last twenty years or so there have been great transformations in
the historiography of modern South Asia. It would not be too crude
an exaggeration to say that no western historian of much intellectual
ambition engaged with the subject from James Mill in the early
nineteenth century until after the second world war, while Indian
historians were little known outside the subcontinent. All that
has changed. Highly innovative work that commands the attention
of all historians, not merely of regional specialists, is now done
on modern South Asia. This work comes out of Indian and western
universities, where scholars from South Asia, like Sugata Bose
and Ayesha Jalal, play a very prominent role.
Works of synthesis on modern South Asia have
not kept up with the flow of monographs, the installments of Subaltern
Studies or the articles that appear in profusion in The
Indian Journal of Economic and Social History or in Modern
Asian Studies. The late Percy Spear and Stanley Wolpert, the
two authors who have commanded the field in Britain for so long
in introducing general readers or undergraduates to South Asian
history, now look distinctly dated. A new and authoritative synthesis
like this one is therefore very welcome.
Modern South Asia introduces the reader
not merely to new interpretations of topics such as the rise of
British power, nationalism and partition, but to new perspectives
on the subject as a whole. The traditional historiography of British
India tended to be very much history from above. British Governor
Generals were placed in the centre of the stage and judged as good,
bad or indifferent by whatever criteria were currently deemed appropriate.
In later and more liberal treatments, such as those of Spear and
Wolpert, prominent Indians who engaged with the Raj, Rammohan Roy,
the early nationalists and the great protagonists in the end of
empire - Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah, were also given full treatment.
Popular accounts published in this country remain obsessed with
personalities, above all with Mountbatten, Wavell and the leadership
of Congress and the League. 'Ordinary' Indians were reduced to
abstract Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs or in books with any pretensions
to scholarship to statistics in the perennial debates as to whether
India got richer or poorer under the British.
Bose and Jalal try to write history from below.
They are of course interested in Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah and have
important things to say about them, which lay readers may well
find surprising and challenging. The British, however, are not
personalised. Wavell does not appear in the index and the only
reference to Warren Hastings tells the reader that he was impeached.
There is no room for cultural brokers like William Carey. Instead,
the British presence in India is depicted as a colonial state,
taking forms that varied with its underlying economic rationale.
In the early nineteenth century that rationale shifted from oceanic
trade to the extraction of land revenue; in the later nineteenth
century priorities changed to the generation of an export surplus
and the stimulation of rural purchasing power for British imports.
Something is of course lost in such a synoptic view. The Raj may
well seem to be a much more unified, calculating and rational institution
than was actually the case, and the diversity of the British presence
is inevitably telescoped. Nevertheless Bose and Jalal could well
reply that there are enough books of The Men who Ruled India
genre for those who wish to recapture that diversity and they have
other purposes to fulfil.
They wish attention to be paid not to the British,
except as a source of some of the pressures that shaped Indian
society, or to the Indian elite, but to what they term 'intermediate
social groups', such as merchants and traders and those who filled
minor offices, and the 'subaltern groups', peasants, the urban
poor and the 'tribals', at the bottom of society. They are concerned
with women as well as with men. They recognise the crucial importance
of labels such as Hindu or Muslim in the twentieth century, but
insist that these are not immutable distinctions that have endured
for centuries; they have a relatively recent history. 'The undue
and ahistorical privileging of religion in the periodization of
Indian history' must be discarded. 'There are no grounds for branding
the ancient, medieval and modern periods of the subcontinent's
long and complex history as Hindu, Muslim and British' (p. 13).
Bose and Jalal urge historians to concern themselves with smaller
entities, those that they call 'communitarian' rather than with
the 'communal' labels attached to supposedly monolithic religions.
As with all the other concepts that the authors use, the uninitiated
probably require much more explanation of community' than is offered
to them, but the issue is summarised on p. 108: 'What needs emphasizing
is that there were multiple and competing narratives informed by
religious and linguistic cultural identities seeking to contribute
to the emerging discourse on the Indian nation.' These voices were
eventually drowned by the assertion of religion in the making of
Pakistan and by the counter-assertion, at least for a time, of
secular nationalism's right to inherit the centralised state created
by the British and to call it 'India'. It has been the ultimate
fate of the communities, except in Bangladesh, to be subordinated
to one or other of these leviathans.
