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SARNATH: A Master Plan for Tourism Development. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1988.

SARNATH: Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development. Varanasi Development Authority and Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1990.

TAJ MAHAL CULTURAL HERITAGE DISTRICT: Development Plan II. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2001.

CHAMPANER-Pavagadh Archaeological Park, Gujarat, India. Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2001.

THE Taj Corridor project has created a huge media controversy, sending shock waves through the government bureaucracy. Everyone is now aware of the implications of the ‘no build zone’ around protected monuments and the importance of obtaining environmental clearance under almost any circumstance. So far so good, even though the negative implications of such rules – their cut-your-nose-to-spite-your-face nature – are yet to be assessed. My focus in this review is however on the origins of the Taj Corridor project, not its fallout. This is a little examined perspective on this controversial project.

The Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (DLA), has an overseas component to its academic programme in which students are taken abroad to study how to develop context-specific design solutions. DLA students have been coming to India regularly to study important archaeological sites like Sarnath, Agra and Champaner, among others. These visits are often conducted under the aegis of the United States National Park Service (NPS) which has, on occasion, utilised funds accumulated in India under the Public Law 480 food-aid programme to underwrite the costs of these study tours, including reciprocal visits to DLA by senior Indian bureaucrats associated with the development of the archaeological sites being studied by the students – the better, no doubt, to ensure contextual fidelity in the student’s project.

The results of these exercises are published as handsome, large-format reports, presenting copiously illustrated solutions to the problems identified by the students. They are freely distributed to key officials and become the calling card for further studies. These reports attract the attention of decision-makers in India primarily because of their compelling presentation of local issues and neatly packaged solutions. Since the recommendations are authenticated by a reputable academic institution in the United States, the NPS and, of course, local bureaucrats who participated in the studio exercises in India and abroad, they are often unquestioningly implemented. The damage that such seemingly innocuous academic exercises unleash on the local environment has escaped public scrutiny.

I first came upon this invidious process at work in Sarnath in July 1993. I had been commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, to design a meditation centre and related projects to promote tourism at Sarnath as part of the development of the ‘Buddhist circuit’. On my first visit to Sarnath, I was presented with a copy of two documents prepared by DLA, on the basis of which the government had decided to undertake the project.

The precursor to these documents was a 1986 Ministry of Tourism task force report, An Action Plan for the Development of the Buddhist Sector, which recommended the development of facilities and infrastructure at all Buddhist sties. The ministry contracted NPS ‘with which the Government of India had had a long working relationship, for assistance in development.’1 The NPS, in turn, invited DLA to undertake the study and develop conceptual master plans for selected sites.

In January 1988, an international design team – including DLA students, faculty and experts from Japan – conducted a ‘two week, on-site, intensive study of Sarnath.’2 The conceptual master plan prepared on site was presented to local officials in Varanasi and New Delhi, and further developed at the University of Illinois before publication in 1988. This was the first document I was given, titled, Sarnath: A Master Plan for Tourism Development.

The second document titled, Sarnath: Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development, was the result of a follow up, two week visit in January 1990 to identify ‘significant cultural characteristics; the establishment of a cultural heritage zone; the formulation of conceptual design guidelines; and testing of these guidelines through case study design for various areas of the site.’3 Again, the study was taken back to the University of Illinois, ‘where the studio was visited by officials from the Government of India’s Ministry of Tourism, the State of Uttar Pradesh’s Ministry of Tourism, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Commissioner of Varanasi, and a second working group of architects and planners from the Varanasi Development Authority.’4 Interestingly, this report assigns partial credit for authorship to the Varanasi Development Authority.

When I examined the reports in 1993 I was shocked. They contained the most stereotypical and Orientalist fantasies in the guise of ‘design guidelines’. The basis for my reaction was my own experience developing conservation proposals for significant sacred sites like Varanasi, Ujjain and Bhubaneswar. In all these projects I was also resolving contemporary issues in culturally complex sites as an ‘outsider’, not unlike the position of the DLA team studying Sarnath; hence, the issue of an ‘outsider’ mediating the local context is not my complaint. What was shocking, however, was the naiveté the DLA team displayed in ingenuously transferring the Buddhist style on to contemporary buildings. Indeed, the entire master plan was suffused with Orientalist interpretations of historical context to serve contemporary needs, a licentious intellectual liberty that would not be attempted by serious professionals or permitted at sacred sites elsewhere.

The poor intellectual quality of these documents is hardly surprising, considering the fact that the DLA team during their two week visit to India ‘spent the first few days in Delhi taking in the standard tourist sites... flew to Varanasi where they stayed at the Clarks Hotel (in the cantonment area)... (and) after touring the archaeological site, they returned to their hotel in Varanasi and worked for the next week on a design plan… Midway through their stay in Varanasi, the Americans took a break to tour the old city, and to take a dawn boat ride on the Ganges... Otherwise, team members did not leave the hotel to mix with Indians or see much else of Varanasi... team members report being put off by aggressive taxi and rickshaw wallahs... At the end of their stay, the Illinois team made presentations of preliminary plans both in Varanasi and Delhi, but the bulk of the second site report was done after returning to Illinois.’5

And yet, here at Sarnath and earlier at Delhi, these documents were presented to me by local officials, including the commissioner, as the blueprint for my assignment. Of course, their appropriation and internalising of the DLA report was hardly surprising given their role in its production.

It was a significant commission for me, not only because I was going through a lean patch in my professional practice, but also because it was a high profile project of national importance. Nevertheless, I took the bull by the horns and rejected the blueprint. I explained my objections and offered to formulate a new master plan in addition to the original assignment to design a meditation centre.

Considering that I was an emissary from the Central government, local officials were initially wary and uncertain of how to deal with my apostasy. To cut a long story short, the assignment did not materialise. After several visits and considerable work on the development of the design of the mediation centre, the local bureaucracy resisted my initiatives and killed the project by using the best strategy it possessed: prevarication. Funds sanctioned by the Central government were diverted by local authorities, contracts were not honoured, officials changed, the project lost steam and I was left holding one of the most exciting design proposals I had developed in my professional career, unrealised.

It was with these misgivings upon reading the Sarnath reports and experiencing the attitude of local officials that I wrote to Professor Amita Sinha, the lone Indian faculty member (from Lucknow) on the DLA team who, I presumed, must be somewhat familiar with the Sarnath site and the colonial mindset of Indian bureaucracy. I pointed out the complexity of conducting an unequal dialogue between US ‘experts’ and Indian officials who had, moreover, already been coopted by being asked to participate in studio exercises in Illinois. I received no answer. I can only assume that DLA and NPS rejected the implications of my observation because they have carried on in the same manner at other sites, most recently at the Taj.

I relate this story to provide an insight into what happened at the aborted Taj Corridor project. The actors were the same: DLA, NPS, and several local officials who ‘participated’ in developing the design proposals prepared by the students during their now routine two week tours to the site. But at Agra no one questioned the content of the students proposals as I did at Sarnath. The tragedy I wish to underscore in the scandal that erupted after the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Jagmohan, ‘discovered’ this project under construction, is not the complicity of the officials and the politicians in breaking laws (and perhaps diverting public funds for private benefit) which is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, but the fact that they sincerely believed that this was a worthwhile project.

This belief was fostered by, and had its origins in the authentication DLA and NPS conferred on the student projects. Besides, having been involved in its production, many of the officials were only trying to efficiently and effectively implement what they may have considered to be their own idea; under these circumstances, the bureaucracy can as easily obstruct, as it can facilitate, the implementation of any project. This is what happened at Sarnath and Agra. In both cases the bureaucracy’s fetishisation of foreign consultants stands out, even when these consultants are merely students undertaking a two week studio exercise. Our bureaucracy scarcely accords senior local professionals such respect and, needless to say, our architectural students are not similarly feted here or abroad.

