This book proposes to present in eight thematic chapters a general history of India under British rule. It focuses more on the Indian people, that on the colonial state or the "men who ruled India". It highlights the perceptions of the ruled, their cultural crises and social changes, their rebellion, their search for identity and their attempts to negotiate with a modernity brought to them through a variety of colonial policies. Above all, it narrates the story of how the Indian nation was gradually emerging, with all its contradictions and tensions, under the domineering presence of Western imperialism.
In recent years there has been a tremendous outpouring of research publications in this area. And therefore, it is time to relate these specialized research findings and theoretical interventions to the whole story. Tucked away in my island abode down under-sep-arated from my primary sources by thousands of miles-I thought this would be an ideal project for me. This book tries to provide, on the one hand, a story with adequate empirical details needed by students for history courses and by general readers. On the other hand, acknowledging that there can be multiple interpretations of a historical event, the narrative is consciously situated within its proper historiographical context. The book in other words, summarises the findings and conclusions of an enormous body of research literature that has been produced in the last two decades or so on the colonial history of India. However, although it presents a synthetic history, it does not offer an eclectic view. The narrative has carved its way carefully through the undulated terrains of Indian historiography. Sometimes, it has taken sides, sometimes, it has taken sides, sometimes it has treaded a middle path, but on occasions it has also been innovative and unorthodox. In other words, it refers to the debates and critically examines them to arrive at its own conclusions about the establishment and functioning of colonial rule and also the emergence of a pluralist and polyphonic nationalism in India.
The book begins with a discussion of the political transformation of India in the eighteenth century, marked by the decline of the Mughal empire at the one end and the rise of the British empire on the other, and in between them a period of uncertainty, dominated by some powerful regional successor states that emerged because of a decentralization of Mughal authority. It then discusses the ideology behind empire building; the historical controversies about the nature of British imperialism, the way a colonial economy unfolded itself and impacted on the Indian society. Then come the responses of the Indian people, their cultural adaptations, social reforms, and finally, their armed resistance, the most violent manifestation of which was the revolt of 1857. The chapters following this discuss the rise of modern nationalism in India, the controversies about its nature, its transformation under the Gandhian leadership, and the emergence of mass politics under the aegis of the Indian National Congress. Tis narrative seeks to take the discussion of nationalism beyond that constricted discursive space where nation-state is situated at the centre and the existence of a homogeneous nation is uncritically accepted and it is supposed to have spoken in one voice. This book acknowledges the historical significance of the mass movement against colonial rule-the largest of its kind in world history in terms of its sheer scale-but shows that the masses rarely spoke in one voice. If Congress represented the mainstream of nationalism in India that found fulfilment in the foundation of the Indian nation -state, there were several powerful minority voices too, such as those of the Muslims, non-Brahmans and dalits, women, workers and peasant, who had different conceptions of freedom, which the mainstream nationalism could not always accommodate. In this nationalist movement dalit concerns for the conditions of citizenship, women's yearning for autonomy, peasants' and workers' longing for justice jostled unhappily with Congress's preoccupation August 1947 were marred by the agonies of a painful and violent partition, signaling the stark reality of Muslim alienation. This book, in other words, is mindful of the diversities within unity, and narrates the story of a polyphonic nationalism where different voices converged in a common struggle against an authoritarian colonial rule, with divergent visions of future at the end of it. The making of this pluralist nation in India is a continually unfolding story that does not end where this book finishes, i.e., at the closing of the colonial watershed, as after this the contest for 'nation-space' acquires new meanings and different dimensions. The present endeavour however remains modest in its scope and focuses only on the colonial period of that continuing saga of adjustment, accommodation and conflict.
While writing this book if there is one single text of historical writing that has influenced me most, it is Sumit Sarkar's Modern India, 1885-1947 (1983), which I have used extensively as a source of information as well as ideas, of course, not always agreeing with all his views. I have acknowledged the debt in the text as far as possible, but the debt is far too much that I can possibly acknowledge formally in every detail. I have also used some other books quite extensively, primarily as sources of information. Mention must be made of the works of S. R. Mehrotra (1971), Philip Lawson (1993), David Hardiman (1993), Geraldine Forbes (1998) and Ian Copland (1999). However, ultimately, this book projects my own understanding of Indian history. And as there is no unpositioned site of historical knowledge, this narrative is coloured by my own preferences and predilections-or in plain words, by my views on Indian nationalism, which will be self-evident in the narrative. I offer no apology for that. However, no interpretation, as well all now acknowledge, is absolute. For other interpretations, readers may follow the bibliography given at the end of this book.
