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Historiographic Debates Under the Lens

Rahul Govind

By Rosalind O'Hanlon
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 560, Rs. 846.00


A t the Edges of Empire brings together the impressive range of Rosalind O’Hanlon’s scholarship over the last two and a half decades. Reading and ruminating on the essays is a way of marking the subtle and not so subtle shifts in the methodological and thematic concerns of the history and historiography of modern India. For the volume covers a wide spectrum, from the conceptual problems involved in thematizing the subject of history, to the more specific problems of caste identity in early modern India, to the importance of gender in understanding a diverse swathe of history from imperial governance to cultures of physical fitness. All but one of the essays in the volume has been published before, some in more than one place. The opening essay, ‘Recovering the Subject’ is all too seemingly familiar for the generation that grew into academic adolescence in the late 1980s and 1990s.  Even so one may well touch upon two points: 1) The basic critique, voiced in the essay, that Subaltern Studies was caught in the contradiction of critiquing a certain paradigm (‘western humanism’) that is at the same time ‘readmitted through the back door in the figure of the subaltern himself’ (p. 27).  While clearly sympathetic to the issues that Subaltern Studies had brought to the fore, O’Hanlon speaks of the unevenness of ‘skill’ in the contributors in handling this difficulty of critiquing foundational assumptions and yet recovering agency; and the almost inevitable slip into essentialism in the form of an autonomous subject and history that the latter ends in. In this context it is surprising that in this long review O’Hanlon chooses to refer to rather fleetingly—rather than discuss engagingly—Gayatri Spivak’s contribution in volume four, which diagnostically reads precisely some of these issues regarding the subject and the practice of history-writing. 2) The reading that Guha’s studies had as their focus the ‘internal world of the subaltern’ (p. 48) might well be disputed  because Elementary Aspects, if anything, detailed the ways in which domination pervaded the everyday so as to at once make such distinctions between internal and external meaningless, and the act of rebellion significant.  The essay ‘Cultures of Rule’ surveys the historiographic debates of its times, trying to navigate between the arguments that asserted the specificity of colonial power and those that spoke of longer term continuities from the precolonial period. While stressing the need ...

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