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Dipesh Chakrabarty Interview Transcript

Q. You're path to academic history is quite unusual: you completed

your undergraduate work in physics, a diploma in management, and
came to history only at the doctoral level. What explains that? Has
this trajectory impacted your work in any particular way?
DC: It has had an impact in two ways. First, if you have done some science,
a page of scientific writing doesnt throw you. I have many friends in the
humanities who are turned off by the prose of science and they dont want
to deal with it. So now that Im actually doing work on climate change, it
helps me primarily in my not being fearful of having to read science. One of
my minor subjects in college was geology and the geological aspect of the
discussion on climate change fascinates me. I would say that if you have
training in logic, economics, law, or for that matter, any subject that
compels you to think in terms of syllogisms, or complicated versions of if A
then B, it helps you to think logically. Sometimes I think that friends who
are very gifted otherwise, but who have come out of training in literature or
history, lack that training in syllogistic thinking.
Q. One of the challenges that subaltern studies leveled at Marxist
historiography was against their unquestioned belief that local
differences are structured by capital; that capital has a universal
logic and that therefore we can ignore local differences; they are
superficial. For the benefit of the readers of the blog, could you
perhaps elaborate on that difference a little bit?
DC: I would take a step further back and make a more general proposition,
which covers the case of Marxism. In the 19th century, there arose the
belief, as the social sciences formed themselves, that the real truth of
society (whether psychoanalytical or social) is something that is hidden
from peoples everyday cognition of things. In other words, the assumption
that everyday common sense does not get you to the core of what really
keeps society ticking. Now, that core could be psychoanalytical, if youre a
Freudian. Thats the secret of the triad of the family father, mother, and
child. Or, you could think that it is commodity fetishismthe secret to
production of commodities that you dont recognize in your common sense.
You could say that all of this was part of what Fredric Jameson later on
called the depth perspective; in other words, the idea that things are
always three-dimensional and even society, which is an abstraction, is a

three-dimensional structure. You can only understand things by inquiring

into the depth of that structure. That truth lies in the depth of the structure
became a guiding principle whether you were dissecting the human body or
whether you were dissecting analytically the social body. There was a kind
of mistrust of a so-called surface of things.

The further idea that arose was that the job of the social scientist was to
demystify this, that everyday life is about mystification and therefore, we do
not criticize capitalism. We accept capitalism, or we accept an inequitist
society. Maybe this is because we dont know where inequality in everyday
life comes from. If you knew where it came from, if you could get the key to
solving that problem, then you would be able to think of alternatives to
those structures. That is basically a broad idea of the many structures of
which, many different branches of social thinking partake. I think Marxism
is one of them. If you think in that mode, then the idea is to look for one key
that solves all the seemingly diverse social problems. You think that if I can
use that key to fix society, I would fix it. That leads to a position, which
always values the answer to the question, how was this situation
produced? more than the question, how did some situation feel like an
experience? In some respects, that is how social science developed. And I
think the idea was that the differences you see within societies are
secondary in analytical importance to the more primary fact of the logic of
capital. If you could uncover the logic of capital, these differences
sometimes would not only be seen just as differences, but as differences
produced in the age of capital. The whole argument becomes that what
looks like difference is actually a market preference. Suppose, the universal
proposition is that all humans have an interest in listening to music. Then, it
is a question of capitalist marketing as to whether I will produce a CD on
folk music, on country music, on jazz, classical Indian, etc. That difference is
purely a preference and can be explained by the marketing logic. That was
the kind of position we were arguing against.

Q. Marxists aver that the elevation of the fragment in subaltern

historiography hurts the cause of the unity; they believe that cause
of unity is bolstered by the exercise of finding global causes behind
their oppression. How would you respond to that?

