Social Scientist. v 29, no. 336-337 (May-June 2001) p. 3.


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B. SURENDRA RAO*

The 'Modern' in Modern Indian History

I am extremely grateful to the executive committee of the Indian History Congress for asking me to preside over the Modern Indian History Section of its sixty-first annual session/For someone who is no more than an unfatigued student of history, this comes as a huge and unexpected honour. I take this less as a recognition of my merit or status than as a gesture of encouragement from my peers in the field. I have accepted it, and the big responsibility which it entails, with a sense of proud humility.

In this address, I propose to take a look at the /modern' in modern Indian history and its implications for an understanding of our colonial experience. The theme suggests itself in a somewhat perverse way in the ambivalent context of our excitement about and resentment over frenetic globalisation and our desperate keenness to leave behind a battered old millennium which seemed to have grown stale by over-acquaintance and roll out the red-carpet to the new.1 This triumph of hope over experience notwithstanding, the charming, subjugating ways of modernity have produced a creeping feeling of fear and nervousness. For, modernity is associated with the West, the West with colonial empires and, even after political decolonisation, with new avatars of polite and not-so-polite controls and domination. Yet, modernity as progress seems irresistible, like the predicament of a compulsive smoker who does not dispute the statutory warning printed it gives a sense of deja vu, a feeling that history somehow clings to us, and that the evolved present tells as much about its past.

While interrogating the 'modern', however, I do not wish to revive a dialogue on the vexed question of periodisation of history. We all know that historians do periodise history while philosophers have

* Historian at Mangalore University, Karnataka

** Presidential Address to Modern Indian History Section at 61st Session of the Indian History Congress, Calcutta

Social Scientist, Vol. 29, Nos. 5 - 6, May-June 2001



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