Review of Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy by Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal Routledge

Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal. London: Routledge, 2011. ISBN: 9780415169516

Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal provide an excellent study of South Asian history in Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. The book, now in its third edition, is a concise overview of modern South Asian history, focusing on changes in society, economics, and politics from 1700 to the present in India, Pakistan, and Bagladesh. For Bose and Jalal, the goal of the work is to implement the newest research on and historiographical interpretations of the formation of religious, regional, and national histories in South Asia. The themes of regional and religious identities coupled with the intricate relationship between religion and politics are discussed throughout the book, and reveal how the shifting parameters of South Asian historiography coincided with the changes of decolonization. The major focus of the work addresses colonialism and the post-colonial period, positing colonialism as an agent of historical change placed in a social context and studied in its interaction with culture and the politics of resistance.

The book is organized chronologically into twenty chapters, ranging from a brief discussion of the pre-modern period to events of the twenty-first century. Beginning with an introduction to South Asian history, the authors immediately explain one of the key theoretical frameworks of the book. Bose and Jalal rely heavily upon the ideas of Edward Said’s Orientalist theory, showing how much of the historiography surrounding South Asia is muddled by less than accurate information. For the authors, the inability of the West to understand the East is a key element in the derivation of contradictory images of the Indian subcontinent, many of which this book attempts to dispel. The dual dialectics of centralism-regionalism and of nationalism-communitarianism are very important here as well. Shifting definitions and relations between the center, region, nation, and community are integral to the diversity of South Asia, and the relationship of constituent parts to the whole in the subcontinent is the subject of an ongoing historical discourse (6-7).

Following the introduction, the book explores the socio-cultural foundations of ancient India as rooted in religious practices and major political changes. While it is emphasized that historians, orientalists, and traditionalists alike have attempted to provide many versions of India’s past, there is much new research available to suggest that the country was highly diverse and was willing to accommodate a plethora of cultures. According to the authors, Indian society, economy and politics from ancient times until the twelfth century had dynamism, which is not in accordance with the stereotypical image of India’s changeless tradition. (16) Politically, phases of imperial consolidation were followed by decentralization, while economically and socially there was mobility, commercial exchange, and the caste system.  India’s ability to adapt to change and absorb a plethora of internal and external groups made it one of the most unique countries in the world.

The authors’ attempt to summarize hundreds of years of pre-modern history from the seventh century to the sixteenth century succeeds less as a cohesive narrative and more as a poignant argument regarding the overall complex role of Islam in India during this period. Despite the ignorant Western view of Islam as an intolerant and militant religion, Muslim rule often allowed for tolerance and assimilation, as evidenced in South Asia (18). Regional specificities of economy and culture as well as the variety in Muslims debunk the myth of a monolithic Islamic community in India and question any singular model of Muslim conversions (19). For example, the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate from 1206–1526 led to four dynasties: the Mamluks, Khaljis, Tughlaqs, and Lodis. The Delhi sultans upheld the supremacy of sharia in their state structure, but did not impose it on non-Muslim subjects (23).

The Mughal Empire receives a number of reinterpretations by the authors. Bose and Jalal argue that the two recurring themes in premodern history are the infusion of new people and ideas and temporary cycles of imperial consolidation and decentralization. Invasion, such as the establishment of the Mughal dynasty, was not a sharp disjuncture but rather a fresh process of accommodation, assimilation, and cultural fusion (28). The authors suggest that the Western interpretation of the Mughal Empire as a despotic authoritarian state is false; instead, the Mughals ruled in a complex and loose form of hegemony over a diverse, differentiated, and dynamic economy and society. In addition to debunking these views, the authors also cite new research to show that the Mughals were not oppressive towards the peasantry. Rather, the Mughals entered into accommodations with their subjects. Furthermore, even during the age of European expansion, Mughal sovereignty was not undermined until the British tried the last of the emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar, after the 1857 rebellion.

Westerners viewed the eighteenth century decline of the Mughals as a period of anarchy until the period of British hegemony. India was rife with revolts based on regional aspects during the eighteenth century, and this, coupled with tribal incursions and outside threats, led to the erosion of the Mughal state. Following the British victory at Plassey in 1757 and the 1764 victory at Buxar, the British began imperial control over parts of India. The British conquest began in the 1750s, and the final conquest occurred by the 1850s. Bose and Jalal note that the interpretation of the transition to colonialism in India must address the impetus for European expansion, the reasons for colonial conquest, the basis for EIC-Indian collaboration, and the reasons for British success.

