The Unfamiliarity of the Past
Joya Chatterji's most recent book is PARTITION’S LEGACIES . It was published by Permanent Black in June 2019.
In this wide-ranging conversation about her books and her career as a teacher, she begins with talking about what drew her to history in the first place.
She answers questions put to her by Uttara Shahani (a research scholar at Cambridge University) and Sohini Chattopadhyay (a history researcher at Columbia University)
1. Why did you become a historian? Let’s start at the very beginning . . .
. . . A very good place to start. But before I launch into my answer, I want to thank you both for such excellent questions. They all force (or encourage) me to reflect on a lifetime of work. From a personal standpoint, this is a great moment for me to think backwards and ask myself: what did it all add up to? So I am grateful for your critical but generous-spirited questions.
Why History? Why indeed. My relationship with the subject is best likened to a love affair. I was introduced to a primary source at an impressionable age, and that was that. I read science and mathematics at school, with enjoyment mind you, but my passion for History was already so serious that during the break I would ask my friend who had gone to History lessons what she had learned that day. I am not joking, even though it’s hilarious in retrospect.
Who can explain an attraction of this intensity? It had something to do with the unfamiliarity of the past: it involved a sense of travel of a different kind, the sudden access to a novel, jaw-dropping, fascinating, vistas. That is all I can say. I don’t understand it myself. But it has been a steadfast companion, the most constant of friends.
2. How did you come to choose what you would focus on for your doctoral thesis, which became the basis of your first book Bengal Divided, now a canonical text in Partition Studies? The book questioned several decades of existing historiography that had disproportionately made the Muslim League the sole arbiter of Partition. Why Hindu bhadralok communalism in Bengal and why Partition?
That was, to begin with, an accident of research. I started off on my PhD intending to investigate a (perceived) decline in the influence of Bengal in India’s politics after the 1920s. It was, after all, the largest province/presidency, so there seemed to be a question to answer. (I turned back to it later, in The Spoils of Partition.)
But then I stumbled across some files in Teen Murti Library’s research room, in my second year of research. They were mislabelled, or rather the index entry was misleading, (probably because the material was mainly in cursive Bangla). The index entry was unexciting, but I thought I would requisition some of these files, just because there were so many of them. These contained thousands of letters and petitions signed by Hindus, all demanding the partition of Bengal. In a word, the opposite of what I had expected to find.
So then I changed direction in my PhD research – it happens all the time, I have since realized! I tried to dig for the roots of this movement. And Bengal Divided was the outcome of my research, and of mulling over my sources. You must understand, I was as surprised by what I learnt as those Hindu, and Hindu Bengali readers who have been furious with me ever since. (I am not generalising here, don’t get me wrong. But I have experienced verbal attacks, deaths threats, and a more insidious forms of academic marginalisation since the book was published. I continue to receive threats to this day.) But I paid attention, then, to the sources, not least because it was part of my training to be as true as one can possibly be to the voices of the past; even if what they are saying makes one uncomfortable and forces us to question everything we thought we ‘knew’.
That’s why I am always buried in files, (or photographs, or maps, or paintings, or interview transcripts) myself; and why I encourage my students to have the same deep engagement with those traces of the past, above all when they challenge us.
As for my method of engagement with sources: I was trained (at Cambridge) to read to pay attention to context, authorship, type of source, self-representation, who was trying to influence who and how, their relationship to power, and so on. I had read Marx, Althusser, Hegel, E.P. Thompson, Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Foucault and Hayden White, Pierre Bourdieu, James Scott, the Frankfurt School and a lot of Hannah Arendt by the time I started my PhD, and was much influenced by them as a young scholar. (Spoils’s architecture is in fact based on Hayden White’s notion of tropes – you might have noticed it’s used the trope of irony.) But I was not trained to position myself theoretically (or at least to trumpet that location) as historians are under pressure to do now. My line is quite simple here. History challenges theory, however great. History is messy whereas theory is tidy, and, for the most part, seamless. History has its own work to do, and that is, fundamentally, to stand in opposition to, and in a critical location towards, theory. We must allow the ‘mess’ to come through. If I have grown ever more concerned with chaotic agency, this is the reason why.
The other ‘method’ I pursue, and encourage students to pursue, is to recognise the importance of the variety of types of sources. No single source (or run of sources of the same type) represents the ‘truth’: it only represents what appears to be true from one angle of vision. The juxtaposition of a range sources reveals a variety of views about ‘what is going on’. Then you, as a historian, try to make sense of the babel of voices to impose something like a pattern that feels true to the sound, and the sudden silences. That’s my ‘method’.
I should admit that in my process of listening to the sounds of the past, I have a politics. I am attentive, and I hope sensitive, to the weak, the marginalised, those whose sounds are barely discernible. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in my work in The Bengal Diaspora and the recent articles on immobility, but it has been there from the start. You will find that every historian has a politics, however quiet or understated. Even those whose only claim is to be ‘impartial’ are locating themselves, willy nilly, within the politics of knowledge.
3. Could you reflect on the significance on the work you did on Hindu nationalism and Partition to where India finds itself today?
