Colleagues in Apposition

There is a curious situation in the UCLA history department.  Vinay Lal and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, two scholars who write extensively on Indian historiography, rarely mention each other in their written work.  This would almost make sense if the two men had strikingly similar views on Indian historiography and history as a discipline.  However, since their views on the topics are polar opposites, it seems strange that neither Lal nor Subrahmanyam engages in a critical dialogue with the other’s writing.  For a student of Indian history, especially one who attends UCLA, this can also be disappointing. What is one to do if one wants to know how the two scholars would critique the other’s philosophy?

Thankfully, because of how clearly different their opinions are, we need not imagine what an exchange between Lal and Subrahmanyam would look like.  They basically engage in conversation with, or rather direct their arguments toward each other every time they write about Indian historiography.  Using Chapter One of Lal’s History of History (2003), “The History of Ahistoricity,” and Subrahmanyam’s Historically Speaking essay “Europe and the People without Historiography; or, Reflections on a Self-Inflicted Wound” (2004), this brief essay juxtaposes the two historian’s ideologies of history.  Because of the limited space available, the essay is by no means comprehensive.  It is merely a first attempt (at least to my knowledge) to place the views of the two respected UCLA historians in apposition.

Before getting into the main texts, though, we need to address an important issue.  The key to understanding the differences between Lal and Subrahmanyam is Ashis Nandy, and more specifically how both scholars feel about Nandy and his ideas. Whereas Lal is greatly influenced by Nandy’s views of history and culture, Subrahmanyam is deeply contemptuous of them.  For example, in the Preface to The History of History, Lal writes of Nandy, “Some of his writings have been critical in helping shape my thoughts on the enterprise of history in India, and those familiar with his writing will at once recognize the intellectual debt I owe to him” (xi).  Subrahmanyam, on the other hand, in the Outlook India opinion piece “Our Only Colonial Thinker,” writes that Nandy, “…is as dazzlingly clever as he is tiresomely repetitive and profoundly ill-informed.  And he is as innocent about the facts of India and her past as he is about Europe and hers.”[1]  The respective sentiments of Lal and Subrahmanyam toward Nandy remain consistent throughout their work.  Thus, if we conclude that Lal is pro-Nandy and that Subrahmanyam is anti-Nandy, is it too much to suggest that Lal is anti-Subrahmanyam and that Subrahmanyam is anti-Lal? I think not.  But let us move to the central texts of this essay for a clearer picture.

In “Europe and the People without Historiography,” Subrahmanyam enumerates four constructs of postcolonial studies that he disagrees with.[2]  For this paper, I will restrict my discussion to constructs one and three.  The first postcolonial construct that Subrahmanyam disagrees with is “The celebration of myth, and the characterization of history and historical consciousness as a negative attribute of modernity, one that is moreover probably responsible for many of the ills that beset contemporary societies the world over.”[3]  From this, we can be quite certain that Subrahmanyam would disagree with Lal when he writes, “the abandonment of history may well be the only heresy that remains to us, for that defiance is nothing other than the defiance of the categories of knowledge which have become the most effective and insidious means of oppressing humankind today” (67).  In short, whereas Lal holds history “responsible for many of the ills that best contemporary societies,” Subrahmanyam does not.

The third postcolonial studies construct Subrahmanyam disagrees with is closely related to the first:

The eager acceptance of an exotic characterization of the non-West.  Here, the desire to have the moral upper hand prompts many scholars—in the wake of such radical anti-modernists as Ashis Nandy—to invent the non-West in the mirror image of Europe.  Thus, it is claimed that non-European societies and cultures intrinsically incarnate the opposite of all aspects of European modernity.  If Europe is possessive, India must be selfless.  If Europe believes in growth, India must believe in stasis.  And so on.[4]

Lal’s argument in Chapter One of The History of History would fit in perfectly at the end of this construct: if Europe insists on the value of an historical consciousness, India must insist on the value of living in the present.  As Lal asks of Hindu India, “Is not the rejection of history as a way of knowing to be grounded in the existence of a different epistemology, indeed a different history, rather than in the quest for power, the reality of politics, and the perpetuation of deceit? Cannot the not-writing of history be a way of writing history, or perhaps more simply be a mode of living in the present…?” (40-41).  That is to say, the Hindu rejection of history is the (moral) mirror image of the European attachment to a history of power, politics, and deceit.  Therefore, it is safe to say that Lal’s “eager acceptance of an exotic characterization of the non-West” naturally places him at odds with Subrahmanyam.

In conclusion, this essay has tried to show that Vinay Lal and Sanjay Subrahmanyam have different, or rather opposing views about Indian historiography.  It was by no means comprehensive.  The analysis was not meant to provide a verdict on accuracy or preference, but to juxtapose the two author’s ideas about historiography.  In doing so, I hope that I opened the door for future discussions on the views of both intellectuals.


[1] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Our Only Colonial Thinker,” Outlook India, July 5, 2004, accessed November 4, 2013, http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?224377.  The quote refers to Nandy’s essay “A Billion Gandhis.”

[2] As this paper suggests, Subrahmanyam would define Lal as a postcolonial scholar (as he does Nandy).

[3] Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Europe and the People without Historiography; or, Reflections on a Self-Inflicted Wound,” Historically Speaking 5 (March 2004): 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

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