One does not envy the lot of an academic taking on the task of writing a comprehensive history of Modern India, balancing both events and interpretations. First, there is the question of the audience. Is the book geared towards a casual, general reader looking for an informed but flowing narrative? Is it going to serve the needs of the ‘average’ undergraduate student? Or is it a go-to book for researchers and teachers? The second problem (depending on successful negotiation of the first) is for the author of such a book to decide how much prior knowledge can be assumed on the part of the reader. The third challenge is to sufficiently distinguish one’s own book from other comprehensive histories, in a field as fertile (and therefore high yielding in its harvest of academic works) as India. The fourth dilemma is whether one merely recapitulates the historiography of contentious issues (such as the relationship of Indian capital to the national movement, just to cite one example), or comments on it and reveals one’s own opinions on the matter. In other words, should—or can, for that matter—the writer of such a book be a sutradhar, or narrator, alone?
Ishita Banerjee Dube has negotiated most of these hurdles (and very many minefields) skilfully but in doing so, has given us a book much more relevant and valuable— indeed, indispensable—as a teachers’ or researchers’ handbook rather than as an (undergraduate) students’ textbook, or a narrative history for a general reader. Although it is satisfyingly littered with violent historiographical battles, Dube’s account of Modern Indian history does not begin with a military one—as the title of Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition (2004) suggests (although even that book begins with a discussion of the successor states of the Mughals.) Nor is the narrative launched with the dramatic events of 1857— as in the case of Bipan Chandra et al India’s Struggle for Independence (1987). Unlike Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India (1983), the foundation of the Indian National Congress is also not taken to herald a new beginning. And in contrast to Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal’s Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy (1997), there is no nod towards India’s ancient or medieval past, however broadly defined.1 Dube’s work begins with the collapse of the Mughal empire and—like Bose and Jalal—goes beyond that of the British. Her fascinating, but all too brief, last chapter covers the making and working of the Indian Constitution, and surveys issues of secularism, liberalization and caste politics down to the 21st century, though not in as comprehensive a manner as the chapters covering the period till 1947.
Dube has done a commendable job of including very recent academic work in the field, not merely for the sake of being up-todate but (as in the case of Padma Anagol’s work on women in colonial Maharashtra) in order to revise or at least revisit once-radicalnow-turned-conventional views on the impact of colonialism on different categories of Indians. With the incorporation of insights from scholarly works as recent as Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi before India (2013) and Faisal Devji’s Muslim Zion (2013), Dube’s book is likely to remain relevant for many years to come. Inclusion of research on khadi, visual culture, and cartography, to name only three themes, adds a fascinating new dimension to the conventional political/social/economic aspects discussed in other books in this genre. Detailed and theoretically informed discussions of ecological history, and the construction of colonial knowledge find no parallels in the other books referred to above. Regions of India such as Orissa that are often neglected have been given their due. However, some books that have been omitted would surely have enriched the discussion on the relevant theme: Sanjay Joshi’s The Middle Class in Colonial India, and A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s The Province of the Book spring to mind.
There are delightful, boxed, diversions interspersed with the text, on subjects as varied as the history of tea in India and contemporary representations and appropriations of Rani Lakshmibai. A table outlining the long chronology of the media in India (from 1780 till 1969), and a remarkable illustration of the Congress’s changing views on self rule (with the help of quoted resolutions) are among the many unique features of the book. One boxed text discusses the blending of marriage and martyrdom traditions in the popular culture of Punjab (discussed specifically with reference to Bhagat Singh). Given his present-day appeal (recognized by the author by reference to mainstream films on his life), the latter is discussed all too briefly, and the contrast of his methods and appeal to those of Gandhian nationalism explored only tangentially. In contrast, the tensions between Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s worldviews are explored in an extensive, brilliantly written section. As is entirely appropriate for a book of this kind, controversial figures such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Vishnushastri Chiplunkar are given a remarkably even handed treatment rather than being lazily termed either ‘nationalists’ or ‘communalists’.
Where conventional textbooks highlight dramatic ruptures across historical periods and after political transitions, Dube emphasizes, with great finesse and persuasion, continuities. For instance, in the context of Haider Ali’s administration, she highlights the blending of administrative forms, and the continuities in the land revenue system even after British control. Neither is Dube shy of venturing unconventional opinions. When discussing Subhash Bose and the Indian National Army, she acknowledges the charisma of his leadership in drawing soldiers to his cause but also refers to the ‘lure of personal gain’ that served as motivation to rebel against the Raj (p. 404). Readers are left with enough facts and leads on controversial issues and individuals to read further or to draw their own conclusions.
The section on theories of nationalism (Ch 5. ‘Imagining India) is particularly rewarding, and Dube succeeds in demonstrating her contention that ‘nationalism is a process’ (p.180), neither fully ancient nor modern, neither fully constructed nor inherited from a hoary past in toto, and that the history of even mainstream nationalism in India is a multifaceted narrative with other loyalties to caste, religion, region and language sometimes strengthening and at other times contradicting it. A single sentence that outlines changes in the historiography of nationalism contains references to ten scholars (p. 180): streetlights indeed for potential researchers walking down the (to quote a chapter title) ‘Many Pathways of a Nation’. The discussion of sati and the ban on the practice takes careful cognizance of the research of as many as seven scholars, and in doing so presents a far more sophisticated analysis than all the other well regarded books in this genre.
The book would have benefitted from more careful editing. A sophisticated section titled ‘Masculinity, Effeminacy, Consent’ would have made more sense both chronologically and thematically if it had been combined with a section in the previous chapter titled ‘Reforming Men and Women’. It is not clear why, to the end of a chapter titled ‘The Tumultuous Forties’, a diagram on the ‘Organization of Pakistan, Constitution of 1962’ has been appended. Typographical errors such as two spellings of ‘Devji’ on one page (p. 409) could also have been avoided. A detailed chronology of political events within India between 1885 and 1947 (pp. 419-422) is mistakenly titled ‘Chronology of India in World Affairs, 1914-48’. The latter table does indeed exist elsewhere, and by itself points to a much needed corrective— that Indian history be studied in relational terms to other countries rather than in total isolation.
Two sentences may be taken, in my view, as representative of the merits (and complexity) of the book: ‘On the whole, white racism posed in gendered terms inspired trends of physical culture and militancy among the Indian youth, some of which was to later take a strident cultural nationalistic turn. It also left a tenuous but enduring imprint on the cultural construction of a “strong” nation current till today’ (p. 201). The author has linked British impact to an Indian response in the colonial period, referred to current understandings of the construction of gender, and connected the story clearly to our lived reality today. In the hands of a student just beginning to grapple with these issues, this book may prove to be a tad too intimidating. That both Gandhi’s vegetarianism and the Government of India Act of 1935 are discussed in two pages each is something that may not satisfy all the kinds of readers whom this book is aimed at. In the hands of a committed teacher, however, it would go a long way in making history teaching at all levels in India more nuanced and— to use the author’s phrase—‘open ended’ than it has hitherto been.
1 See Partho Datta, ‘Historiography and Historians’, The Book Review Vol. XXXVIII, No. 9, September 2014, for a review of the 2010 edition of this book, and for a list of other one volume histories of India.
Devika Sethi’s PhD thesis was on colonial and early postcolonial censorship of publications in India. She has taught at St. Stephen’s and Lady Shri Ram College for Women, and is at present teaching at Gargi college, Delhi University