ‘infused with an inchoate sense of patriotism, if not nationalism’. Religious millenarianism also played an important part and ghazis were prominent in the struggle against the British. The acknowledgment of these two factors in this text-book redresses the tilt towards the agrarian roots of revolt.   The account of social reform and early nationalism is a sophisticated argument on the complications of categorizing ‘reformist’ and ‘revivalist’ as opposing trends. The authors write that ‘religious sensibility could in the late nineteenth century be perfectly compatible with a rational frame of mind, just as rational reform almost invariably sought divine sanction of some kind.’ The accommodative nature of emerging Indian modernities is analysed sympathetically but the comment ...


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