James H. Sweet’s article Is History History? in the president’s column of Perspectives on History attacked the histories concerning the issues of ‘racism, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism’; It extends and does harm to the issue of caste in the histories of South Asia in this globalized world, where it is still struggling for recognition. As Sweet’s essay generated immense anger, it has been strongly responded to by Malcolm Foley and Priya Satia as ‘History as Love’ and ‘The Presentist Trap’. I want to extend it to South Asian histories where the existence of caste is still invisibilized in the public sphere.
M.S.S. Pandian observed that what ‘Indian modern’ offered is ‘caste can live only secret lives outside the public sphere.’ The history departments in South Asia rarely teach histories of caste at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In this unfavourable background, some victims of caste oppression dare to study caste in the history disciplines. In doing so, they have to fight many challenges not only in the present but also in the prospective academic future. These challenges begin with the struggle to get admission to a PhD program and find a good supervisor to locate the sources, and further methodological challenges.
When I was searching for books in the library at the Jawaharlal Nehru University to prepare a research proposal for PhD, a staff member around 50 years old asked me about my research area/interest. I answered that I wish to study history of caste. As he belonged to the Dalit community as I do, he expressed both happiness and concern about my decision. He said that if ‘we’ do not write the histories of caste exploitation, who will? But he warned me saying, “You will face discrimination when you sit for interviews for the post of assistant professor in the near future. Caste Hindus who benefit from the privileges of caste will not accept you.” So, what he was indicating to me was that the additional stigma (the primary one is associated with belonging to an unprivileged caste) and the burden of ‘identity politics’ is imposed on Dalits studying caste.
In these adverse conditions, what compels me to do research and ask questions related to caste in history? Sweet underlined in his apology that he wanted to initiate a discussion over ‘how we do history in our current politically charged environment’ and to ‘draw attention to the methodological flaws in teleological presentism.’ These are the questions about the relationship between past and present and history and politics. So, what shapes our interest in picking or tracing a particular history? How do we trace history? So, let me agree that the present issues of social justice shape our interests and compel us to ask particular questions. History is always a dialogue between the past and the present as we draw our questions from the present and modify them according to the empirical evidence of the past. We should not forget that the oppressed groups could develop their histories through the present political movements. As we know that history is not only about the analysis of changes and discontinuities, continuities and similarities are also studied by historians.
History is not only about the dominant narratives produced by the ruling elites and power-sharing groups, it is also about the ‘silences of the past,’ as Michel-Rolph Trouillot suggested. The matter of concern should be: whose voices are absent and silenced in history or the past. Who is outside history or the past? Malcolm Foley rightly draws the relationship between history and politics as he suggested that ‘when we note that oppressive and exploitative conditions continue, a state of affairs that we only become aware of when we investigate the lives of the exploited and oppressed, we must ask the question, why do those conditions persist as long as they do?’ Victims of caste oppression would like to ask questions about the reproduction of caste privileges of caste Hindus and the persistence of caste oppression of unprivileged groups. Not only the politics of the present but also the desire for a better future are related to the questions asked by the marginalized people.
Sweet’s anxiety comes from noticing the retaliation of marginalized groups through counter-popular narratives of the past that sometimes originate from the counter-history projects of oppressed groups. Priya Satia raised a significant question, “Why is a popular history that empowers historically marginalized people and centers slavery a more concerning betrayal of the discipline than the whitewashed nationalist myths (propped up by earlier historians) that marginalized them?” The double game of the packaged history for public consumption and the widespread dominant popular historical narratives always reproduces the privileges of social elites and power sharers. In response to them, marginalized groups also produce counter-popular narratives to combat and resist oppression.
They are not new; they have always existed, but at some moments of assertion, they produce more and make strong use of counter-popular historical narratives. In the Indian case, Dalit movements produced popular histories to resist caste oppression and make a better egalitarian future. As Kancha Ilaiah writes, “An atmosphere of calm, an atmosphere of respect for one another in which contradictions may be democratically resolved is never possible unless the abuser is abused as a matter of shock-treatment.” These are the histories conflicting in public—what Dipesh Chakrabarty called ‘clashes of cultures.’
In regard to the history discipline of universities, which train professional historians, scholars offered strong critiques of the methodologies of history writings based on Eurocentric modernist assumptions of universal, rational, and scientific historical knowledge/truth. Ashish Nandy argued for the existence of many ways to arrive at the past. He advocated for the Indian ways of understanding the past by highlighting the Indian Brahmanical epics, such as Puranas and Mahabharata and called them ‘alternatives to history.’ A decade later, Deepesh Chakrabarty criticized the Eurocentric assumptions of the history discipline and the urge for multiple perspectives. In relation to Dalit politics, he argued that there are ‘clashes of cultures’ over history in public.
These interventions provided some space to study the histories of caste or to trace the histories of unprivileged castes. However, is not considering the Indian Brahmanical epics as ‘alternatives to history’ oppressive to the Dalit-Bahujan communities (oppressed majority)? The critique of the ‘democratic urge’ to democratize the history discipline by Dipesh Chakraborty and the call for the ‘rejection of history discipline’ by Kancha Ilaiah pushed me to think beyond. While I sympathize with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s critique of the democratization of the history discipline, ‘multiple perspectives,’ tokenized representation, and ‘collective general history’, I disagree with him when he suggests that subalterns and Dalits cannot redefine the boundaries of a history discipline that is in decline and cannot be repaired.
In an environment where critical caste studies and unprivileged caste communities are already outside the history discipline (apart from token representation), can calling for its boycott help them? The calls to reject the history discipline and retaliate outside it through the ‘experience of operation’ feeds the agenda of conservatives who are working to shut down the humanities departments where the marginalized groups are daring to enter. The reduction in fellowships and seat cuts for PhDs hugely affected marginalized groups and compelled them to withdraw from the universities. When the Indian government’s notification for the National Overseas Scholarship for Scheduled Castes imposed restrictions on studying history in foreign countries, Sweet’s attack on the histories concerning the essential issues related to social inequality, operation, and exploitation of marginalized groups further aided the oppressors and ruling elites.
However, while combating the present exploitation, we extend our claim to space in the history discipline not to be incorporated to produce a universal history and democratize the discipline but to produce a history with the existing ‘differences’. If this politics of ‘differences’ would lead to ruptures, let that happen. How far do the oppressed and excluded groups need to combat from the outside? It is time to claim a space within the discipline through the politics of ‘difference’. The desire to be better off and the aspirations to live lovingly with each other can be fulfilled by recognizing the ‘differences’ so that we can heal the wounded.
Krishna Kumar (@Krishn_naa) is an independent researcher and former postgraduate student of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His research interest lies in the political economy of caste.