back to issue

THE INDIAN ARMY AND THE END OF THE RAJ by Daniel Marston. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014.

ARMY AND NATION: The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence by Steven I. Wilkinson. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015.

THE Indian Army is a curiously under-examined institution. Despite its evident importance to both the colonial and postcolonial states, it has attracted the interest of very few historians or political scientists. For instance, Sumit Sarkar’s recent marvellous synthesis of the late colonial period devotes just over a page to the Indian Army – even photography gets longer treatment. This is not surprising. In the ever burgeoning body of work on modern India, the army is almost studiedly neglected. Military history is apparently seen as rather an old-fashioned and conservative enterprise.

Indeed, the best work on the subject over the past couple of decades has focused on the social history of the colonial army. This has opened up a range of perspectives, especially on ethnicity, recruitment, and colonial ideology. Reading this body of work, however, you could almost forget the fact that military organizations exist to apply force. For this scholarship – the ‘New Military History’ – tended to bypass the crucial activity of fighting and the central questions of military power and efficiency. Even the best examples of such work, including David Omissi’s brilliant Sepoy and the Raj, tended to neglect these issues.

In the past decade, another parallel trickle – I hesitate to call it a stream – of scholarship has emerged on the operational dimensions of the Indian Army. This has focused on how the Indian Army has periodically transformed itself to meet fresh operational challenges, particularly during the two World Wars and internal security duties in the age of mass nationalism. Pioneered by scholars such as Tim Moreman, Daniel Marston and Alan Jeffrys, this body of work focuses on the evolution of tactics and doctrine, technology and training. This literature, however, is entirely disconnected from the social histories of the army. Barring the work of Tarak Barkawi, no attempt has yet been made to integrate the social bases of the army and its operational performance.

Marston’s new book, The Indian Army and the End of the Raj, is an admirable attempt to fill this gap. And it does so for a decade that remains ill understood in important respects: the 1940s. His earlier work, Phoenix from Ashes, was a superb analysis of the transformation of the Indian Army as a fighting force against the Japanese in the Second World War. Marston now looks at the Indian Army in the aftermath of the war and asks a key question: how did the army maintain its institutional cohesion in the face of widespread political and communal turmoil in the closing years of the Raj. At a time when the authority of the state was on the wane and its administrative edifice seemed partially to crumble, how did the army stay largely unaffected? This is obviously central to understanding how ‘transfer of power’ played out in the subcontinent. In answering this question, Marston provides an excellent account of the various pressures working on the army and their relationship to its operational record during this period.

Marston rightly emphasizes the importance of the Second World War in transforming the Indian Army’s institutional identity. He begins with a crisp account of the pre-war army, its highly conservative recruitment practices and the carefully constructed policies for insuring its loyalty to the Raj. During the inter-war years, the army was focused on internal security, frontier duties, and a limited external role. The traditional fixation on the Russian threat via Afghanistan continued to dominate the mind of military planners. The opening phase of the Second World War continued to perpetuate these illusions. The entry of Japan into the war, however, upended these assumptions.

After a string of humiliating defeats in Malaya, Singapore and Burma, the army climbed a steep learning curve. By 1944, the Indian Army proved capable of holding its own against the Japanese – albeit in highly favourable conditions. During these years, the army expanded from less than 200,000 men to over two million. Such breakneck expansion necessitated moving beyond the traditional recruitment policy of focusing on the so-called ‘martial classes’. Wartime expansion brought in men from regions and classes that were hitherto unrepresented in the army. Marston rightly stressed the role of General Claude Auchinleck, the forward-looking Commander-in-Chief, who did much to crack the carapace of conservatism in the military brass.

The expansion of the army also raised questions about its continuing loyalty to the Raj. The raising of the Indian National Army under Subhas Bose’s leadership was the most pointed challenge. Marston does not examine in detail the reasons why almost 25,000 soldiers signed up with the INA. Instead, he focuses on the impact of the INA on the post-war army. The Indian National Congress, he argues, cynically manipulated the INA imbroglio for narrow political ends – and without paying heed to its consequences for the army as a whole. Jawaharlal Nehru takes a sharp rap for abandoning his critical stance on the INA during the war and championing its cause during the famous trial in Red Fort. According to Marston, Nehru displayed ‘a complete lack of understanding of the Indian Army as an organization.’

Marston moves on to a dimly glimpsed episode during this period: the deployment of the Indian Army to take control of French Indo-China (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and Netherlands East (Indonesia). The army’s unprecedented deployment in the service of other European empires had two consequences. The British government did not really pay much attention to developments on the ground. And, as the Indian forces began fighting local nationalist movements in these places, there was backlash from the Congress in India. Marston’s analysis of the army’s operational role in these campaigns is easily the most original part of his book. As with the INA trials, his judgement is sharply aimed at the Congress whose calls against the use of the Indian Army threatened to dent the morale of the troops.

