Tuesday, May 24, 2022

“Ranjit Guha was the first historian I met in flesh and blood who had a real enthusiasm for ideas”, says Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty

In a thought-provoking conversation with The New Leam Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty has reflected on his intellectual journey, his engagement with the history of ideas, and his analysis of contemporary social reality.


  1. To begin with, we would like to know the history of your academic journey. You studied Physics as a young student in Presidency College. And now we know you as a great historian. How did it happen?

Let me put aside the question of whether or not I am a “great historian.” By my own judgment, I am not. There are many historians I myself consider “great,” and I am definitely not one of them. But allow me to tell you a part of the story about the process of my becoming whoever or whatever it is that I am today without repeating what I have told elsewhere. My essay called “Communing with Magpies” in my book The Crises of Civilization: Explorations in Global and Planetary Histories (New Delhi: OUP, 2018) tells the story of my journey through several institutions – my Physics honors days in Presidency College, Calcutta; my business-school training at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta; my apprenticeship with my professor and historian Barun De in Calcutta, and of my doctoral years of researching labor history in colonial Bengal under the supervision of D. A. Low in Canberra, Australia. It was during that last phase of my student life that I became a part of the Subaltern Studies collective and came under the influence of Ranajit Guha. “Communing with Magpies” tell this story in its broad outlines, and I will spare your reader the details. But let me say this for myself. My intellectual-academic self surely has at least two kinds of sources. One is my deeply Bengali background and upbringing. Bengali is still the language I feel most comfortable in. I write and publish in Bengali as much as my busy professional life allows me to do. And the experience of growing up in an ordinary, middle-class family in the parochial but utterly absorbing Bengali world of Kolkata for the first twenty-seven years of my life still works for me as the densest experience of human life that I have ever had. Tagore with his songs and writings sit inside the deepest recesses of my mind acting like a compass needle for most ethical dilemmas that life presents me with. I have always tried to remain true to that experience of the world that I had from my childhood to early adult life. The people I knew in that world still crowd my memory so much so that I actually find nostalgia to be a helpful tool for thinking. I consider my memory as the best “archive” of life I intimately know and test all my deepest thoughts against it. By “memory,” I do not simply mean the world I directly experienced. I also mean the larger world (including India) that came through to me through the mediation of Bengali literature, music, songs, art, films, sports, etc. Even when I work on something as abstract and planetary as climate change – as in my forthcoming book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021) – I am never out of touch with that innermost experience of human life though, in this particular book, I do not speak of it much. Alongside all this, there is also the question of what I owe to the West. I have on the whole been lucky in my experience of Western academic institutions. My life in the West has become more and more professional with passing decades. True, I do not usually come across the same diversity of people from different walks of life as I used to encounter in India. But intellectually, it has been an experience of liberation. I have felt valued for what I do, even when my work has been questioned and criticized. Personally speaking, I feel that I would not have met with such good luck and such a relatively joyous intellectual passage if I had stayed back in India and built my career there. When I was working on what became Provincializing Europe, many of my close academic friends in India used to discourage me by saying that the problems I wanted to work on had been so well discussed by European scholars that there was no point in my trying to address them again. In fact, when the book came out, the harshest criticisms (in print) were made by friends of South Asian background who did not find much to value in the book (there were, of course, a few exceptions to this). But the reception in the West was on the whole much more encouraging and has kept giving the book new lives.

  1. What were the philosophic and methodological concerns that shaped your mode of intervention in the process of writing history?

From the beginning, I was fascinated by the question of what history, the discipline, is and what it can and cannot do. That’s partly my intellectual temperament, partly the result of coming into the discipline relatively late in my student years, and partly a consequence of the fact that three of the first few books that Professor Barun De wanted me to read so that I had a sense of historical methods were E. H. Carr’s What is History?, R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, and Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft. If you look at my work, you will see that the broad question of what history is – or what it was yesterday and what it may be tomorrow – runs through most of my work, surely from Provincializing Europe, through The Calling of History, to the book I have just finished, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. I would say that my other consistent concern – since the time I wrote Rethinking Working-Class History – has been twofold: (a) what does it mean to read the archives of our lives through categories fashioned through European encounters with the rest of the world?, (b) what is the kind of intellectual relationships to European traditions of thought that someone like me – with a deep experience of being from outside of Europe – could create and sustain? My years until Provinicializing Europe were full of questions about the relationship between history as a disciplined form of memory and other forms of the past that people also had. Colleagues in Subaltern Studies fueled these questions as they worked out their own answers to them. And debates on history that Aboriginal history in Australia inspired – from the mid-1980s on when it became a subject taught in History departments – influenced me deeply. In The Calling of History, I tried to provide a genealogy of the discipline in late-colonial India. In my work on climate change, I have been interested in history’s relationship to deep history as a way of thinking about the predicaments in which humans find themselves today in the wake of climate change, the pandemic, and other related problems. My most recent work has involved bringing within my humanistic historical imagination findings in the physical sciences – mainly geology or Earth System Science – and in evolutionary biology. I feel pleased to have found a place, finally, within my work as a historian for some of the interests I had in my high-school and undergraduate years.

  1. Do you feel that in the development of subaltern studies a shift has taken place- say, from Antonio Gramsci to Michel Foucault? How do you locate Professor Ranjit Guha in your intellectual churning?

