This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Nur Jahan and Jahangeer by Abdur Rahman Chughtai

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From India’s dangerous new curriculum to the rise of hipster colonialism, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.


India’s Dangerous New Curriculum

Alex Traub
New York Review of Books

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire did much to create modern-day India. It consolidated the country into a sovereign political unit, established a secular tradition in law and administration, and built monuments such as the Taj Mahal. The Mughals were originally from Uzbekistan, but over time they became a symbol of the contribution of Muslims to Indian national history. Their lasting influence is evident in some of India’s most famous dishes, such as biryani, and the settings of several of the most beloved Bollywood movies, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960), by some estimates the highest-grossing film in Indian history.

So it was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eighth-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals?” Khan was teaching at the English-medium Saifee Senior Secondary School, whose students are Dawoodi Bohras, a small Islamic sect that has been based in India since the Mughal era, when its leaders faced persecution in the Middle East. Like Jews, Parsis, and Baha’is, the Bohras are a religious minority that found shelter in India’s unusually tolerant culture. [continue reading]

Remembering the Howard University Librarian Who Decolonized the Way Books Were Catalogued

Zita Cristina Nunes
Smithsonian Magazine

In a 1995 interview with Linton Weeks of the Washington Post, the Howard University librarian, collector and self-described “bibliomaniac” Dorothy Porter reflected on the focus of her 43-year career: “The only rewarding thing for me is to bring to light information that no one knows. What’s the point of rehashing the same old thing?” For Porter, this mission involved not only collecting and preserving a wide range of materials related to the global black experience, but also addressing how these works demanded new and specific qualitative and quantitative approaches in order to collect, assess, and catalog them.

As some librarians today contemplate ways to decolonize libraries—for example, to make them less reflective of Eurocentric ways of organizing knowledge—it is instructive to look to Porter as a progenitor of the movement. Starting with little, she used her tenacious curiosity to build one of the world’s leading repositories for black history and culture: Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. But she also brought critical acumen to bear on the way the center’s materials were cataloged, rejecting commonly taught methods as too reflective of the way whites thought of the world. [continue reading]

Mughal Lite

Audrey Truschke
Open the Magazine

India is gripped by Mughal fever these days. Seemingly obsessed with premodern India’s most famous empire, the saffron brigade works tirelessly to scrub Modi’s India clean of vestiges of the Mughals by writing them out of school textbooks, renaming cities and roads, and neglecting Mughal monuments. When Hindu nationalists are not marginalising the Mughals, they villainise these long-dead kings as proxies for modern-day Indian Muslims. All actions provoke a reaction. And so popular curiosity about the Mughals has expanded apace with Hindutva’s anti-Muslim exertions. The political abuse of Mughal history raises the stakes of popular knowledge about this dynasty and their legacies in India.

Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir : An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal (Juggernaut; Rs 599; 319 pages) and Ruby Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (Viking; Rs 599; 304 pages) are among the most recent efforts to wade into these fraught waters and educate the public about key Mughal figures. Sharma tracks the life of Jahangir (1569-1627), the fourth Mughal king, while Lal devotes her attention to his favourite wife, Nur Jahan (1577-1645). Jahangir and Nur Jahan were only married for 16 years (1611-1627), but their alliance defined much about both of their lives. They were the ultimate power couple. He sat on the throne, and she wielded power behind the scenes (how much power is the subject of scholarly debate and a question that animates Lal’s book). Still, neither author has written about this pair, but rather each has chosen to write a narrative biography of a single royal figure. [continue reading]

How a female Jewish journalist alerted the world to Ukraine’s silent starvation

Julie Masis
Times of Israel

While driving through the Ukrainian countryside in 1932, Rhea Clyman, a Jewish-Canadian journalist, stopped in a village to ask where she could buy some milk and eggs. The villagers couldn’t understand her, but someone went off and came back with a crippled 14-year-old boy, who slowly made his way to her. “We are starving, we have no bread,” he said, and went on to describe the dire conditions of the previous spring. “The children were eating grass… they were down on all fours like animals… There was nothing else for them.”

To illustrate the point, a peasant woman began to peel off her children’s clothes. “She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, misshapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine,” recalled Clyman in a piece published by the Toronto Telegram, one of the largest Canadian newspapers at the time. [continue reading]

The rise of hipster colonialism

Nanjala Nyabola
Al Jazeera

Last week, Germany’s Africa Commissioner Gunter Nooke said that European countries should be allowed to lease land and to build and run cities in Africa as a means of stemming what he views as the unchecked expansion of migration from Africa to Europe. For Nooke, allowing the “free development” of these areas would stimulate African economies and create “growth and prosperity” and therefore, reduce the attractiveness of Europe as a destination for migration.

The proposal has elicited mixed reactions. Some have seen it as a novel economic proposition to stem a complex political challenge. Building on existing economic arrangements like Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Economic Processing Zones (EPZs), they argue that this would simply be the next stage in the evolution in the idea that economic exclaves that protect industries from the ravages of the open economy are the best way to stimulate growth. Now, instead of jeans and sneakers, we want to optimise people – or at least labour – by protecting them from the realities and ravages of their societies. [continue reading]

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