The Taj report is an exotic fantasy generically similar to the Sarnath exercise. This is also true of DLA’s recent Champaner-Pavagadh study, where a complex Hindu-Muslim medieval city has been treated in a formulaic manner by resorting to the use of stylistic architectural clichés. Again, at Champaner-Pavagadh, the recommendations of a local conservation architect, with years of on-site experience, were discounted in favour of promoting the recommendations of the DLA team. I must clarify that I am not alleging that the DLA reports I am reviewing are without any redeeming merit. For example, the Champaner-Pavagadh study is qualitatively superior to the earlier ones, but then, this study also had the benefit of access to the work done earlier by local consultants.

All studies I am reviewing are, however, predicated on the agency of local power brokers – government officials in the case of Sarnath and Taj, and an aggressive NGO in the case of the Champaner-Pavagadh project. These agents smooth the way for the reports to be presented to decision-makers. This pattern of obtaining official approval for student exercises distinguishes them from similar exercises undertaken by Indian academic institutions. I understand that the Champaner-Pavagadh report is yet to be presented to the highest authorities, but when it is, it will be retracing a familiar path. Once again the works of DLA students will be used to leverage official sanctions for projects that promoters believe will be better design solutions for conservation works necessary to be undertaken.

In all these cases shoddy solution are inevitable given the cursory manner in which the sites are studied. The students in such exercises are on an exciting field trip to ‘exotic India’, as much to absorb local colour as to practice the limited skills they have acquired in their architectural education thus far. This is a powerful pedagogic strategy – much like throwing someone into the deep end of a swimming pool in order to teach them to swim. But we must remember that the reports produced are just that – educational tools – and not documents backed by years of experience in the field. Accepting these reports uncritically and promoting their contents as well considered policy, is sufficient grounds for concern, both on the part of those who offer the advice and those who accept it.

This is the background leading to the Taj Corridor fiasco. NPS produced the Agra Heritage Project: Planning Synopsis in 1994; DLA used it to produce the Taj Mahal Cultural Heritage District: Development Plan in 2000; its students on subsequent visits elaborated four phases of the suggested plan of action, and the fifth and final phase focused on building the now infamous promenade on the west bank of the river Yamuna, which was published in 2001. It was this proposal that the Uttar Pradesh government was in the process of implementing when Jagmohan blew the whistle. The matter is sub-judice and investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation is still in progress but in the debate that the project has generated the role of NPS and DLA – and the implications thereof – has been elided.

While DLA’s original proposal suggested that the site be used primarily for passive recreation, respecting the 500-meter ‘no build zone’ around the Taj Mahal, their translation into the Taj Corridor Project by the Uttar Pradesh government through the National Project Construction Corporation, a commercially aggressive public sector consultancy and construction company, has focused on the project’s financial viability. The change in objectives catapulted the project into the controversy we know today. In my letter to Professor Sinha, I had warned her of such consequences.

I am wary of even raising this point at this juncture in our political life, because the subject of the ‘foreign hand’ is picked up with distressing alacrity and distorted to achieve political mileage by politicians and even academics in many contexts. The latest manifestation of this xenophobic strategy is the establishment of a society called the Bharat Shiksha Kosh by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, which requires that all foreign funding for research and academic activity in Indian academic institutions be channelled through this new, government controlled entity. Surely, the answer to inappropriate foreign influence on local policy is not censorship but greater awareness of one’s own intellectual potentials, professional resources and social responsibilities.

This is the lesson we need to learn in the time of globalization. The DLAs and NPSs will continue to study India and educate their students as they have in the past. In the process, they will continue to produce the slick monographs such as the ones under review. They may even continue to find agents to promote their work. That is not a problem, except to the extent that such works are presented by the authors as well-conceived advice on conservation policy. The real problem – and tragedy – is that our decision-makers are seduced by such sophomoric exercises and reject serious initiatives undertaken by local professionals.

A.G. Krishna Menon



1. Sarnath: A Master Plan for Tourism Development, p. 2.

2. Ibid., p. 3.

3. Sarnath: Design Guidelines and Case Studies for Tourism Development, p. 2.

4. Ibid., p. 2.

5. David Prochaska, ‘Ethnography of a Postcolonial Site: Sarnath’ in the Proceedings of the Theatres of Decolonization Conference, Chandigarh, 6-10 January 1995, edited by Vikramaditya Prakash, and published by the Office of the Dean, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, 1997, pp. 327-350; p. 341. Prochaska’s essay provides a detailed insider’s view of the DLA Sarnath exercise and questions the motives and strategies employed by both DLA and NPS.


BOMBAY AND MUMBAI: The City in Transition edited by Sujata Patel and Jim Masselos. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003.

IN the 20th century, the city of Bombay, as the authors state in their preface to the book under review, made a transition to become one of the world’s mega-cities. This wasn’t the only transition the city made. As the story unfolds, the transition was sustained by a population explosion, the increased numbers of job seekers who came from the hinterland and further away. Simultaneous to these were other changes, not merely a change in the city’s name to Mumbai; the impact of all these on the city remains as yet unravelled.

The third in the series on Bombay-Mumbai brought out by OUP, Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition, is mainly a story in images. The images of changes through the decades of the 1980s and ’90s, when events conspired and assisted to bring about a total change in the city’s character. The very title suggests that the city remains in a state of metamorphosis, and the authors by recounting these changes leave the question unanswered – as to where Mumbai, with its changed political priorities, its rapidly transforming landscape, the pauperization and prosperity that exists cheek-by-jowl, is actually headed as it moves into a new century.

In that sense, the book lacks the robust optimism and confidence of the two books that preceded it. Bombay: Metaphor for Modern India had portrayed Bombay as the epitome of a new India, comfortable in its own version of modernity, rooted in tradition and yet bustling with the verve of an emerging cosmopolitanism. Bombay: Mosaic of Modern Culture had reflected a city that encouraged the arts, confident and unafraid of new questions on old traditions, and bold, new experimentation in all fields. As Sujata Patel states in the very first chapter of the book under review, much of the above scenario so optimistically detailed in the previous books, prevailed till the 1980s when the city exulted in the first flush of globalization and the identity, almost unquestioningly conferred, of being India’s first modern city. The 1980s saw the slow death of the industry that had brought Bombay its first glory – the textile mills collapsed, as did the trade unions that called the ill-fated strike of 1982. The ’80s was also the decade when the menace of the Shiv Sena, whose xenophobic credentials appeared first in the 1960s, became fully evident. In a move replete with historical irony, the onset of liberalization coincided with the Shiv Sena’s emergence as a major political power not merely in the city, but the state of Maharashtra of which Mumbai is the capital.

The changes fructified in ample measure in the 1990s – the decade that witnessed the worst riots in the city’s history, a change in the city’s name, the Shiv Sena winning assembly elections and coming to power hand in glove with the right-wing BJP. These years also saw the biggest contract being awarded by a government to a multinational (the controversial Enron project which does not find a mention in the book), the continued march of big business, accompanied simultaneously by the collapse of numerous local, smaller industries, rise of unemployment, and the increasing numbers in the informal and the underemployed workforce. Bombay-Mumbai, as the story flits over all these images, is a city of contrasts. On the other hand, it is a city that remains inextricably interlinked to all its parts – a fact Jim Masselos, the book’s other editor, brings out well in the second chapter. The three railway services form a lifeline, serving millions of commuters every day. The city’s very growth has been spatial, growing in a linear manner along the railway lines. But as Masselos says, another way of tracking the unity of the city is by studying how it was affected in other kinds of confrontation, i.e., communal riots. The riots of 1992-93 for the first time encompassed the entire city. Not merely densely urbanized areas, but secluded elite enclaves and under-privileged slums witnessed an orgy of violence whose scars still remain – in the shape of ghettoes that dot the city’s landscape, the sense of fear and isolation that groups of minorities still evince in their narratives or the mistrust that has now grown among communities (Jyoti Punwani, chapter 10).

