PEASANTS IN INDIA’S NON-VIOLENT REVOLUTION: Practice and Theoryby Mridula Mukherjee. Sage, New Delhi, 2004.
THE present study is a welcome departure from the dominant tendency of treating the region of Punjab as exotic – over-theorised and under-studied – an exclusive, virgin area in recent scholarship. In part the relatively late focus on Punjab effectively turned it into a testing ground of other conceptual tendencies marked in studying the rest of India. Variations of the colonial construction hypothesis, as seen in Richard G. Fox and Harjot S. Oberoi among others, have been found wanting in providing evidence from Punjab history in order to authenticate their conceptual categories as well as theoretical claims. Moreover, the close proximity of Punjab Studies with the question of exclusivist identity or separatist politics, although fruitful in opening up the space for social history of modern Punjab, sidestepped the stellar position and activism of Punjabi peasants during the colonial period.
Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution operates on multiple axes. It is a robustly combative polemic against the Subalternists as well as to a lesser extent Marxist historiography on the course of Indian anti-imperialist national movement. Second, it is an advance over earlier works on Punjab peasantry’s political trajectory and situates their struggle in a comparativist mode within the Indian scene. Third, it provides a comparison of the peasant movement in British Punjab with the princely state of Patiala regarding the specificity of issues involved; the different political contexts and the efficacy of strategies and methods employed. These broad historiographical contestations serve the purpose of making ‘an intervention in the theoretical debates regarding the role of the peasants in revolutionary transformations in the modern world.’ Although aware of the perils of classification, shifting conceptual categories and the dangers of treating a case study as a veritable model, the author makes an effort to account for ‘a revolution based on a strategy of non-violent action in which the central role was assigned to the peasants.’
This narrative of the political world of the Punjab peasant rests upon the official records, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, private and institutional papers. However, the extensively quoted oral testimonies of peasant leaders, organisers and activists leavens the trajectory of the coming into being of ‘modern’ peasant organisations in mid-1920s and their progressive deepening, expansion and radicalising impact till 1947. Interestingly, this modernity was geographically confined to the central Punjab districts where peasant proprietors provided the essential armature for the kisan sabhas in striking contrast with western Punjab where Muslim landlords held thorough sway over social dynamics. The south-eastern districts also reflected almost similar social formations. The latter areas were strongholds of loyalist Unionists. The tenants lacked resources to resist this formidable bloc. Seen in this manner, this study weaves the peasant dimension into the workings of Punjab politics in the early 20th century. One would also like to add that this narrative is potentially fertile to opening up the social history of Punjab with an emphasis refreshingly different from the pre-sent Punjab Studies and Sikh Studies approach in vogue.
While the author has diligently constructed her case in light of the historiographical polemic around agrarian movements and their ‘organic and dialectical’ relations with the national movement, it seems that she has treated the Punjab experience to demonstrate the working of the Gandhian method of non-violence; ‘autonomy’ of peasants vis a vis ‘control’ from above; role of outsiders, organisation, ideology and so on, thus unintentionally pushing into background the specificity of Punjabi radical tradition for the purposes of peasant protest in her analysis. For instance, the impact of the Akali movement is treated in essentially political terms alongside relevant questions that arose about the manner of being a Sikh; the emerging relations between anti-imperial political consciousness and egalitarian Sikh values, as championed by radical Akali faction which later on moved towards the left wing ideology; the popular discourse about anti-imperialist nationalism right from 1907-08 agitation to Ghadarites to Akalis to Communists is saturated with references to and the contest over the thrust of Sikh history; the particular agitational methods worked out during the Akali movement e.g. dewans, langar, and sending jathas through the countryside, were adopted by the peasant organisers in a seamless manner.
The sites chosen for demonstrative action by peasants reflect the inspiration of the preceding generation of Akali activists. Even the testimonies employed by the author have substantive details of the Akali experience in the Punjab countryside. Nevertheless the exploration of these linkages, though pivotal in etching the peasant consciousness in Punjab, is in this work a relatively under-studied dimension. However, to be fair to author, she is primarily interested in the politically organised dimension of their becoming modern. Mukherjee authoritatively deals with the working-out of Congress-Communist strategies on the peasant question. Since the subjects of the study turn out to be Sikh peasant proprietors of central Punjab, the Akalis are also key players. In this way, these three political formations are contesting the value and legacy of the Akali movement – the ignominious retreat of the dhadhi jatha; Ruldu Khan’s inspiration from Akali movement and Sikh religious tradition; Communists claiming to be authentic Akalis in Patiala state, among others aspects, are mentioned by the author. The Akali movement is turned into a reference point to determine the veracity of the claims to being ‘better Akalis’, thereby reconstituting and desectarianising Sikh ideology through their praxis.
