Feminist Historiography and the Political: Reflections on the Past and Future Tense

The churning that was happening in Indian historiography in the 1980s-90s came from multiple directions, including a new and reinvigorated feminist historiography. The latter’s ambition was never just to draw attention to women and gender, but what this attention did to the field as a whole: raising new questions and reframing existing ones. Looking back at several decades of feminist historiographical interventions, I believe their results have been mixed. My talk will attempt to take stock of this trajectory with special attention to histories of politics and the political. The talk will focus on two interrelated examples from the remaking of the political in the early decades of the twentieth century in India: the emergence of a discourse of individual rights against, and alongside, that of community rights; and the emergence of a new politics of the “people.”

Mrinalini Sinha is Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History and Director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at University of Michigan. A historian of Modern South Asia and of the British Empire, she has written on various aspects of the political history of colonial India, with a focus on anti-colonialism, gender, and transnational approaches. She has recently become interested in the different forms of political imaginings, beyond the nation-state, that animated anti-colonial thought in India at least until the interwar period.

Her first book, Colonial Masculinity: The Manly Englishman and the Effeminate Bengali (Manchester University Press, 1995), sought to combine British and Indian history, and brought gender analysis to bear on questions of “high politics,” to understand a critical moment in the relationship between colonialism and nationalism in India. Her subsequent book, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Duke University Press, 2006), explores the post-First-World-War changes in the British Empire, especially their implications in India. The book received the Albion Book Prize, awarded annually by the North American Conference on British Studies, and the Joan Kelly Memorial Prize (2007), awarded annually by the American Historical Association.

Professor Sinha is currently working on two book projects. One, “Complete Political Independence: The Curious Genealogy of a Nationalist Indian Demand,” examines how Indian claims to rights as natural-born British subjects in the British Empire as a whole were eventually substituted by demands for the rights of Indians in the arguably more limited, and limiting polity: the nation-state. The other is a study of M. K. Gandhi’s politics that eschews “internalist” accounts of his unique perspective on nationalism and attempts to place his views in relation to the political context of his times.

Professor Sinha serves on the advisory boards of several journals and is co-editor for the book series, “Critical Perspectives on Empire,” with Cambridge University Press and for “Critical Perspectives in South Asian History,” with Bloomsbury Press. She is currently also co-editor for a two-volume Cambridge History of the Modern Indian Subcontinent.

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