The image of a city of contrasts in brought out in the chapters that detail the changing politics of the city, the struggle for survival amidst declining availability of jobs, sliding wages, inadequate shelter and public services that are increasingly out of reach (part II). Sudha and Lalit Deshpande (chapter 3) while acknowledging that Mumbai of the 1990s may be a more humane society than Bombay of the 1950s, inasmuch as the young and the old do not have to work as much for their survival now than earlier, worrisome trends are clearly visible. Women’s work participation remains unacceptably low, which indicates that economic and social change in Mumbai has not dislodged outdated patriarchal notions; rate of unemployment for men and women between ages 15-24 remain high and the fact that the unemployed are also more educated than they were before, makes them ‘highly inflammable material’ (p. 79).

This image of contrasts also aptly describes the city’s politics. The domination of the Shiv Sena and its rightwing ideology has rendered marginal communities and groups that still aspire for equality and a just social order. But Dalit (lower caste) politics, riven by its own factional differences, is now reduced to mainly an alliance partner of the two major political parties in order to retain any significance. Two chapters in this section highlight the contradictions that the sweeping changes in the city’s urban landscape have brought in their wake. The last two decades witnessed an unprecedented construction boom in the city. Harini Narayanan (chapter 8) narrates how loopholes evident in the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act, 1976 were effectively exploited to benefit the cabal of landlords, builder-developers and the government. Though towering skyscrapers continue to be erected, the struggle for decent housing continues to aggravate the lives of over 50% of the city’s population who live in slums (chapter 9). As one of the city’s urban bodies acknowledges, only a little over 6% of households in metropolitan Mumbai can afford ‘formal’ housing. In such a situation, there are far more housing units than there are takers; on the other hand anywhere between 50-60% of the city’s residents live in ‘informal housing’ that is in slums and pavement dwellings (p. 204). P.K. Das highlights the scams that lie behind much of the Shiv-Sena BJP government’s schemes to build proper homes for the slum dwellers. Under the guise of seemingly benevolent slum rehabilitation schemes, a spate of brutal evictions, and the insidious takeover of prime urban land, often in environmentally vulnerable areas, has taken place.

The last two chapters are devoted to Bollywood – the Indian film industry that world-over is almost simultaneous with Bombay-Mumbai. Amrit Gangar (chapter 11) records the changes the film industry has witnessed from the pre-independence decades to the present. The decline in the studio system has given way to superstar cults, the growing influence of the mafia and politics, the changing modes seen in every aspect of film making. Gangar however, is disappointing in his conclusion. In recent years, Bollywood has been churning out innumerable flops apart from the occasional hit. The themes too are more conventional, less challenging of patriarchy and tradition.

That the last chapter counterposes (Sandeep Pendse, chapter 12) the changing Mumbai this book has occupied itself with, with a film (Satya) that made waves in the very last year of the previous century is interesting. Satya is a story of the fabled mafia that makes up the city’s dark underbelly. The narrative follows the transition of a newcomer to the city into a mafia boss himself, but the film also tells a story of how the mafia’s tentacles are now seemingly everywhere. By portraying the city as a jungle (p. 326), the chapter shows the despair, loneliness and apathy that afflicts most of its citizens, who are rendered helpless victims, caught in the nexus that skilfully interweaves the politician, the policeman and the gangster.

The city of Bombay has formed the subject of many movies in the past. Almost all of these have contrived to depict it as a city with a heart of gold, despite its underlying sordidness. It offers the promise of solace and dreams to the lonely and the marginal, but the book seems to convey a different, subtle message towards the end – the images and stark reality offered by the movie ‘Satya’. It is stark in its depiction of violence, anger, passivity – the myriad colours that now seem to make up Mumbai, a city in forever transition.

Anuradha Kumar


IN THE TIME OF TREES AND SORROWS: Nature, Power, and Memory in Rajasthan by Ann Grodzins Gold and Bhoju Ram Gujar. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2002.

Ann Gold is an artist amongst anthropologists. In the Time of Trees and Sorrows is a product of over 20 years of collaborative work with schoolteacher and long time research associate, Bhoju Ram Gujar, from Ghatiyali village in the Ajmer district of Rajasthan. This is a richly textured and moving ethnography of the moral ecology of Sawar – a former kingdom comprising 27 villages in the state of Rajasthan. Gold and Gujar capture through oral sources and memory reconstruction the pivotal time from 1930-1950 when Sawar changed from being a kingdom to becoming part of independent India.

In the chapter entitled Voice, Gold tells us that she and Gujar consistently suspected each other’s assumptions of authority even as they relied on the other’s knowledge and abilities to access particular sources, people and narratives. This kind of relationship is a key foundation of the method and epistemology that makes this book. In other words, this book is able to bring us a deep sense of Sawar’s ecological past because it is an outcome of Gold and Gujar’s long term, co-produced ethnographic and historical research. The result is a remarkable and unprecedented methodological adventure into ethnographically reconstructing memory as history and moral ecology.

This book’s ancestry can be traced through a number of different genealogies. The most significant of these are social ecology, environmental history, historical anthropology and subaltern ethnography. The art of Gold’s anthropology lies first and foremost in her methodological practice, her ability to draw upon various disciplinary modes of capturing and telling a story that is as moving as it is a subtle, political commentary of both past and present.

In the foreground of our imaginations, Rajasthan is a timeless desert, where history does not alter the landscape. We can thus immediately appreciate Gold’s brutal honesty in the preface where she suggests that this book represents her effort to build a historical consciousness about Ghatiyali, a concern with history that her previous work on Rajasthan did not adequately address. She chooses to approach Ghatiyali’s history through a reconstruction of remembered ‘multiple, fractious’ experiences, rather than through archival research. Her impetus for privileging memory over archive is to go beyond the projected omniscience of the archive and give voice instead to those who have been silenced in the official records of history.

Gold and Gujar search people’s memories for a simple question: what happened to the trees and what role did the transition from past kingship autocracy to current democracy play in the making of Rajasthan’s deforested ecological present? The story of deforestation privileges the experience of subjects, rather than rulers, uncovering with minute detail what it was like ‘for poor farmers and herders and labourers during the time of kings (and empire)’ (Gold and Gujar 2002: 5).

The principal story and lesson in the book is anchored in the fact that Sawar’s contemporary residents remember the time of kings in ambivalent terms. The time of kings was both a time of trees and of sorrows. It was a time of nature’s abundance since protecting trees, maintaining gardens and protecting certain wild animals while hunting others enhanced the reputation and status of kings. Gold and Gujar’s interviews show the various ways in which the time of kings tied the ecology of a place to the status of its kings. Such a tie however meant that this was also a time of great sorrows for Sawar’s farmers and labourers. For instance, the royal protection of wild pigs meant that crops and fields were systematically destroyed. Sawar’s residents could not ensure their own survival because they were not allowed to harm the pigs that destroyed the source of their livelihood.

Moreover, the king’s men demanded begar or forced labour, indiscriminately taxed Sawar’s poor farmers, raped Sawar’s women, inflicted the intensely humiliating punishment of shoe-beatings. The time of kings was the time of ‘the rule of the shoe’ as one of Gold and Gujar’s interviewees puts it (109). All the injustices of that time could be captured through the poignant contrast of ‘the Court’s kindness to pigs and his cruelty to the Mali boy,’ the magnanimity of the Court’s conservation policies and the Court’s infinite ability to threaten and humiliate the people of Sawar (117).