Hindu nationalism dates back at least to the 1880s. Its political influence has waxed and waned, but Hindu nationalist organisations have been with us for over a century (while by no means remaining static in their ideology or structures.) I did not discover them: I merely showed how influential they became at a time and in a place: Bengal in the run up to Partition.
I have not studied Hindu nationalism in its more recent iteration. My hunch, though, is that we are not talking about exactly the same phenomenon. Its new leadership in the late 20th century represents sections of the elite and middle classes - often trading and mercantile groups – which have been around for a long time but have grown more powerful and influential with the liberalisation of the economy and the shrinking of the state. If I am correct, the very meaning of Hindutva today is not the same thing as the sentiment expressed by say, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee in the 1930s and 40s. It is important to consider the shifts and realignments of a (changing) ideology as well as its bases of support.
But the fact that Hindu nationalists were powerful enough in the 1940s to support the partition and even take on (and kill) Gandhi, indicates a hubris at the core of the ideology that is palpable today; the hubris of ‘majoritarianism’; it is as dangerous for the country, its social fabric and above all its minorities, as it was in the 1940s.
4. Was the interest in refugees and migration a natural progression from Partition?
Yes, it was. I pursued it in The Spoils of Partition, and in articles. I was a historical interloper, then, in the field of refugee studies, which had until then been the arena of sociologists such as Aristide Zolberg. In the 1990s I would find myself at large conferences at which there were only one or two historians amongst dozens of sociologists and anthropologists. But this was good for my intellectual growth – it was the start of a period when I began to dive deep into other disciplines and learn from them. I am still learning.
5. Your anger at the harsh conditions Partition’s refugees had to confront and what passed for government ‘relief and rehabilitation’ policy is palpable. At the same time, you refuse to ever see refugees as passive victims. Apart from demonstrating how caste, class, and gender mediated the experience of migration at Partition, you show how refugees were always doing something, even if refugee agency was never completely free. They participated in street battles to win ‘rehabilitation’ as a right, resisted government attempts to ‘disperse’ them and occupied evacuee property. You demonstrate how refugees changed and shaped a rapidly changing legal, social, and political landscape ‘from below’, sometimes violently. This persistent emphasis of yours, on refugees as active and not always sympathetic characters can be at odds with other accounts of Partition. Why do you think that the Partition refugee is so often cast as a passive subject?
Partition refugees suffered a great deal due to ‘critical events’ over which they had little control. One must recognise that suffering and bewilderment, and the sense they shared of a loss of grip over their own lives. Refugees often (though not always) represent their histories in this way: Partition happened to them. In that sentence, the refugee is not a subject. The refugee herself is denying her agency to convey to the researcher her sense of confusion, her loss of control. Historians have listened to that, and paid great attention to it. It is very important, and I give credit to all the scholars who have made that the focus of their story. My anger derives from my empathy with that subjectivity.
But that was the personal narrative of the refugee. It has come to us through the memoir, or the personal interview (as in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence.) These represent only one kind of source. Going back to my ‘method’, I have always tried to gather a variety of types of sources, and their ‘truth’ was different. In those sources I saw refugees at their angriest, most belligerent and violent. I don’t think it’s an either/or: a sense of lost of control can make one not just, or not only, a passive object, but an angry citizen, demanding a particular type of citizenship. That’s what I have been trying to get at.
6. Some might take exception to your assertion that ‘forced migrations’ caused by political upheavals such as Partition are not fundamentally different phenomena from the ‘economic migrations’ driven by the demands of labour markets. They might point to situations such as communal riots that force people to move. Why and how did it become clear to you that there are no definite conceptual divides between ‘economic’ and ‘political’ migrants - between ‘illegal immigrants’ and refugees and between ‘economic’ migration and ‘forced migration’?
My argument is a little more subtle than the way you put it, and perhaps that’s why it has sometimes been misunderstood. I suggest that people who later became refugees or ‘forced migrants’ were often the very same people who moved, historically, in response to labour markets (in the broadest sense.) These people already had in place the physical capacity, intellectual capital and social networks needed to move when they faced political upheavals and violence. They had what I describe as mobility capital already in reserve. This allowed them to flee and become refugees in response to persecution. Those who did not have such capital to begin with were in a far more precarious position, because they could not leave sites of violence: they lacked the wherewithal so to do. They were ‘stuck’.
That’s the nub of the argument. It links the study of migrants with refugees over a longer durèe, not just at the moment of crisis. I think if you shift your focus of study from crisis to crisis, or study only critical events (as many sociologists and aid organisations are prone to do) without seeing the place and people through the historical lens, you miss this other, and quite critical, dimension.
7. In ‘Migration Myths’ you critically analyse two histories ‘written with a view to enabling the ‘assimilation’ of the community they claimed to speak for, and to seek rights and recognition for that ‘community’ in its place of settlement’. Those histories are very different from the ones you write. Yet, as a historian of migration, frontiers, minority-formation, and citizenship, you are, albeit from a significantly different angle, also constantly striving for a sort of recognition for your subjects whether migrated or stuck. Your work seems to be driven by an intense impulse to enrich your readers’ understanding of why people are where they are. What drives this impulse? Do you see in your oeuvre an ongoing argument against the modern nation-state that seeks to control movement and render certain categories of people lesser citizens or ‘illegal’?
