‘History of Religion’ as Political Critique: Ambedkar and his Contemporaries
1 January 2021 – 30 June 2021
This project takes the ‘history of religion’ as a field of enquiry in order to think through the career of history as a political category. Different spiritual traditions of the world have immanent to them different modes of remembering – thus Protestant Christianity returns to the original text via philology and exegesis, Islamic jurisprudence uses the Quran and the Hadith as legal precedents, Bhakti and Sufi saintly traditions produce hagiographies, and so on. The history of religion, however, is a modern form of enquiry, which ironically has had no place in the Indian academia. Yet, as the project argues, there was a moment in early- and mid-twentieth century, when the history of religion was debated in the public sphere as well as the academy. In fact, the history of religion emerged as one of the primary modes of political critique – aside of the ways in which nationalism and majoritarianism instrumentalized history of religion as ground for (Hindu and Muslim) identity. This project takes Ambedkar’s works as its centre point – and contextualizes Ambedkar within a larger field made up by other contemporary scholars like Haraprasad Shastri, Rahul Sankrityayan, Dharmanand Kosambi etc. – who discussed histories of religion in general and of Buddhism in particular. The project also looks at the interface between contemporary Marxism and history of religion, constructed by not only Ambedkar but also others like Sankrityayana, Bhupendranath Datt and M. N. Roy.
Following from this, the hypothesis at the heart of this project is: Can a history of religion become a mode of political critique in modern times? Are there instances to be found in Indian history, with Ambedkar as a possible exemplar, which vouches for this possibility? And most crucially, what does religion as an object of study entail for history as a discipline? The project also queries how and why Ambedkar himself makes a transition from ethnography to history in course of his career, and indeed from caste to religion, in order to fashion a political critique adequate to his times.
Prathama Banerjee is a historian, trained at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She works at the cusp of the philosophical and the literary, the interface which she argues historically produced traditions of political thinking in the global South. Her books include Elementary Aspects of the Political: Histories from the Global South (Duke University Press, 2020) and Politics of Time (Oxford University Press, 2006). Banerjee is currently involved in writing a long history of political concepts in South Asia cutting across the classical, medieval and modern periods, as well as in a collaborative project on rethinking democracy in the digital/viral age.