There is a strong ideological commitment behind
this interpretation of South Asia's history, as there is behind
any historical interpretation of any interest. Its assumptions
are very different from those embodied in recent western attempts
at synthesis, such as those of Spear or Wolpert. Both of them seem
to have believed in an essential Indianness and to have understood
its history as a series of interchanges between that essence and
outside influences, most obviously Muslim and British ones. This
for Spear was 'the inner meaning of modern Indian history, culminating
in Gandhi and the national movement, independence and the reign
of Nehru'. In brief sections at the end of their books he and Wolpert
assessed the state of contemporary India, noting the extent of
western influence and the survival of 'traditions'. For Wolpert,
'The more India changes, the more Indian it remains'. Significantly,
neither of them wrote anything about post-1947 Pakistan, let alone
Bangladesh. For them, partition was a disaster and the criterion
for judging the success of independence was the survival of India
as a unitary, secular state.
Neither intellectual trends nor recent events
have been kind to such interpretations. Concepts of an essential,
timeless India have been subjected to withering analysis. They
are emphatically rejected as western constructions, designed to
emphasise India's difference and therefore its inferiority. Indian
nationalism as it emerged at the end of the nineteenth century
is not generally seen as any kind of fulfilment of India's history,
but rather as a colonial legacy. A narrow elite were able to use
western concepts of nation and state as the means to obtain power
over the rest of the population and to perpetuate the subordination
of the 'subalterns'. Bose and Jalal are more sympathetic to nationalist
aspirations than it is currently fashionable to be, arguing that
discriminating nationalists were capable of recognising the claims
of linguistic and regional diversity to be embodied in the new
Indian nation. Nevertheless, the heroes of the nationalist pantheon
are left badly scarred. Congress under Gandhi 'more often than
not represented the class interests of the middle to richer peasantry
and industrial capitalists in the urban sector'. For the poor,
the Mahatma offered only "the palliative remedy of trusteeship"
(p. 144). Nehru is portrayed as the exponent of a unitary nationalism
that took over and operated the colonial centralised state. His
claims to have founded a democratic new India are called into question.
Of the great leaders, only Jinnah, so often reviled in conventional
historiography, emerges largely unscathed. It is argued that a
separate Pakistan based on religion was not at all what he intended.
He had a vision of a pluralistic India in which a Muslim 'nation'
would co-exist with other nations and be able to exercise 'an equitable
share of power' in the centre (p. 193).
What many recent historians have seen as a flawed
nationalism inevitably, in their eyes, produced flawed states after
independence. Bose and Jalal do not endorse the respect, if often
tempered with anxiety for the future, accorded in most western
accounts to Indian 'democracy', let alone to the workings of the
states of Pakistan or Bangladesh. They dislike the centralisation
of power which, they believe, Nehru perpetuated from the past.
Expectations that a strong state might be an effective agent for
driving through 'modernity" are now often looked at with as
much scepticism as is accorded to the concept of 'modernity' itself,
taken to be another western construct. On the role of the Indian
state as a promoter of economic or social development, Bose and
Jalal are a little ambiguous. They recognise that the economic
liberalisation of the early 1990s removed 'the more stifling bureaucratic
controls on industry', but insist that 'state and public action'
have an important role in remedying deficiencies in health and
education (p. 229). The political failures of India seem glaring
to them. The narrow basis of the Nehru regime could not be sustained.
As subsequent leaders, notably Indira Gandhi, endeavoured to become
more populist they were forced to invoke Hindu 'majoritarianism'
as a counter to regional challenges. The legacies of military rule
in Pakistan have been 'a parallel arms and drugs economy, administrative
paralysis, and violent social conflict' (p. 230).
In the last chapter of the book, reflections
on fifty years of independence, Bose and Jalal offer their alternative
scenario for the evolution of modern South Asia. Instead of a transfer
of 'colonial structures of state and ideologies of sovereignty'
to 'mainstream nationalist elites' (pp. 23940), they would have
preferred the survival of pre-colonial ideals and practices, whether
under the Mughals or their eighteenth-century successors, of 'flexible,
nuanced, and overarching suzerainties', which observed both individual
and communitarian rights' and had no 'notion of absolute sovereignty'
or 'singular allegiance' (p. 240). There must be a return to 'a
political and state system based on layered and shared sovereignties'
Assuming that the pre-colonial order had some
of the characteristics attributed to it by Bose and Jalal, how
did the shift come about some hundred and fifty years later to
two and subsequently to three sovereign successor states, one overtly
based on religion and the others to a considerable degree dominated
by parties organised according to religious allegiance? The attempt
to answer this question is the book's major theme.