I am indebted to many for writing this book, which has been taking shape in my mind for a very long time. My first and foremost debt is to my students over the last twenty-five years, at Calcutta University in India and at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. They have heard earlier versions of many chapters of this book in their class lectures and tutorial discussions. Through their questions and comments they have constantly challenged me to think about Indian history in newer ways, and in the process have enriched my understanding of the subject. It is also time to acknowledge my longstanding intellectual debt to my teachers from whom I had my lessons of history. I had the privilege of being trained by some of the most eminent historians of modern India, like the late professors Amales Tripathi and Ashin Das Gupta and Professors Benoy Bhushan Chaudhuri, Arun Dasgupta, Barun De, Nilmoni Mukherjee and Rajat Kanta Ray, all of whom have left their marks on my understanding of Indian history. Some of my friends, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Parimal Ghosh, Samita Sen, Subho Basu and Rajat Ganguly have read various sections of the manuscript and have given their valuable suggestions. Gautam Bhadra has been generous as ever in sharing with me his incredible bibliographic knowledge. I am also thankful to my former colleagues at Calcutta University with whom I discussed many of my ideas in their early formative stage. My present colleagues in the History Programme at Victoria University of Wellington presented me with a collegial and intellectually stimulating working environment, without which I would not have been able to write this book. I also wish to thank the Research Committee of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington for sponsoring the project with generous research and travel grants, and also the staff of the Victoria University library for supplying me innumerable books and articles used in this book through its inter-library loan system. Special thanks are also due to several people at the Orient Longman: to Sonali Sengupta who first put the idea of this book into my head, to Nandini Rao who sustained my enthusiasm over the years by maintaining her faith in the project, and to Priti Anand who finally made this book possible. I am also indebted to the anonymous reader for pointing out some significant omissions in the manuscript and for making some valuable suggestions for improvement. And finally, I am immensely grateful to Veenu Luthria, whose meticulous editing has saved me from a lot of embarrassment.
My family as usual has been enormously supportive. My parents have always been sources of inspiration for me. My wife Srilekha ungrudgingly took the responsibility of looking after the household, tolerated my endless grumbling, encouraged me constantly and kept a watchful eye on the progress of this book. My daughter Sohini, wither-growing interest in history, has been a source of inspiration in many ways than she knows. It is to her and to other young minds, keen to learn about the historic struggles of the people of India, that this book is dedicated.
Despite my best efforts there will certainly be many errors in the book, for which I alone remain responsible.
Back of the Book
More than a survey, and much more than a thematically arranged narrative, From Plassey to partition is an eminently readable account of the emergence of India as a nation. It maps a wide and often complicated terrain of historical happenings, their main players in groups and as individuals, and contexts that enable us to see the formation of a nation through documents of resistance and struggle, assimilation and rejection. This story of India nationhood and political coming-of-age is rich in empirical detail and accessible interpretation of facts therein. In its eight major divisions covering about two hundred years of political and socioeconomic turbulence, the author retraces the steps of our nationalist longings. Of particular interest to the contemporary reader will be sections such as 'Early Nationalism: Discontent and Dissension', 'Many Voices of a Nation' and 'Freedom with Partition'. On the one hand, it converses with students of Indian history and on the other, it engages general and curious readers. Few books on this crucial period of history have captured the rhythms of India's polyphonic nationalism as From Plassey to Partition.
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay teaches modern Indian history at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He has also taught at Calcutta University and Kalyani University in India. He is the author of Caste, Politics and the Raj: Bengal, 1872-1937 (1990). He is the editor of Bengal: Rethinking History. Essays in Historiography (2001) and a co-editor of Caste and Communal Politics in South Asia (1993) and Bengal: Communities, Development and States (1994).
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