The ambivalent feelings toward the past are most explicitly captured in the narratives about King Vansh Pradip Singh himself. Gold and Gujar explain that people focused their resentment towards the Court’s managers and bosses rather than directly the British or the King. There were several commentaries about the king’s vacillating ways. For instance, the king displayed a combination of arrogance and dutiful rendering of obligations when it came to most realms of life – ranging from his interactions with the British to his demeanour at temples. While dutifully collecting taxes for the Empire, the king would mislead the British to bad hunting areas so as to minimize the number of visits by the British sahibs to which he would have to play host.

On the rare occasion people made the king himself a direct and complete object of their criticism – ‘Vansh Pradip Singh fed wild pigs on popcorn and pet dogs on halva, but gave little or no famine relief to poor farmers in lean years. Yet he might suddenly grant two oxen to an impoverished Brahman petitioner, or show clemency to a convicted wrong-doer’ (133). People condemned the late king, but just as frequently they brought a quiet and compassionate acknowledgment of his terrible fate of childlessness. While these stories may reconstruct a sense of the complex regard for a long-gone king, the stories about the Court from the perspective of those who were forced into labour were crushing indictments of Vansh Pradip Singh’s rule. Gold’s moving narration of Gulabi Regar’s story of being forced into labour and returning with two measly hands full of grain immediately comes to mind.

In the chapter on Homes, Gold and Gujar’s interviews capture how caste and gender mediate access to and experience of landscapes. Here we get a sense of women’s relation to domestic ecology – that is, the deep ties between the spatial configurations of the home and the space of the jungle, as well as women’s vulnerability within the home (to their husbands and to the Court officials). Women today, like those in the past, go to the jungles to bring firewood. In the past, as Kesar puts it, ‘If we went to get wood, the king’s guard was staying there; but now the government’s guard – when they catch us they take money’ (192). With these words, Kesar connects domestic ecology to Sawar’s evolving moral ecology. She also offers a pithy, stunning comparison and contrast of how a place and people’s experience has moved from fear of absolute authority and conserved forests to democratic access, corruption and deforestation.

The book ends with a chapter on Imports which narrates people’s memories and experiences of the momentous changes in postcolonial India – from land reform, abolition of forced labour and grain taxes, changes in some caste and gender restrictions, to technological changes in farming. Perhaps the most poignant quote in how the relationship between humans and nature changed is made by Gujar’s interviewee Lalu. When asked why people continue to use fertilizer knowing that the soil suffers from it, Lalu responds by attributing it to people’s crazy and foolhardy attitude. Far from suggesting however that the soil and environment is the uncontested victim of decades of deforestation and cultivation, Lalu suggests, ‘Even if you put full goat-dung fertilizer and don’t put urea you’ll get no production, it [the soil] has become an addict; it needs urea.’ His conclusion is that, ‘The land has begun asking a huge amount. The land has begun to collect rent from us’ (295). Here is a powerful final statement of the mutually constituted and endangered relation between human livelihood and nature, subject to massive historical transformations in power and authority.

Gold and Gujar’s reconstruction of people’s memory as ecological history in the time of kings shows the value of bringing power and morality to the heart of writing an ecological history. Gold weaves memories together to give the reader a sense of what meaning people attached to ‘environment’ and ‘nature’ in the time of kings and why these meanings had everything to do with morality and power. People’s experiences of ‘nature’ in homes, of production and consumption in jungles and fields are shown through narrative after narrative to be mediated by the moral and political scaffolding of people’s relationship with the court. This book is a history of the moral and social ecology of Sawar from the perspective of the king’s marginalized subjects, contributing in the process to some understanding of a comparative history of Sawar’s changing environment during kingship and under democracy.

Gold’s book does not quite offer a comprehensive history of a conflictual and/or cooperative relationship between people and nature (Rangarajan 1996). Nor is it an exhaustive social and political history of those in Sawar with the power of access (and the ability to determine one’s relationship) to natural resources and those without such power (Guha 1989; Baviskar 1995). Rather, this book shows in what sense the relationship between people and nature and the meaning people attach to this relationship is a construct of power relations. To accomplish this, the book has drawn on the method of doing environmental history and social ecology. It follows in the line of works such as Ajay Skaria’s Hybrid Histories and Sumit Guha’s Environment and Ethnicity in India by showing the relationship between the status and power of kings and its effect on farming communities as well as the construction of ‘wild’ peoples and places.

Gold and Gujar’s distinctive contribution to this field is that they use memory to foreground the constructed nature of the ecological history of a particular time and place. A key question which this book raises through its treatment of memory as history is: how can we know what relation people’s present lives and experiences in contemporary Rajasthan bear to their regard for and memory of the past? When the people of Sawar recall 1947, the year of India’s independence from British rule, the memory seems to be happier still because 1947 also brought the death of an issueless king who took with him the rule of the shoe and the ruthlessly unequal and hierarchical ecological relationships that marked Sawar in the time of kings.

Are these two different times – of kingship and democracy – the core of producing distinct forms of knowledge, self, power, social and ecological relationships? Is the time of kings a better one for conservation policies? Perhaps, to some extent since indiscriminate deforestation was simply impossible. Not however, if we think of conservation in ecological terms, where nature is a sustainable and symbiotic relation between fauna, flora, and people. The king’s idea of protecting trees was meant to uphold his moral authority rather than the idea of conservation. His ideas required the lowest friction and interaction between his subjects and the environment. This does not necessarily result in conservation even as it might preserve certain species of trees and animals. This is most apparent in the example of the wholesale lizard killing on the road between Ghatiyali and Sawar ordered by the king’s court to save the newly planted neem trees, one of which was allegedly eaten by a lizard.

On the other hand, this book is another landmark amongst historical ethnographies such as Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory; Ajay Skaria’s Hybrid Histories; and Saurabh Dube’s Untouchable Pasts. In most historical ethnographies, written knowledge from the colonial archive tends to provide the scaffolding that we recognize as Truth and people’s memory serves the purpose of showing that the difference between official and oral history is an ideological construct. Unlike other historical ethnographies, Gold and Gujar rely almost entirely on oral sources. Despite the disparate stories of sorrow and hardship and the ambivalent regard for authority in this book, one interviewee alone seemed to have spoken of the systematic lack of responsibility in the pyramid of taxes owed to a king under colonial domination. This raises the significant theoretical question about how, and the extent to which memories and oral histories help reconstruct a sense of the systemic relations of power of a particular time and place. Invaluable as memories are in reconstructing people’s experience of the past, we must ask questions about the memories we gather. Just as the archive is subject to questions regarding the position it privileges, we must also situate the standpoint of memories in relation to the epistemological standpoint of the archival knowledge. Reconstructing oral histories and deconstructing archival knowledge must happen simultaneously because nature, power, and knowledge are each, perhaps best conceptualized and captured as a relation. Gold and Gujar are able to achieve such an account of relationality through the juxtaposition of stories that sometimes mesh together, and at other times jar against each other.

Finally, this book contributes to theoretical scholarship on ethnography and subaltern history through its subtle practice rather than commentary. It brings quotidian experience to the heart of reconstructing history, rather than privileging ‘flashes of rebellion’ as the appropriate source of historical narrative. Gold shows the daily practices that enabled the accomplishment of rule in Sawar – a kingdom dominated by a king, but without an institutionalized military or a police force. Rather than treat subalterns as a discrete category of history, Gold and Gujar question their sources (and allow the reader to question their sources) by offering multiple accounts of the daily. Thus despite the unabashed statement that this book is from ‘the viewpoint of subjects, not rulers’, the book shows what relations and experiences made subjects, subjects.

