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Offerings from history

Situating Indian History for Sarvepalli Gopal by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya; Romila Thapar
Review by: Visalakshi Menon
India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2 (SUMMER 1987), pp. 152-158
Published by: India International Centre
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International Centre Quarterly.

152 / India International Centre Quarterly

issue, with the rest of the country, particularly North India, largely un
concerned. On the other hand, we have a government that has too little
understanding to act as a mature mediator in the island's present crisis,
to go about the task quietly and wisely. The air-dropping of rice, green
bananas and packets of tamarindall of which are grown in Jaffna and
are plentifulmakes for a one-time bizarre happening and media-event
that does not help the local population one bit but reveals the poor un
derstanding in India of the ethnic-religious problems of Sri Lanka.
Gopal Gandhi's book should therefore be compulsory reading for those
concerned with Sri Lanka politics, since it provides a unique under
standing of the rich cultural mix as well as the tensions beneath the pre
sent crisis.

Offerings from history

Visalakshi Menon

Situating Indian History for Sarvepalli Gopal, edited by

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Romila Thapar, Oxford
University Press, 1986, pp 463, Rs 200.

his set of articles intended as a festschrift for Dr.

Gopal may well be regarded as a col
on his sixtieth birthday,
statement, by distinguished members of the Centre for
-JL Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, of their cur
rent research concerns. The articles span a vast period, from proto-his
tory to independent India. The reviewer is hence faced with the daunt
ing task of examining the relative merits of articles as varied as on the
Itihasa-Purana tradition, agrarian unrest in the late Mughal period, the
CPI in the pre-Independence period and much more.
As one reads, however, the articlesappear to be knit together in
numerous subtle ways. There are underlying shared themes and a com
monality of perception, pointing to the broad historical tradition being
forged at the CHS.
To begin with the first piece: B.D. Chattopadhyay (Urban Centres
in Medieval India: An Overview) outlines the problems in studying

early medieval urbanisation in India (around the late ninth century

A.D.). An interesting finding that Chattopadhyay makes is that this
Visalakshi Menon/ 153

third phase of urbanisation (the earlier ones being in the Indus Valley
period and the pre-Gupta period) began prior to the Ghorian conquests
and the revival of external trade. The temple provided the stimulus not
only for the re-emergence of urban centres but also for the "hierar
chized of polity" in this period. These medieval
structure urban centres
were different from their predecessors in that they were more localised,
of "relatively modest dimensions" and did not indulge in regular ex
change "on a subcontinental level". Yet, they were numerous, often
corresponding to regional centres of power.
R. Champakalakshmi wishes to fill a scholarly gap in the history of
medieval Tamil Nadui.e., the history of its urban development. The

development of urbanisation in medieval Tamil Nadu was set against a

backdrop of continued agricultural development. Agriculture was well
above the subsistence level especially in the delta regions, which were
the nucleii of urban growth. Royal policy encouraged trade and com
merce. At the same time, in the context of the Bhakti Movement, religi
ous centres assumed economic and even political importance and
"evolved into huge urban complexes". This article is for the specialist
and makes somewhat tougher reading than several others in this selec
article we are transported temporally and spatially
From the above
to nineteenth century India and the workings of the colonial state as de
ciphered by Neeladri Bhattacharya. As he sees it, there was a dialectical
process involved in the evolution of colonial policy. To explain this he
has a case-study of the working of forest laws in Punjab in the nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. The significant point that emerges from
his examination isnot the brash colonial attempt to impose alien and
inconvenient forest laws, or the ceaseless opposition from the local
population to these laws, or even the compulsion to finally change the
lawsbut that, when the laws were amended, a new balance of forces
was created, quite different from the status quo ante. Exercises such as
these help in understanding what went into the making of a colonial sys
tem. Neeladri observes: "The concern of the State was not equality and
social but legitimacy. Whenever
justice necessary, oppressive practices
were continued, but a sanction was sought either in statutory law or cus
Muzaffar study of agrarian uprisings in the Moradabad
Bareilly, Awadh and Benares regions in the eighteenth century is
largely based on Persian sources. Here was not a simple case of local
feudatories trying to overthrow a weakened Mughal state. Within the
rural matrix, there were all kinds of conflicting forces at play. Groups of
zamindars clashed with each other in attempts to establish superiority.
154 / India International Centre Quarterly

