History, The Historian’s Craft And South Asian History: A Study Plan

History, The Historian’s Craft And South Asian History: A Study Plan
The story to prepare this study plan goes like this: after having worked in the development sector – designing, managing, monitoring and evaluating projects – for two decades, I opted to study history. I got admission at the University of Malaya. But, history as a subject was a new country to me, and my thinking conditioned me to prepare a self-study plan. I prepared more than one plan covering different aspects of the subject. The present article is a combination of plans. Let me thank Dr. Azharudin Bin Mohamed Dali of the Department of History at the University of Malaya, Malaysia, who suggested some themes and books.

The term South Asia is not an old identity of the area. Not long ago, it was called the Indian Subcontinent. However, in the British Empire’s days it was a common term among the academia and officers. It remained so till the Partition of India. Later, the South Asia term was used when scholars and officials intended to differentiate it from East Asia. Today, South Asia in its strict sense refers to Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, or adjacent countries, where the British Empire governed. However, before coining of these terms, sea-routes, ports, land-routes and cities gave this term a loose sense of the region.

Presently, most of the universities offer South Asian History as a subject in degree programs. However, sometimes a syllabus is prepared in such a ways that it is becoming difficult to differentiate whether it is a course of South Asian Studies or South Asian History. Another challenge that the faculty faces is that students who had taken a history subject at undergraduate level generally don’t have a proper introduction to history as a discipline. Although in their secondary and higher secondary education they had been exposed to certain historical events in their “Pakistan Studies” or “Social Studies” courses, explanations of those events have missed the historical process and analysis. Therefore, students are conditioned to remember years and proper names in broader sense of ‘who was who and what was what’.

With that situation in mind, let us try to draw up a study plan for the general reader and serious student alike.

The present study plan is divided into three sections:

1) History, its Craft and Historians at Work,

2) The Indian Ocean World, its Ports, Trade, Sea Routes and Regional Connections,

3) South Asian History –People, Society and Politics.


Here, our first section ‘History, its Craft and Historians at Work’ is designed in a way to fill the earlier gap of the students. We will consider some study materials for the first section in the rest of this article.

In sum, students will learn about history as a subject, it's relationship with social sciences (archaeology, anthropology, sociology, development studies and philosophy). Apart from it, the students would learn ideas around the practice of history, usage of history, philosophy of history and relevance of history in present times. The students would also learn research methods, archival study and writing of historical essays. The last part of this section will teach students the craft of the master historians. In the same section they would also learn about A.J.P.Taylor, Eric Hobsbawn, Simon Schama, Joan Wallach Scott and Peter Beck.

Eric Hobsbawm

The learning of this section would inspire the students to train themselves as a historian. There may be more than one book on the above stated topic. But one has to start, and Edward Hallett Carr’s book What Is History? could be a first step. The book presents the author’s views on history as a subject. The other topics discussed are importance of facts, the contextual biases of historians, contribution of science, and allied subjects in historical analysis, sociology of morality, role individuals and society in history and moral judgments in history.

The historian John H. Arnold wrote History: A Very Short Introduction – also a most useful text. Its third chapter, titled “How it really was” focuses on historical truth, archives and the love of old things that helps us to understand historiography and its development between the 16th and 20th centuries. It shows that ‘history’ was under attack in the 16th century. Some saw it as inaccurate and useless. They stated that ‘history’ was guided by the classical principles of literary composition. They also claimed that it provides narrative, and to present exemplary ‘lessons’ from the past. However, the initial part of the chapter discusses Ranke’s role in making history a discipline. Other themes discussed are: the question of truth, the question of historical documents and the question of the ‘difference’ of one epoch to other or the past to the present.

Another unavoidable title is Arthur Marwick’s The Nature of History. It serves as a concise guide to the methods and purposes of historical study. It also explores the nature of historical evidence, to explain how history has to be written and what are some accepted standards of the historical subject. Chapter 7 is titled ‘History, Philosophy and Interdisciplinary Studies’. This chapter discusses the value and purposes of historical study. It also explores the question ‘Is history really a social necessity?’ The author concludes that history serves present society better, if it understands the past on the past's terms and offers context. The chapter advocates the relationships between history, literature and the arts. However, the author warns that such source materials must not be assumed true, representative or factual. Instead, these facts and events should be explored through archival methods. On the other hand, he argues that one couldn’t altogether reject the role of other subjects in history. In the final analysis, history and other allied subjects expand and develop our understanding about the world.

Beyond this, there may be more than one title to recommend, but Donald Bloxham’s book Why History? A History helps us in explaining why the study of the past is so essential. We learn how 20th-century philosophers built on medieval religious ideas to set the standards for understanding the past. Chapter eight, ‘Justifying History Today' addresses rationales for history and its merits. It also covers the relevance of history with entertainment, memorisation, philosophy, societal morals, historical methods, and identity. However, the chapter explores that what is still relevant. At its very opening, the book already provides a vital discussion on how myth is formulated, and how historians expose these myths.

The above suggested readings would introduce the student to some methods of the historical discipline.

Over time, readers would improve their ability to recognize an authors’ arguments and evaluate their referred evidence. In sum, these readings would enhance readers’ evidence-assessment-skills, and their ability to evaluate a primary source’s authenticity. Other areas of improvement would be research skills and formulating of research questions. Likewise, the proposed readings would help students to improve their narrative style and art to write analytically.



Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He could be accessed at junejozi@gmail.com


Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He may be reached at junejozi@gmail.com