The social history of colonial Punjab is slowly gaining ascendancy through new studies on gender, religious identity, caste question, and so on. Crucially, the Punjabi peasants are shown to occupy considerable social space for these phenomena to inscribe themselves. On the whole, this work makes a substantial contribution to agrarian studies in India and deserves serious attention in understanding Punjab.
Sumail Singh Sidhu
RESUMING PUNJAB’S PROSPERITY: The Opportunities and Challenges Ahead. The World Bank, New Delhi, 2004.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT: Punjab. Punjab Government, Chandigarh, 2004.
THE paradox of Punjab’s development experience, rapid growth when much of India stagnated and a slowdown just as other states began to pick up in the last decade of the 20th century is, perhaps, unique. However, it is not completely inexplicable.
The two reports in question capture different facets of the same underlying process. While the World Bank (WB) report focuses on the economic and fiscal aspects of the process of slowdown and suggests a way out, the Human Development Report (HDR), prepared in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Planning Commission, presents a freeze-frame view of the achievements so far and the problems that have emerged.
Of the two, the WB report (especially chapter 3, ‘Challenges to Punjab’s Prosperity’) details the situation: How the era of militancy in the state (1980s) led to an expansion of the civil service, and in turn security related expenditures. While these galloping expenditures had a rationale in that era, they set the stage for bad habits that persisted after peace was restored in the state. They led to a chain reaction of low revenue mobilisation, excessive revenue expenditures, mounting interest payments and finally exhaustion of state finances by the early years of the 21st century. At the same time, to compound problems, the gap between growth of industrial and agricultural sectors grew from 3% in 1984 to roughly 5.5% in 1996. Being an agricultural state, this continues to spell bad news for Punjab.
The Bank report notes that, ‘Revenue mobilisation also suffered during this period and worsened as policy-makers, faced with the spectre of insurgency, adopted populist policies. The state, over time, became a soft target for special interest groups’ (pp. 41-42). In its White Paper on state finances in 2002, the state government admitted as much, but there has been little forward movement to either reverse the problem or for that matter even contain it.
It would be unfair to blame the present state government for doing precious little: It did have a positive agenda, but due to political economy effects (electoral politics mainly) it had to undo almost all reform measures it initiated (the original plans are detailed in chapter 4, ‘The Government of Punjab’s Reform Measures’, and chapter 5, ‘Revitalising Reform: Some Options and Priorities’). Free power to farmers, earlier granted through the ‘back door’, is now back. Power sector reforms in any case are as good as dead in the state (in 2001, the state electricity board had one of the highest number of employees per 1,000 consumers, employee cost too was one of the highest in India). It is not clear if any of the state government undertakings can be disinvested due to their poor financial condition, apart from the political will it takes to handle such problems.
If the WB report’s analytical focus is on the problems and the reform measures needed to set the situation right, the state Human Development Report (HDR) examines human development issues involving all sections of the state’s population – farmers, migrants and dalits. It also looks at problems confronting these sections of the population from the perspective of health, education and gender (chapters 4, 5 and 6, respectively).
The story, as told by the HDR is more compelling in human terms and throws light on the disparities that have resulted from the growth pattern adopted in the state since the mid-1960s. A skewed sex ratio (874 by the 2001 census; Table 6.8 on p. 121 of the report has another horror story: of the 10 districts with the lowest child sex ratio in India, the majority are from Punjab), a defunct programme to help dalits overcome their disabilities, the exceptionally poor state of agricultural labourers and the near contempt for gender issues in the state, are all part of the tale.
