Amin, Sengupta, Kant conversation
Duration: 00:21:14; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 344.070; Saturation: 0.112; Lightness: 0.065; Volume: 0.143; Words per Minute: 130.369
Summary: A conversation between Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Ravi Kant and Shahid Amin about history, the archives etc.
The term that often goes with compilation of archival material is a digest of such and such, is an appropriate term, because the officials have produced the records, and also digest them. So the historian is always there well after the event. The first historiographical exercise is in some ways already done by someone. And that, in some ways, is the trouble with the archives. And that's why I try to suggest and argue that, as historians, we should both mine the archives and undermine it. We can't do without the archives, that is the big difference between historians and say, anthropologists. But we can't just get stuck in the archives.
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Yeah, I have really thought that archives were for the historians, and not for public at large, you know? History and speaking here as a bad disciple of a very good historian, as somebody who stays clear of the archives, who has tried to stay clear of the archives so far and whom the good professor of history keeps telling 'go to the archive. go to the archive!'..
Yes, there is also the.. there is trouble even for the historian. Trouble because the way the data has been collected, the document has been collected, the way it has been classified, is troublesome.
I can speak as student of history, the kind of texts, archival texts, of which we didn't have far too many. You never had a public policy of making the documents from the archive available to larger public. It is through the historians that those documents would finally be, you know, those documents had to speak through another ( ) of the historian to the people, to the writers, so to speak.
So the documents aren't available for direct perusal, or anything. So I am curious, for example, of a case, as a student we all had that. The case was of 1857, and the documents that we were supposed to read as part of our pamphlet was a collection called 'Freedom Struggle in UP'. The documents were about 1857 rebellion, spoken to the rebels.. by the rebels to various officers, spoken about them, about various rebels, telegraphic messages etcetera etcetera.
But, nationalist government which took power after independence put nationalist headlines under certain documents. So it was a weird, paradoxical kind of document. You have colonial texts, text of counter-insurgency as it were, speaking as the main body, and in the captions were nationalist.
And then, as historians, we are supposed to make sense of that, once again, if you're interested in what the peasant might have said. And then therefore deconstructing what is there in between lines.
Also the question is, of course, Ranajit Guha put it, view to it beautifully. There are various strategies that a historian can deploy. And I would Shahid to speak a bit about that. For example, Ranajit Guha suggests in both 'pros of counter-insurgency' and 'elementary aspects of peasant insurgency', what you do is basically invert the logic of the text. If the colonial master is saying this is problem, you say it is insurgency, peasant insurgency. So i would like Shahid to speak more about you know, more about his confrontations with such record, and how as a historian he has dealt with them.
I think I.. I would.. I would caution everybody against getting too.. too taken in by captions that.. so that if you look at a series of documents either published.. [..]keen sense in terms of the questions you ask of the material that is there rather than saying well, this is a description of action X which really doesn't really fit into the nationalist, you know, scheme of things and look, in 1957 they called it freedom struggle.
Yes, they called it, that's part of the way you write that event. But, I.. I.. I don't think that really bars your.. your access to it. In fact, your.. the way you access it takes into account the way other.. you know, it has been framed before. So that, you know, I want to really, you know, begin by saying that we shouldn't get too held up about what are the.. the name-tags or the brand-tags being.. being put because even if they were appropriate ones, in such sense there can't be any appropriate headings to historical narratives which have been produced by.. by.. by.. by officials, or even by peasants because when I write as a historian I am not the peasant I write about. So even if you had perfectly proper, you know, signposting of what the next para is, from the point of view of the person who is acting it's not necessary that that would become, you know, the organizing, you know, rubric for my story of what that person is doing. So.. so that's.. that's the first thing I.. I would like to, you know, stress..
Shahid Amin talks of how a historian needn't be constrained by signposting, as such posting isn't possible in historical narratives.
Shahid Amin talks of how one shouldn't blindly invert official accounts to get to the point of view of the peasant, and that that view itself would have been influenced by the official record when the event was occurring.
The.. I.. the other thing is that it all depends on what is being described, narrated, analyzed, and what you want to do with it as a historian. If you want to analyze.. produce an analysis of how things have been analyzed, then you will look at those documents in a particular way. If you want to write a story which, in a manner of speaking, extends that famous statement of Marx, in Eighteenth Brumaire, second paragraph, I think, 'men make their own histories, but not as they please'.
