The book under review is the second in the series of books which form collections of articles presented at seminars in Oxford. The articles are prefaced by a very readable introduction on the history of Indian studies at Oxford.
The articles in the book are not linked together in a thematic framework and the result is a lack of cohesiveness. The only two essays which dovetail are the ones on ‘Provincial Autonomy’ by Sunil Chander and the ‘Partition of India’ by Anita Inder Singh. Suhil Chander views the years 1937-39, when the Congress assumed power in various provinces, as years of suppressed tensions and conflicts rather than as ‘a constitutional honey¬moon’ in which light it has been generally regarded. The idea behind the provincial government was one of ‘contained con¬flict’ in the view of the British Raj—‘opposition from a Congress in office, it was thought, was preferable to the dangers of an agitation by a Congress out of office, supported by the Kisan Sabha and the communists.’
The Congress accepted office because it would give it time to consolidate the party position and broad-base the organization, especially at the grass-roots level. However the Congress governments were in an unenviable posi¬tion. To combat the militant elements within the nationalists who threatened the administration, they had to take recourse to the support of the imperial authorities (the prosecution of the Socia¬list activists Batlewala and Meherally by the Rajagopalachari ministry being a case in point) while in their long-term objective of challenging the Raj, they required the support of the militants. Both radicals and moderates within the Congress joined hands in demanding the release of political prisoners and the restoration of lands forfeited by Congress supporters during the civil disobedience campaigns. While working for the nationalist cause through their ministries, the Congress also organized the Qaumi Seva Dal and similar voluntary bodies at the grass-roots level which could carry on rural reform along Gandhian lines and at the same time provide the mass base for future civil disobedience move¬ments. Unfortunately it was also during these years that factionalism, petty politics and corruption spread within the Cong¬ress party as well as its middle-level organizations such as the Provincial National Service. The uneasy tenure of the Congress ministries came to an end amidst the clamourous anti-war senti-ments within the party and the grow¬ing challenge of the Muslim League which the Raj would now use as its new lever.
The essay by Anita Inder Singh deals with the process by which the Muslim League which was merely a lever used by the British in their power game vis-a¬vis the Congress, became the chief cata¬lyst of the partition of India. In the early stages, around the 1930’s men like Jinnah owed their status as ‘leaders’ of the Muslim community ”more to the expediency with which the British gave this recognition to them than to any grass roots support among the Muslim masses themselves.’ In the elections of 1936-7, the League won only 4.8 per cent of the total Muslim vote in India. The League made no effort towards mass contact programmes. Even as late as 1939, the League was unwilling to think in terms of independence and the snapping of the imperial links. Under the circumstances, the British felt quite complacent about using Jinnah and the League as a counter to the Congress. Rejoicing in the Congress-League rift, Lord Linlithgow remarked, ‘the existence of the atmos¬phere’ (of mutual hostility) ‘is the thing that matters and the thing to which we have to give weight in formulating our policy and reaching our conclusions.’ He found it ‘lamentable that we should have to await in this way on Jinnah’s vanity, but it cannot of course be helped.’ It was this British pandering to Jinnah’s vanity that led to the League capturing 76 per cent of the votes in the Muslim constituencies in the 1945-6 elections and eventually made partition a reality.
The other four essays in this collection are far removed from the scene of the nationalist struggle. The article by Francis Robinson on the history of the Farangi Mahall is a valuable study of a ulema family which played a key role in the spheres of Islamic scholarship and educa¬tion over five hundred years. Unlike traditional Islamic schools, the strength of the Farangi Mahall madrassas (schools) in Lucknow, lay in their study of rational sciences like logic and jurisprudence. The family enjoyed close links with many sufi saints and counted their devotees among its disciples. In the nineteenth-twentieth century, there was a division of opinion within the Faragi Mahallis over their attitude towards the British rule. The dominant group led by Mawlana (sic) ‘Abd al-Bari expressed their opinion to the British on all Islamic issues while the weaker group led by Mawlanas ‘Abd al-Hamid and ‘Abd al-Majid, ‘loyally supported the colonial government, accepting honours and subsidies for its pains,’ In the educational sphere, the British impact led to the introduction of arithmetic, geometry, geography and English in the madrassas, the reforms being spearheaded by the enlightened Maulana ‘Abd al-Hayy.
Richard Symond’s essay on the ‘Eurasians Under British Rule’ is perhaps the most readable in this collection. The ambigui¬ty in their names—’East Indians’, Tndo British’, ‘Half Castes’, ‘Eurasians’ and ‘Anglo Indians’—is indicative of their confused identities. One of them, J.W. Ricketts sent a petition to the British Parliament in 1829 in which he lamented: ‘We are sometimes recognized as Euro-peans and sometimes as natives, as it serves the purpose of government.’ It was the British indifference to their plight which led Frank Anthony to call his memoirs Britain’s Betrayal in India. Through a series of measures, Anglo-Indians were progressively disqualified by the Company from all civil and military employment except at the lower levels. What was much more inhuman was the law which forbade Eurasian orphans from entering Britain lest ‘the imperfections of the children, whether bodily or mental, would in process of time be communi¬cated by intermarriage to the generality of the people of Great Britain and by this means debase the succeeding generations of Englishmen.’ Their political exclusion might have stemmed from the fears which Lord Valentia expressed in 1806: ‘In every country where this intermediate caste has been permitted to rise, it has tended to the ruin of the country.’ The author has con¬trasted the Indian situation with that of Ceylon or Indonesia where the Dutch policy seems to have been so much more favourable to the Eurasians.
Hameeda Hussain’s essay on the condi¬tion of the Company weavers in the Dacca Arangs is based on the discovery of Bengali manuscripts in the India Office relating to it. For the first time one comes across documented evidence of the textile organization under the Company with details of the salaries of the intermediate Agents and the earnings of the weavers. Most of the author’s conclusions such as the growing squeeze upon the weavers by the Company and the increasingly ex¬ploitative role played by the head-weavers are not unfamiliar to scholars of Indian textile history but the author’s documentated evidence helps us to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s. The final paper in this collection is a competently written statistical account of agriculture in the Bombay Deccan by Sunanda Krishnamurthy. On the basis of her evidence the author argues that in this region as a whole between 1880 and 1922, there was a decline in gross cropped area with the exception of Khandesh. In the context of an increasing population this led to declining output per head given the low level of agricultural technique, uncertain rainfall and negligible irrigated area.
The papers in this collection are, by and large, solid, scholarly contributions.
Vijaya Ramaswamy is Lecturer in History, Gargi College, Delhi University; author of Textiles and Weavers in Medieval South India, 1985.