Cracks in the foundations of an historical enigma

Imperial Power and Popular Politics
August 6, 1999

Both to the British who ruled it for nearly two centuries and to subsequent generations of scholars, the history of colonial India has always appeared enigmatic. How exactly did a microscopic white minority rule a vast, hugely populous and vibrant Asian subcontinent? But equally, how did the most culturally pluralist and ethnically differentiated society on earth come to constitute "the nation" that would eventually displace them? In broader terms, the enigma is manifested in the difficulty of fitting India into any of the general themes of modern world history.

In the 19th century, while most of the globe was galvanised by the effects of the industrial revolution, the dominant processes in India's history featured "traditionalisation". And in the first half of the 20th century, while the world became divided between the competing claims of fascism and communism, India was mesmerised by a curious old man with a stick who preached medieval values but laid the foundations of the most enduring of modern post-colonial democracies. India has always defied categorisation and expectation.

In the series of essays gathered here, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar explores again the enigma of colonial India - and also the nature of the categories and expectations that have made it appear so peculiar. Some of the essays have been published before, but several are new, and this collection offers a coherent and closely inter-related set of perspectives.

Chandavarkar gives primacy to questions of capital and class, rather than nation and empire, and he focuses closely on the commercial and industrial city

of Bombay, rather than the halls of government in London, Calcutta or New Delhi.

The result is a brilliantly innovative analysis that provides new angles on familiar objects and opens out novel lines of interrogation. Here, the imperial state appears less monolithic than jerry-built and crumbling - resting on insecure foundations and dropping bricks with random and occasionally frightening violence. It also appears occupied by the interests of many more than its nominal British rulers. Here, too, nationalist and popular movements are examined not merely in terms of resistance to "the Raj", but also in relation to their roles in facilitating everyday life in Bombay's complex city and building a variety of new societies for its multifarious inhabitants.

But the significance of these essays goes beyond just India's history. One of the major themes is the absurdity of the historiographical conventions that have made India appear so enigmatic in the first place. Chandavarkar spares few of the assumptions that historians have brought to the understanding of its past. In a penetrating essay, he shows how the crass anticipations of modernisation theory have reduced the history of industrialisation to a set of platitudes and tautologies. He is scarcely less hard on the modernisers' self-proclaimed nemesis - proponents of subaltern and post-colonial approaches to history - whom he shows to be cut from the same cloth (if upside down) and to suffer from the same conceptual weaknesses and mistakes. Chandavarkar's book ought to be read by anyone interested in the project of social history, not merely its distinctively Indian variant.

David Washbrook is reader in modern south Asian history, University of Oxford.

Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1950

Author - Rajnarayan Chandavarkar
ISBN - 0 521 59234 8 and 59692 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00 and £16.95
Pages - 388

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