The EIC profited from Indian textiles, the right to collect taxes from Indian territories, and the opening up of new markets. Therefore, the British resorted to “conquistador imperialism,” which contributed to economic stagnation during the nineteenth century. (53) The period 1757 to 1810 saw the straightforward plunder of Indian revenues, in which huge revenues were garnered from Indian manufactured products and textiles. Following the capitalist imperialist paradigm, the British began flooding the Indian markets with cotton by the 1850s, crippling the native textile industry. China tea soon replaced textiles as the most profitable good, and the EIC financed itself through the cultivation of indigo and opium.

The amoral political behavior of the British combined pre-colonial state ideology with English law, and retaining Indian puppet rulers to minimize the threat of social reaction. For the British, the maintenance of cultural legitimacy through the symbols and meanings of the indigenous society was as important as physical rule. Orientalist scholars helped design policies based upon pseudo socio-cultural interpretations of the subcontinent. Yet cultural bribery had its limitations, especially since the British sought to sedentarize and peasantize Indian society by reinforcing the caste hierarchy and the enforcement of strict legal codes. Colonial role in the nineteenth century was “social engineering” at its worst, with Indian traditions reinforced in rural areas, while in urban centers there was a push towards Westernization (67). The promotion of western education and the English language did benefit some through upward mobility, but for most, the problems created by colonial oppression only led towards widespread resistance affecting all regions and social groups.

Bose and Jalal superbly detail the tumultuous events of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. Despite the mixed historiographical views on the mutiny as being a freedom movement, restorationist struggle, feudal reaction, or peasant rebellion, the authors of the text posit that the revolt was tied to aristocratic, religious, agrarian, and patriotic aspects. While the breakdown of the EIC army was caused in part by the Lee Enfield debacle, other revolts in Awadh and central India were popular movements. Many of the farmers who took up arms were discontented by the loss of landed rights to urban traders and moneylenders, and also were fed up with high British taxes and racial arrogance. The mutiny was ultimately a failure which ended in mass executions, the destruction of villages, and millions of pounds in debt. Yet it showed the British that Indian patriotism and discontent were forces to be reckoned with and resulted in the end of company management of the colony.

The period following the Sepoy Mutiny is described in the book as the “High Noon of Colonialism, 1858–1914,” during which time the British reformed their administrative methods and continued to reap even greater economic advantages from the colony. The installment of a viceroy and secretary of state to lead the administration of the colony allowed for greater central control, while the Indian army was altered based on a 1:2 ratio. British Indian forces were utilized to help protect the Empire’s interests globally, yet the sacrifices of 60,000 brave  Indian troops in the First World War were in vain, because the colonial forces did not benefit from Britain’s European conflict. (82). Instead, the authors argue that India was literally drained of its wealth during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth century, leading to devaluation in currency, loss of resources, and ultimately the loss of life in famine and warfare.

In light of these dismal circumstances, it is clear why the most important theme of the late nineteenth century is nationalism. Bose and Jalal explain that new research shows that anti-colonialism was not simply the result of isolated educated urban groups imbued with Western ideas, but rather nationalism derived from many sources, primarily related to regional affinities and religious sensibilities (89). For many people, the desire for upward mobility was part of the changes of this important period, and the effects of social reform and religious revival further altered the situation. Intellectuals in India sought alternatives to the oppressiveness of the colonial situation, and Muslims in the north, led by figures such as Sayyid Ahmed Khan, attempted reform movements to push for both modernity and anti-colonialism. Anti-colonial resistance took on many forms, including civilian insurrection, rural revolts, tenant protests, and riots, revealing that subaltern anti-colonialism predates the attempts by urban elites to launch mass mobilization against the British. While the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 represents the first attempt at establishing a leadership body for the people of India, most of the country was quiescent until the First World War.

The book emphasizes the effects of the First World War as the catalyst of political and social change in India. Important here is the theme of the impact of war on the structure of the colonial state and economic relations between the metropolis and colony. Bose and Jalal note that the 1920s mass movements were directly the result of the economic and political crises of the decade. For example, the British used 1.2 million Indian men in the armed forces, causing strains on the food supply, which led to famines (104). In addition, the British enforced high income taxes and customs duties causing high inflation and poverty among the rural population. As noted by the authors, the path towards decolonization was not paved with good intentions, since the British merely attempted to shift attention away from the center by focusing on mere provincial reforms in the 1920s and 1930s (107). While the 1935 Act did widen the franchise to 35 million people and give provinces more autonomy, Indians still had no say on defense issues, and the viceroy had many powers under his direct control.

