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The Historian and 'His' Others: A Response to Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha's positive reading of the mid-1950s legislation that made up the Hindu Code is a simple, feel-good, nationalist telling that is trite, conventional and utterly misleading. A significant body of research has argued that the "reformed" Hindu Code was not only very far from offering equal rights to women, it in fact took away many existing, more liberal customary provisions available to women of different communities and castes. Guha also offers a stereotypical division of the social sciences into History, Sociology, Political Science, etc. A number of scholars - the feminists being the first - have breached the disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences that were established in the 19th century. This is the first of three comments on Guha's article, 'The Challenge of Contemporary History' (June 28, 2008).

DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200873The Historian and ‘His’ Others: A Response to Ramachandra GuhaNivedita MenonNivedita Menon (nivmen@gmail.com) teaches Political Thought at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Ramachandra Guha’s positive reading of the mid-1950s legislation that made up the Hindu Code is a simple, feel-good, nationalist telling that is trite, conventional and utterly misleading. A significant body of research has argued that the “reformed” Hindu Code was not only very far from offering equal rights to women, it in fact took away many existing, more liberal customary provisions available to women of different communities and castes. Guha also offers a stereotypical division of the social sciences into History, Sociology, Political Science, etc. A number of scholars – the feminists being the first – have breached the disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences that were established in the 19th century. This is the first of three comments on Guha’s article, ‘The Challenge of Contemporary History’ (June 28, 2008).In an endnote to Ramachandra Guha’s recent piece, ‘The Challenge of Con-temporary History’ (EPW, June 28, 2008), he explains why he continues to use “the conventional ‘he’ to denote ‘he or she’”. This should not be taken as a mani-festation of male bias, he insists. “It’s just that I find the alternatives – s/he or he/she – clumsy and cumbersome” (200).From a scholar who swears by imparti-ality, here is an impeccably impartial explanation as to why he continues to use language that excludes – he simply finds it more graceful, by objective aesthetic standards set by himself. He does not consider other alternatives such as the now conventional use of “she” and “he” alternatively as general pronouns, or even simpler, the use of “historians” in the plural, with “they” as the pronoun. His unbiased aesthetic sensibility is very finely tuned. Only “he” will do.I am irresistibly reminded of Guha’s ear-lier attack on Arundhati Roy, in which, com-paring her to her detriment with two other activist-novelists, George Orwell and Shiv-aram Karanth, he explained the difference between them: “Arundhati Roy might very well equal Orwell and Karanth in her brav-ery. But she lacks their intellectual probity and judgment. Those men wrote with a proper sense of gravitas, in a prose that was lucid but understated, each word weighed before it was uttered” [Guha 2000]. It is no meaningless trifle that Guha refers to Orwell and Karanth as “men” writing with gravitas – not as “authors” or “people” writing with gravitas. Not even simply, “they wrote with gravitas”. No, they were men writing with gravitas. Men write with gravitas, women (Roy) with “conspic-uous lack of proportion” [Guha 2000]. Women can only ever be left with gravitas envy.Being not only a woman and a feminist, but a political scientist, I am deeply aware of Guha’s generosity in excusing the “ignorance” of the last category, an igno-rance that leads us to make “elementary errors” [Guha 2008: 195]. I am relieved to learn that though “shocking”, this ignorance is not our responsibility, but that of histori-ans. Guha’s stern admonition is reserved for proper historians, because by “turning their backs on the formative decades of Indian independence”, they have “allowed the events and happenings of those decades to be distorted and misrepresented according to the whims and fancies of the individual (or scholar) concerned” (ibid: 195).Hindu Code and WomenThe reference here is to the reforms brought about by the Hindu Code, which Guha hails as “a substantial departure from (and improvement on) tradition and orthodoxy, allowing Hindu women, for the first time, to choose their marriage partners, to marry outside their caste, and to divorce (the reforms also substantially enhanced a woman’s right to her husband or father’s property)”.One distortion of this narrative of the changes brought about by the Hindu Code is a newspaper article in which “a political scientist at Delhi University” (revealed in the endnote to be myself) claimed that “the Hindu code bills…did not reform Hindu personal laws but merely codified them, that is, brought them into conform-ity with what was assumed to be the ‘Indian’ norm – north Indian, upper caste practices”. This claim is false, says Guha calmly, and proceeds to disprove my assertion with a simple fact: “The modern-isation of Hindu personal laws was orches-trated by B R Ambedkar, who was admit-tedly male, but not north Indian, and certainly not upper caste” (ibid: 195).Ambedkar’s caste and regional identi-ties were, of course, unknown to me. But that is not my fault, as Guha concedes. Now that this ignorance has been rectified by a trained historian’s intervention, will not I (and many other feminist scholars), need to give up our cussed insistence that the Hindu Code bills were largely retrogressive? Now that we know who “orchestrated” the process, will we not have to modulate our shrill cry that by