You are right. This is what I meant by my politics: I have been drawn to certain themes for much of my academic life. Yes, there is an ongoing critique in my work of the modern nation state and its relationship to equality and dignity. I am no fan of ‘national sovereignty’ which expresses itself by putting people in cages at borders, ghettoising religious (or other) minorities and pitting them against (constantly constructed) majorities. I was disillusioned by nationalism long before most of my contemporaries. Moving from India to Britain to live with a ‘brown’ son, I experienced, in my gut, what it meant to be seen as ‘lesser’ every day, having to talk to my son gently about how to negotiate this landscape, and to live in a society that condoned this. So my intellectual preoccupations were further energised by personal experience. It has driven not only my academic work, to date, but also my public engagement activities (e.g. the ‘Bangla Stories’ and ‘Our Migration Stories’ work on curriculum development). I felt it was vital for British children of all stripes to learn ‘why people are why they are’ from a very young age, before they learnt the harsh stereotypes about migrants and are immersed in the discourses about migration that waft around them.
If I have achieved anything tangible in my life, it is this work, I believe, that will count.
8. You have written about how the concept of an inclusive, territorially defined India emerged alongside communal nationalisms and other ‘ethnic’ ideas of nationhood and nationalism, but pointed out it was never inevitable that this ‘civic’ notion of nationalism would triumph over these other ideas of India. A malevolent and authoritarian brand of nationalism commands India today. Both the executive and the highest levels of the judiciary are invested in perpetuating it. What does this latest authoritarian turn tell us about the process of decolonisation in South Asia? Do you think Indians can resist it with resources from their own nationalist and constitutional traditions or does one reject nationalist frames altogether?
India is not the only country that is undergoing this shift: India does not exist in isolation. So there’s a danger in assuming that those who wish to resist this form of authoritarian Hindutva nationalism can do so solely by drawing ‘from within’. There’s a problem with such notions of authenticity: there never was a ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ Hindu/Indian past which has its ‘own’ intellectual traditions or laws – we cannot draw upon this ‘thing’ because it does not exist. Even the Constitution is a hybrid construct – it’s our own in a limited sense. So yes, I do think we have to reject nationalist frames in thinking this through as a problem. In addressing the challenge of the present moment, though, we need to use a whole bag of tools - some of which have some potency because of their association with the fight against imperialism (e.g. constitutional and case law – as you have shown, Uttara - and later writ petitions; rallies, strikes, dharnas, and fasts, for instance). But this will not be enough. There is a whole new arsenal of tools, a whole new arena of politics, which is the web. The Hindutva brigade, scholars have shown, has invested huge resources in mobilising it. Its opposition must fight back in this area too. There should also be a more conscious effort to include the diaspora (whose numbers rival those of the Chinese diaspora) in this fight-back: again, let’s act outside nationalist frames.
9. You point out "Partition’s effect on the minorities it created on both sides of the border – minorities who for a variety of reasons chose not to emigrate to the ‘right’ new nation – has not often been examined." Scholars predominantly analyse Partition as involving the mass movement of people across international borders, but, as you have shown, there was also a significant level of internal displacement (often caused by incoming refugees) leading to clustering around the borders and ghettoization among national minorities. Reading social media at the time of the anti-CAA protests I was struck by how little is known about how these phenomena affected internal communal topographies. I kept thinking about your essays on clustering, ghettoization, ‘mobility capital’ and ‘being stuck’ that discuss internal displacement and the processes of economic and social minoritisation bound up with it. Do you think clustering and immobility have been given the attention they deserve in Partition histories? How do you think historians can build on your work on the Eastern border to understand that region better but also South Asia and minoritisation more widely?
I do think that this could, and should, grow into a huge field. My hunch is that ‘stuck people’, who lacked the wherewithal to flee violence, outnumber the world’s refugee population. They are to be found everywhere in violence-torn (or partition-scarred) nations, from South Asia, (Sri Lanka included) China, South-East Asia, Cyprus, Turkey, Bosnia, Serbia, the Middle East and North Africa. But it’s not just the scale of the problem that makes it as important to study as mobility. It reveals much about the way nation states work. The concept of immobility itself must be refined, critiqued and developed. (Scholars like Humaira Chowdhury are now developing a thesis on ‘immobilty capital’ that shows great potential.) The ingredients that make up the glue of stickiness need to be better understood. I have only scratched at the surface.
Here again, a quick return to your question about my ‘method’. I started this work (on The Bengal Diaspora and related articles) searching for migrants and refugees. Everywhere I found people who were ‘stuck’. Given that I believe that it is the historian’s duty to listen to voices of every kind, even when they are shadows, or silent presences, I began to be drawn deeper into that history. It was not part of the plan. Yet it produced something more novel, perhaps, than the project’s initial goals.