DC: What was happening in subaltern studies, to answer it contextually, was

that people were arguing that even when you construct a whole like a
nation or a regional identity, the construction of that identity is also an
operation of agencies that exercise power. In other words, you can only
become Oriya, or Bengali or Marathi, by actually dominating some other
identity that you subsume within that. Take for example, the history of
Hindi. There was a long movement to get languages in Rajasthan
recognised as separate languages. But for all political and other reasons, it
was decided that they would be clubbed with Hindi. People, who were
championing the idea of the fragment, were using that idea to critique this
assimilation. It was not against the creation of solidarities or unities. But I
think the argument wouldve been that any project trying to create
solidarities/ unities has to be watchful against its own undemocratic
tendencies. So the argument would be, in an idealistic and utopian fashion
that every fashioning of a solidarity or moment of solidarity has to be one
that does not gloss over the fact that the fragments dont necessarily begin
by belonging to a whole. So the call of the idea of the fragment was for an
ethical alertness to difference. In other words, not to fall for any position
that assumed the Indian nationalist motto unity in diversity.

Q. Lets just take that idea a little forward here. Let me use a
hermeneutic of suspicion over here. In the early writings of
subaltern historians, aiming to write the history of peasant
revolutions, there may have been a tendency to essentialize peasant
consciousness or at least the assumption of a distinct
consciousness that arises out a community ties. Werent similar
views seen earlier in the writings of someone like a Henry Maine! If
the object of subaltern studies was to be alert to difference, then
how did it partake in this creation of a peasant subject? How would
you rebut a criticism of essentialization over here?
Let me begin by noting that in rebutting the criticism of essentialization, I
am not rebutting all criticisms. There can still be legitimate criticisms and
you have already hinted at some. But the people who said that we were
reproducing essentialism or who go further and say that we were
Orientalizing, do not, I think, understand two things. First, the reason why
early subaltern studies, particularly the work of Ranajit Guha, was so

invested in structures, was because structuralist thought, of both the

French and Non-French variety Levi Strauss, Roland Barthes, Roman
Jacobsen, were very influential in our thinking. And sometimes our search
for structures in Indian historystructures in the sense of Levi Strauss and
Roland Barthesgets mistaken for a simplistic production of essentialist
and orientalistic stereotypes. We also knew about Orientalism, the problem
of stereotypingGyan Pandey wrote about it. We would therefore not have
been willfully and intentionally reproducing these. So if you grant us our
own contemporary awareness of these problems, and ask what it is that we
were trying to do, if not essentialize, I would say that we were trying to use
the tools of structuralism, for a very interesting, and, I think, good reason.
This is not to say that our structuralist answer was right. But there was a
question behind the application of structuralism. Throughout Indian history,
we have witnessed a return of the seemingly archaic within the modern.
Our intellectual problem was how to understand this past that seemed like
the outcrop of the wade of the rock that just shows up at certain points in
the topography of a land. And Ranajit Guha saw that going back to Levi
Strauss, to structuralism was a way to attack that problem. When Guha
wrote his book Elementary Aspects of Peasant Consciousness he was trying
to do two things together: he was trying to refine the grammar of the
consciousness that informed peasant revolutionsand that was structuralist
enterprise, in the same way that in Saussure's linguistics, grammar was
structure for all sentences. Sentences produce a serialized account of
anything, but what sustains that serialization is a relatively invariant
structure that you might call a grammar. And the second point is that Indian
history was conceivednot just by subaltern studies, but also by all
nationalist reformersas a problem of consciousness. The whole problem
was the reformerswhether revolutionaries or nationalistwere always in
a minority. And they looked around the population of India and felt that
these are all our people but they are not where I am. And I have to
somehow bring them to my level. Therefore the whole project of
nationalism, the whole of project of revolutionary India, was a
consciousness-raising problem from the beginning. And consciousness was,
both philosophically and theoretically, the main problem for subaltern

studies. For that very reason, Ranajit Guha went to Hegel and used the
Phenomenology of Spirit as a philosophical way into the problem of
consciousness and then hitched it to structuralism.
Now that, Marxism had already done. Somebody like Levi Straussan antiimperial thinkerwas using Structuralism to critique European domination
among other things. The people who read us in India-- and that was partly
our fault and partly a fault of the situation that Indians were not trained to
think in structuralist terms, thought that what they were reading in our
pages was a mere reproduction of colonial orientalisms - that Henry Maine
or others had produced in their texts. And that was the point of the Chris
Bayly's dismissal of subaltern studies in 1988. The method of that dismissal
continues today, into Vivek Chibber. I am therefore of the view that people
still haven't explored the question of why structuralism appealed to
Subaltern studies scholars. I have also said in some recent pieces that while
structuralism may not have been the answer to the question we were
posing, the question itself was an interesting one and one that hasnt gone
away from Indian history.