The answer to this question would depend on the author you are looking at. A Gramscian Marxism remains strong in Partha Chatterjee’s work and also in Guha’s work till Dominance Without Hegemony, though there is a turn from the time when he, Guha, wrote History at the Limits of World History. I would say that David Hardiman’s (down to the more recent work on “subaltern forms of healing”), Gyan Pandey’s work on construction of communalism, and Shahid Amin’s work Gandhi had a lot that was Gramscian about them. David Arnold’s work on the body and public health was, of course, influenced by Foucault as was Chatterjee’s theorizing of “modes of power” that eventually informed his Nation and Its Fragments. Chatterjee, in my reading, remains the most consistent Gramscian in the group. But if you look at the books produced by these scholars, you would see that there were attempts to bring Gramsci and Foucault together, rather than a “shift” from the one to the other.

As for locating Guha in my own development, let me be brief. Guha was the first historian I met in flesh and blood who had a real enthusiasm for ideas. He encouraged you not just to go to the archives – which he always did – but to learn to read archival texts actively, reflectively, by thinking about language and its relationship to the world. He had his own way of combining Marxism with Structuralism, philosophies of grammar, and philosophies of history and human existence. He was inspiring and exemplary in that way. Guha always gave you courage “to find your voice” (as he used to put it) and to work hard not only in the archives (which one had to) but also at developing ideas. At the same time, he taught us to be humble. He would always say, jokingly, “if you ever get too swollen-headed for your own good, go to the library and just stand in front of the books that the truly great thinkers and scholars of the world have written. They will help you to put yourself back in your own place!”

  1. Your beautiful book ” Provincializing Europe” reminds us of the merger of subaltern studies and postcolonial theory. Please inform us of your understanding of European modernity, decolonization, politics of knowledge and the alternative ideas of ,say, Gandhi and Tagore in this context.

This is too large a question to answer in this short space. I cannot do justice to your question here. I would refer you to some of my essays in The Crises of Civilization.

  1. As we are witnessing a mix of neoliberal global capitalism and militant religious nationalism in India, do you visualize a liberating role on the part of public intellectuals? Or do you feel that ( as the likes of Ashis Nandy argue) we need to see beyond both totalitarian Hindutva as well as the doctrine of ‘ secular modernity’?

Is there a contradiction between the two questions? Nandy himself is an excellent answer to both questions, isn’t he? He is a public intellectual par excellence, and someone who has always taught us to see beyond both a totalitarian Hindutva and a deracinated sense of the secular. And he has long been a critic of modernization theories and practices. So, yes, public intellectuals have a critical role to play in contemporary India but the space for them, I am afraid, is shrinking because of a pervasive culture of fear that is silencing dissent. There is still a spirit of dissent that one can find in India but it is becoming expensive for the person expressing dissent. You never know: there may be a price to pay in terms of harassment by public officials or sometimes even the possibility of being arrested and put in prison. And this is not just to do with the saffron politicians, the culture of punishing dissenters is spreading even in regions not ruled directly by the ruling party. The problem with fear is that it creates its own reality. So intellectuals may indeed practice self-censorship out of fear but because the reality of a situation remains untested when you don’t speak up, the politicians in power can claim, with some perverse justice, that they have not silenced dissent while you live in a landscape of mute acceptance of what the powerful do. This situation is very corrosive for democracy.

  1. And finally, we would like to know from you how you relate to some of our leading Nehruvian/ Marxist historians like late Professor Bipan Chandra, Professor Sumit Sarkar and Professor Irfan Habib.

Well, they are all like teachers to me. Fundamentally, I respect them and respect their scholarship. Besides they were/are all progressive historians interested in Hindu-Muslim unity. On that question, I stand with them. But their cases are also somewhat different. Subaltern Studies began by arguing against the positions that Professor Chandra espoused. And he did not have many kind things to say about Subaltern Studies either.  Yet there was a lot to learn from what he wrote about the Congress’s nationalism, and its relationship with business classes, for instance. One of his students, Majid Siddiqui, was a pioneer in the matter of studying peasant nationalism. Chandra was also one of the first scholars to apply Latin American dependency theory in explaining the history of industrialization in colonial India in the twentieth century. Those were very stimulating moves. And there is no question that he was able to produce a circle of students around him and a “school,” as it were, of writing history. But, that said, there is much in Professor Chandra’s writings that I would probably still disagree with, albeit respectfully.

Professor Habib’s scholarship commands tremendous respect, no question. And his doctoral thesis and the book that came out of it were just astounding achievements. He raised many important questions and gave a fresh start to Mughal history. But I do think that the Aligarh school’s emphasis on economic aspects of the history of the Mughals, while exciting in its own time, eventually robbed that history of life – literally so, as the economic strait-jacket they created failed to give the readers any sense of the Mughals as people, their everyday lives, the cultural, intellectual, and theological issues that interested them. I am not surprised that there has been a reaction to their work among historians of the following generations, and I am thinking of Muzaffar Alam, Sanjay Subrahmaniam, and of some of their students in particular.

And as for Sumit Sarkar, he is a dear and old friend. He is also a highly respected scholar. I regard his book on the Swadeshi movement as a “must read” for anyone interested in cultural and social history of Bengal and India in the early part of the twentieth century. He was also a mentor-figure when I was training to be a historian, and his comments of some my first essays were of critical importance to my development. Later, we have been critical of each other at times and have expressed out differences in print. But that has produced no long-term dent in our friendship. He is still a valued friend and I keep learning from his work.

You describe them all as “Nehruvian/Marxist.” Would they all agree? I wonder. I am neither a Nehruvian nor a Marxist though I do think of Nehru as the greatest Prime Minister we have had so far and of Marx as a thinker you cannot do without. So, I am happy to have both Nehru and Marx in my thought-world and am very glad that the three historians you mention also inhabit it.

Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty -a leading member of the ‘Subaltern Studies Collective’- has made important contributions to the intersections between history and postcolonial theory.

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