The HDR demolishes many of the myths associated with Punjab being a ‘rich’ state; its argument is that being ‘rich’ and a ‘high growth’ state has at best a weak link with human development issues. While in per capita terms it might be true that Punjab has an enviable record, in terms of the distributive impact, it is not clear whether this has conferred any advantage on dalits and migrants. In terms of provision of health and education, Punjab is a laggard: There are parts of the state where infant lives are lost with greater regularity than in parts of Rajasthan. There are regions in Punjab where literacy rates are as abysmally low as in some parts of Bihar.
One feature of the report of interest to Punjab scholars is its attempt to understand these processes and issues in a geographic perspective. The report contains maps and data that illustrate how Punjab is not uniform with respect to these situations, a picture that comes to the mind of an average citizen. It has useful statistical tables and a technical appendix.
BETWEEN COLONIALISM AND DIASPORA: Sikh Cultural Formations in an Imperial World by Tony Ballantyne. Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.
RECENT scholarship on the revitalization and resurgence of Sikhism in the last century have highlighted how Punjabi culture, existing cleavages along caste and regional lines, and aggressive competition with the Arya Samaj together contributed to modern Sikh belief and institutions. In 1969, my book Sikhs and Their Literature, explored the implications of recently discovered primary sources for re-examining the Sikh experience. A decade later, Harjot Oberoi’s Construction of Religious Boundaries became widely recognized as a baseline examination of the Singh Sabha movement. Since then, new scholars such as Pashaura Singh, Lou Fenech and Doris Jakobsh have focused on specific changes and reinterpretation of traditions in the same period.
Tony Ballantyne’s new book adds to the growing literature and expands our understanding of not only Sikh cultural formation in the Punjab but also within the diaspora. Building on themes earlier elaborated in Orientalism and Race (2002), this collection of essays deals with distinct questions: (i) What is the current state of historiography in recent Sikh studies? (ii) How did the structure and ideology of colonialism influence the systemization of Sikhism? (iii) What was the meaning of events surrounding the deposed Maharaja Dalip Singh, both in the 1870s and as a marker for how Sikhs view the past and their identity? (iv) How has an important cultural tradition, the Bhangra, affected Sikhs and many others in a time of globalization and mass community? Each essay is rich in detail and generally utilizes a combination of theoretical and primary sources, reflecting not only a mastery of material but also a growing maturity on overarching questions and potential anomalies in the Sikh experience.
Chapter one critically examines the latest studies, and while appreciating the contributions of each scholar, raises questions about use and application of terms such as ‘diaspora’ and ‘tradition’. Ballantyne argues that the history of Sikhism must be put within a transnational perspective influenced by broader debates in history and more generally, social sciences. He also lays the groundwork for re-examining how colonialism and upheavals in migration affected ideology and new practices.
The following chapter places new emphasis upon the role of the colonial milieu within Sikh developments. Western concepts and institutions frequently influenced new approaches to knowledge and tradition, in framing questions and supplying paradigms as Sikhs explored the implications of living in a rapidly changing world. The other element of change, migration and the effects of early diaspora life, receives equal attention. Ballantyne presents a useful synthesis of existing research and effectively argues that cultural and religious boundaries underwent constant reconstruction. Many issues and questions remained unanswered, and today remain central as Sikhs debate among themselves and with others in a global context.
The Dalip Singh essay incorporates earlier work by Ballantyne and Brian Axel. He retells the story of Dalip Singh’s evolution as a politician, influenced by a renewed sense of identity with Sikhism, dwindling funds, and general frustration with the British. The major contribution involves a provocative review of how the usurped Maharaja has become an icon and a key symbol for a variety of authors and groups intent on controlling memory and representation of the past for their own objectives. The rich and sometimes unexpected patterns resulting from the recent interactions between Punjabi and British culture are also illuminated and serve as a bridge to the last major chapter on Bhangra beats and Punjabi vocals. The emphasis on changing identity and the international dimensions of Sikh cultural reformations suggests new directions for research in music, art, and reviews of history. Ballantyne’s research thus builds on existing scholarship and effectively argues that any understanding of modern Sikhism must incorporate the networks and debates linking Sikhs dispersed throughout the world with their cultural homeland.
N. Gerald Barrier
SIKH FORMATION: Religion, Culture and Theory. Routledge, UK.
