History · Politics

Why Indian historians do not write about the West as frequently as Euro-American historians write about India

This is an understandable discrepancy.. until one realizes that that history of colonial India and of what we know as India’s ‘struggle’ for independence is as much a history of the West and Western actors as of India!

I wrote this as an answer to a Quora question (here). I copy most parts of that answer here.

We are by and large not a country which puts a high value on intellectual scholarship. In fact until a few years back we at least valued intellectuals if not their scholarship, but now it seems we do not even think that way (on the other hand we now value the kind of people who can provide an unending list of the one million ‘benefits’ of demonetization, but that’s another story).

This disinterest in, as well as disdain of, scholarly activities leads to academia becoming a much less preferred career option for young Indians. Besides, our system anyway has made those options less attractive in terms of monetary and other benefits. Thus a student in the 9th or 10th standard in India today would hardly ever say they want to “go into the social sciences/humanities after HSC.”

There are still a daring few who go into these fields, only to be introduced to a generally under-funded and often unprofessional system. So if I am a student studying history at a university in, say, Jaipur, there is a high likelihood that I will have to restrict my thesis to a topic which –

1) my supervisor/s have an expertise in, which almost always is about India and South Asia, not Europe or the US
2) is dictated by politicians and bureaucrats and not by my own interests, as happened in Gujarat
2) will be practical and feasible (euphemism for ‘affordable’). That is to say, for which I will be able to gain reasonably easy access to the appropriate resources, including manuscripts, old newspapers, government documents, etc.; as well as specific research site/archives. All of that costs money, a lot of money. But as we saw earlier, we are not a society that devotes sufficient financial resources for social sciences and the humanities in education.

Thus as a scholar based in India it is almost impossible for someone to work on European topics: they will most probably never get the required moral and logistical support from the university and from the government and bureaucracy, and will receive little to no funding to visit libraries and other sites in Europe and interact with other scholars working on similar topics.

Most of our acclaimed India-based historians began with an expertise in some India-related or South Asia-related topic, and have often continued the South Asia focus in their career. Romila Thapar’s first work, in the early 1960s, was on Ashok and the Maurya empire. Ramachandra Guha’s PhD thesis was on the history of the Chipko movement. Bipan Chandra’s PhD thesis was on the economic history of India during the British colonial rule.

Here it must be noted that if you establish expertise in a particular subject as a historian, then it is very rare for you to veer too far away from that topic. This is because scholarly history-writing is a very intense activity that involves a comprehensive understanding of almost everything about the particular topic on which you comment and write. This understanding is developed over several years of study and discussions with colleagues. So if after writing a PhD thesis on, say, Mughal India, you think of writing about the social history of England in the Victorian era, you will have to start from square one and devote several years to understanding the basics of English history first [of course there’s a way around it – collaborative research].

European and American historians who work on Indian topics almost always begin working on India since their undergrad or graduate school years. Many universities there have the needed money and resources (and currency strength) to train their students in South Asian history and send them to India to learn languages and to visit archives and research sites. Wendy Doniger, for example, received her PhD from Harvard in 1968 on Sanskrit and Indian Studies (around the same time when Romila Thapar was working on the Mauryas). While Doniger could, it seems, receive adequate sponsorship to visit India in the 1960s and later, and went to a wealthy university which could provide her almost any book and article on India that she wanted, I suppose that wouldn’t have been true for Thapar if she had the desire to study, say, the cultural history of pre-Revolution society in France.

Capture of BahadurShah by Hodson, Brown library
EIC’s Captain Hodson capturing Bahadur Shah Zafar. Courtesy Brown Univ Library.

Aside from the above, there are other factors which also play a role in this phenomenon. There is the question of, for example, ‘perception’ regarding scholarship coming out of the non-Western world. A German historian writing about India would perhaps never experience the same kind of skeptical vibes from fellow scholars that an Indian historian writing on Germany would. If I am a historian based in the University of Mumbai, for example, I will acutely be aware of the cold reception my PhD student will get if I encourage them to write their thesis on, say, the history of Jews in medieval Spain. Racism plays an important role here, assisted by good old human inertia and intellectual laziness.

All of this doesn’t mean that as Indians we should resist or abuse Western historians writing about India (what some hypernationalist folks try to do). Just because we accidentally happen to have been born here doesn’t mean we have a monopoly on what happened here in the past: India is too big and important for that kind of juvenile thinking. What needs to happen is not less Western academics writing about India, but more Indians writing about Western societies.

Which of course has happened, although on a very tiny scale. One of the most acclaimed Indian historians today is Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who has written as much on Portugese history as on Indian history. Sunil Khilnani has written on some aspects of the post-War history of France. It is to be noted that both of these historians are based not in India but in USA and the UK respectively.

Finally, we should not forget that many Indian historians based in India have also actually written extensively about some aspects of European society and culture. After all, when you write the history of colonial India – which a number of Indian historians possess expertise in – you are talking as much about the colonizers as about the colonized.


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