The final chapters on demobilization and partition of the army show in close detail how the army stayed together in the face of political and social upheaval that enveloped the subcontinent. Marston argues that the army’s institutional and regimental identities forged during the war proved resilient, as did its apolitical ethos. Even the much-maligned Punjab Boundary Force during Partition comes across in Marston’s account as only patchily infected by communal and ethnic tensions. ‘Ultimately’, he concludes, ‘with only itself to rely upon, the Indian Army in the last days of the Raj was indeed a rock in an angry sea.’

This book is a significant contribution to the history of the Indian Army and indeed of India in the 1940s. Marston, however, is weaker on the social and political dimensions of the story. In particular, he displays unwarranted condescension towards the Indian nationalists. The Congress, he writes, got ‘interested in the policies and practices of the Indian Army during the 1930s.’ In fact, it was interested in the army from the time it was formed in the 1880s. Even a cursory glance at the resolutions of the Congress or the published speeches of leaders like Gokhale will bear out this point. The nationalists, he claims, regarded the army as ‘a purely mercenary force – nothing more than the "sword of the Raj".’ This caricatures the nationalist position. Speaking in the Central Legislative Assembly on the question of the ‘nationalization’ of the army in 1928, Motilal Nehru said: ‘The army is ours; we have to officer our own army; there is no question of Indianizing there. What we want is to get rid of the Europeanization of the army.’

Marston’s criticism of Jawaharlal Nehru is similarly off-beam. The Congress certainly turned the INA affair to its political advantage, but this was not mere opportunism. On his trip to Southeast Asia after the war, Nehru had interacted with Indian troops, many of whom were surprisingly sympathetic to the INA. Indeed, Marston’s reading of this episode is skewed by his assumption that the Indian Army opposed the political rehabilitation of the INA after the war. As an intelligence report sent to Auchinleck in November 1945 noted, ‘Throughout Burma Indian troops had an undisguised admiration for the I.N.A. … I did not meet any officer or I.O.R. [Indian Other Ranks] who did not sympathize with the INA.’ The Congress’ position on the INA was actually nuanced. While it opposed the trial of officers and men, it also did not support their reintegration with the Indian Army because it did not want to harm the army’s institutional integrity. Similarly, during the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny, the Congress convinced the mutineers to lay down their arms. As Vallabhbhai Patel noted, encouraging indiscipline was not a good idea: ‘We will want the army even in free India.’

Part of Marston’s problem stems from an excessive reliance on sources such as the private papers of Auchinleck. This carries over into his account not only an uncharitable reading of the nationalists but the paternalist outlook of senior British officers towards the Indian Army. Worse, even some of the fictions that Auchinleck held on to are given credence. For instance, Marston takes at face value the claim that the army had done away with martial classes in 1943, or that at the end of the war, the army did not make any distinction between caste, class or religion.

These claims reflecting wartime propaganda are expertly dissected in Steven Wilkinson’s Army and Nation. While recruitment was indeed widened, Wilkinson shows that almost none of the non-martial class units saw active combat during the war. Moreover, the reliance on the martial classes actually deepened during the war. These policies also carried over into the post-war years – notwithstanding claims about instant nationalization of the army. Wilkinson’s book is a useful counterpoint to Marston’s in other ways too. For one, he shows that the nationalists led by Nehru were quite acutely aware of the state and problems of the army during this period. Even as Vice President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in the interim government, Nehru took an active interest in the ethnic and institutional imbalances in the army. In Wilkinson’s account, he initiated a series of far-reaching changes that ensured that the army remained subservient to the political authority in independent India. Indeed, Marston seems to make too much of the army’s ‘apolitical’ ethos in the run-up to independence and partition. After all, the Pakistan Army began intruding in politics soon after. The contrasting experience of the two armies suggests that claims about the British model of military-political relations need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Wilkinson’s book also carries the story forward through to the early decades after independence. Following the debacle against China in 1961, the army underwent a considerable expansion in size and equipment. But this period also witnessed the formation of paramilitary forces that indirectly served as a ‘hedge’ against the army’s increasing coercive capacity. Similarly, after Operation Bluestar, when some units of the army actually mutinied, the army was asked to experiment with mixed infantry battalions drawing on different ethnic groups. This experiment was wound down in the late 1990s and the battalions reverted to the old composition of their parent regiments. Interestingly, the operational performance of these battalions appears to have had little bearing on this decision. In fact, many of these units acquitted themselves well during the insurgencies in Kashmir, Punjab and Nagaland.