Sometimes a Zamindar, tormented by the wanton attacks of a more

powerful adversary, would look upon Mughal functionaries as the lesser
evil. Thus what posed a threat to Mughal authority in these regions was
also a threat to local Zamindars and even peasants in some cases.
With Sabyasachi Bhattacharya's article on the functioning of pres
sure groups in colonial India, we return to modern India. His concern is
with the capitalists and industrial labour. In the first section of his article
he compares the degree of representation given to the two groups in
legislatures from the 1892 Indian Councils Act onwards. He concludes
that even the capitalist class, which obtained far greater representation,
was unable to exercise "influence". In the second section he examines
informal by the capitalists
attempts to influence colonial authorities
through representations, lobbying in the legislature and social contacts.
But even these were useful only up to a point. More often than not,
British capitalists got a better deal. Finally capitalist groups turned to
the political partythe Indian National Congress from the mid-1920s.
This proved a better, though not completely satisfactory means of exer
cising influence. The article also suffers from a certain ambiguity: for
instance, in section I we are not sure where the emphasis lieson the
logic of the colonial system or on the degree of success of capitalists and
labour in obtaining representation and influence. Yet, the article would
contribute to the scant literature on the complex working of the colonial
decision-making process. It is indeed befitting that, in a volume dedi
cated to S. Gopal, who has made important contributions to the study
of British policy in India, attempts are made to carry forward the effort.
Aditya Mukerjee's article on the Indian Capitalist class should have
logically followed S. Bhattacharya's, since there are basic continuities.
This well researched piece throws
up a lot of new information on the
nature of the Indian
capitalist class such as, its impressive growth in the
interwar years and its relationship with the Indian National Congress,
making good use of the voluminous private papers of Purshottamdas
Thakurdas. There are some interesting pointers to the proclivities of the
capitalist class. For instance, the capitalists' refusal to negotiate with the
British Government behind the back of the Congress, or its recognition
of the futility of fentering councils "unless the nation also decides to
enter them". The refusal of the capitalist class to co-operate with or sup
port the colonial authorities in putting down the Civil Disobedience
Movement is significant and points to a mature political sense. This,
Mukerjee suggests, must have posed a very real obstacle for the Left in
its attempt to turn the national movement on to a socialist direction. As
he puts it, "If the capitalist class had gone over to the side of imperialism,
it would have greatly facilitated the growth of the forces which argued
Visa lakshi Menon/ 155

for a simultaneous overthrow of imperialism and capitalism, or at least

for working class or socialist hegemony over the national movement".
Yet, this is not to absolve the Left of its responsibility for the failure,
adds Mukerjee.
Bhagwan Josh almost continues from where the previous article
left off. The burden of his song is that the Indian Communists could not

clearly perceive their role vis-a-vis the national movement and hence
failed to transform the existing national movement into a left anti-im
perialist movement. Even, or perhaps most of all, in the United Front

phase, points out Bhagwan Josh, there was a basic ambiguity in the
Communist position: on the one hand they tried to be part of the Con
gress by enrolling as members and even becoming office-bearers of the
PCCs and DCCs; yet they never thought of using the Congress itself as
a vehicle for creating the Left movement, insisting instead on the

superiority of the Communist party. As an example of how the Com

munists could have fruitfully conducted themselves, he cites the exam
ple of the Kerala Communists who began their careers as "militant Con
gressmen" and went on to form a Communist party only as late as in
January 1940.
Thereafter he contrasts this model with that followed by the Kisan
Sabha in Bihar. Since the Kisan Sabha in the thirties was not a Com
munist-led movement, one wonders if, in an article on the Communists,
this example has a place at all.
In his historiographic piece on nationalist writing, Bipan Chandra
returns to an old love. But this time he is concerned with more than
"economic nationalism." How
did people like Lala Lajpat Rai, G.K.
Gokhale, Surendernath Benerjee, Tara Chand, Pattabha Sitaramayya
and several others perceive and understand the Indian national move
ment? It seems to see it as a mere struggle for
that most of them tended
freedomnot taking into account the differential impact of the move
ment on different social classes or the material base and class content of
the movement. Bipan Chandra traces the two-fold origins of nationalist
historicalwriting, i.e., as a component of the national movement and to
meet the challenge of contemporary imperialist efforts to legitimise col
onialism. Since most writers belonged to the conservative wing of the
Congress and were outside the academic mainstream, there were

shortcomings. However, their strength lay in their ability to make a con

vincing economic critique of colonialism.