10 The West has been the focus of new theories of diaspora, but it is in the global south that the vast majority of the world’s migrants live. What are some of the implications of this focus on the West for research on migration and what are some of the questions you think scholars of diaspora and the global south should be addressing?
I have found it very hard, even without my own University, to raise funds for a ‘strategic research initiative’ tackling this problem; this reality, and the series of questions it raises. The West seems obsessed by what it sees as its own ‘migrant crisis’, and to have little concern, even at an intellectual level, in ‘elsewhere’. Some of us located here will continue to try to put together a global team to work on this problem. I hope, going forward, that it will include me. Until such bids succeed, scholars must start working on their own patch on this subject, but in conversation with colleagues around the world.
I cannot draw up a manifesto for such research at this stage. But my own questions – those that intrigue me – are about issues of physical debility and mental health, as well as provision of care to persons and places, which I concluded were vital elements of ‘being stuck’. There are ways in which, therefore, this research has connections with the history of medicine in the global South, and also the growing field of the economy and cultures of ‘care-work’.
11. The Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and the National Register of Citizens are seen as tectonic shifts in Indian citizenship law moving away from the criteria of birth and residence to a religion and descent-based conception of citizenship. However, Indian citizenship law has been moving in this direction for a while, particularly with the amendments of 1985 and 2004 to the Citizenship Act. You have argued that after the mass migrations of Partition, minorities emerged as a distinct legal category. They endured a peculiar form of citizenship you call ‘partial citizenship’, where ‘the ‘the minority citizen’ was neither citizen nor alien, but a hybrid subject of new national regimes of identification and law’. Is jus sanguinis now finally triumphing over jus soli, challenging even the limited safeguards of citizenship attached to the hybrid status of partial citizenship?
Yes, that would be my initial response. There was much wrong with the hybrid model, but it is far better than the jus sanguinus model India now, under its leaders, is seeking to embrace. Israel is one country which has a full-blown jus sanguinus model of citizenship based on blood, religion and ethnicity. I urge every concerned citizen to look at its citizenship laws.
12. After the Indian prime minister announced the Covid-19 lockdown with very little notice, streams of migrant labourers began to walk across the country to get home and others are stuck in cities living in inadequate accommodation or suffering from starvation and homelessness. Jean Drèze suggests that one of the reasons behind the resistance to allow migrant workers to return home was that employers in host states did not want to lose their ‘pool of cheap labour’. As a historian of Partition, migration, and immobility how do you see this crisis?
When governments prevent ‘exit’, it often has to do with the need to hold on to labour of a particular kind. (In South Asia’s Partition, we saw this in the Sindh government efforts to stop the departure of sanitation workers from Karachi.) But whether the ‘West’ acted in a concerted manner to protect its cheap labour supplies is far from plain. Every government has produced its own plan, all of them pretty incoherent. You could argue that the British government’s furlough schemes have been designed to help employers as much as workers, but that it has protected the latter to a degree in a harsh economic climate. (As I write this, the politics of furlough, voluntary and involuntary redundancy are being played out in my own College. It’s clear in this context that government furlough schemes have offered workers protections too.)
Coming to your larger question, the crisis has challenged me to think harder about immobility. At a time when Covid-19 immobilized even those with private jets, and whole cities (and their elites) were locked down overnight, I think there’s more work to be done on what the state does, or fails to do (on exit). My original thesis must be reworked to ‘bring the state back in’ in a more careful and serious way. It also needs to consider how quickly health can dissolve into poverty and debility, as with the migrant workers. That’s the next article…
13. Your histories are rich in economic, social, and political analyses. Although it does subtly weave in and out of your observations you don’t seem that keen on cultural history. Why?
Really? I think there’s quite a lot of cultural history in Bengal Divided! That may have been written before ‘the cultural turn’, but it worked with a notion of the ‘construction of culture’ well before the ‘constructivist turn’, if my timeline is correct. And then there have been essays like ‘Migration Myths’. Surely that’s full-blown cultural history? Perhaps because it engages with arguments that differ from the Chicago-Columbia-Columbia-Kolkata view of Indian cultural history, it has fallen beneath the radar? Since my work on migration began, I have been more in conversation with sociologists (e.g. Zolberg) and anthropologists (Pierre Bourdieu) who work on other parts of the world…. But still? The very word ‘Disposition’ in the title of an essay surely gives the game away? Who but a self-conscious cultural historian (steeped in the anthropological work of Bourdieu) would use this word? Which other brand of historian would go wandering about graveyards in Kolkata in July and August, and interviewing custodians of shrines? Who would take Sunni practices of Moharram so seriously? Surely that’s grist to the mill of cultural history?
Let’s put it another way. I get curious about subjects. Questions pop up, unbidden. I follow the trail in whichever direction in takes me, to an Imambara in Dhaka, a graveyard in Kolkata or a restaurant in Brick Lane. The terms ‘cultural’, economic’, and ‘social’ history are just heuristic tools. Life does not work like that, ergo, the historian must use the techniques and archives that all of these types of history have deployed, while recognising that they are just that – tools – incapable of grasping and making sense of the mess of lived and felt history. ‘Lived and felt’ history is cultural history. It takes on board the meaning people ascribe to their own, or others’, actions: it is the opposite of the ‘dry fact’. I think I have always been attentive to cultural history. My colleagues laugh at me these days, questioning whether I am a historian or a cultural anthropologist! So your question surprises me.
