Who is Afraid of Edward Said?
Sumit Sarkar: Writing Social History, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 390; Rs. 495
This book brings together several articles - included in two sections -published by the author over 1986-1996, along with some new chapters. The first chapter - The Many Worlds of Indian History' -charts out his basic paradigms and concerns. Here Sarkar explores the historiographical tradition, against the background of right-wing, Sang Parivar politics and the upper caste frenzy seen during the anti-Mandal phase. A combination of 'faith', pop 'patriotism' and 'quiz-culture' have combined to restrict the space for historical enquiry. The effect of this has been devastating, especially since along with these features, the right-wing projection of India's past has incorporated distinct components of colonial historiography. Thus, the very idea of homogenised/static blocks of 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' existing over a thousand years and that of a 'cultural fault line' have been taken over from colonial historiography.
The post-colonial context saw the attempt to invent a continuity with the 'glorious past' which implied presenting the epic heroes as national figures - a project that has been popularized by the state through its television and its version of the Ramayana. This sought to legitimise a spurious and highly dubious claim to an 'indigenous authenticity' that was 'nationalist'. What Sarkar perhaps should have also emphasised is the contribution/legitimacy provided by nationalist historiography to such formulations, inherent in the very logic of glorifying/mythologising the past.
The author also focuses on the way dissatisfaction with economic reductionisms of 'official Marxism' has led to another form of narrowing down of horizons. Here his critique of colonial discourse is centred around the fact that it conflates colonial exploitation with western cultural domination, leading to a 'culturalism' that is 'nervous