As one reads the article one feels that seldom is an effort made

nowadays closely the writings of the nationalists.

to examine These texts
are valuable, not just for what they say about the Indian national move
ment but for what they do not say. An exercise like Romila Thapar's
156 / India International Centre Quarterly

with the Itihasa-Puranas may be worthwhile here to reconstruct the

existing intellectual social and political milieu in which these nationalists
With her writing, one feels that there is never too much of a good
thing. Her understanding of the historical consciousness in ancient India
begins by distinguishing between "embedded history" (of which the
myth is a classic example) which has to be "prised out" and "exter
nalised history" which makes a more "deliberate use of the past". Em
bedded forms, she explains, are germane to lineage-based societies
while the externalised form co-exists with "state systems incorporated
in monarchies". Epics like the Mahabharata are seen as reflecting the
contradictions in a transition from a lineage-based society to a monar
chical State. "The epic as the literature of one age looking back nostalgi
cally on another can become a literature of legitimation" observes
Romila Thapar. The Itihasa-Purana apparently straddles both embed
ded and externalised forms of history. Dr. Thapar notes that, up to the
first half of the first millenium
A.D., legitimation through Brahmanical
ritual was not important: "Claims to territory were established through
strength of arms" and there are clear references to Sudra dynasties.
Thereafter, however, with the appearance of foreign rulers began the
exclusion of some groups by denying them geneology, or pointing to
their lack of ancestry. It was around this time that "those who succeeded
to kingship" began observing the "formality of claming Ksatriya status".
Interestingly Buddhism and Jainism, which arose as part of a "counter
culture" had a "clearer sense of their historical purpose" for several
reasons and are therefore
better examples of externalised history.
From here the transition to K. Meenakshi's article is smooth. This
is a highly technical piece, best comprehended by a reader with know
ledge of linguistics. Yet one can appreciate her attempt to identify and
locate "the status of a particular speech variation", a task which, she

explains, is much more difficult than identifying hierarchy in a social

structure. The Buddha, she explains, deliberately preferred the more
popular Prakrit dialectArdhamagadhi to Brahminical Sanskrit as a
medium for his teachings. Yet, Buddhist monks with Brahminical ori

gins were unable to get over their preference for Sanskrit, resulting in
the Mahayanist translation of the canonical texts into Sanskrit.
Kunal Chakrabarti's interest is with the use of the Oedipal complex
in the analysis of ancient Indian mythology. He also makes out a case
for combining the services of the historian with those of the

psychoanalyst in the study of myths. This delightful and lighter piece is

largely dependent on existing written material. Yet, it offers us a useful
means of comprehending archetypal social and familial norms in India.

K.N.Panikkar's article on the intellectual history of colonial India

makes heavy but rewarding reading. So far, he explains, the academic
approach has been largely reductionistthat is, ideas are seen as re
sponses to specific situations. Such an approach fails to take cognizance
of the differential thought patterns of individuals within the same intel
lectual tradition. Panikkar sees a basic continuity from the so-called so
cial reformers and intellectuals of the nineteenth century to the later
nationalists. The former's was a "pre-political" and "overtly but not in
herently non-political involvement", he notes.

Panikkar also explains why socio-religious reform was so important

for nineteenth century intellectuals. By trying to improve one's own so
cial and religious practices, resistance was being offered to the colonial
denigration of Indian culture. His deliberate use of the word "self

strengthening" to describe these actions indicates a commonality of ex

perience with other countries like China. This article throws up a whole

range of exciting possibilities which are, however, not adequately de

veloped within the limitations of an article.

Finally, we have Satish Saberwal's article with its somewhat baffl

ing title 'Societal Designs in History: the West and India'. Its concern

appears to be to show the difference between the ingrained ideology of

Indian society and external superimpositions. Indian society he charac
terises as extremely complex, cellular and imbued with a palimpset

quality. With its continued emphasis on kinship ties, magic etc. it was
vastly different from that of the West, where the influences of Judaism
and Christianity did much to weaken such ties and led to a rejection of
magic. A substantial section of Saberwal's article is devoted to tracing
the origins of rationalism in the West. In India the traditions were diffe
rent and it was a mistaken belief that with the coming of capitalism, val
ues such as impartial justice, a rational worldview and an effective
bureaucracy would automatically follow. This is the only article in the
selection which ventures into post-Independence India. Given the more
recent scholarly interests of S. Gopal one feels that more emphasis on
contemporary Indian history would have been in order.
At the end of this exercise one can ask the question: has Indian his

tory been 'situated'? It is difficult to answer this query in the affirmative

and the problem seems to lie with the choice of title. Too many expecta
tions are generated by such a title: for one, you may expect a more con
tinuous narrative, spanning the entire gamut of Indian History. This is
not done and the most yawning gap is in the medieval period. The word
"situation" further suggests an attempt to locate Indian history within a
158/ India International Centre Quarterly

larger, perhaps global context. Even the "situation" of an isolated

event, or a movement or trend, leave alone an entire history, would in
volve its being placed in the relevant contexti.e., a contextualization.
This would involve at its extreme the reconstruction, bit by bit, of the
complete context, in as meticulous detail as is humanly possible. And
for such an exercise a much broader canvas than the article-form would
have been
necessary. It does not seem that the present writers even
wanted to undertake such an exercise since they set out to "survey", "lo
cate" and provide alternative historical perspectives.