14. You are profoundly aware of general historical patterns and links across time and space; indeed, you seem to have an uncanny ability to sniff them out. But as David Washbrook says in his introduction to Partition’s Legacies, your eye keeps coming back to Bengal, ‘Divided, Spoiled, or Migrated’. What is your relationship to Bengal? Have you recently started migrating away from Bengal? How does your work on Bengal inform what you are working on now?
That’s a witty line by David Washbrook!
I was curious about Bengal as a probashi Bangali - a (‘lesser’) Bengali, in exile. My father spoke about it a lot, and I had a hunger to understand more about this place where I spent summer holidays, which was both strange and familiar. My ‘ancestral home’ was in Siliguri, in the district of Darjeeling. I never once saw a Muslim enter the compound of our household. My father had plenty of Muslim friends, but few in Calcutta. A thought bubble began to grow in my head, and I grew curious about society in Bengal before Partition. I think most first books start out with autobiographical questions.
By the time I co-wrote The Bengal Diaspora, though, my questions were larger, and less intrinsically located in Bengal, or in my own history. I had questions which had been thrown up by Spoils, but which resonated with migration theory more broadly speaking. I located the project – sprawling, multi-sited, multi-disciplinary and transnational though it was – in Bengal and Bengalis, only because I had a reasonable grounding in the region’s history. It would have been a challenge to bring as much historical knowledge to the project if I started afresh in say, Punjab. It was a practical decision.
There are two books on the boil at the moment, neither of which are rooted in Bengal. The first is a history of South Asian citizenship, which travels the whole of the subcontinent, Ceylon/Sri Lanka. East and South Africa, and Britain. I hope I will be able to finish it. I did most of the archival work for this work without setting foot into my familiar haunts in the Writer’s Building, although my old notebooks will come in handy. Bengal (and Assam) do figure, since they represented, for a long time, a hybrid within the hybrid mode of citizenship that existed from 1950-1965.
The second is a most peculiar ‘general work’ on ‘South Asia’s twentieth century’. Obviously it is not, and cannot be, focussed on Bengal.
Nonetheless, while writing these different works (and indeed the work on migration), it has been very useful to have a deep knowledge of one region of the world. It need not make you narrow. It can give you a secure perch from which to view the wider world, moving forward. (And as I am fond of reminding my readers, Bengal in 1947 was the size of France; there’s no reason for anyone to be ashamed of gaining a level of expertise about a place of considerable size for a significant chunk of time.) The pressure to go ‘global’, and to become ‘world historians’ before one knows any history at all is building up in many departments, not least at Cambridge. Its effect has not been salutary.
15. There is a deep empirical granularity to your writing and underlying your theoretical insights, indicating many hours spent in the archive. You do not do history without the evidence. Yet, you have always pushed us, your students, not to write like our sources and assume the official passive voice. This isn’t just a stylistic warning you issue periodically to your brood – you want us to read against the grain and embed our archival work in an analytically rich framework. Could you reflect on your own historiographical practice, both on the stress you lay on archival research but on how you read your sources against the grain?
I have said something about this above, but I will go further, since you press me to.
Let’s just look at some of the archives created by the state. They tend to exist because the state (or its local bureaucratic representative) is threatened by a person or a movement. One can see a lot through that archive, because it tells us what the state is worried about and why. (We can get a good view of these anxieties, represented without much bias other than – perhaps – a junior official’s wish to get ‘noticed’ or promoted.) States have their internal structures, and they create little whirlpools and eddies through which information of this type can get over-amplified or distorted. Aim off, just a bit, for such whirlpools.
Take with large grains of rock salt the ‘information’ they throw up about the person/movement under scrutiny. (It is useful, if inaccurate and limited, so don’t bin it.) Usually bureaucrats get their information about otherwise unknown actors through police intelligence. This is apt to be flawed by reliance on paid informers. Informers had to generate something, so they might be prone to exaggerating, and sometimes even to inventing.
The nature of ‘facts’ at the disposal of the state are always thus unreliable. The historian would do well to aim off for the structural problems (for instance by cross-checking with sources that might have different biases) as well for ‘institutional bias’, (e.g. racist), imperial and casteist projections that colour the vision of the author of the reports.
It is not really that difficult, once you have studied a great number of sources of different kinds and gained an instinctive understanding of the limitations inherent to that type of source. Every source has limitations of bias, positionality and emphasis. The more you work, the better you ‘read’.
Then there’s another kind of problem, where there are few, or no, written sources available. Or when you personally, or scholars in general, are denied access to official sources. Here I have resorted to taking life histories and interviews, looking at photograph albums and framed pictures on walls, deciphering genealogies. Historical anthropology – which Nick Dirks pioneered and Aye Ikegama continues to practice – has good ‘tool-boxes’. Oral history has come a long way since Jan Vansina. I use its methods when I need to.