Q. Turning to your own work, could you now briefly tell us what it
means to provincialize Europe? Why must Europe be provincialized?
DC: We are all inheritors of European thought from Renaissance to the
Enlightenment. Without those kinds of thought many of the modern
criticisms in Indian, like Ambedkar's criticism of untouchability, would not
have arisen. I have cited Ambedkar where he actually wished Indian history
had begun from French Revolution (he actually refers to the year). But at
the same time, all societies, including Europe, have long histories of
institutions, ideas, thought and practices, that preceded the coming of
either capitalism, or enlightenment, or renaissance. So in all histories, these
modern categories of thought involve a certain process of translation. And
when you think of translation, you cannot completely detach the category
itself from the place its place of origin. If you look carefully, you will find
that even when a French thinkers thoughts are taken into German or a
German thinkers into English, things are translated. And translation makes
a difference, whether big or small. The point was to understand that our
transition to capitalism is also a history of translating ourselves into the
categories of capitalism. So provincializing Europe basically meant an
awareness of the translational problem. It meant that although European

thought was quite central to the formation of the modern world, histories of
translation are to be found everywhere, including in Europe itself. In my
new preface to Provincializing Europe I make a clear argument that these
histories not only apply to India or China, but also to Europe.

Q: Is the subaltern school capable of imagining alternatives to

European categories?
DC: No, it is not capable of imagining complete alternatives. Look, one of
the persons who wrote about peasant rights in the modern era was Fredrich
Engles. You can go further than democracy and see that the very core of
political thought is this idea that human life must be made simple. This was
not an idea in British times. It is something that begins to develop from the
17th century onwards. The idea that you have to secure human life is
something that we owe to modern Europe; whether it is good or bad. I dont
think that that idea was prevalent in the Mughal era.

Q: I am going to pick out on a part on a preface to the 2007-2008

edition of Provincializing Europe. Here you deal with one criticism
that has been strongly leveled at all subaltern scholars and
specifically at this book, which is that the movement is from the
subaltern to the bhadralok (elite); the archives are profoundly
bhadralok in nature; and this diminishes any project of recovering a
subaltern voice. Now you rebut this criticism saying that it is
important for a historian who comes from a bhadralok upbringing to
talk in that context - after all, as you state critique itself carries its
own sense of biases. With that in mind, is it at all possible for any
historian of elite upbringing to ever recover the voice of the
subaltern or will the lenses with which we grew up, always mire our

DC: When this criticism is leveled against subaltern studies, people talk
about Partha Chatterjee, Ranajit Guha, and me, but they dont talk about
David Hardiman or Shahid Amim, who actually continued to recover voices
of the subaltern classes. Somehow, the criticism is leveled against some
people but peculiarly there is a whole generalization that occurs and I dont
know why it happens; but it does. The main point I made in the original
edition of Provincializing Europe was that if I had to enter into what I was
earlier describing as the translational underpinnings of modernity, then I
had to go to a source where my control of the texts in terms of their
languages was maximum and where I could move between experience and
language. For me, thats why methodologically going to the so-called Hindu
bhadrolok (I had a sentence in my introductory chapter saying that I look
for a day when the history of Bengal will not, by default, become Hindu
because the majority of Bengali speakers are Muslims in the world and had
been so for some time) was most important. I had a methodological point in
looking at the bhadralok people; Also, the sort of bhadralok I was looking at
were themselves a minority amongst the sociologically constructed category
of bhadralok.
Look at the chapter on widows for instance. That includes the cruelties
happening in bhadralok families. People with a deeply humanist sensibility
were always in a minority. They were writing short stories, they were
writing other things, and if you looked at bhadralok society, it was very hard