So, we are back to the question of the relationship between ethnicity and military efficiency. Some twenty years ago, the political scientist Steven Rosen wrote a book on this subject, arguing that the caste system was a barrier to accumulation and projection of military power. Much of the new work on Indian military history has called this thesis into question. Much more, however, remains to be done. Let’s hope that the concurrent publication of these two fine monographs will kindle the interest of a younger generation of scholars in the Indian Army.

Srinath Raghavan

Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


NO FREE LEFT: The Futures of Indian Communism by Vijay Prashad. LeftWord, Delhi, 2015.

Vijay Prashad’s book is not so much about Indian communism as about the two identities it represents. One is dusty street fighting activism; the other is bargaining in the marketplace of electoral politics and the twain do not meet. The former he illustrates with interesting detail; the latter he justifies with sweeping generalizations and clichéd apologies.

Soon after he took over as General Secretary of the CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury told NDTV that his main job was to strengthen the party’s parliamentary influence and its mass base throughout the country. What else could any new leader of a mass based party have said after its comprehensive defeat, along with other constituents of the Left Front, in the May 2014 election soon after losing its traditional bastions of power, West Bengal and Kerala? The history of every parliamentary party trashed at the polls resonates hollowly with scanty metaphors explaining the defeat – violence, rigged elections and the face-saving assertion: we shall rise from the ashes.

The former leader of the CPI(M) who presided over that humiliating electoral defeat in West Bengal and the national elections used both the metaphors of victimhood and criticism to justify what was clearly his own inept leadership. After slamming the Trinamool Congress, Prakash Karat blamed ‘organizational atrophy’ that resulted in ‘failure to initiate struggles and develop movements. Stereotyped methods of functioning and the inability to maintain live links with the people are problems.’

Karat’s confession of failure has been cited in Vijay Prashad’s new book on Indian communism, No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism. Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair at Trinity College, Connecticut, USA, columnist in Frontline magazine, editor of several books and Chief Editor of Left Word Books; judging from the book he could just as well be the official scrivener of the CPI(M). After citing Karat’s rather outspoken admission of failure to inspire the party to maintain ‘live’ contacts with the people, the author quickly follows up with consoling facts: the numbers ‘who are in the CPI(M) and its mass fronts for example, are not negligible’ (p. 341). Then, just to remind the same reader who might not know what Karat is talking about, the author intones: ‘What the Left considers essential is a mass base’ (ibid.). ‘Currently, the party has one million card-holding members’, says Prashad. Recently, Amit Shah claimed 100 million members, making the BJP the largest party in the democratic world. Do numbers explain the relative positions of the BJP and CPI(M) at the finishing mark of last year’s elections? Vijay Prashad thinks so. Towards the end of his book, in a chapter entitled Indo-Communism, he advises: ‘A politics of transformation is not to be won simply by better arguments’ (p. 341).

But it was. The BJP won a resounding victory on the back of a spellbinding, indeed hypnotic, argument for transformation, an argument fuelled, in the words of the author, by a ‘neo-liberalism’ that swayed the middle class enough to reject the UPA, the original authors of neo-liberalism in India. The BJP won by persuasive arguments against pervasive corruption, persuading a confused and angry middle class that it could sweep the corrupt out of office to usher in acchey din.

Prashad’s intriguing title, No Free Left ‘riffs off’ an old Indian sign that prohibits left turns at a red light. The scholar assumes an awesome responsibility: ‘…the Left – in our times – does not flourish without a great deal of intellectual and practical effort.’ And ‘it is towards the sharpening of that effort that this book is dedicated’ (p. 15).

Expectations rise in the reader. The author promises to ‘provide a sense of what it means to be a communist in neo-liberal times’ (p. 15). With a bow to Antonio Gramsci, the author hopes to understand the Left’s debacle in 2014 by contextualizing it in the country’s history to the present and the role communists had played in that narrative. He hopes to provide the kind of ‘self-criticism that Karl Marx asked for… with unmerciful thoroughness.’

Prashad disappoints. What his analyses leaves behind are a lot of puzzling questions one had assumed he would answer with ‘unmerciful thoroughness’. For example, in the very first chapter examining the debacle of 2014, he heaps praise on the CPI(M) election manifesto for its ‘coherent assessment of the blockages in India’s social development’ (p. 20). Gender equality, free software, protection of working class livelihoods; everything other than protecting the businessman is in it. Very comprehensive indeed: a laundry list of all that is wrong and that needs to be set right. And yet, ‘it was insufficiently read and barely mentioned in the press.’ It did not ‘evoke discussion even amongst Left leaning commentators.’ Why? Corporate media would not touch it.