Here the ethnography is not the empiricist version where the story that comes from the horse’s mouth is treated as unqualified truth. Giving someone’s account of the past the status of truth is not the point. The point is rather to show that the richness of life is not undermined by what gets projected and archived as hegemonic truth. The story then is as much in the telling, in the contradictions and disarticulations, in the fact that people choose to retell particular stories about the oppression of wild pigs rather than the jajmani system. In other words, part of the story is in understanding how power and history shape the very stories people choose to tell about the past in a particular place. The story becomes a dense and richly textured one because it draws on the memories of people with varied experiences of subjecthood and disempowerment – where structures of class, caste, and gender mediate residential proximity and relation to court, jungle, shoe-beatings, and fields. This book was also published in 2002 by Oxford University Press, India under a series entitled Studies in Social Ecology and Environmental History edited by Ramachandra Guha, making it an affordable must-have for Indian readers and their collections.

Dia Mohan



Shahid Amin, 1995. Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922-1992. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Amita Baviskar, 1995. In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Saurabh Dube, 1998. Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 1780-1950. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ramachandra Guha, 1989. The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sumit Guha, 1999. Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1200-1991. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Mahesh Rangarajan, 1996. Fencing the Forest: Conservation and Ecological Change in India’s Central Provinces 1860-1914. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ajay Skaria, 1999. Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.


JOOTHAN: A Dalit’s Life by Om Prakash Valmiki (Translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee). Samya, Kolkata, 2003.

FOR a whole host of reasons, the intellectual enthusiasm of the 1970s celebrated dalit autobiographies as sociologically illuminating, politically subversive and aesthetically interesting, if not amusing. Though this enthusiasm seems to have receded in the country, it remains on the rise among Indians working abroad. To state sharply, the ideology of neo-liberalism driven by globalization so equates the cultural taste of the Indian middle class to only a global culture that it positively excludes dalit literature that once held the upper caste sensibility spellbound. The success or failure of autobiographies is linked to the conditions of success or failure of modernity because even as liberalism has lost its elan, neo-liberalism promises at best only a constrained and sectoral mobility, in turn generating greater frustration.

Autobiographies best flourish under the condition of liberalism as the dominant ideology. Unfortunately, as a form they do not enable one to escape from the initial error that marks the dalits by being born in a caste and a country which stands on its own stigmatized fragments – 160 million dalits who are still in search of full social recognition. This is not to deny autobiographies an original strength. In fact, as the present autobiography underlines, they, particularly dalit writings, have made a significant contribution to not only literary imagination but to the socio-political reality of the country. Joothan, an autobiography written by Om Prakash Valmiki, a leading dalit writer from the Hindi literary world, belongs to this genre.

Autobiographies thus serve the double purpose of both inflicting an inferiority complex in the minds of adversaries through resurrecting legitimate egoism and dalit triumphalism (Narendra Jadha, Amhi ani amcha Bap) while bringing out the guilt in the minds of the upper castes by recording the social wrongs done to dalits by their ancestors. To use the translator’s expression, they can also have a high Richter impact on upper caste consciousness. In addition, dalit autobiographies acquire significance for three other reasons. First, they enrich the content of the literary public sphere as it opens up to a new genre of social and literary articulation. The translator tries to take note of this contribution.

Second and more important, the tradition of writing autobiographies has been strengthened. India rarely had, at least till the modern period, any significant tradition of writing autobiographies. As Bhikhu Parekh argues, autobiographies incorporate an element of self-glorification that the Indian never indulged in. Finally, autobiographies display a tremendous moral courage in placing delicate details into the public domain, thus removing the communitarian control on the self. As the translator points out, the autobiography has arguably provided a moral source for the political movement. These texts also offer a window to the truth (in prototype form). In this sense any dalit autobiography, including Joothan, is essentially a rich sociological text. It opens up an intellectual and emotional corridor into the social reality of dalits from North India, unfolding several aspects of their reality.

The translation is competent and accurate without doing any disservice to the original text. However, the introduction suffers from some serious problems. It foregrounds only the negative definition of Joothan as a complete statement of dalit reality, thereby denying it generic capacity. Joothan can be defined as a category that helps understand the social relationship in other fields as well. For example, one can understand the Orientalist discourse through it; borrowing ‘used’ concepts from the knowledge market of the West can help acquire this character. Even within the dalit experience, Joothan is not just a psychological weapon deployed by the upper caste to humiliate dalits. As other biographies from the Marathi social universe demonstrate, Joothan can also be available to dalits as a poison chalice to deny the tormentor a complete sense of domination over dalits. In a radical sense it can be a poison bread.

For example, a frequent act of resignification in the book relates to a dalit touching the cooked food of the upper castes or a pot of water with the intention of rendering the purity claims of the former as absurd. If one extends the same quality to dalit autobiographies then such creations can acquire a capacity to create not only a Richter scale impact on upper caste consciousness but also to produce an echo virus, inserting respiratory infections into upper caste bodies (not all) that normally entail culturally shock-proof social sensitivities. Thus dalit autobiographies contain the ability to convert what is treated as a pathology into subversive chemicals. Their critical translations are expected to enrich the social/political content of their themes. Unfortunately, the present attempt only offers a flat description of the theme of Joothan.

A second problem originating from the first is that the introduction minus criticism tends to acquire a soft tone. It does not explore why such autobiographies fail to become politically subversive, thus providing potent political energies for dalit mobilization. Both dalit politicians and the middle class find them a terrible source of embarrassment rather than of empowerment, probably because dalit politicians and their middle class do not want to summon an undesirable past into a cultural present. They perceive autobiographies as an ‘error’ that they would rather walk out from. This only indicates that dalit autobiographies have merely a superficial hold over dalit politics and imagination. At best they can become exegetical.

Finally, common dalits who otherwise frequent these autobiographies have simply remained out of their sphere of influence because such creations continue to be inaccessible to the former. Common dalits do not need to discover, at least at a literary level, their own life-world because they resist dalit experience rather heroically on an everyday basis without aspiring for its formal ‘recognition’ and representation even through autobiographies. In such a situation, a translation can only cater to the cultural satisfaction of the dalit diaspora – no small gain.

Gopal Guru


BATTLES OVER NATURE: Science and the Politics of Conservation edited by Vasant Saberwal and Mahesh Rangarajan. Permanent Black, Delhi, 2003.

THE conservation of nature has become something of a bandwagon – everyone wants to hop on and for good or bad. The philosophies that drive the movement (or the intertwined mess of movements) are varied and range from biocentric approaches such as animal rights and deep ecology to more anthropocentric and pragmatic approaches. That numerous species are going extinct and that habitats are disappearing, we all agree upon. But whose fault is it? Who should take the responsibility? And who should pay the price? These questions burn at the heart of every environment, nature and wildlife related issue in the world today.

Most wildlife is found in natural and semi natural areas that are occupied by traditional or semi traditional ‘local communities’, in other words ‘non-urban peoples’. Conservation (at least as defined in our hallowed circles) is still very much the protectorate of the urban middle class. So who should take the decisions on what should be protected and how? Who has responsibility and control over protected areas? Can local communities be trusted as caretakers? Can the state be trusted to safeguard the interests of local communities? These are contentious issues in wildlife conservation today, with a polarised community taking extreme positions and treating the subject with rhetoric rather than research. Saberwal and Rangarajan take the view that ‘such dualities are simplifications’ and attempt to dissect the subject with a collection of articles cutting across biological and social science.

