The social history of Punjab — I

By: Tahir Kamran

Published in The News, December 22, 2019

The social history of the Punjab has been an understudied area of scholarship. As these lines are being written, very few scholarly endeavours of noticeable worth, underscoring social history of the region of such historical significance as the Punjab, are inevitable. Under the British, the Punjab was studied like an object, primarily to help its administrative control. Therefore, colonial sources like district gazetteers, Denzil Ibbetson’s The Punjab Castes or settlement reports produced by various district revenue officers carried in them the content which was akin to social history.

RC Temple’s voluminous work, Legends of the Punjab, can also qualify as social history but that narrative was filtered through the bias typical of the colonial mind. Colonial sources identified social groups of the Punjab; in many ways they re-invented them by ascribing stereotypical traits to those tribes.

Resultantly, every social group assumed an identity independent of other social groups. In some cases, caste and kinship identity was fostered through colonial archives, in other cases, religion was advanced as an identity marker. Colonial sources tend to preclude the possibility of a composite Punjabi identity. Thus, through its creation of knowledge, Punjabi social formation was atomised beyond rectification. Therefore, very few social histories, produced over the recent decades, carry a very strong communal ring as if it was an inescapable fact.

Even Prakash Tandon’s three-volume The Punjabi Century, indeed a path-breaking work, focuses on social group(s), subscribing to Hindu religion or its various denominations, like Arya Samaj, etc. Farina Mir’s The Social Space of Language stands in lone splendour as a social history of the Punjab, which has initiated a new trend in the realm of Punjab’s social history.

Having said that, one should be cognizant of the fact that so many aspects of Punjab’s social history remain shrouded in mystery and need to be explored and analysed. But before turning to those aspects, it will be worthwhile to shed some light on social history and its evolution as an autonomous branch of history.

The emergence of social history in peculiar circumstances, defined largely by the preponderance of neo-Rankean method of doing history, will also form the focus of this narrative. Leopold Von Ranke from the 18th and 19th century Prussia, was undoubtedly the father of modern history who accorded primacy to the ‘fact’ that resides in the archival document under state control. Social history came as a reaction to what Ranke prescribed.

Social history, often called the new social history, is a field of history that looks at the lived experience of the past. In its “hey days” it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among the scholars of history and is still well represented in history departments of major universities of the developed world.

The book that drew the attention of many towards social history was GM Trevelyan’s monumental book titled, English Social History, which was published during the Second World War. In the introduction to the book, Trevelyan describes the importance of social history which, of course, records social change and its distinctness to political developments. “Social change moves like an underground river, obeying its own laws or those of economic change, rather than following the direction of the political happenings that move on the surface of life. Politics are the outcome rather than the cause of social change. A new king, a new prime minister, a new parliament often mark a new epoch in politics, but seldom in the life of the people.”

Thus, there has been all the more reason for historians to turn their attention towards social history because that was how people could be brought into central focus as agents of historical change. Charles Tilly (May 27, 1929 – April 29, 2008 ), an American sociologist and historian at the University of Michigan (1969–1984), identifies the task of social history as, 1) “documenting large structural changes, 2) reconstructing the experiences of ordinary people in the course of those changes, and (3) connecting the two.” This is a very precise description of social history.

It is noted above that social history went on to carve out its niche as a substitute to political history that was done in the Rankean tradition. Such history was rigorous in its method but narrower in its scope. The historians opting to follow in the footsteps of Ranke, “omitted, or rather deliberately excluded from their enterprise, whatever they were not able to handle in a way compatible with the new professional standards.”

Thus, by the close of the 19th century, a group of professional historians was demonstrating dissatisfaction with such history, woven around political events and hailing ‘great men’. Karl Lamprecht, German historian from the University of Leipzig was its most vocal critic. He employed socio-psychological approach while writing his multi-volume History of Germany (1891-1909), a study favourably reviewed by Durkheim’s Annee Sociologique but mocked by orthodox German historians not for “its inaccuracies (which were numerous) but for materialism and reductionism.”

Lamprecht’s bid to challenge political history met with failure but in the United States and France, the campaign for social history got good responce. In the 1890s, American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, mounted a challenge to the tradition of (fact based political) history just like Lamprecht. He asserted that “all the spheres of man’s activity must be considered, no one department of social life can be understood in isolation from the others.”

His essay, The Significance of the Frontier in American History was undoubtedly controversial but epoch-making “interpretation of American institutions as a response to a particular geographical and social environment.” James Harvey Robinson was yet another advocate of ‘the new history,’ which aimed at taking all human activities into account instead of focusing only on the political sphere. He drew on ideas from anthropology, economics, psychology and sociology.

(To be continued)

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