But, of course, it wouldn’t! Had the CPI(M) manifesto been received with open arms, we wouldn’t be reading this book, would we? And after a hundred and fifty years of capitalist antipathy towards communists, those reds-under-the beds, we couldn’t expect anything else, could we? The question begs to be asked: what did the CPI(M) do to spread its ‘powerful document’ down its line of mass organizations and, most important, through the social media that is free and uncontrolled – so far? Kejriwal uses that media, why not the CPI(M)? Is this the kind of ‘atrophy’ that Karat was talking about after the debacle? Is this the kind of ‘intellectual effort’ Prashad hopes to provide?

No Free Left, right? No free lunches either. Yet in the succeeding pages what we get from Prashad by way of explanation of the gradual decimation of the Left are the predictable complaints perennially used by Left party apologists: the shift to the Right in economic policies, the death of social democracy and socialism. Prashad doesn’t delve into the programmatic or ideological discourse of the Left that left them unable to comprehend the intricacies of neo-liberalism as it seeped into Indian public policy and middle class consciousness since the 1980s. In his analysis of Mamata Banerjee or Didi’s ‘charisma’, he inadvertently lists the failures of three decades of CPI(M) rule. Thus, he says that Banerjee ‘would gather around those that had grievances…workers from all the sectors that have gone into deep decline (tea, jute) peasants who have seen their land threatened by acquisition for industry, street hawkers and sex workers threatened by city beautification…’ (p. 131). In a state ruled by Leftists claiming to represent the marginalized, charisma wins over the marginalized, embraces the lowest depths to its bosom!

Then Prashad tiptoes around the fiasco that were Nandigram and Singur. It is ironic that Sitaram Yechury should now join Sonia Gandhi in protesting Modi’s land acquisition ordinance forgetting the Left’s disastrous stab at ‘neo-liberalism’. What else were the LF’s attempts to gift land for Tata’s Nano car project and Haldia Petrochemicals that alienated the marginalized and drove them to the TMC? Boiled repeatedly like cabbage, Prashad’s whines about neo-liberalism, the corporate owned media and the non-Left politicians, corruption in high places lose their texture, substance and meaning. And nowhere is this clearer than in his exegesis of neo-liberalism itself.

First he bows to the master ideologue by citing Karat’s neologisms: ‘Karat says that the advent of neo-liberalism has eviscerated liberal social democracy.’ Then the author adds his own bit: ‘Indeed, neoliberalism is nothing else than the restoration of the class power of the bourgeoisie.’ Restoration? Indeed, the bourgeoisie never lost it! The decline of the Soviet Union and collapse of communism – a global precursor to the events of 2014 for the Indian orthodox Left – did provide the leaders in USA and UK primarily, room to refashion capitalism the way Henry Ford would have loved. Reagan and Thatcher began with gusto to dismantle the social security edifice built up after the Depression to flatten the playing field for finance capital that would repeatedly ravage the world with crises.

The Indian Left ought to have seen the winds of the refashioning blowing our way when Karat led the Left Front into the arms of the UPA-I in 2004. It deluded itself into thinking that it had the power to steer the marriage. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was the Left Front’s bride price, the price it extracted to ensure the good doctor was not seduced by rampant capitalism. When UPA-I was entranced by rampant capitalism, all the LF did was to protest feebly. While the CPI(M) focused its energies in Parliament on the Indo-US nuclear deal, quietly and without protest from anyone in Parliament or out in the fields where red flags waved jauntily in the wind, the UPA-I dismantled the key barriers to rampant capitalism. Take for instance, foreign direct investment policies that were liberalized to allow all manner of dubious capital into our stock markets and industries through ‘round-tripping’.

Second, in keeping with the global trend and ‘best practices’, factory employment began to decline precisely in the period of high growth. Contract employment (usually pay without any social security or tenure) was being introduced on a large scale in the formal sector. This trend was first noted by the US Department of Labour in 2010 after a study of the preceding five years data on factory employment – the period when Karat could justify, as does Prashad, the Left Front’s support for a government committed from the very start to a dismantling of the rather tenuous but relevant Nehruvian social compact. It was the same Karat who did not let Jyoti Basu accept the Janata Party’s invitation to become India’s first Left prime minister back in 1996 because it would have been futile. And yet, Prashad writing about the failure no less of the Left Front to prevent the UPA from signing the Indo-US nuclear deal gamely defends the CPI(M)’s dalliance: ‘This was hardly a progressive foundation but it was all the Left could gain’ (p. 150).