M.D. Madhusudan and Charudutt Mishra address the issue of large mammals in wildlife landscapes. They do a commendable job of detailing the biological issues such as population size, ranging patterns and reproductive behaviour that lead to human wildlife conflict. An interesting and now often repeated story relates to the behaviour of males in polygamous mammals such as elephants. Due to a large variance in their reproductive success, these males choose a high risk strategy such as crop-raiding since high nutrition food increases their body size and chance of reproduction. The contrast is with females of the same species, where the balance is not nearly as finely tilted, who can afford to be more careful in their lifestyles. The implication for conservation is that culling or relocating a few males can often do more to solve a crop raiding problem than targeting many herds – an outstanding example of how understanding biology can inform and direct conservation.

However, the title ‘Why big fierce animals are threatened’ should not be misinterpreted to mean that big fierce mammals are any more threatened than some groups of say, herpetofauna or insects or birds. This distinction is important since another failing of the wildlife conservation movement is that it is widely viewed (and not just amongst the laity) as focusing on the conservation of large, charismatic mammals.

Renee Borges touches upon the anatomy of ignorance in her essay. She deals with a particularly critical issue of fragmentation. This article provides us with a glimpse of just how much we miss when we get obsessed with big and fierce animals. Unfortunately, despite a detailed treatment of the subject, Borges is less than explicit about the implications of this ‘ignorance’ and much is lost in the jargon. One serious implication is that in the absence of data, one is forced to take a precautionary approach that may not serve the long term objectives of conservation.

Asad Rahmani and Beth Middleton offer examples of the conflict between local communities and the preservationist agenda of the state. Rahmani has been at the forefront of a pragmatic approach to conservation outside protected areas. His description of traditional resource management suggests that there is (or can or should be) more to conservation than state managed parks and sanctuaries. Middleton’s essay deals with the subject of buffalo grazing in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Bharatpur), which polarizes the people versus protection conservationists. While Middleton clarifies the issues in this particular debate, the essay also demonstrates how both sides can use the same example to argue their position vehemently without ever meeting half way.

The book also addresses the debate between local and scientific knowledge. In their introduction the editors say, ‘Local knowledge is no more, or no less sophisticated or reliable than scientific knowledge.’ I beg to disagree. Local knowledge may have the benefit of being the result of a ‘long term data set’, but surely when it is correct, it is the result of objective inference from empirical observations in the best tradition of scientific enquiry (and not knowledge gained by divine intervention or ESP). Lele and Norgaard are, however, correct in pointing out that the questions that ecological scientists ask are ‘loaded’. Of course, local knowledge is even more embedded in a social context.

Guha suggests the conservation scientists have crusaded for the exclusion of people from protected areas based on an arrogant belief in the accuracy of their science. While scientists have certainly been at the forefront of the protectionist crusade, the fight is clearly to gain control over territory, a very social motive and a very non-scientific one. Perhaps the authors fall into the error of confusing science and the scientist (though many social scientists will argue that there is no difference).

The bee in my bonnet is this. In general, ‘ecology’, considered a ‘soft’ science, has struggled to gain acceptability. Ecology in India is not widely respected in academic circles, for most projects are poorly conceived, designed without appropriate controls, moderately executed, poorly analysed, and rarely if ever published in quality international journals (exemplified in the notes and references of this very text). Most collect dust in libraries as doctoral theses and reports with little review or circulation. Consequently we scarcely know whether the information that passes as the science and ecology of Indian wildlife is credible or reliable. The solution to this is not to dismiss science per se, but to accept that the community of Indian ecologists has done a poor job so far, and to call for more rigorous scientific work in the future. It is easy to be unscientific, and the slightest whiff that its opponents get that there may be excuses for not being scientific, would pave the way for a flood of bad information.

While this is something of a simplification, questions about what needs to be conserved or sustained and for whom cannot be left to biologists/ecologists. One would inevitably find social contexts and subjectivity in the ways that biologists have treated these questions. The biologist should not decide what the question is, except as an equal stakeholder in the community. However, once a question has been framed, I would contend that the biologist is best equipped to explore the answer, for that is his rocket science. Mind you, though, I speak for the scientist/biologist in ideal terms, which may be something of a unicorn. Having said all that, I must still endorse Guha’s denunciation of the authoritarian biologist as crusader and Lele and Norgaard’s critique of the objectivity of their science. As Guha points out, the lifestyle (and conservation activities) of many a protectionist places a much greater stress on the environment than the people they seek to evict for the sake of the environment.

Rangarajan and Saberwal deal with two important issues to outline the social context of exclusionary policies in conservation in India. Rangarajan offers a historical background of such policies as also a dissection of the ‘wildlife enthusiast’ community who have been at the helm of protectionism. Saberwal discusses the role of the state in the formulation and implementation (or lack thereof) of conservation policies. The final section deals with community participation in conservation. Baviskar provides an analysis of government initiated ecodevelopment projects, while Rathore’s discussion of the management of Rajaji National Park, UP, illuminates the difficulties of collaborating to execute management plans even when the stakeholders agree on a participatory approach. Rodgers et al. describe CBC in southern Africa and contrast conditions with India and Sivaramakrishnan discusses the democratization of resource use in India.

While the editors have attempted to present a balanced view, in general, their own biases come through. Personally, I have no problem with that, since my loyalties fall strongly on that side of the fence. Every community conservationist accepts the need for complete protection of some areas. Most protectionists agree on the need for involving communities, for education and awareness. So is the difference in the details? Or is there something fundamental that precludes a common approach to conservation?

One of the problems of such heated debate is that both sides have been unwilling to share the truth, and this is as true of people-oriented conservationists as well as protectionists. As the editors point out, we need to accept that humans and wildlife can and do coexist, and undertake an honest enquiry into the processes that underlie these interactions. An additional complication is that the local communities in question are hardly static. Unfortunately, we have yet to reach a stage where one can explore the complexity within local communities that characterize all human societies. Rangarajan and Saberwal point out that though protectionism may be in crisis, we are still some distance from implementing pragmatic alternatives in policy and in conservation and management actions.

Those who take pains to discuss these issues have been accused of being armchair conservationists. But philosophies are important, because they inform our actions. And not merely with regard to the human rights and ethical issues that pervade the conservation movement, but to the very practical issue of long term success. To rephrase that, even if we accepted protectionism with all its ethical question marks, will it succeed? It is to sustain and inform such discussions that ‘Battles’ will serve. I recommend this book highly to anyone interested or involved in conservation; in fact I wish I could force people to read certain chapters. My only real complaint is that the book is priced too high. Sure, it is in hard cover and worth having on the book shelf. But these are messages that need to reach a wide cross-section of the thinking public. One looks forward to an inexpensive paperback that will be widely read and appreciated.

Kartik Shanker


NO TRUMPETS OR BUGLES: Recollections of an Unrepentant Babu by J.B. D’Souza. Allied Publishers, Mumbai, 2002.

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES/Memoirs/Recollections by retired bureaucrats rarely make for an engaging read. Not only because long years in officialdom penning officialese in sarkari files can deaden the sensitivity of both mind and language, but equally because the exercise of power in what is increasingly a venal environment oftentimes results in warping the personality. There is an obsession with the self – post-facto justification of various decisions (more so, if the person concerned actually exercised power), carping about how the subject was not given his/her due and so on. So monumental is the display of ego that the reader, if he takes the text at face value, can be led to believe that the subject was the locus of all that happened during his career.