That said, I am sure you have even surer techniques; this is just how I, personally, have approached it. I tend to encourage my PhD students to adopt this approach too, because it is far from unfathomable. They are already daunted by the time they start out at Cambridge; and my aim as a supervisor is to be supportive and explain how they can develop this ‘mysterious’ skill just by using their considerable intelligence and common sense.
16. What has always leapt out at me is your ability to arrive at a fundamental, unasked question in what is now the crowded field of Partition studies. With the benefit of hindsight, it always seems to be an obvious question, but no one has thought to ask before. For instance, I remember when I had gathered all this archival material on Sindhi Partition refugees going to the princely states and was trying to make sense of it; fortunately for me, you had started writing your B.R. Nanda Memorial Lecture which turned into the essay ‘Princes, Subjects and Gandhi: Alternatives to Citizenship at the End of Empire.’ In that essay, you showed that thousands of people chose not to go to India or Pakistan but to a princely state, challenging the long-held assumption that people faced a binary choice between migrating to the two republics and that there was a history behind why they should make the choice to go to a princely state and choose subjecthood instead of citizenship. This is the crucial part of the historian’s craft – asking good questions leading to insights that we did not have before – even on a seemingly well-documented subject. How do you arrive at your questions?
Most of my questions, good or not so good, have arrived just by going through materials. Sometimes you notice something that isn’t a part of any story you know. To begin with, your tendency might be to say to yourself ‘file for another time’. But then more and more of these strange signs come up so that you feel that you would be doing an injustice to the subjects in question if you ignored the questions they raised. That was the case with princes (and rani sahibas), and the migrants who flocked to their states. They (the princelings) may be unpopular people whom history has passed by, and whom historians have damned. But if there were migrations to princely states, and floods of petitions to rajas and jam sahebs from artisans guilds and leatherworkers, how can you not ask yourself what they mean?
So sources of all kinds have provided my best questions. I am not sure the answers are great, but I keep at it and do my best. Sometimes you get the ‘answer’ by hard work; more usually you work hard and then it arrives when you are having a (brief) break. I insist that my ‘answers’ are provisional. I always hope someone will come along and provide better ones. My PhD students have cut gaping holes through my arguments. It’s been, and continues to be, the best part of teaching.
17. You are a much-loved teacher and have lectured and supervised undergraduates for several years. You have supervised over thirty PhD theses on a huge range of topics. You have also been involved in projects on teaching the history of empire and migration in British schools and helped to conceptualise the ‘Our Migration Story’ website which has won several awards. It has been a long career of dedication to teaching. What were the challenges you faced, teaching South Asian history in the UK? How have your pedagogical methods evolved over the years? How does your life as a teacher relate to your life as a historian and a writer?
Teaching South Asian history in Britain has been both challenging and easy. It is easy because there is already a considerable appetite to learn among the university students I have had the privilege to teach. My courses have always been options, rather than core courses, so people were there because they had chosen to be there.
The challenge comes from the unfamiliarity of the material. Some students start out with only the vaguest idea of South Asian history, never having learnt any at school. (This is beginning to change, thank goodness.) Others know something, but through the prism of their grandparents’ personal histories of migration to Britain, or to India. (‘Sikhs did terrible things to our family’, or ‘Grandpa Washbrook served in India in World War II’.) You cannot even depend on students knowing where Kanyakumari is in relation to Karachi. So there has to be a steep learning curve, but the ease comes in because most students start with little baggage of preconceived ‘truths’. I usually encourage students to find large maps of the region and pin them up in their rooms, and absorb, almost by osmosis, its geography by glancing at the map a few times each day.
The London School of Economics taught me the rudiments of pedagogy when they hired me to teach (I feel fortunate to have had that training). I learnt that students are different; they rely to different extents to oral, visual, and auditory stimuli, to you had to mix it up, providing all kinds of stimuli through a lecture or seminar. I learnt about concentration spans: the dreaded five minutes; and how to break a class down into five-minute bites by pivoting (to a slide or film) or asking a question, or even leaving the room. But I loved teaching, and never stopped being excited by the moment when I could see students sit up, their eyes sparkling with questions. Sometimes ‘research questions’ popped into my head while I was giving an undergraduate lecture – you make freer links as you are ‘winging it’. I can say, looking back with some sadness, that after each day of teaching I felt uplifted, even ecstatic (in the deep meaning of the word). I remember my last undergraduate lecture at Cambridge before my sudden and premature retirement: I announced at the end, ‘thank you everyone, you have made my last class a joy’. The students looked at each other bemused, and at me in a concerned way: my illness was of the barely visible variety. That was a year ago. I will miss undergraduate teaching, going forward. It enriched my life by allowing me to give to others, to pay careful attention to them, to focus all my concentration on them.
From the school teachers who helped us with Bangla Stories and Our Migration Stories, I gleaned the bare bones of pedagogy for teaching younger people. I tried to integrate some of this into my own teaching, and though I never was anything close to perfect, students appreciated the effort. The basic rule is that if you respect students enough to put all of yourself into making something happen in the classroom, they will respond well. Be honest with them.