THE study of Sikhs and Sikhism is today at a major turning point. Against the backdrop of globalization and the emergence of new theoretical interventions in the humanities, conventional frameworks that have dominated efforts to carve out a distinct subject area for Sikh studies over the last four decades appear increasingly unhelpful, if not irrelevant. As old certainties in the humanities are being reassessed and giving way to new modes of thought, serious intellectual challenges face those of us who are engaged, whether directly or peripherally, with the study of Sikhs and Sikhism. These challenges are all the more pressing for they come at a juncture when there is generational change taking place in the academic leadership of Sikh studies. It is, therefore, an opportune moment to mark the launch of a new journal Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture and Theory, published biannually by Routledge, which we hope will provide intellectual renewal and reinvigoration to a subject area that has grown steadily over the last three decades.
One of the key challenges before Sikh Formations will be to counteract the tendency in the existing model of the humanities to rigidly separate ideals of objectivity from the existential and political concerns of the subject being studied. Such a tendency has resulted in the reification of Sikhs and Sikhism as objects of a knowledge production industry, ultimately rendering them manipulable by global media. Echoing the desire of scholars and intellectuals to increasingly avow the proximity between scholars and the objects of their study, this new journal explores possibilities for emancipating the subject of Sikh studies by treating it as a viable standpoint for engaging new intellectual currents in the humanities and social sciences. The challenge then is whether the subject of Sikh studies can engage with the various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in such a way as to affect and infect the very matter and content of the mainstream, while simultaneously inculcating a self-critique of Sikh tradition such that tradition is affirmed only insofar as it imbibes its own self-overcoming, thereby counteracting the tendency of tradition to become self-centred and ossified.
To do so, Sikh studies must stake out a ‘middle-path’ that inscribes the universal in the particular, a path that creatively cultivates the space of the ‘global’ as the space of the ‘subjective’. Such an engagement is necessary if Sikh studies is to extricate itself from ‘museumifying’ tendency of the area studies paradigm. The challenge is to balance the objectivism of area studies with the voices of new subject formations in Sikh studies. The aim of Sikh Formations is to open doors and offer opportunities to scholars from a variety of disciplines to engage critically with prevailing forms of knowledge production. This includes scholars who are not necessarily formally trained in Sikh/Punjab/South Asian studies but whose lived experience of being Sikh intersects with and informs their academic or professional vocation. To that end, the approach of Sikh Formations has been conceived as a thoroughly interdisciplinary (as opposed to multidisciplinary) forum for the analysis and critical evaluation of the contribution of Sikhs and Sikhism to global culture.
A brief reflection on the journal’s subtitle should help explain how this might be possible. Take the word ‘culture’ for example. Although, as argued above, the interaction of Sikh studies with the project of cultural studies has been fruitful, the very wealth of cultural studies itself leads to a certain impoverishment. Conceptions of culture as a historical gestalt, semiotic system or ideological force field, tend to equalize the objects of their analyses into interchangeable symbolic elements that make up a particular socio-historical formation. In these schemes, religion appears alongside politics, economy, art, manners or customs as a subset of ‘culture understood as the totality of things that people do. In addition, religion often functions as an empirical feature of human identity that takes its place alongside other traits such as race, gender, and class.’ But religious traditions themselves, and Sikh tradition is surely no exception, already imply well-articulated accounts of ethnicity, gender, and community and institute fundamental signifying systems – imaginative and ideological templates that actively fashion the relations of individual to the community. Consequently, religion and religious tradition is not just a feature of identity, but a theory of identity.
Alternatively, from a post-colonial perspective, if one accepts that the discourse of western religion itself poses a danger to Sikh studies (since ‘religion’ is a theoretical concept made primarily in the image of Christianity, thereby tending to reconfigure Sikh studies according to a field already mapped by the theoretical interests of western philosophy) it may be possible to read ‘Sikh religion’ as a theory of culture and ‘Sikh culture’ as a theory of religion. The point here is that the three terms – ‘religion’, ‘culture’, ‘theory’ – are intrinsically interlinked and cannot be segregated as is the case with the disciplines. Indeed their intersections with each other and the recognition that this intersection already pervades Sikh studies provides a new way to engage the humanities and social sciences.