DISCUSSIONOctober 4, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly74enshrining solely upper caste north Indian practices as “Hindu”, the new Acts took away from large numbers of women many rights they had previous to their passing?Perhaps not. Since feminist scholars rank even lower in Ram Guha’s hierarchy than political scientists, we have nothing to lose as far as Guha is concerned. So why not point out a few facts to begin with? For instance, the fact that Ambedkar himself was so angry and disappointed with Congress patriarchs’ opposition to the reforms he proposed, and to the slow and contentious progress of the bills, that he resigned in October 1951 from the union cabinet. Guha narrates this well known story in his book India after Gandhi [Guha 2007: 234-5], but the implication of this escapes him – that Ambedkar’s vision is not in fact reflected in the four separate Acts finally passed in 1955-56.Law, as we often patiently explain to undergraduate students, cannot be read off as authored by an individual, even if that individual has personally drafted the legislation. Ultimately, what gets embod-ied as the law in a democracy grows out of a range of factors – sociocultural and eco-nomic structures and processes, political struggles, institutions and their practices and the socio-economic character of the legislative body. A piece of legislation can no more be the result of one individual’s personal views than the policies of a government can be said to be framed by the one individual who leads it. Elementary LessonsBefore launching his project on contempo-rary history, Guha might benefit from a few elementary classes in political science. The debates in Parliament over the passing of the Hindu Code bills reveal the deeply patriarchal and parochial views of the majority of the elected representatives of the Indian people, most of whom were in fact upper caste and north Indian men [Kishwar 1994; Sinha 2007]. But this just happens to be so in this case. It would be equally mistaken to read off the character of legislation from the empirical class/caste/gender composition of a legislative body. It is entirely conceivable that exactly such a body could pass pro-dalit or pro-women legislation, and the serious histo-rian of the contemporary would have to engage with this seeming paradox by exploring the larger and underlying factors and circumstances that made this possible.This is where we move beyond “facts”. As the historian E H Carr said in his little bookWhat Is History: “Facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being determined, of course, by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants” [Carr: 1961: 23].Guha might not like the fish feminists have to offer, but the distaste is mutual. More importantly, at least we recognise that disagreement and debate in history-writing cannot simply be attributed to “ignorance” of facts, but must be recog-nised as arising from competing interpre-tations of the significance of those facts.To illustrate, take Guha’s assertion (as “an impartial historian”, not the “partisan claim of a citizen”), that India is the “most interesting country in the world”. Its “interestingness”, says Guha, lies in its large-ness of size and population, its “astonish-ing” diversity and the fact that it is under-going “four transformations” [Guha 2008: 193]. That the measure of “interesting-ness” is indeed in the indicators he offers, is no incontestable or impartial fact. It is in fact a subjective judgment in itself. For instance, an equally persuasive argument could be made that in today’s globalising world, a small, entirely homogeneous and utterly static country is the most truly unusual and therefore, the most interest-ing. This is not just a flippant comment, it is a contestation of Guha’s assumption that an “impartial” history can be written, and equally, of his claim that he has written it.Wrong ReadingGuha’s story of the Hindu Code bills is a simple, feel-good, nationalist telling that is trite, conventional and utterly mislead-ing. We have heard this story often, and we reject it. There is a significant body of feminist research into the Uniform Civil Code debate, including close readings of the debates in Parliament during the pass-ing of the four Acts that constitute Hindu personal law today. I will offer only a quick summary here of work in this area along with some references so that Guha can start reading.First of all, who are “Hindu” women? The assumption that there ever existed a homogeneous Hindu community is the very first problem. Under the label of “Hindu” came a large number of heteroge-neous communities living in the land-mass called India, with diverse practices – there were communities with matrilineal inheri-tance practices; there were communities in which women had the rights to divorce, remarriage and widow marriage; there were innumerable forms of the marriage ceremony. Feminists argue that one of the goals of the Hindu Code bills was in fact to bring about uniformity among these