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Requiem for the Political: Rethinking politico-intellectual history in Twentieth Century India (Cambridge Political History Workshop)

Organization: University of Cambridge
Event: Cambridge Political History Workshop
Categories: Postcolonial, Graduate Conference, Popular Culture, 20th & 21st Century, Cultural Studies, History, Philosophy, Indian Subcontinent
Event Date: 2021-06-17 to 2021-06-18 Abstract Due: 2021-05-06

                                      Cambridge Political History Workshop


Requiem for the Political: Rethinking politico-intellectual history in Twentieth Century India


While the long twentieth century in India has increasingly been the focus of intellectual, social and cultural histories, traditional political history has taken a beating. This initially led to the dominance of social history, which has since been challenged by the new cultural history, anthropological approaches and the textualist turn in intellectual history, deracinated from political action. Through this workshop, we hope to offer an alternative to the ‘history of political ideas’ and ‘political thought’, in suggesting a praxis of Applied history. We hope to bring together works with a methodological predisposition towards acknowledging fissures between ‘world of political action’ and ‘world of political ideas’, rather than those reconstructing the past based merely on the latter.

The continual craving for political histories has led to a profusion of politico-intellectual public histories, bordering on the ‘popular’. Some of the biggest nonfiction publishing house in South Asia today are increasingly commissioning revisionist histories and imaginative biographies, sanitising figures from the Right. For decades academics have ceded this space, leading to not just profusion of various chauvinistic approaches, but their canonisation due to lack of scholarly scrutiny. The bourgeoning demand for public histories can and should no longer be ignored by academic historians, given the impact these have in informing and shaping the public sphere.

Indian political histories that survived, have come a long way from their initial status quoist nature of replicating political structures and writing histories of social elites, especially of the Cambridge and Nationalist schools. Politico-intellectual histories, while relying on diverse archives, need to also question the existing canons, cognising the general anathema towards great men histories. The vernacularisation of Indian politics is an inescapable reality today and it is important that we write the new political through an increasing focus on vernacular sources from the margins. This new political history while acknowledging the power of the people to independently forge their own futures within existing politico-social structures, also, emphasises the potential of thinking through the everyday political. Given that imagined pasts and counterfactuals have increasingly challenged earlier political histories and dislodged earlier canonical ideas in the ‘popular’ imagination, merely rubbishing them without engaging with the reasons behind their proliferation, which predate the coming to power of the Right, only reveal the trappings of the Indian historians’ intellectual bubble. The rise of right-wing populism directed towards control of existing structures reaffirms the need to revive the study of Indian politics through interdisciplinary methods.

Through the workshop we hope to bring together emerging researchers working on twentieth century India. We would particularly welcome intellectual historians to refocus on political machinations by important political actors from conservative, liberal and left traditions, through the mismatch between their world of ideas and realpolitik. Labour historians analysing the loosening grasp of the left trade unions to shed light on the reasons behind the increasing rejection of their emancipatory ideas on the ground or evolution of working-class politics in urban centers could lend valuable insight during the workshop. We also invite cultural historians to unpack the nuances of cultural imperialism and the political culture of the national bourgeoisie in contemporary India. The organisers hope to foster dialogue between transnational scholars working on twentieth century India, leading to prioritization of vernacular sources, translations and focus on public histories and wider circulation through collaborations, as opposed to the continued focus on international visibility. Through this workshop, we are hoping to explore possibilities of public histories serving as an important tool for transitional justice in postcolonial nation states. Formation of a collective of scholars working on twentieth century India, doing Applied History, and increased transnational collaboration between them, is the purpose of this workshop.

In this two-day long workshop, we invite papers which would help us unpack any of the following themes.:

1.         Intellectual histories from the ‘margins' and their impact on the Indian Political

2.         Problems of writing histories of Contemporary India in the absence of declassified official records

3.         Politics in the Indian states (princely states, provinces, postcolonial states) and their relationship with Centre

4.         Necessities &/ Limitations of writing politico-intellectual histories delinked from political action

5.         Analysing political performance and semiotics of the text (parliamentary speeches, diaries, letters from jail, etc.)

6.         Problems of access and patronage in writing biographies

7.         Working class women and men in India’s freedom struggle

8.         Dalit politics beyond Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar

9.         Doing Public History and Applied History in sites of transgenerational/cultural trauma

10.       Empiricism, Theory and Historical Praxis in the Age of Post-Truth

11.       Rethinking the “Communal”, the “Sacral” and the “Secular”

12.       Understanding Indian Modernity through rupture, renewal and continuity


A special historiography panel would be organised to make sense of recent trends and return of the ‘political’ in Indian Intellectual, Labour, Gender, Economic, Subaltern, Dalit Histories.

Submissions should be sent to cambridgepoliticalhistory@gmail.com no later than the 6th of May, 2021.

The workshop has been generously supported by the Cambridge Researcher Development Programme and the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

The two-day workshop will be hosted online, on the 17th-18th June, 2021, between 9 :30 - 6 PM GMT.

For queries, feel free to write to Rohit Dutta Roy (rd548@cam.ac.uk), Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.


Rohit Dutta Roy