Authors Meet Critics

The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi

Presented as part of the Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” series.

Recorded on January 26, 2022, this video features an “Authors Meet Critics” panel discussion focused on the book, The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (Oxford University Press), by Abhishek Kaicker, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of History.

The Social Science Matrix “Authors Meet Critics” book series features lively discussions about recently published books authored by social scientists at UC Berkeley. For each event, the author discusses the key arguments of their book with fellow scholars. This event was co-sponsored by the Institute of South Asia Studies and the UC Berkeley Department of History.

An unprecedented exploration of the relationship between the Mughal emperor and his subjects in the space of the Mughal empire’s capital, The King and The People overturns an axiomatic assumption in the history of premodern South Asia: that the urban masses were merely passive objects of rule and remained unable to express collective political aspirations until the coming of colonialism. Set in the Mughal capital of Shahjahanabad (Delhi) from its founding to Nadir Shah’s devastating invasion of 1739, this book instead shows how the trends and events in the second half of the seventeenth century inadvertently set the stage for the emergence of the people as actors in a regime that saw them only as the ruled.

“Not only is it a book of immense erudition, but it also covers a rather vast intellectual terrain,” said Pradeep Chhibber, Professor and Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at UC Berkeley, who moderated the panel. “It speaks about sovereignty, it speaks about popular protests, it speaks about the writing of intellectual history — and whose history is to be trusted and whose history is not to be trusted. It’s a pleasure to read a book in which one is deeply self-conscious about the limits of sources, especially when one is doing research in an area in which the amount of primary materials is somewhat limited.”

In his opening remarks, Kaicker explained that the book aims to focus on the “ordinary people, the men and the women who lived and died in the Mughal empire and whose deeds have gone broadly unsung and unacknowledged in the history of the empire that we have written over the last century or so…. How should we see the people in Mughal Delhi, and in Mughal India, more broadly?”

In her comments, Aarti Sethi, Assistant Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Anthropology, noted that the book “has a great deal to offer us in terms of thinking about the subsequent histories of the subcontinent, and particularly also about where we are today…. It shows us that, in fact, political power, and a conception of sovereignty on the subcontinent, have always been located within a discourse of religion.”

Sethi explained that the book helps illuminate the rise of Hindutya, religious nationalism, in contemporary India. “Just as thinking about the sphere of religion cannot be thought of outside politics, then equally, it is not possible to think of politics outside religion. Which then means that the colonial and the postcolonial state, which attempted to forge a conception of a state not based on the principles of religion… was a brief interregnum and a brief fantasy, and that we can see the breaking of this fantasy in the way in which religion and politics mobilized through the discourse of Hindutva.”

Asad Ahmed, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, described The King and The People as “a scholarly gem,” noting that the book “challenges various long-held notions about the participation of the common folk, the ordinary people, in the political contestations of pre-modern South Asia.”

“Abhishek investigates the manners and modes of the participation of ordinary people in matters of politics in 17th- and 18th-century Mughal India, shedding the reductive idea that the various political upheavals of the period were either responsive to economic discontent or religious fanaticism,” Ahmed said. “He argues rather that these moments were reflective of the participation of the people in the discourse of sovereignty. The ordinary people are hidden from view. Their own voices are suppressed, and their agency is mediated by the pen of the elite….A major task of the book is to unravel the discursive codes of the authors in order to be able to tease out the nature and meaning of popular participation in political affairs. This is no easy task, but Abhishek carries it out wonderfully.”

Watch the video above or on YouTube.



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