Bose and Jalal attribute much to the nature of
colonial rule. They rightly point out that the British had a strong
concept of a sovereign state from the eighteenth century onwards
and that nationalists were more inclined to try to capture this
powerful state for themselves than to dismantle it. Bose and Jalal
are, however, also critical of what might seem to be opposite trends
in colonial rule, a willingness to devolve authority to regions
within a nominally federal structure and to assure separate rights
to what the British identified as minorities. The situation created
by the 1935 Government of India Act with its carefully rigged provisions
that no Indian group should be able to exercise absolute power
at the centre and with its provinces based on historical evolution
rather than on religion does not look all that different from Bose's
and Jalal's ideal, except of course for the survival of a sovereign
The British are also held responsible, in part
at least, for the consolidation of more or less unified Hindu or
Muslim religious entities. British views that India was so divided
go back to the early days of their rule and the British had something
to do with the process of defining the orthodoxies to which Hindus
and Muslims increasingly adhered. In the south, the East India
Company 'sponsored a somewhat spurious neo-Brahmanical ruling ideology'
based on a rigid definition of caste, while British scholars 'gave
far greater importance to doctrinal Islam or the sharia as propagated
by the ulema' than to the 'eclectic religion shot through with
local customary practices which was followed by the vast majority
of Indian Muslims' (p. 74). The late nineteenth-century censuses
embodied British notions of clear-cut religious divisions and electoral
constituencies were eventually demarcated on religious lines. Yet
Bose and Jalal stop well short of divide and rule as a full explanation
for the hardening of the Hindu/Muslim divide, let alone for partition
in 1947. They see the emergence of a variety of Muslim identities,
'linked to the fact of British colonial rule without being wholly
shaped by it' (p.167). The creation of a Pakistan consisting of
no more than parts of the Muslim majority provinces of the old
British India was the outcome of a whole series of contingent events,
carefully analysed in this book. The partition of the areas where
Muslims lived between Pakistan and India, far from being the fulfilment
of the idea an Islamic nation, was 'its most decisive political
abortion' (p. 188).
This review has tried to indicate something of
the richness of this book and of the intellectual excitement that
it generates. Will it succeed in displacing other introductory
accounts to provide 'the multi-dimensional, high definition overview
of modern South Asian history' (p. 5) which the authors, with justification,
find lacking elsewhere? There can be not the slightest doubt that
it addresses the issues which currently dominate a highly creative
body of historical writing, that this writing has been comprehensively
mastered and that persuasive interpretations of it are offered.
The book is a manifesto as well as an historical account, but readers
will have no difficulty in identifying the authors' ideological
agenda and in making up their own minds about it. Total success
seems, however, to require a little more than these admirable attributes.
It requires a high quality of exposition if an audience without
prior knowledge is to be caught and held. That quality is lacking.
Whatever their level of intellectual aspiration,
Spear's books were, as the authors generously acknowledge, 'elegantly
written'. What he meant was always abundantly clear and he carried
his readers along with him with ease The same cannot be said for
this book, except where the authors resort to some splendidly apposite
The introductory chapter embodies what the uninitiated
will surely find to be a major defect in the book. The later pages
of that chapter become hopelessly over-allusive. The authors clearly
wish to establish their position in relation to their peers, but
that is surely not the purpose of a book such as this. Instead,
they are likely to baffle, and one fears to irritate and put off,
the serious inquirer who might like to know what 'subalternity'
is or what is the difference between 'dissonance or polyvalence'
and might well welcome 'a much-needed decentred balance in our
current, disoriented scholarly predicament' (p. 11) if she knew
what any of that meant or if the authors would condescend to tell
her. The issues raised in the introduction are serious ones but
it is self-indulgent to write in that way in a book like this.
The other main problem that the lay reader is
likely to face is the denseness of the exposition in many places.
The authors set out to cover a great deal in a relatively short
space and this inevitably means cutting corners rather than offering
full explanations. For instance, in a section on the emergence
of successor states to the Mughal empire the reader is told about
'a transition from prebendal to patrimonial land holdings' (pp.
52-3), but the following sentences do not seem to explain or to
illustrate what that might mean. In short, one feels that what
this book desperately needed was an aggressive copy editor prepared
to say over and over again: 'Stop, I do not know what that means;
please explain it to me.' Modern South Asia would have benefited
greatly from that salutary discipline. As it is, it is certainly
a work that professionals and the initiated will greatly admire
but it is one whose wider impact may be more limited than it deserves