In particular, the journal aims to define a new cultural and intellectual space for Sikhs and Sikhism that is being generated at various intersections and within the new formations that arise in the encounter between Sikhs/Sikhism and Western, Asian, African cultures and elsewhere. As part of its theoretical mission, the journal aims to examine the politics of knowledge and a comparative cultural theory as it arises at the intersections between contemporary Sikh experience, the study of Sikhism and the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. In addition, the journal will promote enquiry into and critical reflection upon the cultural, philosophical, religious, historical and political developments pertinent to Sikhs and Sikhism. Given that the last two decades have witnessed the ‘return’ of religions to the heart of world politics, a development most dramatically highlighted by September 11, Sikh Formations proposes to interrogate the nature of dialogue and the politics of inter-religious relations between Sikhism and other world spiritual traditions – a task very different from the uncritical acceptance of ‘inter-faith dialogue’ that is now routinely recognized as a Judeo-Christian ‘talking shop’. The journal also aims to encourage the formation of a new literary and artistic space based on contemporary Sikh experience through the publication of poetry, works of fiction and art commentary.
Sikh Formations is a peer-reviewed international journal that will aim to provide a leading forum for cutting-edge research. Yet the international space it generates will be constituted in the processes of translation, among multiple registers (linguistic, poetic, musical or otherwise) and will be actualized in the exchanges and debates among our authors and commentators. Sikh Formations signifies a new and exciting phase in the study of Sikhs and Sikhism.
Arvind-Pal S. Mandair
JOURNAL OF PUNJAB STUDIES. Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
THIS year marked the publication of the 13th volume of the Journal of Punjab Studies which started way back in 1994 in its earlier incarnation as the International Journal of Punjab Studies. During this period, the journal has been successful in making important interventions in Sikh and Punjab Studies in a number of discipline areas and in promoting interdisciplinary and comparative research. In fact we are proud that a diaspora-inspired IJPS has been able to play a pioneering and pivotal role in creating space for legitimizing and shaping the academic study of Punjab and its different faith communities, both in the subcontinent and overseas.
However, it has often been a painstaking journey. It took almost 10 years of planning for the journal to be conceived and come to fruition. Punjab was not a region which figured prominently in traditional courses on South Asian Studies in British universities despite the fact that it was one of the most important regions of the Indian subcontinent and played a pivotal role in its political and economic development from ancient times. Further, there was a mismatch between the academic study on South Asia on offer in the UK and the numerous Punjabi people with their own needs and aspirations. The Punjab Research Group (founded in April 1984 in Coventry) and later the Association for Punjab Studies (UK) took upon itself to promote the academic study of the Punjab in different forums by regularly holding three (now two) workshops a year, organizing conferences and in establishing standing panels on Punjab Studies at national and international conferences. Many of the papers presented at these conferences subsequently appeared as special issues of the journal and/or in separate volumes or were published in leading social science journals. Quite a few of the presenters went on to successfully complete their PhDs and hold academic positions in universities.
There have been many struggles during this period. Sage India, which published the first five volumes, did not renew the agreement on commercial grounds and with other academic publishers also reluctant to promote such a specialized field without a hefty subsidy, the Association for Punjab Studies (UK) had no choice but to publish the IJPS itself. The journal always tried to maintain its editorial autonomy and did not seek rich benefactors or politically aligned sponsors. The original six member editorial board was regrettably reduced to four after the first four volumes, increasing the workload on the remaining editors. The 10th anniversary landmark was seen as an important opportunity for the journal to reflect and reinvent itself and make a new departure.
The need for restructuring had become obvious for some time. In addition to relieving burden on the editors, the editorial advisory board too required revisiting as some members had retired, moved away from their focus on Punjab or had indicated their desire not to continue their involvement. This was an opportunity to re-balance the membership by including a better mix of younger and experienced scholars and from different and new discipline areas. The journal would also benefit from a greater exposure in North America, home to the largest concentration of Punjabis outside the Indian subcontinent. The establishment of a Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) under the guidance of Professor Gurinder Singh Mann was an important milestone for overseas Punjabis. Both Professor Mann and Professor Mark Juergensmeyer, Director, Global and International Studies (UCSB), made a generous offer of sponsoring the journal under the Center’s auspices and this was seen as a major opportunity for the journal to consolidate its past achievements, set even higher standards and help shape the future direction of Punjab and Sikh Studies.
