Yasmin Khan and Andrew Whitehead
Looking back on twenty-five years of History Workshop’s publishing on South Asia, we were struck by the richness of the content, the variety of approaches and the global influence on history-writing by HWJ authors. The articles here are only a selection from a wider range of writings about South Asia published by the Journal.
To set this in context, members of the (British) Communist Party Historians Group had long been important influences on Indian history-writing. In the 1970s the History Workshop movement resonated in India and among South Asian historians at a time when many people were seeking post-imperial ways of capturing radical and marginalised voices. History Workshop was part of a global shift in historical direction. And after Edward Said had let his genie out of the bottle, History Workshop played a part in the ferment of ideas in the 1980s and early 1990s about how to write post-colonial histories from the perspective of the worker or peasant. Subaltern Studies was the most important manifestation of this and its advocates found a space in the journal.
However, History Workshop and Subaltern Studies have been critical friends, rather than kindred spirits, and it is striking to see that the most profound criticisms of Subaltern Studies were also published in these pages. These historiographical debates were intense, and some of the sharpest parries against subaltern history were published here: ‘the monumental misinterpretations’ of E.P Thompson by Indian historians in the words of Raj Chandavarkar (1997).
Some of these debates turned on how far the empire could really innovate and change society. Dipesh Chakrabarty made a persuasive case for ‘European categories of thought’ (1993). On the other hand, O’Hanlon and Washbrook insisted (here and elsewhere) for the refurbishments of South Asian inheritances by colonialists, rather than against blanket applications of orientalist readings of imperialism. As O’Hanlon and Washbrook noted in 1991, the impact of global capital and empire were not identical – and twenty five years later the challenge of disentangling these two interconnected but different aspects of global history still stand.
History Workshop Journal’s engagement has been rooted, then, perhaps inevitably for a journal published from the UK, in the intricate relationships between Britons and South Asians in the two-hundred year history of imperial rule. This has been a resolutely humanist approach, thinking through histories by foregrounding human relationships. Whether in the encounters of South Asians in fin-de-siecle London, British soldiers and local Indian women or the ambivalent loyalties and place of home in Anglo-Indian identities (Burton, 1996; Blunt, 2002; Khan, 2012). There is little here to suggest simplistic or mono-directional encounters with South Asian ‘subjects’, rather very lively relationships and interactions, circumscribed by imperial power.
This is also a feminist journal and the historical ways that gender has been constructed – and the important intersection between this and colonial debates – has been a persistent subject (Loomba, 1993; Nair, 2008; Sarkar, 1993). These pieces never lose sight of the individual subjectivities and real women at the heart of these stories. The violence, pain and fracture of South Asia into different and opposing states has also been a recurrent theme, also too often written on the bodies of women in the form of sexual violence and misogyny (Saikia, 2004; Whitehead with Sidhwa and Butalia, 2000).
One of the most appealing aspects of the Journal is the space for others forms of writing. You will find here the daring, the personal, the subjective, the emotive, as the journal has nourished ways of writing outside the requirements of the formal academy. Manas Ray’s piece ‘Growing up Refugee’ about his childhood and youth in Bengal (2002) is an exemplar of this. There are also the priceless personal and political insights of Romila Thapar’s memoir of writing Indian school textbooks, and the longstanding pressures on these texts and their authors. And Ravinder Kaur reflects on the future; how will Indian history of the digital age come to be written? (2015).
So History Workshop has left an imprint on the development of South Asian historiographies – and the interconnected conversation of historians in Britain, the US and South Asia is reflected here. But, as Priya Satia (2016) reminds us, the racial and global contexts of British radical historical traditions need some attention themselves. Many of the thinkers at the heart of ‘British’ leftist history – from Orwell to E.P. Thompson – were closely connected by family networks to India and had deep connections to the colonial world. History Workshop was not forged in isolation but in a Britain still reeling from the loss of empire.
The Virtual Special Issue includes free access pdf downloads of all of the articles listed below. Click on the hyperlinks to access.