If you want to extend that and say that, as I tried to do in one of my books, peasants make their own memories but not as they please, which means that you have to then analyze the subordinated condition of the peasantry as being one which is impacted upon by official pronouncements on the peasant conditions, so that the peasants' idea of themselves is not completely different from what the official statements are, but is at an angle, to it, right, so that.. and this definitely happens with.. with judicial pronouncements and so on and so forth.
So that, when I look at the records of this.. infamous rio.. peasant riot , there is huge amount of documentation in the judicial archive. I thought that when I go and talk to peasants who are now alive whom I call 'the relatives of the rioters' because that's how they're.. they're known as, I expected them to tell me something which was completely different from what was in the court records, but that was being completely unrealistic, because the court construction of the crimes of their relatives was a matter of life and death to them, so that their memories, if they were peasant memories could not be one that had no bearing whatsoever with the way a particular event had been presented in.. in.. in the trial, and then punishments conducted.
So that.. in all.. it's only in certain situations and contexts can you say, go back to that, you know, Ranajit Guha is really borrowing from Mao's Hunan report, where, you know, if it's terrible it's is fine, you just invert them.. you can do it in some cases, but that can't be you know.. you know.. a mantra, which you just, you know it's not like the high caste Gayatri Mantra that you would begin invoking every time you read a document.
I'm glad you brought up the question of the court record, because what's very fascinating in your writing on the approver, Mir Shikari Mir in the Chowri Chowra incident, is the way in which different figures of speech, and you called them figures of speech yet constructed, the figure of the reticent rebel who doesn't always say, or doesn't speak to implicate himself in the crime that he is accused of, and the figure of the voluble approver, and the.. there is a way in which you suggest that the reticent rebel, the voluble approver and the.. and the.. those who make confessional statements, and yet face the hangman's noose, are all sort of intersections between various kinds of readings of the same situations and speech acts about the same situation.
Now, as a historian you're obviously dealing with many gaps in the record. There's as much information as there is the absence of information about something, and yet these figures of speech seem to be congealing and appearing before us as, you know, they.. they take their place in the witness stand, and they say what they have to say.
How is it then, that we approximate to some kind of provisional understanding of.. the truth of a matter. Not in a forensic sense, but to be able to sort of understand what actually motivates people to attack a police out-post, or what motivated a thousand people a few days ago to go and open the gates of a prison in Jehanabad?
What it.. what actually transpires.. and we'r.. and I'm taking this to say not the knowing tendency that we had discussed earlier in the morning, but the understanding tendency, so that we are able to in a sense comprehend and live our own act.. live our own lives in some senses. I don't know if I'm making sense..
Shuddha asks about the various figures of speech and the understanding tendency.
Let me fill you up and.. and others on what I tried to do in this particular essay that I wrote nearly twenty years ago. Not everybody would be familiar with.. an approver in America is called prosecution.. wit.. witness for the prosecution. In the.. In.. Colo.. in the British jurisprudence the figure is an approver, which is somebody who literally sings for his life. And his life is conditional upon his singing well.
And defending the way he has sung when the defence tries to break the particular way in which he has recounted a crime in which he is complicit with others. And.. and going back to Shuddha.. what you said in the morning, the.. the figure of the approver and.. and Lawrence would.. would bare me out, is.. does not really actually find exact reference in the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. The notion.. the word is an accomplice, and then there are certain, you know, ways in which you deal with accomplice, and the figure of the approver, the character of the approver, actually paid approver who were paid per DM (?) as they went from one scene of crime to another was crafted during the major campaign against the Thugs in the 1830s.
So we can extend what you had to say about the.. the periphery and the centre to the periphery and the centre within a colony like India, something that was crafted to come to know about these peculiarly Indian murderous communities which are.. which were called Thugs is then extended to.. to help the.. much more angle.. no.. normal working of the Indian judicial system. And to the extent that you.. in every major case you.. the.. the approver is very important. So I just wanted to signpost that.
Shahid Amin talks of the concept of an approver in British jurisprudence or witness for the prosecution in American jurisprudence, and it's cropping up during the campaign against the Thugs in the 1830s.
