Of Undivided Commitment

A Tribute To Papiya Ghosh (1953 – 2006)
By Kumkum Sangari In Biblio, January-February, 2007.

By Kumkum Sangari In Biblio, January-February, 2007.

Papiya Ghosh was killed with heinous brutality on 2 December 2006. Her demise has left her family, friends and colleagues grieved, shocked, filled with a sense of irreparable loss. Papiya Ghosh’s contribution as a historian of Bihar and as a historian of Indian nationalism and communalism is yet to be fully recognised, the more so because of her immense personal modesty and rectitude. The full import of her work will unfold in time (two of her books are still to be published), and here I only outline the range and uniqueness of her work.

Papiya’s writing has none of the parochialness associated with regional history but has the depth, immersion, and inwardness which characterise the best of regional historiography. Her work moves both outwards from and inwards to Bihar: it uncovers the articulation of nationalist struggles with the political history of Bihar as well as the regional recasting of nationalist politics, Nehruvian notions of secularism, and ideas of composite culture in the making of nation, community, quam and biradari. This history is regional but never isolated. The region has it own dynamic, class and caste specificity, and is also shaped by wider nationalist and communal configurations. Bihar is seen, as it were, from both ends as well as from a ‘middle space’ composed by the interactions of the regional and national. Thus the varied attitudes towards the Muslim League are examined in the interlock of broad imperatives, local tensions and the different class locations of muslims. Her most recent essay, writing Gngajamni: In the 1940s and After” (published as a tribute to her in Social Scientist last month) shows her remarkable ability to canvas broad political movements and elaborate the minutaie of local sentiments. She analyses syncretism/composite culture, as a formation opposed to Hinduisation and Islamicisation, in the multiple contexts of its regional and historical composition, its lived aspects, as well as its post-Independence trajectory as an ‘idea’. The essay traces the differing understandings of syncretic/composite culture in the 1940s in the writing of Congress figures like Rajendra Prasad and Syed Mahmud, and Muslim League figures, especially Badruddin Ahmed, and shows how these ideas came to be re-nuanced by Badruddin Ahmed after Partition not only because he joined the Congress but also to re-inscribe national belonging.

Papiya’s work on the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League tracks their tendentious use of women as community signifiers. In the 1920s and ’30s, the Hindu Mahasabha’s communal discourse, centred around shuddhi, specifically targetted Muslim women. This involved aggressive distortions in its incendiary publications and the forcible abduction of low-caste women for ‘reconversion’. Both forms of violence flowed into pre-Partition violence in the ’40s. She also shows how the Hindu Right’s construction of a ‘dangerous’ Muslim masculinity varied according to the class location of Muslims.

Partition as a political event was divisive. In her teaching and writing, Papiya emphasised the need to study it in an ‘undivided’ way, to look at its qualitative and affective aspects across countries and continents. She did major work on Partition and Bihar, Muslims who migrated, those who became refugees, those who were stranded or occupied in-between places, the wrenches of migration and the hardening of ideologies, and the futures that were sought but never achieved. She shows how Partition created fissures in the patriarchal politics of ‘community.’ Further, her work on Bihari (Indian and Pakistani) migrants in the UK and USA connects Partition to the enlargement of the South Asian diaspora, and calls into question the very idea of the nation and belonging after 1947. The field she shaped thus took in Bihar, India, the subcontinent and its diaspora.

Several aspects of Papiya’s work engage with Gender and Cultural Studies. Among these are the centrality of representation as a material force in the historical dialectic: the way representations of women, masculinity, Muslims and low-castes textured or even structured political movements; the way stereotypes of the disprivileged were made and their significance in assembling a history from ‘below’. Her intense interest in archived and orally circulating notions of the past goes beyond the closures of conventional periodisation (she often asked if modern Indian history stopped at 1947), and sees them as a palpable force in the lives of contemporary Backward and Dalit Muslims as well as Bihari diaspora. She set out to understand the embodied relationships of class, caste, religion, gender and reconfigured patriarchies, and in the past few years had begun to work on the circulation of Popular Culture such as Sufi compositions, Bhojpuri cinema and songs. Her work incorporates Gender and Cultural Studies but not in a superficial way. Her scholarship partakes of a profound inter-disciplinarity but remains based on meticulous archival research and sensitively interpreted interviews. It is the work of a historian with a vision accompanied with immense integrity, rigour, a grasp of complex social processes, an incisive insight and political commitment.

One of Papiya’s most important contributions was the nurturing of young historians (students, younger friends) both inside and outside the classroom. The generosity of her giving, the gifts of personal friendship, and a rich corpus of work are what she has left us with.

Papiya Ghosh did her Ph.D. from Delhi University on the civil disobedience movement in Bihar. She was Professor of History at Patna University and held several distinguished fellowships. She was ICCHR fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; Rockefeller fellow, Institute of South Asian Culture, University of Chicago; fellow, Institute of Triangle South Asian Consortium, North Carolina State University; Visiting Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was also Advisor to the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna. She had published widely in anthologies and journals including Indian Economic and Social History Review, Indian Historical Review, Journal of Historical Studies, Social Scientist and Refugee Watch. Her most recent publication is Partition and South Asian Diaspora: extending the subcontinent (New Delhi: Taylor and Francis, 2006).

The Centre for Studies in Social Sciences has started the Papiya Ghosh Memorial Fund (donations can be sent to R-l Baishabghat-Patuli Township, Kolkata-700094). Several other institutions are planning activities and awards to honour Papiya Ghosh and keep her memory alive: the school, college and university in Patna where she had taught; Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi; and Oxford University, UK.