My PhD students taught me far, far, more than I taught them. It has been a great pleasure learning and growing alongside them.
In terms of my writing, I suppose that when you have had to teach thirty PhD students and at least twice as many MPhil and MSc students to write dissertations, helping them with issues of structure, flow of arguments, and elements of style, you raise your own game on these fronts. My experience as editor of Modern Asian Studies also made me more aware of issues of readability; of the need to show concern for the reading experience.
18. Could you speak about the work of some other historians, or scholars from any field, you think your writing is in conversation with or building upon?
This is tricky territory. It’s been so long, so I will talk about on-going work only, if I may. I am lucky to have had the most generous and critical of sounding boards: Tanika Sarkar, David Washbrook, Prasannan Parthasarathi and Peter Mandler have read each chapter or essay I thrust upon them and told me what was wrong with it.
My work on citizenship is in conversation with that of legal historians, not only of South Asia but of Africa and the old White Dominions, or settler colonies, as well as historians of immigration to Britain. I would not describe myself as a legal historian though, and in that tension lies the trade-off, in my view. Off the top of my head, there’s Rohit De and you yourself, Uttara, as well as Emma Hunter, Caitlin Anderson, Adam McKeown, David Feldman and Keechang Kim, and – since citizenship and sovereignty are so intimately connected – Lauren Benton. More recently, the contribution of Alison Bashford, Lake and Reynolds, M. Karatani and Radhika Mongia has been useful for me to think with, and around. And then there’s always the majestic Zolberg.
On the chaotic resistance of the refugees, we could start with Partha Chatterjee (although I have been having a conversation with him in my head since I was writing Bengal Divided. I am not sure he has participated in it, though!). Hannah Arendt was a huge influence here. Vazira Zamindar, Uditi Sen, and Anjali Bhardwaj Datta each put forward different and exciting models of refugee agency, and they have helped inform my notion of mobility capital.
On the immobile, I have drawn on the work of historians and anthropologists of medicine in sub-Saharan Africa, (Julie Livingstone and Megan Vaughan) and on ‘care-work’ (Samita Sen). This is still a conversation waiting to develop, I think. Thinking about its converse, mobility, the work of labour historians has been an influence, Ravi Ahuja and Raj Chandavarkar in their different ways, as also Henri Lefebvre. Willem van Schendel has been a constant interlocutor: we seem to be drawn to the same subject from different perspectives.
The sociologist Claire Alexander has been my comrade-in-arms for many years; together we have tried to bring to history of ‘the migration crisis’ in Britain together with the study of migration in the ‘source’ regions, in the same analytical framework. We have also been collaborators in public engagement and curriculum development in Britain, although since I grew more ill, Claire has borne more and more of the load. Working with her for fifteen years has changed me. I leave you to judge whether that change has been for the better or the worse!
19. You read a lot of fiction. Could you name six literary works you have particularly enjoyed reading?
Oh dear. I am a ‘constant reader’ and have been one since I could read, this is a hard question. I can give you an answer that is whimsical at best, since it reflects only my most recent bout of (re-) reading. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea probably rises to the top of that particular pile. Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is a triumph, and I rate Vivek Shanbagh’s Ghachar Ghochar as a masterpiece. No lover of books and life could fail to be captivated by Jonathon Franzen. I love Alice Munro: every writer should be required to read her. I return again and again to Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble.
20. Sohini: My personal favourite is ‘Of Graveyards and Ghettos’, and it has been an important springboard to my own research. So, from extremely selfish reasons I want to ask, how does one write the material history of death, when the stories must be wrapped in such sensitivity and empathy? Like the hour-glass and the peeling of the onion that you describe in your introduction, what metaphoric methodology did you use to write this essay?
In writing ‘Of Graveyards’, my intention was to describe what I saw and felt. The serenity, indeed beauty, of these graveyards took me aback. Like many an ignoramus, I had until that point thought of graveyards as macabre places. I was concerned to conjure up for readers the very different feelings that pervaded these ‘social spaces’. I thought that this affect was generated by the custodians of graveyards and the ancestors of the dead, who tended the graves so that they maintained some of their majesty, even if the physical fabric of grave stones was eroding and the space occupied by graveyards shrinking.
Here I was trying to capture both the (surprising) visual quality of the graveyard itself, as well as the depth of feeling it conjured up in an observer who had no relationship to those departed.
I head read Jon Parry on death rituals, (Heonik Kwon’s masterpiece had not yet come my way). But I had not given serious thought to how the death of a loved person changes one, filling the bereaved with new feelings of responsibility and intense attachment to the community of mourners. Death is a creative force, I sensed. The relationship between the bereaved and the dead is powerful; often more powerful than relationships between the living.
I am seeing these things far more clearly in hindsight, I must admit. Then I only ‘sensed’ them. Sometimes historians must pay heed to their instincts and intuitions. (This was a case when I did.) Pulling those glimmers (rather than ideas) down to the page is not easy, unless you adopt some of the tools of the participant observer. That is how I approached the writing; at least for the first part of the essay.