Prashad offers very little by way of intellectual or practical illumination on the Left’s feeble, outmoded and slogan-infested discourse. But his description of the mass struggles of ordinary people, the marginalized, women, dalits, oppressed social classes and castes is indeed lovingly detailed. The book thus forms a useful volume for the chronicle of mass struggles on specific age-old issues that still plague even those parts of the country long ruled by the Left.

But you don’t get a sense of those mass struggles merging into a gigantic tumult battering against the dominant discourse of the ruling class and state. Prashad flounders with apologies or sweeping generalizations. You get the feeling of reading two parallel narratives of a schizoid political formation, one persona of mass struggles in the fields and streets distinct from the other of middle class politicians in New Delhi now reduced to whispering their manifestos in a howling wind.

That is perhaps the tragedy of the orthodox Left. In hindsight, it is the Left parties, particularly the CPI(M) that could have done what regional parties such as the BSP or the two DMKs representing less privileged castes have done so successfully (for their constituents), namely thrusting their agendas onto the nation state. To rephrase Ashis Nandy, leftist parties could have used their mass support to ‘renegotiate traditional relationships’ defining the Indian state. Given the Left’s stronger commitment to the rules and conventions of statecraft, their untainted reputation as parliamentarians leftist MPs could have left the Indian state in a far less moribund state than it is in now.

But the language of the street does not make its way into the discourse in Parliament. That is why there is No Free Left.

Ashoak Upadhyay

Writer and journalist, Mumbai


MODERN TIMES: ENVIRONMENT, ECONOMY, CULTURE by Sumit Sarkar. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2015.

BEFORE considering aspects of the new work, it might help to place it in context especially vis-à-vis its lineal ancestor, a book by the same distinguished historian. When Modern India was published in 1982, the world and India were a very different place. The New Cold War rent Asia and Europe; Congress ruled most Indian states and had a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. We now know that the Indian economy was picking pace, well above the 3.5 per cent level of 1965-80. The book did more than synthesize critical work on the structures of imperial rule, nationalist mobilization and various strands of popular protest. It posited new ways of examining the evolution of politics at various levels in relation to social and economic changes. While much debate focused on the interrelationship of middle class and popular protest, or the divergences between different sections of Indians, it was also sensitive to many new research concerns. These included the revolt against caste, labour, gender, Adivasi and peasant protest and notably, environmental issues and concerns.

Professor Sarkar, for instance, referred to, ‘the tightening of control by the colonial state over forest zones for revenue purposes’, making special mention of curbs on shifting cultivation, and ‘which was often essential for survival of the poorest in rural society.’1 The observation on forest movements, especially in the late 19th century, a point developed further in the Deuskar Lectures is prescient. The lectures have a footnote that highlights the contrast between axe wielding swidden cultivators with those who penalized their livelihood.2 The mention though brief was apt and timely. 1980 was the year Delhi saw a rumpus over tree felling for the forthcoming Asian Games, and the Tehri dam was still a hotly contested project, yet to be an accomplished fact. Protests against a proposed Forest Bill resulted in the very idea being shelved. The first Citizens Report on the State of India’s Environment brought together a loose alliance of disparate groups who differed with the direction of policy and offered alternatives, spokes to a wheel but spokes of many a colour. At a global level too, environmental issues were prominent in the US, South East Asia and eastern Europe. That the forest figured in the book was both a sign of the times and evidence of Sumit Sarkar’s ability then, as now, to go a step further.

I focus here primarily on the section on the environment in the new book, the first of two large volumes. The second is under preparation but the first volume is a fine summary as well as synthesis. Where the earlier version of Modern India stood out was in its scrupulous bid to tie together the issue of peasant and Adivasi protest with the issues of usufruct and tenurial rights. There was space there for the Adivasi rebel Alluri Sitarama Raju and the early Congress resolutions on the Forest Rules, as also for the question of salinity in the Ganga basin as much as for the spread of irrigation. These went well with the insights available in the often neglected but insightful paper by David Baker on the forest satyagrahas of the turn of the 1920s. Key Congress leaders such as D.P. Mishra and R.S. Shukla were often not able to rein in Adivasi protests against the forest laws in the hill areas of the Central Provinces. The idea of symbolic breaking of the law often went much further as they fought to retain control of protesters on the forest floor.3

Of course, the entire history writing genre with respect to ecology in South Asia was to change with the works of Guha in 1989 and Grove in 1995.4 To cut a long story short, they go to the heart of the many facets of empire making and state building, one stressing aggrandizement and its ill effects, the other the internal fissures among the powerful. There has also been an explosion of new work in the last quarter century. Ecology, much like gender or caste, community or culture, has worked its way not only into our consciousness but also our scholarship, if not our pedagogy. Two key newer insights came into view and one finds them in play in Modern Times, namely the complex mosaic of forest and farm and the many ruts and cracks in the ground that could upset the best laid plans of forester and civil official alike.

