Rethinking Political Economy and Nationalism in South Asia: Alternative Histories and Methodological Possibilities

AHA Session 117
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
David P. Gilmartin, North Carolina State University

Session Abstract

Rethinking Political Economy and Nationalism in South Asia: Alternative Histories and Methodological Possibilities

The frameworks of political economy and nationalism have for long provided enduring platforms for historical inquiries on modern South Asia. This panel seeks to highlight the limits and possibilities of these approaches by focusing on work that both draw on and transcend its methodological boundaries. New readings of constitutionalism, family, labor, and disease by the four panelists suggest alternate theoretical and empirical models and the need to rethink the field anew.

Arvind Elangovan’s paper demonstrates the limits of examining the history of the Indian Constitution within a unitary nationalist framework. It argues that that the idea of Pakistan (and its later geopolitical birth as an independent nation) always already present in the framing of Indian constitutionalism challenges its history as a seamless, singular project of federalism and secularism. Elangovan’s paper thus calls for a non-national approach in historical analyses of the Indian Constitution. Asiya Alam explores the nature of transition of gender norms amongst Urdu-speaking Muslims by interrogating debates on marital consent, parental authority and gender segregation in Urdu women's magazines in early twentieth century. By investigating these debates, the paper highlights conversations that could not be appropriated by the Indian nationalist discourse as well as the Pakistan movement and illustrates the limits of the paradigm of nationalism to think about the women's movement in colonial India. Ananya Dasgupta re-examines the history of peasant indebtedness in Muslim Bengal in the early twentieth century as a multifaceted extra-economic phenomena. By looking at multiple, embodied, and lived understandings of “credit,” “debt,” and “value” among Bengali Muslims, this paper examines how increased participation of agrarian labor in official party politics was rooted in socio-culturally situated understandings of debt and credit, rather than economic precarity alone. Arnab Dey looks at the history of labor health in the tea estates of Assam beyond medical theories of bodily disorder. Revisiting the material reality of these plantations—conditions of hygiene, contamination, faulty statistics, labor laws, and regimes of fitness—this paper suggests that available debates on public health, or the miasmatic or germ theories of disease have failed to historicize these multiple factors in the causation and regulation of actual and notional labor mortality and morbidity in eastern India. 

Overall, this panel aims to push epistemological limits—of national legal-constitutional history by an analysis of the political and the multi-national, of the history of the family as suspended from national and state imaginaries, of political economic history by an examination of socio-cultural specificity on the one hand and by revisiting the material conditions of production on the other. Drawing on diverse perspectives from political history, as well as social histories of families, peasant and plantation studies of South Asia, this panel shows that a methodological reorientation of these questions also makes for greater intra-disciplinary conversation and richer historical exegesis.

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