The Enduring Public Struggle to Construct, Control, and Challenge Historical Memories

Sumit Guha's History and Collective Memory in South Asia, 1200–2000 develops important arguments about the public significance of historical knowledge and the essential role of historians in public life. All societies need collective memories to sustain their cultural identities, as Guha shows in this wide-ranging account of how such memories have been constructed in South Asian societies since the thirteenth century. The knowledge of historical experts is increasingly challenged or derided by contemporary social groups and political activists, who circulate their own historical narratives via new networks of communication. Political uses of historical knowledge are not new, however, as Guha shows in detailed accounts of how Hindu, Muslim, and British imperial regimes all used historical narratives to justify their own power. He also explains how other social groups challenged official historical narratives with their own popular stories about the past. This book contributes to recent work in global intellectual history by comparing similarities in the historical practices of premodern Europe and South Asia, discussing the cross-cultural exchanges in colonial-era institutions, and describing postcolonial challenges to European ideas. Guha thus offers an insightful analysis of how social and political forces influence and respond to the cloistered institutions that produce historical knowledge and construct collective memories. He concludes that evidence-based historical narratives must be continually defended amid current public assaults on historical knowledge in both South Asia and the United States. More generally, Guha's book suggests the need for ongoing analysis of how public events, social conflicts, and new communication systems can reshape or discredit the work of historical experts.