Bose and Jalal tie the rise of Gandhian nationalism and mass politics intricately to the events of the Depression and the Second World War. The Great Depression changed the metropolis-colony relationship yet again, including a decline in imported British goods and materials, wiping out India’s export surplus, and the devaluation of currency. While India was still vital to the Empire, economically the situation changed in the 1930s and 1940s, but with the rise of tensions with the Nazis the British continued to want to retain to their foreign holdings and shelve reforms. In this context, the rise of Gandhi, who first staged non-violent agitations as early as 1917–18, appears all the more plausible given the broad range of events surrounding his rise to prominence. Gandhi’s appeal to nationalists in India through the medium of the Congress and countrywide protests made him an influential player in the 1920s, but for many students and workers the efforts of more radical organizations seemed the more effective means to overthrow colonial rule.

The Second World War put further strains on the Indian economy and contributed directly to the fall of British colonial power. While the British were willing to spend 3.5 billion rupees on defense and financed the war by overworking the mints in India, they were unwilling to aid the Bengalese, who suffered from a terrible famine in 1943–4, costing the lives of over three million people (132). Thus, as the British began suffering major defeats in Southeast Asia at the hands of the Japanese, Gandhian nationalists pressed their demands through the Quit India movement. By late 1945-1946 the final mass movements broke down the last vestiges of British administration and resulted in the mutiny of the Royal Indian Navy. Therefore, the authors show how the War broke down the last vestiges of imperial control, and led to the 1946 British cabinet mission to discuss the terms of Indian independence.

While British colonial rule died an ignominious death in 1947, its legacy was firmly implanted with the partition of Indian and the creation of Pakistan. Bose and Jalal believe that the contradictions and structural peculiarities of Indian society and politics led to the creation of Pakistan, yet a fierce historical debate exists as to whether it was due to a religious divide, or British imperialist policies of divide and rule. Returning to Edward Said, the authors question whether Indian social tradition and even Muslim identity were byproducts of the British colonial imagination. While it is certain that both were influenced by colonialism, they definitely were not entirely formed by it. Muslim identity faced fractures in the nineteenth century and continuous regional divides, yet the power of the All India Muslim League and the views of Punjabis and Bengalese fostered enough Muslim support to contribute to Pakistani sovereignty. While the partition created a terrible wound far deeper than the promises of independence, the end of British rule allowed for both states to attempt to move forward. For Pakistan, it meant creating from scratch a nation of sixty five million Muslims, and the conditions under which the nation was formed caused the government to be prone to military rule.

India and Pakistan have continuously struggled with centralism and regionalism in the balance of power to create modern states. Center-region tensions are due to the circumstances of the post-colonial period during which both nations were forced to set up strong states, leading to a strong federal authority in India and a strong military state infused with Islamic ideology in Pakistan. The successful rules of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi as prime ministers from the 1940s to the 1970s allowed for a period of political stability in India. Yet, as noted by the authors, the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi by Sikh separatists damaged the stability of the country, leading to shakeups in numerous elections and the rise of Hindu majoritarian politics. In Pakistan, the military has kept much control over the country despite challenges by parliamentary figures, with military officers such as General Zia-ul-Haq and General Pervez Musharraf ruling as virtual dictators.

Bose and Jalal conclude that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh each continue to face common sets of political, social, and economic problems. While illiteracy and life expectancy are huge issues in all these states, the problem of high defense expenses and inter-state hostilities continues to hamper the potential growth of these countries into major powers in the South Asian market. The authors hope that instead of threatening nuclear war against each other, India and Pakistan may be able to bridge their political differences through shared socio-cultural similarities. A better understanding of their common history makes it clear that each has much to learn from the other, though the legacies of the past are also riddled with many complex issues which are continuously debated to this day.

Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy is a superb analysis of South Asian historiography and the history of the past several centuries. In addition to the twenty detailed chapters covering the topic in question, the authors provide a useful glossary of terms, a chronological outline of major historical events, and a select bibliography with notes. The bibliography and notes are a treasure trove of materials for teachers and students alike, detailing some of the best works in the field of South Asian studies. Bose and Jalal give the reader a brief historiographical essay prior to the bibliography, citing the works of Ranajit Guha, C.A. Bayly, and other scholars in the field of Subaltern Studies to shape the intellectual framework of the text. As noted previously, the work is heavily influenced by the writings of Edward Said, whose critique of Orientalism paved the way for outstanding historical works on Asian history such as this one.


Reviewed by Justin T. Pfeifer, The University of Toledo
Edited by Karen Rosenflanz

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]