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Gyanendra Pandey: Refocusing the lens of history

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Oct. 5, 2012

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Gyanendra Pandey is Arts and Science Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Colonial and Postcolonial Studies Workshop. Emory Photo/Video.

As a student in India and Britain, Gyanendra Pandey became intrigued with the untold histories of marginalized social groups — an interest that would lead him to become a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Group, a collective of scholars dedicated to uncovering a more inclusive history of India and the world.

Thirty years later, their work is still going strong, with a focus on subalterns — those denied access to many of society's basic cultural, economic and political resources — as agents of social and political change in a history often obscured by conventional power structures.

Pandey came to Emory University in 2006, along with his wife, Ruby Lal, who is an associate professor of South Asian Studies.

Today, Pandey is Arts and Science Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Colonial and Postcolonial Studies Workshop. A scholar of international standing, he writes extensively on topics of marginality and citizenship, violence and history.

This fall, he has a new book due out from Cambridge University Press, "A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste and Difference in India and the United States," which juxtaposes the civil rights struggle of African Americans and that of India's Dalits, formerly known as India's "untouchables."

Pandey sat down with Emory Report to discuss his work:

You helped develop a genre of postcolonial scholarship through the Subaltern Studies Project. Did you know you were creating something that would enjoy this longevity?  

We were graduate students, or very junior assistant professors in some cases, when this project began. And it's lasted 30 years and promises to last longer. People will not let us close shop: Younger scholars in many places ask why we should take away a platform that's become so important to them.  

The project focused centrally on a question of histories that were not written, histories of the marginalized, and subordinated, of people who do not write their own histories, and of people for whom the archive is not an obvious one; political parties and states don't always document their struggles. You can take examples from everywhere: landless laborers, Native Americans, working women — people who don't have the time for writing, reading, preserving books and archives. The public discourse and archive, the discourse of state and nation, the authorized history of the human past actually erases very, very large parts of the human experience. That's where this project started.

Where did that examination take your own research?

My work related to neglected aspects of the history of Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia. I wrote on peasants and Indian nationalism, on minority communities, on the conditions and struggles of India's Muslims. I wrote about the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. I wrote on the question of violence at some length. And in the course of doing that work on marginalized groups —  their histories, their perspectives, their place in our society — I came to working on Dalits, the formerly untouchable groups, who were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, not allowed to walk the same roads, not allowed to drink from the same tanks — reminiscent of the American South not so long ago!

The Dalits formally became citizens from the moment of Indian independence and the establishment of the Indian Republic in 1950. They have the vote, like anyone else, they now have strong political parties of their own. And they are a constituency now wooed by every major political party — a little bit like Hispanics in the U.S. Yet, people of Dalit background continue to suffer from serious disabilities and widespread prejudice.

In your new book, you examine two historically oppressed social groups, African Americans and the Dalits. Why these groups?

Having moved to the U.S., and having decided to engage with the politics of both the countries I belong to, I decided to juxtapose the histories of these two subordinated, stigmatized populations. The Dalits have invoked the African American struggle repeatedly. The African Americans had invoked Gandhi many, many times. So there were interesting cross-connections. But my purpose was not to compare their histories: it was rather to put them side-by-side, to ask what their struggles and the different articulations of what these struggles mean, tell us about our societies and our conceptions of ourselves. That was the more important framework, for me, I think.

What did you discover?

There had been a great deal of writing on Dalits and blacks as victims, the oppressed and poor. So part of what I did was to look at the Dalit and the African American middle classes, groups that I found particularly interesting, for while they had "made it" economically, they have remained stigmatized. What I have discovered, in short, is how much we elide in the stories we tell of our tolerant, pluralist, democratic countries!

I also quickly saw that the conditions, context and histories of these two communities and of the two countries are extraordinarily different. What I've done in the book is look very closely at these different contexts. Also, I've looked at both public and private narratives to try and bring the complexities of these different histories to light. What I examine, on the one hand, are public narratives of the black struggle for civil rights, and of Dalits fighting for citizenship; and then I examine autobiographical accounts in both cases, especially by women, covering exactly the same period — the period of civil rights and the period of struggling for citizenship — articulating many of the same positions, but doing so very, very differently and emphasizing different things, different moments, different contradictions.

How does the book address the issue of prejudice?

In writing about these struggles and how they are represented, I came to realize that what I was doing actually was writing about a history of prejudice. Prejudice, in the sense that there are not only visible forms of oppression and discrimination at issue here, but also many that are really hardly recognized. Hence, I use prejudice in two senses, which I call "visible" and an "invisible," "vernacular" and "universal."

Visible prejudice is sometimes acknowledged, say in cases of discrimination on grounds of caste, race, of gender, of sexuality or language, or other kinds of marginality. I suggest, however, that there is an invisible prejudice underlying the visible, in fact shoring it up. This is the prejudice of modern times: our "common sense" of what it is to be civilized, educated, correct — which usually means to be "like us."

The assumptions here are commonplace and widespread and produce a staggering array of discriminatory beliefs and practices, about "women's place" or the laziness of the poor, or the meaning of being "American." One distinguished scholar tells us that Latin American immigrants to the U.S. cannot really be American, since they don't dream in English! It's extraordinary the paths into which the demand to be "modern" or "civilized" can go, and how easily each one of us can imbibe such prejudices and live by them without much questioning.

What gives you pleasure outside of your scholarship?

I love traveling, meeting people in different contexts and locations. When we travel, one of the things my wife and I love is to go to places where we can walk — simply walking in a city. On a recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai, we were a little upset that the tour operators wouldn't just let us walk. So every opportunity we got, we escaped from our tour group and wandered into areas where nobody quite knew what we were saying, and we didn't know what they were saying. Yet those were some of the most memorable parts of the trip: just attempting to talk to people who didn't share our language, communicating, trying to understand — enjoying and being grateful for the opportunity.