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David Arnold

Profile by Prabhjap Singh Jutla BACK

Professor David Arnold was born in London in 1946 and was educated at the University of Exeter where he took a First in history in 1968. This was followed by a Doctorate in 1973 from the University of Sussex on the Congress and Indian Nationalism in Tamilnad, South India, 1920-37. He is currently Professor of South Asian History and Pro-Director for Research at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, where he has also served as the head of the department of history. In a career spanning thirty-two years, Professor Arnold has also held teaching positions at the University of Lancaster and abroad at Flinders University, Australia and the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

Reflecting back on a two-year visit to India beginning in 1968, that inaugurated his fascination with South Asia, Professor Arnold now admits that 'I was driven towards India less by knowledge than by aversion.I knew I wanted to get away from a stifling domesticity, the smugness and complacency of the [English] suburbs, the materialism that seemed to engulf me I knew I wanted to discover something new – perhaps not so much about the world as about myself. Too timid to freak out into full-fledged hippydom and join the pot-and-pilgrim trek to Goa and Kathmandu, I settled for a more academic route to self-discovery.' This journey of self discovery took the form of two years' research in Madras funded by a Commonwealth Scholarship focussing on the role of the Congress in Tamilnad in the 1920s and 1930s that Arnold would later write up at Sussex.

Much of Professor Arnold's early research concerning local political groupings and their role in fermenting nationalism in India typified the 'history from below' approach that dominated the writing of history in the west in the late 1960s and 1970s. From the late 1970s, however, Arnold began to focus more on the effects of colonial power in producing discourse relating to matters as diverse as policing, criminality, famine and, indeed, the interpretation of the body. This approach is perhaps best seen in Colonising the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India which was published in 1993 by the University of California Press and which sought to provide a history of the colonised body in the encounter between east and west. Though indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, Arnold argued that in writing Colonising the Body he was more 'concerned with the creation of a state-centred system of scientific knowledge and power, rather than the more diffused and generalised forms of knowledge and power he [Foucault] described.' Moreover, 'in a further departure from the main body of Foucault's work', Arnold sought to interpret 'resistance as an essential element in the evolution and articulation of a particular system of medical thought and action'.

At around the same time that he began to engage with the work of Michel Foucault on the body, Professor Arnold also began to collaborate with the Subaltern Studies group that had evolved in South Asian studies. Reflecting back to the late 1970s and early 1980s Professor Arnold now admits that the time that he spent discussing ideas with Ranjit Guha and other members of the Subaltern Studies group was 'the most inspiring and supportive atmosphere I have ever been in'.

Professor Arnold is currently carrying out research into the idea of 'tropicality' in western medical ideas in the nineteenth century as well as compiling a book on medical research and policy in India in the period 1911-1947. In addition, he is putting together a book on the early twentieth-century Congress leader, 'Mahatma' Gandhi. As a historian Professor Arnold feels that the context of 'religion' has been over-deployed in the interpretation of Gandhi's life and, by utilising Gandhi's own concerns with 'civilisation', he intends to posit the 'Mahatma' as a colonial subject in his analysis. In particular, Professor Arnold wants to explode the myth that Gandhi was an 'apostle of peace' by analysing in greater depth the body of literature that he had produced in his lifetime. Professor Arnold believes that behind the popular image of the 'apostle of peace' there is in Gandhi's works a language of violence. The existence of a language of resistance based on metaphors such as 'campaigns', 'struggles', and above all, 'emasculation' coupled with the brevity of 'threats' of 'fast unto "death" is suggestive of the existence of a not at all non-violent 'Mahatma'.

Professor Arnold was a pleasure to listen to. His greatest contribution as an academic has perhaps been to open the gaze of students of South Asian History to the previously neglected field of colonial medical ideas and their interaction with indigenous systems of thought.

Prabhjap Singh Jutla (108032@soas.ac.uk or prabhjap@jutleh.freeserve.co.uk) is a postgraduate research student in the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), under the supervision of Professor Christopher Shackle. Prabhjap is working on the construction of madness in colonial Panjab.