Beginning with Volume 11, the journal was renamed Journal of Punjab Studies, reflecting the new realities associated with globalization and moved to its new home at the Center for Sikh and Punjab Studies at UCSB. It has an editorial board which links the three major centres of Punjab Studies in Punjab (India), in UK and UCSB in USA and an editorial advisory board which includes the best expertise available in Punjab Studies. Since moving to UCSB, three volumes (6 issues) of the journal have already been published. Four of these issues have been special issues focusing on Geography of Punjab, Culture of Punjab, Agriculture and Rural Economy of Punjab and a double issue on Punjabi Literature with focus on both East and West Punjab. Further special issues, for example on Punjab under colonial rule, religious traditions of Punjab and Punjab-Punjab regional cooperation are planned for the coming years.
Shinder S. Thandi
REVERSING THE GAZE: Amar Singh’s Diary. A Colonial Subject’s Narrative of Imperial India edited and commentary by Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph with Mohan Singh Kanota. Westview Press, Boulder Co, 2002.
Reversing the Gaze is a surprisingly readable book for academics and laypersons alike. Surprising, because lay readers may be intimidated by the lengthy, erudite introductions to the book and each of its six parts, as well as 88 pages of endnotes written by the Rudolphs; and some academics may doubt that a subjective diary constitutes ‘scientific’ knowledge. The Rudolphs rigorously argue that it does in their Introduction, and in a December 2003 article published in Perspectives on Politics, and no historian denies the value of diaries as source material. Most readers too will find enjoyment in Amar Singh’s daily reflections enhanced by the compression, elucidation, pruning and thematic systematization provided by the Rudolphs. How many, after all, would have the patience to read 89 bound volumes of daily notes written between 1898 and 1942, now accessible on microfiche at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Incidentally, this volume represents one per cent of the first seven years’ entries. It is also helpful to have Amar Singh’s enthusiastic descriptions of polo matches, or the now defunct Kadir Cup pig-sticking event of March 1903 (pp. 220-223), for example, separated from his jottings on books read, or his observations of the difficulties encountered by Rajput women, including his wife and mother, living inside the haveli (Part V).
The brief biography of Amar Singh provided early (pp. 16-21) is essential, not only to understand why such eminent scholars as the Rudolphs devoted three decades to their project of presenting these diaries to an international audience, but also to avoid being carried away by Amar Singh’s ebullience when he joined the Imperial forces in putting down the Boxer Uprising in China 1900-1901 (Part II), and then in training to become ‘an officer and a gentleman’ at the Imperial Cadet Corps 1902-1905 (Part IV). He expected to receive a Kings Commission in the British Indian Army immediately thereafter, as promised by Lord Curzon. But we have been informed already that Curzon failed to overcome bureaucratic and military opposition to his plans and no Indian received a Kings Commission until August 1917. Amar Singh served as a captain decorated for gallantry in World War I and then as a major and senior squadron commander in the 16th Cavalry Regiment 1919-1921. Nevertheless, his fitness to command was denied by his racist British superiors who could not stomach the idea, much less the fact, of ‘a black commanding a white.’ Amar Singh resigned in disgust and built a second career in the state of Jaipur.
Young Amar Sing’s personality must have been pleasing, even endearing, and non-threatening. He enjoyed horsemanship as well as literature, refuting conventional notions of their incompatibility. Above all, he relished good conversation, lacking among his philistine Rajput comrades but shared with a few British officers who liked him, and with himself via the discipline of daily diary writing. Amar Singh was reflective but not introspective, not given to agonized angst. He was critical of his own people and their customs but not openly so. Thus, though he valued Sir Pratap Singh’s patronage, he disliked his pampering of an incompetent ‘favourite’, but avoided giving offence to either.
Amar Singh was no social reformer; on the contrary. He found it impossible to eat from the same dish as Muslim fellow cadets and so favoured English food being served in the mess. He was indignant at Rajput habits of hypergamy necessitating substantial dowry and often causing family bankruptcy, condemned the ‘brutal custom’ of female infanticide (p. 398), and was sympathetic to the idea of more activity and choices for women. At the same, time he justified sati (voluntary) and wanted purdah to be compulsory. I would like to know what he thought and wrote about such matters in later life and hope that further volumes will appear.