prac-tices as a national integration measure, rather than to give women any rights [Par-asher 1992]. That bringing about uniform-ity as such is a progressive measure, is a deeply problematic assumption. Madhu Kishwar shows how the Hindu Women’s Right to Property Act passed under British rule in 1937, while it established Hindu widows’ rights to husband’s property, be-cause it applied uniformly to all communi-ties classified as “Hindu”, took away from Jain widows the much better provisions that they had under customary law. The “reformed” law thus worked to their detri-ment [Kishwar 1994: 2151].In this field of heterogeneous practices, the Hindu Marriage Act set up norms for the dissolution of marriage that were more stringent than those practised by many communities and castes. While in its final form the Act permitted communities to retain their customary forms of divorce, customs as defined by the Act had to meet the test of not being “immoral” or “opposed to public policy”. Whether they met these criteria depended on how judges ruled when a case came to them. Thus, on later occasions, a caste custom which permitted a woman to leave her husband and remarry without his consent was adjudged void for immorality, and another which permitted the dissolution of a marriage by either spouse on payment of a sum of money fixed by the caste was adjudged void as being op-posed to public policy [Kishwar 1994: 2151]. In this way the Hindu Marriage Act, even when it permitted customary law some
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW October 4, 200875leeway, kept it tightly within the bounds of middle class and upper caste morality. The Act also established ‘saptapadi’ (a brahminical marriage ceremony) as the norm, thus delegitimating other forms of marriage that were (and continue to be) widely prevalent. The effect has been that despite the fact that bigamy is out-lawed, a second marriage is impossible to prove in court, if the bigamous man has fol-lowed some other form of customary mar-riage, thus freeing him from responsibilities to both women involved [Agnes 1999].The Hindu Succession Act (HSA) nulli-fied the better position of daughters under matrilineal laws, making sons equal inheritors. Originally matrilineal communi-ties had been exempted from the purview of the Hindu Code, but the select commit-tee headed by Ambedkar, against his judg-ment, removed the exemption.1 While em-powering men under matriliny, the HSA re-fused women from non-matrilineal com-munites (the vast majority), rights to co-parcenary property (a situation rectified only as late as 2005). At the same time, the safeguards for women that existed in the traditional coparcenary system were done away with. The main feature of the tradi-tional Hindu joint family had been its inal-ienability. But the English concept of aliena-tion through testamentary succession was incorporated, while the protection granted to family members under English law was not. In the face of this new right given by the HSA to male members, to will away their share of the property, daughters’ rights to be maintained from the family property became illusory [Agnes 1999: 82].Even the legal right that daughters acquired through the HSA to a share of fathers’ self-earned income, was nullified by the new testatory rights that fathers simultaneously acquired, to write wills disinheriting them. Further, a distinction was made between the heirs of the father and those of the mother of a female, plac-ing the heirs of the mother in an inferior category. Interestingly, Flavia Agnes points out that during the parliamentary debate, these very features disempowering daughters were specifically cited as the positive aspects of the new law, in order to persuade members opposing women’s property rights, that the new provisions could be circumvented [Agnes 1999: 82]! It is worth noting here that the original provisions on succession framed by the B N Rau Committee had suggested replac-ing the mitakshara coparcenary altogether, with all its male-centric and patriarchal pro-visions [Sinha 2007: 51-52]. By the time the bill was passed, as we see, it looked entirely different. Given all of this, it is astonishing that Guha should claim Ambedkar’s legiti-macy in defending the Hindu Code as a glo-rious advance for women’s rights.This process of rendering uniform, a multiplicity of practices, was often justified by the claim that this was a step towards a uniform civil code for all communities. However, among the four Acts passed was the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956), which was a step awayfrom secu-lar laws applying to all communities. It took Hindus out of the purview of the existing Guardians and Wards Act of 1890 that had hitherto applied to all communi-ties. What this new law accomplished, was that it established an aspect of “Hindu Shastras” – “father as natural guardian” – as the law of the land for Hindus, while under the earlier law, court-appointed guardianship would supercede the “Shas-tric” idea of “father as natural guardian” [Sinha 2007: 52]. Court-appointed guardi-anship had tended to retain de facto guard-ians – in most cases, mothers [Kishwar 1994: 2152]. Thus, this new law both rein-forced “Shastras” for Hindus over secular law, and disempowered Hindu mothers – in what way was this a “reform”?2Invariably, practices that differed from the upper caste north Indian norm were ei-ther not considered at all or rejected, while enshrining only one kind of practice as truly Hindu and