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Charting Historiographies

Bidisha Dhar

Edited by Alf Gunvald Nilsen  and Srila Roy
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. 328, Rs. 850.00


The book under review is the published product of a series of Conference panels and workshops that were organized between 2011 and 2013 in Honolulu, Nottingham, and Bergen. The introduction ‘Reconceptualizing Subaltern Politics in Contemporary India’ begins with a section called ‘What is Subaltern Politics?’ Nilsen and Roy’s definition of ‘subaltern politics’ as ‘the political activity of social groups who are adversely incorporated into determinate power relations’ broadens the term ‘subaltern’. The book successfully conceptualizes the varied forms of resistances and protests like everyday forms of resistances, like rights based campaigns within the civil society and participation in electoral democracy to armed struggles for a revolutionary transformation in unison opposed to astute power relations that structure and enforce the marginalization of the subalterns as well as maps the unfolding of these protests in India. The book’s usefulness lies in the historiographies that it charts out about the subaltern studies project, that is, the subaltern definition, rethinking subalternity, and rethinking hegemony with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the debates about the various aspects of the discussion regarding the subalterns in the last two decades, a theme that also proves to be the point of departure for the book. Critically engaging with the Subaltern Studies project, Nilsen and Roy consider it the most important academic project in postcolonial times that orients the audiences’ focus towards the significance of popular politics and mobilization from below. When it was launched in the 1980s, its primary objective was to ‘unearth the history of the politics of the people’ in a broad context of India’s struggle for Independence from colonial rule as pronounced by Ranajit Guha. In its process of evolution it turned towards examining the broader theoretical questions related to colonialism and modernity. David Arnold’s postscript in the book highlights these latter shifts. He argues strongly in favour of the revival of radicalism and activism and stresses on the contemporary relevance of subaltern studies while strongly critiquing the gradual discontinuance of the activism zeal that had marked the beginning of the project in the 1970s. The strength of Arnold’s essay is that it summarizes the project crisply, points out the gaps in and charts out a future plan for the studies. The works that came out of the subaltern studies in its initial phase bore the marks of the events of the 1960s and the 70s—Naxalite rebellion and the railway ...

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