Master of Centuries

The irascible brilliance of Sanjay Subrahmanyam

01 July 2013

ABOUT A DECADE AGO, the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam launched a blistering polemic against Ashis Nandy, the celebrated and contrarian social theorist. Nandy had published a short essay in the magazine Outlook, responding to an earlier article by the veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar wherein the latter had criticised Nandy’s views on secularism in India. “The concept of secularism,” Nandy wrote, “emerged in a Europe torn by inter-religious strife, warfare and pogroms, when the resources for tolerance within traditions were depleted and looked exhausted.” This was not the case in India. Communal riots in India were mostly confined to the cities; Indian villages had their own ideas of tolerance going back centuries. The notion of secularism, by contrast, was a European import into India—an idea that was not only alien but unnecessary. If India had to look to Europe, he argued, why not “borrow the concept of convivencia from Medieval Islamic Spain, arguably the only truly plural polity Europe has produced?”

There was nothing new in Nandy’s piece. His views on secularism were well known and his exchange with Nayar echoed the arguments he had made over the previous decade. So, the timing and ferocity of Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s essay was a bit surprising. A historian of the early modern world, Subrahmanyam had edited (with Kaushik Basu) a collection of essays, Unravelling the Nation: Sectarian Conflict and India’s Secular Identity (1996). But he was not particularly prominent in the popular press and public debates in India. Reprinting his riposte to Nandy in this new collection of essays, Subrahmanyam concedes in the book’s introduction that it stemmed from a combination of intellectual and personal irritation at Nandy’s scholarship and style. Be that as it may, the piece is worth reading again, if only for its polemical style, with just the right dose of indignation and exaggeration.

Thus, Subrahmanyam dispatches Nandy as “tiresomely repetitive and profoundly ill-informed. And he is as innocent of the facts about India and her past as he is of Europe and hers. Armed with this blissful innocence, he can then brilliantly develop paradox after paradox. That none of his facts has any basis in reality has rarely fazed him.” He then proceeds to obliterate Nandy’s claims about secularism being a European idea and medieval Spain as a golden age of tolerance. Secularism, Subrahmanyam insists, has a purchase on Indian politics that it never had in Europe. And the term has acquired layers of meaning and significance in India that many Europeans would struggle to comprehend.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Keywords: nationalism British Empire VS Naipaul secularism academia Indian history Historiography Sanjay Subrahmanyam