Signposts: Modern India

Coloured lantern slide by William Henry Jackson, India, c.1895With each year that passes amid mushrooming economic opportunity, innovation and obvious wealth in many areas of Indian life  it becomes easier to talk simply in terms of a British ‘interlude’ on the subcontinent rather than the civilisational Year Zero once touted. This new India is showcased in contrasting ways, for example, by the film Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger (2008). Yet it is the colonial experience that continues both to inspire and to dog academic scholarship on modern India. This wide-reaching period spans the 17th-century decline of regional Indian polities and rise of European influence, through great social and political upheaval and on into the culturally diverse nationalisms of the 20th century and the progress and conflicts of the 21st.

One reason is that this was the point at which Indian history became ‘our’ history – meaning that of self-anointed ‘civilising’ and ‘modernising’ forces across the world, associated up until the early 20th century principally with Western nations about whose beneficent global expansion (economic, political and cultural) notoriously tall claims were made. Much of Mahatma Gandhi’s success lay in his ability to make of such claims a prison in which the British, acutely sensitive to the exposure of colonialism’s inner contradictions, were made to wriggle for nearly three decades before Independence and Partition in 1947. Historians now find themselves similarly incarcerated: instances of rank authoritarianism and brutality are straightforwardly decried, but less so the basic liberal-reformist thrust of some British policy in India, formulated in the context of priorities not unfamiliar in our own century: the place of religion in public life, gender equality, social stratification, access to education and the rule of law. On top of this, the tradition of professionalised scholarship on India within which historians train and work is itself part of the product of colonial rule – for some decidedly tainted, since ‘scholarship’ was what assiduous colonial officials did at the weekend or while on holiday, turning it into strategies for control once back at their desks.

Such concerns are evident in the amount of recent writing on modern India tied up with the broad intellectual trend across the humanities known as ‘postcolonialism’: an attempt to understand the long-term effects of colonialism upon culture, where a great many scholars including Ashis Nandy (The Intimate Enemy, 1988) and Dipesh Chakravarty (Provincialising Europe, 2001) are concerned to help India move on in her national life and policy making. The aim is not so much a return to some mythical pre-colonial past but rather a step forward towards a more thoroughgoing embrace of social and cultural diversity, not least by making room alongside elite political figures like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru for other major players in India’s history: lower classes and castes, women, rural and tribal peoples and religious minorities.

The ‘Subaltern Studies collective’, a group of historians led by Ranajit Guha, was influential in the mid-1980s, reinterpreting the 1857 Indian uprising against British rule to emphasise popular participation and British attempts to construe events as a mere illegitimate ‘Mutiny’, looking again at the Indian nationalist movement in its diverse and fragmentary ‘mass’ phase from the 1920s onwards and bringing to light myriad smaller instances of popular protest and resistance (Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 1983 and Subaltern Studies Reader,1997); David Ludden, Reading Subaltern Studies (2001).

Equally influential on our understanding of India has been Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), a seminal text for postcolonialism. Said’s core contention was that European observers in the 18th and 19th centuries viewed the Middle East and Asia in terms of that which they feared or disdained about themselves. Seeking affirmation for their own culture as basically honest, moral, strong, decisive and free, they ‘saw’ in the East contrasting patterns of dishonesty, avarice, licentiousness, fatalism and despotic rule. Widely published writings ensured that these ideas entered the European and Asian bloodstream in ways that have proved difficult to counteract in the postcolonial period.

In his book Imagining India (1990) Ronald Inden looked at how social sciences in the West remain hitched to a constellation of faulty concepts bequeathed by 18th- and 19th-century ‘Orientalists’, while Bernard Cohn and Nicholas Dirks have traced the influence of these concepts upon the formation or hardening of social categories (including caste), law-making and other activities of government in colonial India (Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, 1996; Dirks, Castes of Mind, 2001).

Research on women and gender in India hardly required the category of the ‘Subaltern’ to get it going, but has bloomed amid nuanced social and cultural history writing in the 1990s. A good example is Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions (1998), while Geraldine Forbes’ Women in Modern India (1999) offers an accessible introductory survey to key issues including the virtual hijacking of women’s aspirations by competing Indian and British social critics and politicians (for the most part men), who sought to use the treatment of women as an index of ‘civilisation’. Caste, too, has received a great deal of attention, in particular the oppression suffered by Dalits (formerly known as ‘untouchables’) and their attempts to ameliorate their condition through political activism (Gail Omvedt, Dalit Visions, 1995), religious conversion (John Webster, Dalit Christians, 1992); Christopher Harding, Religious Transformation in South Asia, 2008), or a mixture of both (Mark Juergensmeyer, Religion as Social Vision, 1982). Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Untouchable (1935) offers a stark portrait of a day in the life at the bottom of India’s caste system. Other major areas of recent research have included health (Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, 1994; Waltraud Ernst, Mad Tales from the Raj, 1991), art and architecture (Tapati Guha-Thakurta, The Making of a New Indian Art, 1992) and the cataclysm of Partition (Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition, 2007; Kushwant Singh’s novel Train to Pakistan, 1956 and its 1986 Hindi film adaptation).

Finally, while too many historians still consider 1947 to be a dividing line that cannot be crossed, Ayesha Jalal (Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, 1995) and others have shown just how much a consideration of continuities can tell us about why politics and society in post-Independence India have turned out the way that they have. The country enjoyed political stability and economic growth under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru until his death in 1964 (B.R. Nanda, Jawaharlal Nehru, 1995; Judith Brown, Nehru, 1999) but was subsequently beset by problems whose roots historians have traced back to and beyond the colonial period. These included demands for autonomy or secession in various regions (not forgetting that India is as large and at least as culturally diverse as western Europe), bouts of authoritarian rule under Nehru’s daughter, Indira (P.N. Dhar, Indira Gandhi: The Emergency, and Indian Democracy, 2000; Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance, 1996), religious and ethnic tensions (M.J. Akbar, Riot After Riot: Caste and Communal Violence in India, 1988) and continued socio-economic inequality. Tariq Ali’s The Nehrus and the Gandhis (1991) offers a highly readable account of this period, while the most recent survey of the entire modern era – appropriately reflecting in its title the forces that continue to bind both India and her historians – is Crispin Bates’ Subalterns and Raj: South Asia Since 1600 (2007).

Christopher Harding is the author of Religious Transformation in South Asia: The Meanings of Conversion in Colonial Punjab (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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