to argue that the reformist vision of the 19th century had worn out. So I
actually said that the subset of Hindu bhadralok that I am using for my book
is almost a social category whose date of expiry was over. My science
background tells me that in the humanities, people dont red things
carefully because they arent trying to see the structure of an argument.
Sometimes, coming from a science background, I make the mistake of
thinking that okay, Ive taken care of the possible objection; now I can
proceed. I realize that unless I keep repeating myself, people dont hear my
saying these things. That tells me something about the poverty of reading
and hearing and listening in the humanities. Whereas, if you come from
having done geometry, you know that you cannot go to the next step if you
have not done the preceding one. Thats been a disappointing experience.
To realize that people read inattentively and if you only take care of a
problem in one sentence that is tucked in your text, most readers wont
read it. So what you have to do is keep repeating it.

Q: Coming back to one more point on that, there is a really nice line
that I read in the preface critical thought when fighting prejudice
can itself carry prejudice. Critical thought is related to the place
which it originates. From that, what I understand is that critical
thought at all points of time must be situated in the context of the
critique itself. If this is something that you are always aware of and
that all critics should be consciously aware of, how does one begin to
write about what is loosely called others?
DC: You are aware of the danger; you dont always know when it happens. It
is a question of being ever watchful. That is why I have to be careful even
when I am using bhadralok material. It doesnt mean that I have taken care
of all the dangers that attend my thought and here I go back to Heidegger
when he says, any thinker has to take a risk and has to live on a marginal
merits. If somebody could point out a serious problem in what Ive done or
thought, I should always try to be open to that.

Q: What is the subaltern criticism of historicism?

DC: When I use the word historicism I try to qualify it. The problem is that
the word has been used in many different senses from its beginning in
Germany and thus when you use it, it can be confusing. I was broadly using
it to refer to the idea that something develops over time. So if you say that
categories develop over time, it means that any category is in its infancy,
and yet you know enough of that category to recognize it. When you write
about a mature category, you assume that youve been able to track its
development through whatever movement, to a fuller state. In this
framework, the idea that it (the category) was the same thing from
beginning to end remains intact. This is the idea Foucault was criticizing.
He said that one must not think of a category just as a unity in itself and a
self-sustaining unity. It must be showed up at every moment by social
institutions and practices. For my purpose, historicism is to think of all
entities as developing continuously over time but retaining the essential
features the idea that you can recognize it by that category all the time. It
is akin to looking at your family album or photographs of yourself over time.
You assume that there is some kind of continuity, you.

This developmental idea has a political form - you could say let the Indian
people mature first and then we will give them vote. But the idea to go for
universal adult franchise was not born out of this development based
thinking. That is a departure point of our critique.

Q: Let me now turn to the last book The Calling of History. In terms
of postcolonial critique, what would connect a book like
Provincializing Europe to The Calling of History? I see them as really
diverse works; and it probably speaks a great deal to your diversity
as a scholar, but is there a connecting thread here?
DC: I had participated in certain debates about history and the things I
speak of in Provincializing Europe. All that was a part, in the 1980s and
1990s when I was working on the book, of larger debates about oral history
and memory. It was also a time when indigenous history was becoming very
popular. I could see that the democratization of history, people claiming that
we have a history that we can be proud of was actually resulting in
fundamental changes in our understanding of history itself. Originally, when
it became a discipline, the assumption was that it was a historians job to
interrogate testament like a judge does. But we were moving into times
when people had begun to say that their testimony was their history. I could
see that people were claiming pasts through methods that were rejected
when the discipline became a discipline. So Jadunath Sarkar was asking a
question by putting it thus if today the idea of historical truth is a suspect
idea in our eyes, if we value memory over history or even nonfactual pasts
or factual pasts, what makes the question of truth so valuable?
I tried to explain that by going into the question of the plural, divergent
forms of nationalism that existed in India and tried to place him in the
tradition of patriotic nationalism which was actually more developmental. I
was trying to understand why truth once mattered. It was also about
relativizing our own present and shedding light on it to say that what we do
today isnt necessarily what was always done. We cannot claim that we are
necessarily more correct than our predecessors, that history and knowledge
just continuously improve and that they were wrong and we are right.