Indian. For instance, Madhu Kishwar quotes the following exchange in Parliament during the debate: To Mukut Behari Lal’s assertion that no Hindu parent would want to inherit a daugh-ter’s property in the event of her death (an argument against property rights for daugh-ters), L Krishnaswami Bharathi asked, “Why not, why not, what’s the harm?”Bhargava – Perhaps my honourable friend comes not from India but from some outside country.Bharathi – I come from south of IndiaBhargava – In India no father or mother will ever think of receiving anything from the daughter.Bharathi – That may be so in the Punjab.Bhargava – It is so in the whole of northern India…Therefore the entire fabric of the rules of devolution is based on anti-Hindu ideals [Kishwar 1994: 2155].Another instance of such disregard for the south is visible in S P Mookerji’s com-ment, speaking against making divorce less complicated: Somebody said…that South India was spe-cially progressive and many of the laws we are considering are already in existence there today. I say, good luck to South India. Let South India proceed from progress to progress, from divorce to divorce why force it on others who do not want it? [Kishwar 1994: 2150].The point should be clear – it is not sim-ply that the reforms “did not do enough”. That assessment would differ only in degree from Guha’s. The significant point is that the “reformed” Hindu Code not only was very far from offering equal rights to women, it in fact took away many existing, more liberal customary provi-sions available to women of different com-munities and castes. It did so by insisting on treating north Indian upper caste practices as the norm.3 Limited UnderstandingMy disagreement with Guha’s assessment of the Hindu Code is only one part of the story. I have even more serious disagree-ments with his amazingly limited under-standing of history and of other disciplines – “Historians work in the archives, socio-logists do field research, political scientists conduct surveys” (2008: 192). Initially I thought that he was setting up a simplistic stereotype to contest. But no, this is actually his understanding. He also adds disapprov-ingly that in the Indian academy, 1947 marks the end of History, and the beginning of Political Science and Sociology. But since the latter’s work consists of surveys and studies conducted synchronically, that is, “at a single point of time”, as he obligingly explains, it is necessarily more limited than the historical approach which is diachronic “or across time”. What marks the historical method as distinctive and different? Guha explains that the historian’s method is ex-emplified, unlike that of the sociologist or political scientist, by the use of newspaper reports, surveys, unpublished correspond-ence, periodical literature, posters and pamphlets and oral histories, court records, parliamentary and legislative proceedings (2008: 194).
DISCUSSIONOctober 4, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly76Surely these are sources for any scholar writing on any phenomenon whatever? Rajni Kothari, Myron Weiner, Francine Fran-kel, Susanne Rudolph and Lloyd Rudolph – political scientists all, is their body of work on contemporary India a collection of “sur-veys” conducted “synchronically”? Political scientists and sociologists have studied 19th century/early 20th century India (Sudhir Chandra, Shail Mayaram, Partha Chatter-jee, Sudipta Kaviraj), and historians, contemporary India (Ravi Vasudevan). Of course Guha’s ignorance of (deliber-ate blindness towards) feminist scholar-ship is not surprising. Feminist scholars from different disciplines have used all of these sources as a matter of course. Femi-nist methodology was among the first to breach, as a conscious political and schol-arly practice, the disciplinary borders established in the 19th century. These “narrow domestic walls” of disciplinary boundaries are not natural or sacrosanct, and in fact inhibit the production of knowledges about social practices and structures that do not obey the laws of establishment of disciplines. Patriarchal structures and practices span the economy, culture, society and politics – is it any wonder that feminists insistently bypass the border patrols of disciplinary fields? Feminist sociologists (for instance) have written about the late-19th/early 20th cen-tury India (Sharmila Rege, Amrit Srini-vasan), and feminist historians have written about contemporary India. Uma Chakra-varty moved from the Vedic dasi to the 1984 riots, Tanika Sarkar writes with equal facili-ty about 19th century Bengal and about Hindu right wing women of the late 20th century and Janaki Nair analyses contem-porary Karnataka. Feminist scholars of vari-ous disciplinary origins do contemporary history from a range of perspectives, study-ing development, environment, caste, com-munalism, masculinity, law, sexuality, social movements. I stop here only because a com-plete list would take up the rest of this re-sponse. And because most others reading this, I know, already see the names unfold-ing in a slow roll-call in their mind’s eye, like the credits after a film. So I suggest someone give Guha a reading list. (Better still, let him see the film!) It is true, as Guha says, that there are not enough biographies written in India, and that there are regions and trends not studied at all, or not studied enough. But to make this the basis of a continuous lament on the absence of “contemporary history” as such, reveals, to quote him on others, “shocking