But the other point needs emphasis too, of the complex and multilayered ecological links, some torn asunder and others able to stay intact and adapt. The latter is critical for us as we live in an age of epochal economic change with attendant ecological dissonances, the ways in which nature remakes itself and ecosystems are renewed also requires attention. It is also an epoch where Asia in general, and India, China and Indonesia in particular, are engines of global economic growth and like with real life internal combustion engines, wealth comes with waste. A question comes to mind that defies easy answer: Are the changes of the last two centuries a mere rent in the larger ecological fabric or a tearing apart of the fabric itself? Whichever way you pose the question, the 20th century stands out as a critical phase and many of the changes that unfolded had origins in the late 19th century. This is why this book will stand out for a long time.

Perhaps some of the new work could have done with a closer look by the author, but in such a sweeping survey one can always have so much and yet ask for more. Partly, this is because it is easier now to enter into a dialogue with the scholars of modern China and South East Asia as well as Africa. Most crucially, India was largely a peasant society but one with a long history of state making. In recent works, there are many new points of emphasis, but one of them is to argue that histories of empire or nation cannot any more be written sans engagement with the question of nature. Modern Times is a step in the right direction and richly deserves commendation but it is an invitation to further research, debate and dialogue. It opens rather than closes doors.

These ecological themes were not taken seriously enough for ages and it is notable that it is only of late that substantive survey works began to integrate ecological ideas and concerns into a larger framework. Alternately, others see them merely as a variant of revenue or agrarian or material histories. The absence of seriousness other than on forest movements and some vague idea of ‘ecological balance’ (discredited in sciences but thriving in popular lore and social sciences) is still widespread. More seriously, and there is little space to go into this here, ‘Modern India’ as a subject or trope often seems suspended in space (ignoring links across the oceans or the greater land routes east, west and north) or in time (not drawing on the longer record of millennia of human habitation, sensibility and complex ecological interactions). These are themes explored elsewhere and only mentioned briefly here.5

Imperial India post 1858 does stand out historically for the scale of state making in is widest sense. Forests and canals command our attention and rightly so. This was especially so in the latter part of the century as a corollary to the larger processes of sedentarization. The period from the 1870s on saw a host of legal, juridical, administrative changes that were to have a profound impact on the larger landscape. The sharper line many historians refer to as a forest versus farmland trope is more a jigsaw of mature tree forest, secondary growth, pasture, former jhum plot, crop fields in rotation and cultivated arable carrying ecological implications. This was a contested complex process with continuities into the present. But the creation of a forest sub-proletariat was a larger consequence, especially due to the Forest Act of 1878 and extension of government forest to 580,000 sq. km of land. Along with the malguzari and zamindari forests and the princely reserves this was well over 25 per cent of the land area of British India.

It is notable that by 1904, these rights were either being extinguished or reduced to privileges in much of this land and remained so till a very partial redressal in the Forest Rights Act of 2006. It is striking that this time period from the 1880s saw a slow process of downward devolution of power in the cultivated arable, culminating in land to the tiller. In the forest, however, power moved upward from the 1870s on; the parallel process of devolution in forests has barely begun. This may explain both the intensity of access related conflicts and, conversely, the way these tenurial rights have become such a serious issue now.

Yet, the same era that is the focus of this book, especially from the late 19th century onwards, saw a vast expansion of the cultivated arable land and a remaking of the ecological and topographical character of the landscape. Even in the late 19th century over a fifth of the land area was grassland and tree dotted savannah, much of it now gone.6 Conversely, much mature tree forest survived in tracts reserved for hunts or timber. The clearance and remaking was the larger trend: whether due to the cotton boom even before the U.S. Civil War, 1860-65 in western India, or of the rice paddies of the Irrawady delta funded by Chettiar capital from Tamil Nadu and supplying rice across the Bay of Bengal.7 A similar and irreversible shift took place in the Indus River Basin with the canal colonies and the clearing of the galley forests that till then had been home to tigers, swamp deer and hog deer. Modern Times places these wider changes in perspective, integrating works on forested lands with those on the cultivated arable.

The larger process has had long term irreversible effects: today half the land mass is under tillage as opposed to possibly as little as 25 per cent in 1600, if Sumit Guha is correct. Also, the density of people, 35 to a square kilometre then was 80 by 1881 and is now near the 400 mark.8 How far is the enclosure (of forest) and intensification of production (irrigation) part of the larger secular process and even if so what specific historical forms did it assume in this period and why? It is here that this work is at its best. It does more than pull the threads together and compels us to get a sense of the whole.