Q: In this last book, you present the correspondence between Sarkar

and Sardesai, where they are criticizing what they consider loose
historical research of the colonial periods. They appear hung up
about this idea that historical research ought to be serious; you
must get into the archives, you must look at real documents and
investigate some objective truth. In the late 20th century, writing
history is all about a narrative; researched no doubt, but a narrative.
Were Sarkar and Sardesai were reacting to their time? If so, does it
resonate in any manner with the subaltern critique of historicism?
DC: Even between Sarkar and Sardesai, there was a lot of tension, which I
explore in the chapter where Sarkar was very critical of what Sardesai
himself was writing. When I actually read Sardesais own copies of Sarkars
books and went through his marginal comments, I was able to understand
how critical he was of what Sarkar was writing. Even in their intimacy, this
tension was rehearsed. Sarkar had to accommodate himself to that fact.
Otherwise the friendship would not have lasted.
What I call the public life of history has always been present, is present,
and has to do with the way India and its sense of past got democratized.
Our democracy has had an emphasis on cultural struggles as well as
struggles that take the form of street politics. Indian democracy has not so
much worked through trying to make our institutions genuinely democratic.
Our institutions are not as transparent as they should be; they are not as
responsive to public affliction and woe as they should be. On the other
hand, on the question of access to a historical consciousness, the ability to
say that we have witnessed our past, we have a rather rich tradition.
Today, you might say that that question of witnessing the past and the
present has exploded thanks to the electronic media, through citizen
journalism, to the cellphone. Today we witness everything. We are all
witness to everything that is going on, even the Dadri lynching. In this
backdrop, if you think of democracy as having these two aspects, witnessing
and forensics, our forensic aspect is weak while the witnessing aspect has
exploded and proliferated. The witnessing function has a long past, going

back to groups claiming that they have a history and it doesnt have to be
documented by going to archives because experiences are the points of
entry into that history. We have proliferated our testimonials, and on that
side we are very strong.

Q: Im going to quote a part of Arif Dirliks The Aura of

Postcolonialism, which you use in Small History of Subaltern Studies
Most of the generalizations that appear in the discourse of
postcolonial intellectuals from India may appear novel in the
historiography of India but are not discoveries from broader
perspectives. The historical writing of Subaltern Studies represent
the application in Indian historiography of trends in historical
writing that were quite widespread by the 1970s, under the impact of
social historians such as E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and a
whole host of others. In light of this, I would like to ask you, what is
it that makes the Subaltern Series a postcolonial project?
DC: As I pointed out before, Dirliks narrative differs significantly. The
argument that we were influenced by these historians is totally right;
theres no denying it, because social history became very important in the
Anglophone history department and we all came under this spell of
Hobsbawn and Thompson, etc. But you see, what Dirlik doesnt get is the
difference between Western democracies and our democracies. The straight
narrative in E.P. Thompson or Hobsbawm is that the peasant has to die
before the industrialism process is complete so the peasant in England is
wiped out. They are out in the manufacturing cities looking for jobs and
they become factory workers, they have to be disciplined. Then, it takes
time to discipline them and they eventually learn to become citizens. These

democracies are predicated on the death of the peasant. But our democracy
was predicated on the birth of the peasant as the political subject: we did
not require the peasant to become educated first, or to become a factory
worker first, etc. India remained largely a peasant society when people
were given the vote. Thats what was significantly different and thats what
I described as our history, rejecting the developmental historicism. Thats
where I think Indian democracy had a genuinely revolutionary side. This is
what makes writing about it, an experiment. We cannot be sure if Indian
democracy will be successful in terms of forensics, by which I mean sifting
witnesses statements, getting to the truth and establishing rule of law. That
is the process that has not always unfolded with as much speed as one
might desire in India, but in its formation, it has a revolutionary character;
that lends itself to our writing. I think that Dirlik is right in the idea that
these historians influenced us. But he is wrong in observing that we are
simply copies of them.