ignorance”.Competing Versions of HistoryAnd finally, to Guha’s most untenable claims about history. The task of the historian, says Guha, is different from that of the political scientist and sociologist, for unlike them, “For the historian, the incomplete or fragmen-tary nature of evidence is compensated for by the completeness of the narrative” and “Writing several decades after the event, the historian has the distance and detachment denied to the participant observer”. Far from being a “completed process”, competing versions of history are continu-ously invoked in the present. The discourse around the “reformed” Hindu Code, for in-stance, reverberates in the contemporary moment, for it is deployed continuously in the service of the Hindu right-wing demand for a uniform civil code (UCC). The claim is that while progressive Hindus have will-ingly accepted reform, the minority com-munities (especially Muslims) cling to di-verse and retrogressive laws, threatening the integrity of the nation state. Such argu-ments emerged most strongly and publicly in the course of the Shah Bano controversy, and are expressed not only by the Hindu right. The Indian judiciary, too, has ex-pressed these views often enough while pronouncing on Muslim Personal Law. In the Sarla Mudgal case (1995), for example, the judgment said, “In the Indian Republic, there was to be only one nation – the Indian nation – and no community could claim to remain a separate entity on the basis of reli-gion.” As the Women’s Action and Research Group put it, why did the judiciary raise the demand for a UCC only in the context of cases dealing with Muslim personal law and never in dealing with cases of discrimina-tion in Hindu law? [Menon 1998: 252-53]. It is in recognition of the dangers of this “national integrity” argument for a UCC that the women’s movement response has grad-ually moved away from “uniform” civil code to “gender-just” civil codes. Today, the only forces that continue to demand a “uniform civil code” are the Hindu right, and one of the most powerful weapons in their ideological arsenal is the “reformed” Hindu Code that Guha, too, extols. The most savage of political contesta-tions in India over the last decade and more, have been on the terrain of history – Babri masjid, Sethusamudram, history textbooks. No, the past is never “complete”. And because it is not, present engagement with it can never be detached. Notes1 Constituent Assembly Debates, Volume II, 1949, Part II, p 831. Cited in Kishwar 1994: 2152.2 The establishment of “shastric” injunctions as “Hindu” was in itself a deeply problematic coloni-al legal strategy, for it privileged brahminical texts (shastra) over widely varying customary practices as a source of law [Agnes 1995: 190].3 In India after Gandhi, Guha mentions one (and only one) feminist writer, Bina Agarwal. This is how he cites her – “Later, much later, feminist scholars were to argue that they [the Hindu Code bills] did not go far enough …But from the point of view of Hindu orthodoxy, the changes had already gone far enough.” (2007: 229). And here he gives us the ref-erence of a newspaper piece written by Agarwal in 2004. How does it matter that the critique hap-pened “later, much later”? Does Guha mean that at the time the bills were passed, such a critique could not be made because Hindu orthodoxy reigned su-preme? If so, how can he simultaneously claim Ambedkar’s imprimatur for the so-called reforms? Or does he mean that feminists woke up so much later that it does not matter what they think? (Of course, the newspaper piece he cites is not the first feminist critique, as my references show. It was not even Bina Agarwal’s first critique, her book A Field of Her Own having first been published in 1994. Apparently, Guha makes his assumptions about feminist scholarship from a quick look at random newspaper clippings.) But should not the fact that feminists in the 1990s have a certain critique of a 1950s event, be of deep interest to the self-appointed standard bearer of “contemporary” history? Indeed, it was in the late 1990s that feminist scholars started going back to the Hindu Code bills, precisely because that was the high point of the appropriation of the uniform civil code agenda by the Hindu right, and its continually trumpeted claim that “we Hindus” are progressive, and had reformed “our” laws to give women equal rights long ago. ReferencesAgnes, Flavia (1995):State, Gender and the Rhetoric of Law Reform, Research Centre for Women’s Stud-ies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. – (1999):Law and Gender Equality: The Politics of Women’s Rights in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi.Carr, E H (1961): What Is History?,Penguin, London.Guha, Ramachandra (2000): ‘The Arun Shourie of the Left’,The Hindu,November 26. – (2007): India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Picador, London. – (2008): ‘The Challenge of Contemporary History’, Economic & Political Weekly,June 28.Kishwar, Madhu (1994): ‘Codified Hindu Law: Myth and Reality’, Economic & Political Weekly, August 13.Menon, Nivedita (1998): ‘Women and Citizenship’ in Partha Chatterjee (ed),Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation State, Oxford University Press, Delhi.Parasher, Archana (1992): Women and Family Law Reform in India, Sage Publications, Delhi.Sinha, Chitra (2007): ‘Images of Motherhood: The Hindu Code Bill Discourse’,Economic & Political Weekly, October 27.

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