Shahid Amin talks of whether an utterance in a court recording is actually true, and what kind of testimony qualifies as being approver material and save that person from hanging.
There are two.. bits of your question.
One.. I took to.. suggesting that perhaps a.. a historian, or a historian like me, is overdoing.. what is the guarantee that the textual neatness that one is able to tease out from voluminous set of utterances in court, is not just f.. is.. is.. is true in a more than formal sense, right?
That I.. I.. I actually by looking very closely at long statements by the chief approver and potential approvers who are not thought good enough and they are therefore hanged for their crimes, I tried to suggest a structure by which you can recognize a clearly approver kind of testimony, which is that every time the approver recounts a micro-sequence leading to a crime, he must also identify.
So that you know you get sentences which you normally won't utter if you are recounting something in a normal event and not singing for your life. Is that.. and then we went and threw.. then we went and threw stones. And of course, I was there and X was there and Y was there and Z was the.. then we did this, and he was there, so that there is this formal structure to that, but you know I.. I.. in terms of my own work, I.. that's a discovery that one makes after one tries to look very closely at the actual histories of individuals who are either picked up as approver or rejected as approver.
So that actually there are people somebody in a certain sense the.. I as a historian am trying to understand the working of the attorneys to see.. well, this person has now said the kind of things which are admissible in court. So it's not that.. that I just look at a text and say, well, this looks good enough. And let me see whether the police also thought that. So it's the other way around. But that's only half the point that you are making..
Shahid Amin talks of reflexive methodology and finding out what the judge was thinking of when he wrote what he wrote, which survives today as an account of past violence.
You're also suggesting that, alright, we.. whenever we are interested in.. in especially mass events often of violence, for which evidence comes to us not in terms of a long prehistory and planning, which has been meticulously left behind, but in terms of the after effects of that which are basically app.. you know, attempts by the state to.. to collect information and punish, how can we, on the basis of this kind of documentation, one, and secondly, the kind of enforced utterances, or.. or.. or.. or self-preserving silences, try and build up a picture of the thoughts and feelings and aspirations of people in whose lives rather than judicial procedures we are really interested in, right? That's.. that's the question that you.. you.. you.. you're asking.
And I think why I.. I.. I spent a good deal of time trying to make sense of the judicial archive, I was absolutely enthralled by the discovery, that you know, five thousand pages of documentation on a riot which took place in 1922 at all existed, and.. and then the disappointment that people were not really speaking to me, they were really speaking to the judge.
So I.. I.. why I paid so much attention to the way you know utterances are you know are validated or.. or made in.. in.. in the courtroom was because I was trying to consciously distance myself from the normal positivist way in which historians approached especially judicial statements, or judgments.
Because the judge in fact, you know the idea is that the judge was obviously there before us, and he saw everybody, he also noted in the margin paralinguistic signs made by these people, and the judge's.. judge's judgment is, you know, within rules which everybody knows, a very well-balanced historiographical exercise.
And.. and.. so that.. historians then who.. who.. who looked at judicial records had a tendency to write sentences like this, 'on this it is best to quote the judge'. And I, you know, tongue in cheek said, you know, in order not to write like the judge, you must find out how the judge wrote. So that you know.. the.. you know, im.. impetus to really, you know, rummage through the, not only rummage through the archives, the judicial archives, but really, to turn it upside down, was that I wanted, in terms of my particular interest in one particular event, really try and find out what are the rules through which statements by peasants that I'm interested in are made, or are not made.
Which doesn't then mean that my, or any historian's understanding, of an event which gets talked about and punished in the courtroom must, for all practical purposes, begin and end with the court records.
And and.. and.. and.. and therefore, you know, once you have the court records, and if other conditions are favourable, that is to say that you can actually go to the locality if it's a recent event, that you can talk to wives, who normally outlive husbands in such context, or.. or.. or sons and daughters or if it's an old event you can try and work through the stories that people in the locality work.. you know the self-sufficiency of the judicial archives is punctured precisely by first marching into it, mastering it, and then going outside it.
In fact I.. I say in that book that you know it's the business of the archi.. of the historian disappointed in one archive to create another. That is I think a.. a.. a statement which allows for greater self-res.. reflexity, greater critical understanding of the materials of historians than we have normally, you know, allowed for in the trade in the past thirty years.
Self-reflexivity of the historian.