Amar Singh exemplifies the ‘liminal’ man for the Rudolphs, and they make much of his ability to move between two different cultures – princely Rajput and British-Indian – with ease and without becoming a deracinated ‘hybrid’. It is likely that Amar Singh was able to do so because he was well-rooted in his own tradition and sense of identity as a Rathore, a Rajput. He was not unique, as many Indian men of his generation and later were liminal. I remember my own father, another Kings Commissioned Officer, and the choices he made for his family on the basis of reason, not sentimentality. We are more aware of ‘hybrid’ individuals today, sometimes insecure but often creative, because not only the much-maligned babu but almost any educated travelled person of any nationality in the 21st century is some kind of hybrid. Indian civilization itself can be read as the story of continuous hybridization resulting in great achievements as well as present day identity crises for some.
In Amar Singh’s youth his two worlds were kept rigidly apart by British imperial rule and its institutionalised racism that he too was forced to confront as he moved between them. Therefore, on the one hand, Amar Singh visiting Delhi in 1904 writes, ‘There is no doubt that the British are the best rulers that have ever come to India’ (p. 277). On the other hand, his entries throughout those years are peppered with expressions of resentment at British racial arrogance and their treatment of all Indians, even princes, as ‘coolies’. The concluding entry reads: ‘Even in our own homes we Indians are excluded from European society… I wish God would show a day to me when we Indians would be a free nation moving about at our own free will and ranked as a nationality on the same footing as England, France or Russia’ (p. 485).
Amar Singh died in 1942 when negotiations for independence had commenced, with mixed results. I wonder what he would have told his diary about events leading up to them. This is yet another reason for the editors and publishers to give us another volume, as fascinating as Reversing the Gaze.
POSTMODERN GANDHI AND OTHER ESSAYS – Gandhi in the World and at Home by Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006.
MORE than any other recent work of serious analysis of Gandhi’s life and ideas, Postmodern Gandhi is remarkable for its novel, if often controversial, reading of Gandhi’s figure in history and his incipient postmodernism. The objective is not so much historical reinterpretation, as it is to help understand the eclectic sources of Gandhi’s postmodern thought, and their implications for us in contemporary times.
‘Gandhi in the Mind of America’ undertakes a fascinating exploration of the course of Gandhi’s reception in American government establishment and popular thought. As America experienced changes in its potential as an imperial power, shifts were also seen in the way Gandhi’s resistance was interpreted there. For instance, by the turn of the 20th century as the US annexed Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, ‘admirers of British imperialism in the US accepted the mission of the white races, Britain and America, to bring order and civilization to the benighted.’ But the rise in America’s imperial mission also had the effect of stirring voices of opposition, and it was on the crescendo of this opinion that Gandhi became widely known and adopted as a source of inspiration against imperial ambitions.
Similarly, Gandhi was either accepted as a ‘Guru’ who had significant moral lessons to offer, or dismissed as a fraud because he was simply incomprehensible. Men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Neibuhr, fascinated by the proximity of Gandhi’s non-violence to the Christian ethic of love, publicly affirmed their support for his message, and argued for the need to transport it to the American and larger world context.
On a different note, Gandhi bashing, too, had an established lineage. This, the authors argue, developed often in response to the leader’s rising prominence at home. Lobbyists in this camp railed against Gandhi in ways that are not unsurprising to us in India. Called variously a ‘hypocrite’ and a ‘faddist’, Lloyd Rudolph’s account shows how ultimately this bashing remained just that, without producing any useful critique of Gandhi’s methods or objectives.
The essays titled ‘Postmodern Gandhi’, and ‘The Road Not Taken’, advance a more pointedly post- modern reading of Gandhi. The former, in a more theoretical vein, establishes Gandhi’s postmodern pedigree through an analysis of his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, and Hind Swaraj. According to Lloyd Rudolph, Hind Swaraj was the definitive harbinger of Gandhi’s thought that came closest to postmodern ideas as we know them today. For instance, in it he challenges the then prevailing belief in modernity’s untrammelled movement toward progress through history and time. At a time when the way of science was seen to provide answers to all questions, and in popular thought distinguished the empire building nations from the colonized, Gandhi’s clear questioning of this ideology was revolutionary. It gave meaning to a freedom struggle, and became the forerunner of contemporary movements against mindless development.
