SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.54 issue1 author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google



On-line version ISSN 2309-8392
Print version ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.54 n.1 Durban  2009




The challenge of contemporary history - Comparative possibilities


Die uitdaging van kontemporêre geskiedenis



Ramachandra Guha

Historian and writer based in Bangalore. His most recent book is India after Gandhi.




This article explores and deplores a paradox, namely that while India may be the most interesting country in the world, we know so little about its history as an independent nation. The article identifies the obstacles to the writing of contemporary history, but also outlines how they might be overcome. It suggests some important themes for research - among these are the histories of states, the histories of institutions, and the biographies of writers and activists. Finally, the article suggests that since the study of colonialism is meeting with diminishing returns, contemporary history might and perhaps should become a "growth area" for the future.

Key words: : Archives; biography; contemporary history; historical sources; Indian historiography; Indian independence; Indian nationalism; oral history; post-independence history


Hierdie artikel ondersoek en betreur 'n paradoks, naamlik dat hoewel Indië die mees interessante land in die wêreld mag wees, ons so bitter min van die geskiedenis daarvan as n onafhanklike nasie weet. Die artikel identifiseer die struikelblokke wat bestaan ten opsigte van die skryf van kontemporêre geskiedenis en dui verder ook aan hoe dit oorkom kan word. Dit stel belangrike temas vir navorsing voor - insluitend die geskiedenis van state, die geskiedenis van instellings, asook die biografieë van skrywers en aktiviste. Ten slotte stel die artikel voor dat aangesien die studie van kolonialisme verminderde opbrengste lewer, eietydse geskiedenis dalk 'n "groei-area" van die toekoms mag, of selfs moet word.

Sleutelwoorde: Argiewe; biografie; historiese bronne; Indiese historiografie; Indiese nasionalisme; Indiese onafhanklikheid; kontemporêre geskiedenis; mondelinge geskiedenis; post-onafhanklikheidsgeskiedenis



Full text available only in PDF format.