It is critical to emphasize that this was not a unilinear process and the multiple jurisdictions did have a leavening effect. A veteran British civil official put it well when he said a Pathan was all right in a reserve, but if outside had to be dealt with like a marauding tiger.9 Sumit Sarkar allows attention to the hunt but the latter underwent significant shifts in perception, and the Empire by the early 20th century allowed spaces for preservation (a complex term I have no space to unpack here). The Raj’s actions (or those of key princes) around and after 1900 CE vis-a-vis the Gir lion and its protection were not very different from the protection of monuments like the Taj. Similarly, as recent scholarship has shown, princely projects of nature, while deeply hierarchical, did not separate nature from culture but provided lineaments of practices that are important to this day.10 None of this can or should be seen apart from larger processes ‘from below’, to use Sumit Sarkar’s own term. The easing of forest restrictions and the spaces for van panchayats (forest village councils) in Uttarakhand in the 1930s stemmed both from fears of adverse impact on military recruitment (important since the end of the Anglo-Gorkha War in 1815) and from attempts at partial accommodation of concerns. It is this complex legacy where the survival of the lion (independent India’s first national animal) owed much to princely intervention, and much of the Chipko platform drew from forest village councils set up half a century earlier in a moment of imperial panic. Histories of the environment – like all histories – bridge the past and present sometimes in unexpected ways.

But to move on, the larger agro-ecological picture requires careful interrogation to even put forests, pastures and animals in perspective. The regional contrasts emerge remarkably well in this account. Even if hard walls do not separate the actual workings of different tenurial regimes, there were contrasts between areas of peasant proprietorship and rent receiving landlord rule.

Yet, the overall picture is an intriguing one. Intriguing because to me the big story from a end of century perspective is the emergence, in what we may crudely label as ryotwari India, of groups like the Marathas, Gounders, Kammas already as players by the end of the 1920s. There seems a correlation of high commodity prices (as in the 2000s) with social and cultural assertion. Some of these groups weathered the setbacks of the end of the 1920s and came through, giving us the kind of wider base of capitalism in the southern and western countryside. The ‘Kammanist’ Party of India, as it was jocularly called in Andhra, had roots in these changes in the coast, as did Gounder capital in western Tamil Nadu. The Ezahava/Nadar cases are different but share these features. Agro-industrial capital thus had seeds and seedlings dating back to this period. As Damodaran shows in his recent account, India’s New Capitalists, there were many transit points from farm to factory in the peninsula. These existed both in the ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ regions. The toddy tapping Nadars in the deep South and the upwardly mobile Kammas of the rice bowl of the Krishna Godavari had their roots in the changes in the early 20th century. The contrast with North India, with a very small scatter of capitalists with roots in agriculture, is critical. These phenomena indicate possible reasons, just as shifts in land holdings do, for the salience of social justice movements in the peninsula. Capitalism has a wider social base (not all inclusive but wider) the further south or west one goes.11

Second is the issue of the near stagnation of agriculture. It is important to see this issue given strong emphasis in the volume. The overall slow or low or no growth is fascinating and in line with George Blynn. It is vital here to recall that the overall growth rate 1900-47 was only 0.5 per cent compared to the great acceleration of the 1950s, when it was a heady four per cent a year. But one of the ways in which the agrarian impasse was broken at the end of the 1940s was through large scale agricultural expansion in the Terai and also in southern highlands, helped in substantial measure by DDT and anti-malarial drugs. Here, both World War II and Partition played a critical role, the first by bringing in petrochemicals and medicines (especially antibiotics) and the second, through the refugees. This expansion along with the Bhakra project would radically change the agricultural picture in North India by the 1950s.

Third, on irrigation, the TN/Karnataka conflict of today over the Kaveri is prefigured in the Mysore/ Madras fracas on water in the early 20th century. So water as a commodity and large scale production reliant on dams is a very important feature. Dams, not just canals, and though the really large ones came up after 1950, could claim a wide constituency well before that. But these again carry indications of change, with Ganga Singh, the Maharajah of Bikaner advocating an extension of the canal into Rajasthan. By the 1930s and 1940s, as with the general view of big industry as positive, there is a wide spectrum of leaders who sees canals plus dams as crucial even for agricultural production. They are not fully off the mark, as the peninsular evidence in the Godavari or Kaveri shows an expansion of double cropping. Similarly, Diwan Visweswaraya pioneered the system of water distribution that underlay the sugar boom in western Maharashtra. Grasping the broad spectrum is important as it was a wide one that included figures from across the political spectrum. Why and when did big projects become such powerful emblems of change? What explains their ubiquity?