An interesting part of the essay is its tracing of the sources of Hind Swaraj’s thought. Far from being an outcome of pure Oriental influence, Hind Swaraj was written under the influence of some of the finest western authors. In writing it Gandhi claimed, ‘I have but endeavoured humbly to follow Tolstoy, Ruskin, Thoreau, Emerson and other writers besides the masters of Indian philosophy.’ By admitting to this simple fact Gandhi begins to locate his skepticism of modernity within a section of the West itself, and as a result helps dissolve the boundaries between the Occident and the Orient. Ultimately the question about Hind Swaraj’s contemporary relevance is answered in the affirmative. According to the authors, the book was not a time-bound nationalistic tract as some have argued, but an expression of deep anguish about modern forces, which drove him to search for alternatives. Perhaps the search still continues, arguably more in form and less in substance.
Gandhi pursued truth, but shunned the chase for ‘The Truth’. Humans can only know partial and contingent truths, and objective universal knowledge is not within our grasp. This was Gandhi’s postmodern epistemology, and it distinguished him from modernity’s certainty about finding objective and universally applicable truths. What is not answered convincingly is that in the absence of absolute truth what became the basis of Gandhi’s robust programmes of action, and how was a sense of certainty of ends communicated to those thousands who responded to his calls for satyagraha?
‘The Road Not Taken’ ends on a controversial note about the inevitability of India’s partition, but the greater point of interest is the contrast between Nehru’s idea of modern state sovereignty and Gandhi’s vision of the state and its citizens. Unlike Nehru who demanded full independence after his election as President of The Indian National Congress in 1929, Gandhi’s postmodernist ideal, according to Lloyd Rudolph, directed him toward dominion status. The former goal envisioned a centralized state, whose control was determined with little regard to India’s multicultural situation, while the latter set forth a more elaborate power sharing arrangement that incorporated India’s multiple minorities. The essay argues that it was with the triumph of the Nehruvian ideal over Gandhi’s that Jinnah’s demand for Pakistan got a fillip. Any argument explaining the reason for partition is invariably contentious. The problem in the essay, however, is its inability to convincingly argue as to why Gandhi’s goal of dominion status must be interpreted as a postmodernist one.
The essays in the second part reappear after their first publication in 1983. They mostly argue for understanding Gandhi’s leadership as charismatic and effective because it had modern as well as traditional aspects, blended together in Gandhi’s inimitable way. For instance, in ‘Gandhi and the New Courage’, it is argued that Gandhi articulated a new understanding of courage based not on martial qualities but on unwavering self-restraint. This then became the basis of political action which is discussed in ‘Self-Control and Political Potency’. In this essay, political efficacy, a typically modernist concern, is shown to become Gandhi’s preoccupation too. For Gandhi, however, the way to achieve it in every individual is through control of one’s physiological needs. What made Gandhi unique was his ability to transplant abstract ‘physiological needs’ with traditional Indian idioms of satyagraha and brahmacharya. And while the former became more popular than the latter, the ultimate effect was the guaranteed political efficacy of an individual satyagrahi against a cold colonial power. In other words, a modern collective political outlook was born, all the time rooted in traditionally accepted moral values.
‘This-Worldly Asceticism and Political Modernization’ discusses Gandhi’s influence in streamlining political organizing, and cultivating a public ethic disassociated from private attachment. Whether it was punctuality, collecting public funds and using them rationally, Gandhi enforced high standards in all public organizational activities, especially those associated with his ashram and the Indian National Congress. This set an example of public probity, and bred a strong culture of professionalism beyond the figure of Gandhi. But to what extent this more ‘mundane’ political modernization can be attributed to religious sources of Gandhi’s this-worldly asceticism remains uncertain, and hard to make a case for.
Perhaps the theme unifying the essays in part one and two is the eventual difficulty of characterizing Gandhi as traditional, modern or even postmodern. Postmodern Gandhi is valuable in providing armour against easy appropriation of Gandhi toward any one of multiple ideological projects. Importantly, it does this by marshalling a great amount of historical material, and Gandhi’s own writing. Coming in the year commemorating one hundred years of Gandhi’s satyagraha, the book introduces a new dimension to analyzing Gandhi for our times.