* A somewhat different version of this artikel was published in the Economic and Political Weekly I am grateful to André Béteille, Sumit Guha, Mukul Kesavan, Sunil Khilnani, Srinath Raghavan, James Scott and two anonymous reviewers for their comments
1 In this artikel, I use "sociology" to mean "sociology and social anthropology"
2 This lakshman rekha is also carefully observed by foreign scholars of India; the historians dealing with colonialism and before, the political scientists and sociologists with independence and after
3 These works are cited at appropriate places in this artikel I speak here only of books in English - as it happens, scholars writing in Marathi have written important works of contemporary history, that is, on Maharashtrian society and politics after 1947 Notably, these scholars - among them Dhananjay Keer, Kumar Ketkar and Y D Phadke - have worked for the most part outside the academy
4 S Bandopadhyay, From Plassey to Partition (Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2004) Bandopadhyay's book has an excellent bibliography, listing the important books and articles on different aspects of the history of colonial India "Plassey" refers to the battle of that name in 1757 by which the British acquired their first bridgehead on the subcontinent; "Partition" refers to the year 1947, when British India was divided into two independent nations, India and Pakistan
5 For too long was precolonial history identified with the history of the Mughal Empire, and with a Marxist interpretation of that Empire Since the Mughals, at their zenith, controlled at most 40% of what is now India, and since Marxism is but one historical approach among many, this dominant paradigm was doubly limited A new generation of scholars are now focusing on southern, eastern and western India (all areas scarcely touched by the Mughals), and writing sensitively about social, cultural, ecological and aesthetic matters that the economic determinism of orthodox Marxism was unable to adequately take account of Among the pioneers of this new precolonial history are Muzaffar Alam, Richard Eaton, Sumit Guha, Sheldon Pollock, David Shulman, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Cynthia Talbot and Philip Wagoner
6 J Goldthorpe, "The Uses of History in Sociology", British Journal of Sociology, 42, 2, 1991         [ Links ]
7 My use of the conventional "he" to denote "he or she" should not be taken as a manifestation of male bias If there were an English equivalent of the Bengali word "shey", which is gender neutral, I would use it; as things stand, it seems rather cumbersome to resort to "he or she" at every twist and turn
8 There is a veritable "Partition Industry" in India, comparable to the "Holocaust Industry" in Israel The sixtieth anniversary of Partition prompted a fresh slew of books on the subject As with the Holocaust, historians and writers have focused so closely - one dare not again say "obsessively" - on the catastrophic event that they have tended to ignore or underplay its impact on later generations and decades
The residues of Partition, its impacts on the economic and social history of independent India, have only recently, and very belatedly, begun to receive scholarly attention See, for instance, T Y Tan and G Kudesia, The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (Routledge, London, 2000); G Kudaisya, "The Demographic Upheaval of Partition: Refugees and Agricultural Resettlement in India, 1947-67", South Asia, 18, 1, 1995; J Chatterji, "Right or Charity? The Debate over Relief and Rehabilitation in West Bengal, 1947-50", in S Kaul (ed), The Partitions of Memory: the Afterlife of the Division of India (Permanent Black, Delhi, 2001); R Kaur, Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants in Delhi (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007); and, perhaps above all, P Chakravarti, The Marginal Men: the Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal (Naya Udyog, Calcutta, 1999) (The original Bengali edition of Chakravarti's book came out several years before its English translation)
The imbalance is palpable There are hundreds of books and articles on Partition itself, but only a handful on its equally interesting (and important) aftermath
9 See S Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: a Biography, three volumes (Jonathan Cape, London, 1976-1984);         [ Links ] R Gandhi, Patel: a Life (Navjivan Press, Ahmedabad, 1991);         [ Links ] R Gandhi, The Rajaji Story (Penguin India, New Delhi, 1995) Also compare with S Gopal's Radhakrishnan: a Biography (Oxford University Press,         [ Links ] New Delhi, 1989)
10 K Frank, Indira: the Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (Harper Collins, London, 2001);         [ Links ] I Malhotra, Indira Gandhi (National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2006);         [ Links ] A Bhattacharjea, Unfinished Revolution: a Political Biography of Jayaprakash Narayan (Rupa, Delhi, 2004)         [ Links ]
11 Nor should one restrict oneself to politicians and writers The poverty of the Indian biographical tradition could equally be illustrated by the fact that there are no biographies of a musician of truly global reach, namely Ravi Shankar, or of an entrepreneur who, for better or for worse, radically reshaped our political econony, namely Dhirubhai Ambani
While a life of Ambani is awaited, we do have a valuable study of the most politically astute businessman of the previous generation, namely G D Birla See M M Kudaisya, The Life and Times of G.D. Birla (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003)
12 See R Guha, India after Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy (Macmillan, London, 2007), chapter 10         [ Links ]
13 N Menon, "A Debate Among Men", The Telegraph, 23 March 2005         [ Links ]
14 R Sinha, "Nasty, Brutish and Shorts", The Hindustan Times, 23 July 2005         [ Links ]
15 See Guha, India after Gandhi, chapter 11, for a flavour of these debates as they occurred at the time For a more comprehensive and authoritative account, see Chitra Sinha's forthcoming book Hindu Code Bill and the Shaping of Modern India
16 However, we will soon have a study of an important scientific institution - the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, whose history is being written by Doctor Indira Chowdhury
17 There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, as in the Ayodhya conflict, where a political and religious controversy of the 1980s influenced how Indians understood - or misunderstood -events that took place - or did not take place - in the 1520s
18 NMML Manuscripts: an Introduction (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 2003)         [ Links ]
19 Three works of contemporary history that have made good use of press reports are S K Gupta, Kashmir: a Study in India-Pakistan Relations (Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1966);         [ Links ] G Perkovich, India's Nuclear Bomb: the Impact on Global Proliferation (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999);         [ Links ] Chakravarti, The Marginal Men
20 The work of Granville Austin has been exemplary in its skilful and simultaneous use of private papers, official papers, newspaper reports and oral histories See his The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1966); and its sequel, Working a Democratic Constitution: the Indian Experience (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999)

Creative Commons License All the contents of this journal, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License