Escalation: Micro-global Histories of Political Violence 

AHA Session 295
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 9
Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
Aparna Vaidik, Ashoka University
Elizabeth Kolsky, Villanova University

Session Abstract

In recent decades macrohistorical (global/world/big/deep) narratives have gained wide institutional and public appeal as the dominant form of historical thinking and exposition.  This trend in many ways subverts, invalidates and challenges microhistorical enquiries that take an intense, microscopic view of human thought and action.  Still, while it would appear that historians are drawn to the grandeur, clarity, and scope of macrohistorical synthesis, many find immense value in the unpredictable empirical trajectories of microhistorical investigation.  Recognizing the virtues of these contradictory approaches to the past, and the "return to the real" that they both seem to embody, the present panel explores a methodological symbiosis that probes the scalar linkages connecting the microscopically local to the macroscopically global.  We provisionally call this symbiosis “micro-global”. 
The papers in this panel take up the micro-global challenge in the context of political violence in the "long modern" of South Asian history, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. The panel focuses not on the enactment of violence but its witnessing—its many spectacles and the meaning it acquires in its aftermath. For instance, the political imagination of early twentieth-century Hindustan Socialist Republican Army revolutionaries, explored in Vaidik’s paper, placed a premium on the spectacle of armed resistance—including, most visibly, political assassination—as “propaganda by deed.”  Alum Bheg, a Company sepoy at the heart of Wagner’s paper, was doubly subject to spectacle:  “blown" from the mouth of a cannon in 1858, Bheg (or his skull) became a war trophy destined for display in England.  Similarly, the spectacle of Mughal, Maratha, Rajput, and British beheadings, examined by Pinch, expressed incontestable sovereignty even as the accounts that portrayed that spectacle acknowledged sovereignty’s increasingly fragile, fleeting quality. By focusing on the performative dimension of political violence, the panel explores how people involved in and witnessing the violence construe its meaning. It asks: What forms of power did these acts of violence sustain, reproduce, and challenge? What are the linguistic, aesthetic, and material forms in which people encoded, narrated and represented their experience of violence?

As forays into micro-global history, each paper foregrounds multiple spatio-temporal scales. Indeed, though the spectacles of violence examined here have roots in north India, the violence quickly, indeed instantaneously, rippled outward in time and space:  to fix them simply in terms of their originating moments of violence or final reverberations is to miss their interstitial meanings.  Where is sovereignty established?  In the moment of battlefield decapitation, or in its commemoration in chronicle, memoir, painting, or verse?  When does Alum Bheg’s story begin?  In the twentieth century, with the discovery of his skull in Kent in 1963; in the nineteenth century, with his execution in Sialkot (Punjab) in 1858; or in his rebellion, a year earlier?  How do we date the political imaginary of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army?  To the 1920s, as its adherents crafted its revolutionary logic in towns and cities across northern India, or to the nineteenth-century Bengali and Russian literature from which it drew inspiration and sustenance?

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