In this sense, given the demographic expansion we have experienced from 1920-2020, this sort of intensive production was to become very critical, post 1947. It is thus anachronistic to see it in terms of big versus small and so on. The active and vibrant debate was captured well in the The Discovery of India (1946) with its sustained but sympathetic critique of the Gandhian model, though interestingly, many features of that model are incorporated even if selectively, e.g. mechanization in the Ganga delta had to take account of small holders and adapted to their needs (the mini tractor by Eicher of today).12 The Congress plans for industrialization in the 1930s and 1940s trumped the maximalist Gandhian hopes of a decentralized rural economy, but the latter lived on in interstices, some provided for by the ‘victors’.

Given the richness of the book, one can only make a few tentative observations at the close. Overall, there has been a major shift in historiography in the last decade or so, with far more attention being given to the early modern and ancient periods and a growing realization that this is a landscape that has been habitable and changing for centuries. Equally, that the late imperial epoch did see big breaks and changes, but these were variegated and complex, with many of the trends playing out across the long 20th century. The earlier emphasis in ecological studies on forest movements and then on imperial ideology has now given way to more fine-grained views of complex, shifting practices. These make short work of easy contrasts of tradition and modernity or West and East or imperial and local dichotomies.

Modern Times arguably does not take into account some of the key works of the last few years, but this is inevitable in a work of this sweep. Had the author not put a brake, this book would have been double its size! It is to whet one’s appetite rather than satiate it, to evoke curiosity not end it, that a book such as this aims for. It is still important to add that the aesthetics and ethics of the questions of nature or habitation as much as those of equity or social justice saw major shifts in this era. The spaces opened up as shown in Subramanian’s Shorelines reveal openings for under-class groups on the Coromandel coast and an active engagement with techniques, nature and place. Nevertheless, the larger imperial legacy also mattered in republican India, not just in the forest but in the city as well, as Legg and most recently Sharan (2014) have shown, for Delhi.13

By the 1950s, India was not just a different place in political and economic terms, but also a landscape and waterscape of new possibilities along with older continuities. How we got to where we are matters no matter where one hopes to go. And the ‘we’ does not only refer to human habitants but to the larger web of life and landscape we live and work in, deposit or enrich. The first volume of Modern Times, focusing as it does on environment, economy and culture – is a lucid, wide ranging work that will be essential for both scholar and lay person alike. This new work will prove to be an indispensable companion in our engagement with the past.

Mahesh Rangarajan

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi


1. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885-1947. Macmillan, Delhi, 1982, pp. 44-48, especially p. 45.

2. Sumit Sarkar, The SG Desukar Lectures on Indian History 1980, ‘Popular Movements’ and Middle Class Leadership in Late Colonial India: Perspectives and Problems of a ‘History From Below’. KP Bagchi and Co., Centre for Study of Social Sciences, Calcutta, 1983, pp. 10-11 and Footnote 37, p. 77 on the exaggeration of the impact of podu or swidden cultivation on forests in the Northern Circars.

3. David Baker, ‘A "Serious Time", Forest Satyagraha in Madhya Pradesh 1930’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 21, 1984.

4. Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods. OUP, Delhi, 1989; R.H. Grove, Green Imperialism. OUP, Delhi, 1995.

5. M. Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds.), India’s Environmental History. Volume I, From Ancient Times to the Colonial Period. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, Introduction, pp. 1-34.

6. J.R. Richards, James Hagen and E.S. Haynes, ‘Changing Land-use in Bihar, Punjab and Haryana, 1850-1970’, Modern Asian Studies 19, 1985.

7. See the papers in J.F. Richards and R. Tucker (eds.), Global Deforestation in the 19th c. World Economy. Duke University Press, Durham, 1983.

8. Sumit Guha, Health and Population in South Asia from Earliest Times to the Present. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2001, pp. 31-34.

9. Philp Mason, The Men Who Ruled India: The Guardians. (1954). Jonathan Cape, London,1974, p. 292.

10. Julie E. Hughes, Animal Kingdoms: Hunting, the Environment and Power in the Indian Princely States. Permanent Black, 2013.

11. Harish Damodaran, India’s New Capitalists, Caste, Business and Industry in a Modern Nation. Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2008.

12. Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India. (1946), Penguin, Delhi, 2004, especially pp. 444-448 and 620-621.

13. Ajantha Subramian, Shorelines, Space and Rights in South India. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2009, and Awadhendra Sharan, In the City, Out of Place: Nuisance Pollution, and Dwelling in Delhi, c. 1850-2000. OUP, Delhi, 2014.