I hope this answers your question, at least in part!
21. Your projects are deeply marked by the ‘minutiae of events’, as David Washbrook has characterized it. What global parallels have the minutiae revealed? I am thinking of historians on citizenship and refugee making such as Frederick Cooper (whom you cite on p. 492) Zolberg and Benda, (p. 222), Engseng Ho (p. 226) in other decolonized countries. What makes the South Asian case study distinct?
The obvious factor in the South Asian case is Partition. In this sense its closest parallel is with Israel. Students of mine who have worked on refugee camps in Israel have observed similar dynamics within them. (One observes similar processes of minority formation post-Partition with respect to the Arab population that stayed on: Arab–Israeli scholars have noted a similar grab of ‘evacuee property’ and ghettoization of Arab communities). Lisa Malkki’s work on Hutu refugees in Tanzania is most revealing too. South Sudan and divided Eritrea may well be witnessing similar processes on the ground. I have not yet seen any granular study of the horn of Africa, perhaps it is still too early and unsafe.
That is not often the realm of historians, amongst whom only a handful examine the ‘minutiae of events’ with as much zeal as I do. Anthropologists, like Malkki, do stay close to the ground, attending to little people and every acts; so it will take scholars working in many fields to build up meaningful comparisons. I am talking of early signs here – conference papers still unpublished – on Israel, and so on.
But I think that if you were to read these studies together, the South Asian example will not appear so distinct after all. Several post-colonial nation states were born while societies were being ripped apart: they bear similar (though not identical) scars.
22. You have noted how the terms of transnationalism, hybridity and networks cloud the increasingly firm clasp of nation-states in sealing and controlling its borders. As someone living in New York at the time of the coronavirus pandemic, I have noticed how nation-states micro-manage their immigrant population even within their borders: through policing, counting, and withholding access to basic health rights and economic resources. Simultaneously, migrants evade the state by giving up on resources and evading documentations. Migrants slip out of official records, only captured in our archives when the nation-state reigns them back in. Are they then the true transnational subjects, the exception to the rule? How does one write these slippery characters back into history?
There’s been excellent work on the paperwork of citizenship and access to its goods (for instance Kamal Sadiq’s Paper Citizens). He finds that ‘paper’ is quite easy to get, forged documents can be bought all the time. (I found the same with the permit papers issues for cross-border movement between India and Pakistan.) But do not over-emphasise official bureacratic paperwork if you want to ‘see’ these migrants, particularly those the state is trying to get rid of, and those who are trying to evade its clutches. For the very reasons that you suggest, the state’s ‘biopolitics’ can never be as powerful as some believe it to be, because ‘little people’ are resourceful and determined. You might see them in news coverage of small skirmishes at borders, where say, India, is trying to push ‘East Bengali (read Muslim)’ ‘migrants’ across the border. These people often have all the papers, they even have graves, to prove domicile. The state disregards this. See court cases, which often yield rich personal biographies of ‘absconders’. Go to borderlands, where they tend to cluster: take life histories. These people are the transnational subjects of our time, since most have far-flung networks and attachments in all sorts of places. You are right, and courageous, to be pushing at this question. The study of elite transnational sojourners continues to throw up much to think about, (see, for instance Tim Harper’s recent Underground Asia). But without unearthing the transnational lives of the poorer migrants, who are a vast and ballooning population, we are never going to get our heads around this subject.
23. You note how the Bengal Government after Partition expressed the need for able-bodied men to work and not subsist on charity. This resonates with famine relief programs of the colonial government in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies in the late nineteenth century where able-bodied men came to cities to work in the factories. These parallels tell us about the enduring relationship between famine, labour history and citizenship (or claims to urban spaces). The desire to pick able-bodied men of course tells us about how famine set in mass debility among others, particularly women and children. How does one accommodate the history of debility, ‘weakness’ and morbidity into the history of citizenship in postcolonial India and Pakistan?
There are many ways to approach this. Note the rights (or lack of them) of people with certain listed diseases to travel, or marry, and to exert other forms of autonomy. Epilepsy and leprosy still figure as barriers to mobility, in and of themselves. It gives you an idea of what manner of ‘rights-bearing subject’ the disabled person is, and has been for centuries. (Bashford is illuminating on this point.) Note the access to the ‘goods’ of citizenship: the right to serve in the army (height and weight rules have applied, and continue to apply), or access to rations at low prices (proof of identity and place of residence are needed to avail these provisions). How does a displaced and disabled woman vote? (It is hard enough for the elite woman to exercise this right freely.) How does an orphan child, displaced by riots in Gujarat, say, gain access to these goods (or ‘BPL’ provisions) since she cannot prove either her identity or place of residence? This child will become weaker, and ever more debilitated, to the point that she cannot even do days of work now guaranteed by the NREGA scheme.
If you throw caste into this mix, which you must, one can begin to build up a picture of what it is to be a ‘bare citizen’ (or something close to that). Citizenship is not an either/or quality but a spectrum of rights and capabilities. Many people find themselves on the wrong end of this spectrum, because of their gender, disability, debility or history of displacement.