Most often, such tracts are read for what juicy titbits they reveal about others – colleagues or politicians or the other powerful – that the subject had to deal with. The memoirs of Badruddin Tyabji are more remembered for his passing description of a somewhat passionate encounter with Amrita Shergill. P.N. Haksar left everyone disappointed by only writing about his growing up years. And even P.N. Dhar’s memoirs, undoubtedly elegantly crafted, belied expectations by the whitewashing of his (and others’) roles in the Prime Minister’s Office during the fateful Emergency years.

J.B. (Bain) D’Souza’s recollections constitute a different genre. It reminds you of a time when individuals joined the Service for service – a claim that few today might believe. It is quiet and unpretentious, at times almost self-deprecating, adding hugely, at least to this reviewer, to its ability to convince. There is no sign of either arrogance or pomposity, nor, what is now fashionable, a display of unnecessary erudition. A simple tale, simply told. All this not only adds to its credibility but helps the reader understand the person and why Bain D’Souza, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the service, is fondly remembered – both as an upright bureaucrat and a good person.

The early biographical details – the growing up years in an intensely Catholic family in Girgaon (Mumbai), the atmospherics in the community, the career graph from a stint in the Public Service Commission and then the Navy (in British India) to finally the All-India Administrative Service in 1947 are true to type – a low-key narrative. No claims to high mindedness, nor to a stirring patriotism, this despite Bombay constituting the then centre of nationalist activity.

What comes through in the chapters on training for the civil service as also the initial postings in Partition-affected Punjab and then Bihar is the degree of unpreparedness marking the young recruits, modulated fortunately by the nurturing and ‘breaking in’ by the seniors of their juniors. Much as it may appear strange today, young officers were granted considerable autonomy and responsibility, an initiation process designed to produce rooted administrators. Clearly this experience stood D’Souza in good stead when a few years later he returned to his native state, Maharashtra, as Assistant Collector, Thane and subsequently, Collector, Kolaba. It is here that Bain D’Souza learnt of the value of land records (still in an abysmal state) and the public distribution system (now virtually dismantled) in the lives of the poor.

After a few years managing the Bombay government’s printing and stationery supplies, D’Souza spent a couple of years at Syracuse and Harvard learning the fineries of public administration. It is on his return that he got postings which subsequently built up his reputation as a manager of urban complexes – accommodation control in Bombay, working the land acquisition act – over the years playing a key role in the development and expansion of the city. It is also at this stage that D’Souza got his first experience of the communal virus that has so consumed our polity.

The high point of D’Souza’s career was his management of the BEST Corporation and the Municipal Corporation of Bombay. It is here that he learnt about city planning, the role of corporators, architects, contractors and officials in invariably designing schemes which rarely factor in the concerns of ordinary citizens. Little surprise that in later years – after having worked at the Centre in the Ministry of Works and Housing and HUDCO – that D’Souza emerged as one of the city’s leading critics of urban malgovernance. Equally, that he was (and is) that rare citizen who dared to challenge the might of the Shiv Sena and its supremo, Bal Thackeray, by initiating a public interest litigation.

Details apart, what strikes this reviewer are the musings about the steady loss of elan in public affairs, the decline in the quality of our bureaucrats and politicians, and the overtaking of all values by commerce. Yet, this is no nostalgia tract foregrounding the ‘near mythical early years’. Nor is the text resigned and pessimistic. It retains, all through, both humour and a quiet confidence that if only all of us, in particular the more fortunately placed, engage in public service, the situation can vastly improve. B.K. Nehru may well have written that Nice Guys Finish Second. They nevertheless remain people that one would have liked to meet.



THE HISTORY OF HISTORY: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India by Vinay Lal. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2003.

FOR a civilization that had long prided itself on its distinctive disregard for history, why and how has history with a capital H become an ascendant imagination? It is not as if the ancients did not soar unimaginable heights – in metaphysics, philosophy, linguistics, astronomy, even statecraft, and in times when the western world, including the ancient Greeks, provided little competition. So why did history, as both craft and a worldview, not find favour? Vinay Lal, a somewhat unusual historian, uses this as his takeoff point to explore controversies that have dogged the Indian imagination in the previous century – from the early Orientalist debate on the ahistoricity of Indians, the use of history in the making of an independent, modern nation state, Ayodhya, Subalterns and now, the hugely unsettling cyber history being produced by our diaspora.

So, were the early Indians ahistorical, more attuned to mythology and circular time cycles than linear chronologies? It is repeatedly stressed that the first genuinely historical accounts of ancient India were provided by travellers – Al Beruni and earlier Hsuan-tsang. Is it that only with the advent of Islam in India that the rudiments of a historical sensibility can be discerned? When the Chinese, Greeks, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Aztec and other civilizations emphasized historical records, why is it that the Indians stood apart?

Did we have a different mode of history writing? Or is it, as Vinay Lal seems to suggest, that we had the foresight and wisdom to avoid falling into the trap of history, recognising millennia back that historicizing creates its own problems. In either case, the presumption of both uniqueness and superiority that suffuses all such arguments is deeply troubling. And much as Lal and his intellectual fellow-traveller (mentor?) Ashis Nandy may protest, it brings them dangerously close to the claims made by our Hindutvavadis, that ancient India was both sui generis and the repository of all wisdom.

It is not as if this debate can ever be settled given the relative absence of data and, much more, little consensus on modes of reading and interpretation. Nevertheless, it is crucial to flag these concerns because so many of our current obsessions, some of which Lal dissects brilliantly, rest on how we respond to debates on origins. Are the Ramayana and Mahabharata historical texts? Were Rama and Krishna actual figures? The never-ending controversy around the Aryans – where they originated, did they invade, their relationship with the Mohenjo-daro/Harappan civilizations, the existence or otherwise of a Saraswati civilization, the dating of texts, and the list goes on.

More amenable to non-historians like this reviewer are the debates about what historical thinking and consciousness does to us and why history as craft/discipline has acquired such centrality in the modern Indian imagination. As Lal points out, Mill, Marx and Hegel all believed that Indians were grossly lacking in historical sensibility. So the 19th century nationalists, having accepted this lack, set about correcting the anomaly, a scholarly-political exercise seen as central to consolidating identity.

This, however, was only the beginning of a never to be settled debate. What to record, whom to foreground, on what terms, using which method/framework and addressed to whom are questions as live today as they were 150 years back. The chroniclers had to decide how to characterize the recent Muslim past, even more the current rulers; what to do about dalits, women, tribals and so on. What is it that we could read from epics and literary texts?

These early debates took on a more virulent form with independence, for state power and patronage became a central factor in the decision-making. All rulers want history recorded in a way that adds to their legitimacy. Just as earlier rulers had geneologies constructed tracing their ancestory back to hoary times, modern rulers want their favoured versions to be given prominence. The complexity arose because in ‘democracies’ there is no obvious way to censor out alternative accounts/readings, this despite official patronage and seals of legitimacy.

The fifties and early sixties may have been more relaxed but with Indira Gandhi, Nurul Hasan and the establishment of ICHR matters took on a different hue, the ramifications of which continue to confound us. Secular, communal, nationalist, progressive, scientific and other appellations soon crowded the field of history writing. This is the subject matter of chapter two. It is here that we can see the beginnings of the debates on the NCERT texts and the Towards Freedom volumes.

The subsequent chapters look at Ayodhya, subaltern historiography and the most recent battles in cyber-space. The text is much too rich to enable a simple summary or even conclusively assess where Vinay Lal positions/locates himself. But if one is permitted a caricature, Lal not only slams the Hindutvavadis but is hugely, and in my view correctly, critical of the secular nationalists. Only in part is this a methodological disagreement. After all, as the discipline develops and new sources come to light, as do modes of reading evidence, our narratives too change. This is as should be. A less addressed problem in a discipline as sensitive to political winds as history is the role of funding, patronage and legitimation. And, barring rare exceptions, it will be difficult to claim that our works of historical scholarship are the result of disinterested labour and that our scholars, like elsewhere, are less tempted by prestige, awards and recognition, if not the chance to actually exercise power.

Running through all this is a discussion on the politics of knowledge – where scholarship seeks its legitimation. No longer are native rulers and the state the prime players in this motivational game. Our scholars also seek recognition and positions abroad. The politics of the foreign academe thus acquires a new centrality. Is this why the subaltern school managed greater following without than within?

Finally, of course, Lal’s discomfort with hegemonic frames – of Science, Development, Modernity and History – the fear of meta narratives as either text or method. He clearly prefers a plurality of approaches providing multiple visions, leaving it, one suspects, to the ‘conjuncture of forces’ to make its choice about what to believe, when and for how long.

This is an amazingly rich text, as much for the professional historian as for the lay person. Despite the occasional lapse into terminological fetishism, it remains remarkably accessible, though dense. And it demands repeat reading because of the many nuances it conceals. Nevertheless, a final quibble.

Becoming history’s prisoner might exacerbate societal problems. Often we are told that the arrival of the Census, particularly the 1931 Census which recorded the caste status of respondents, froze what otherwise were fluid boundaries for demarcating the collective self from the other. Even today social anthropologists shudder at the damage the Mandal report inflicted. Yet, one cannot turn away from the reality that all of us, irrespective of location, are today bound by history, some more some less. It is unclear how Vinay Lal would have us negotiate our way out of the conundrum, how indeed we as legatees of an ‘ahistorical’ civilization can even communicate with others.

Harsh Sethi


THE HINDI PUBLIC SPHERE 1920-1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism by Francesca Orsini. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002.

IN India, we have an ever-burgeoning Hindi industry of which the academia forms the core. There is hardly a university that does not boast of a Hindi department and there is hardly a Hindi department that does not boast of the number of doctorates it has so far produced. Our Hindi faculties are veritable factories equipped with obsolete assembly lines for manufacturing doctoral theses. No wonder that one seldom comes by a Ph.D. thesis that adds anything to the existing corpus of knowledge by way of unearthing new material or attempting new analysis.

That is why one is filled with a mixed feeling of sadness and envy when one reads a book like this. The first thought that occurs is: Why can’t we Hindiwallahs write such a book? Why do we have to wait for foreigners to study our society, history and language and tell us what we were and are?

Nobody who is interested in understanding the transformation of Khari Boli into a vehicle of Hindu nationalism (not to be confused with today’s Hindutva) in the late 19th and early 20th century can afford not to read this book. Francesca Orsini offers a compelling account and incisive analysis of the diverse processes that went into making Hindi what it is today and creating a vast public space for those who espoused its cause. Like any good researcher, she has a passion for detail – in fact she sometimes ends up offering too many of them – and a deep understanding born out of empathy for her subject. One may not necessarily agree with all her conclusions but they do inspire the reader to rethink old problems and look at settled issues in a different light.

Orsini turns to Jurgen Habermas of the Frankfurt School in search for an appropriate analytical tool and finds his concept of a public sphere attractive. The public sphere consists of organs of information and political debate such as newspapers and journals, as well as institutions of political discussion such as parliaments, political clubs, literary salons, public assemblies, pubs and coffee houses, meeting halls and other public spaces where socio-political discussion took place. For the first time in history, individuals and groups could shape public opinion, giving direct expression to their needs and interests while influencing political practice. The bourgeois public sphere made it possible to form a realm of public opinion that opposed state power and the powerful interests that were coming to shape bourgeois society. The Hindi protagonists had before them the model of the English public sphere, but they were functioning in colonial India. This difference resulted in imbuing the Hindi public sphere with its own specific, colonial character.

Like others, Orsini too traces the origins of the consciousness of a Hindi jati to a couplet of Bharatendu Harishchandra which itself is a little problematic. While the couplet is in Braj Bhasha, it is supposed to have stressed the desirability of the progress of Khari Boli Hindi because without this progress, Harishchandra felt, nothing could be achieved in other spheres. This couplet is a give away as it makes it clear that the Hindi project was also inspired by many reasons other than merely linguistic. Orsini has given a graphic description of how Hindi, Hindavi or Hindustani was transformed into a Hindu Hindi with claims of being the national language.

The emergence of new institutions such as the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan and the Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha for the propagation of Hindi written in the Nagari script, the appearance of many literary journals such as Saraswati, Chand, Sudha or Hans, the coming into vogue of kavi sammelans, the opening of public libraries and educational institutions, and the articulation of women’s points of view are some of the complex processes that have been studied and analysed in the book. How history was used to offer a particular nationalist version of historical characters like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi by writers such as Vrindavan Lal Verma offers a fascinating insight into the current usage of history to buttress a particular ideological viewpoint. This was the period when women found, for the first time, a public space to articulate their worldview and life experiences in specialized journals founded and edited by women. Similarly, perhaps for the first time, as a direct result of Gandhian politics, the Hindi world too began thinking of peasants as honourable citizens of a free India and valuable participants in the contemporary nationalist struggle against the British. Orisini cites the kisan number of the influential Allahabad weekly Abhuday (November 1931) to make the point.

The book gives a fascinating account of the Hindi politics, of how Hindi, the supposed daughter of Sanskrit, won the battle against Urdu, supposedly the offspring of alien Persian and Arabic influences. Not only were Madan Mohan Malviya and Purushottam Das Tandon the impassioned agitators in the cause of Hindi in Nagri script, even people like Amarnath Jha lent their weight in its favour. Orsini takes due note of the multilingual practices within the same family and one is reminded of Topi Shukla, the protagonist of Rahi Masoom Raza’s novel of the same name. However, from the way she has delineated the process, one tends to get convinced about its inexorability.

While shuddh (heavily Sanskritised) Hindi was winning its battles against Urdu and Hindustani and getting institutionalised as a state language, the Hindi public sphere witnessed a clash between literature and politics as both vied with each other for pre-eminence. The question of authority became the bone of contention between the two. Orsini offers three Hindi equivalents for ‘authority’ – adhikar, pratishtha and prabhav – but intriguingly leaves out satta which seems to be more apt to convey the varied nuances of the word. That apart, the struggle between literature and politics, exemplified in a clash between Purushottam Das Tandon and Nirala, makes for interesting reading as tension between the two continues to this day. The only difference is that Gandian moralizing is now being increasingly replaced by Hindutva moral policing.

Orisini has rendered an invaluable service to the young discipline of sociology of literature by adding an appendix on the social and educational backgrounds of all the major actors in her story – from Premchand, Shyam Sundar Das, Madan Mohan Malviya to Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. Serious students of Hindi literature will find a treasure trove of information in this section because the way Hindi literature is taught in our colleges and universities, little mention is made about the social and educational background of writers. However, in the main text, she describes Tara Chand as a professor of Urdu at Allahabad University while he was in fact a celebrated historian of his time and presided over the History and Political Science Department at Allahabad University for several years. He did start his teaching career as a Lecturer in the Urdu and History Departments but rose to become professor only of History.

The use of diacritical marks throughout the book will be helpful to the specialized reader familiar with the system of transliteration followed by R.S. McGregor in his Outline of Hindi Grammar. But for a non-specialised reader, it is more of an irritant. While in ‘Note on Orthography’, the writer acknowledges possible discrepancies in the way names have been spelt, it does not help the reader.

A short review can hardly do justice to such a well-researched work. Readers of this book will eagerly await Orsini’s next offering.

Kuldeep Kumar