Modern South India: Not free from old identity tropes

The book Modern South India by Rajmohan Gandhi is a necessary read for those interested in a popular history of South India

Modern South India: Not free from old identity tropes

Mahesh Gopalan

This book by Rajmohan Gandhi offers a lucid account of the history of modern South India comprising today of the five states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Telengana. Beginning with the dawn of the sixteenth century, this volume picks up the thread from where the historian Neelkanta Sashtri left off his history of South India with the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, and takes the reader down till the contemporary times (the year 2018, to be precise). This popular history offers a crisp, multi-layered narrative that sweeps through almost 400 years of history, in over fifteen chapters. The author provides a very colourful and rich view of different parts of the region, and of the careers of important individuals. An attempt to write such a history is a challenging task, and Gandhi has given us a well-researched text that offers a fascinating glimpse of various aspects of the social, political and cultural life of modern South India.

The first three chapters in this volume build up a discussion on the beginnings of the European presence in the region during the sixteenth century, and move forward to the English subjugation of Tipu Sultan and the Nawab of Arcot in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The chapters four to seven, gradually develop the complexities of this macro-history of modern South India. Rajmohan Gandhi offers a historical tour of South India based on the short biographical accounts of the careers of important Poligayar chiefs, and of English Company officials like Colin Mackenzie and Thomas Munro. Through these biographical accounts, he tries to build a historical picture of the complexities that marked the evolving English rule, and the responses of local society to the new political order. In the process, he offers a good insight into the cultural world of South India in the early nineteenth century.

The mid-nineteenth century was also a time when the Madras Presidency assumed a definite form with the merging of territories in the central Deccan, the Kanara and Malabar coasts with the English territories in the eastern peninsula and the Coromandel. It was also a time when South Indian economy and society also experienced much change under English colonial rule. Among other factors, the establishment of the railways, the construction of dams, the growing popularity of the printing press and the emergence of a new educational system symbolised by the establishment of Madras University (in 1857) inaugurated the dawn of the modern era. The author’s brisk historical account takes us through these important landmarks in the nineteenth century, and into the early twentieth century, which witnessed growing social reform movements, the critique of Brahmanical orthodoxy, and the establishment of the Justice Party. The author continues to develop his narrative of the history of South India interspersed with short biographical sketches of political leaders and social activists like Velu Thampi, Salar Jung, Viresalingam, Uttamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swamunatha Iyer (UVS), Narayana Guru.

The last four chapters offer an account of the period from 1948 to 2018. Here too, the author while attempting to touch upon all major developments in the history of modern South India, intersperses the discussion with a brief biographical outline of the careers of Potti Sriramulu, Annadurai, Indira Gandhi (an interesting addition to the list of prominent South Indians), NT Rama Rao, J Jayalalithaa, PV Narasimha Rao and HD Deve Gowda. These chapters outline political life at a time when regional language-based politics was beginning to establish its primacy. These new regional formations, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and more recently Telengana came to be established, with the partition of Madras and Bombay presidencies and the merging of the Nizam, Mysore and Travancore states. The efforts of the author to restrict the discussion of this contemporary period is evident and does not do justice to the rapidly transforming society and politics of South India from the 1990’s onwards. At the same time, it is interesting to note that for the author who has carefully identified individuals who stand out the history of modern South India does not include M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran, EMS Namboodiripad, K Karunakaran and Ramakrishna Hegde in the list of those who deserve a short biographical treatment. They feature as actors in the unfolding history, but not in a prominent way as the others who have been mentioned.

This book however brings to the fore a few problems that have always plagued such macro histories of South India. The question of defining the political geography of South India has been one such issue.

The idea of South India in some of these histories (and in this volume too) is defined by the boundaries of Madras Presidency, a colonial administrative territory, instead of using the Deccan and peninsula South Asia as potential marker of a historically older, fluid and shared geo-political and cultural zone. The identification of Madras Presidency with South India establishes a static idea associated with certain clearly defined linguistic identities that lend themselves to the idea of South India. It denies the inclusion of many parts of the western peninsula region especially the region around Goa - Konkan and large parts of Marathwada. These were regions that have historically (till the establishment of Bombay and Madras presidencies) shared a political, economic and social past with other parts of peninsula South Asia. Though the author consciously attempts to integrate other regions into his larger narrative of the history of South India, he is unable to undo this Madras Presidency-centric perspective. In the last six chapters on the period from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the discursive emphasis in the narrative is largely on individuals and events associated with nationalist politics in the Tamil-speaking regions of Madras Presidency.

In the first six chapters, the discussion on modern South India is burdened with another set of issues that pertain to methodological frameworks. These issues emerge from attempts to write histories from the perspective of individual lives placed within a dominant, overarching idea of national history. The use of short biographical histories not only limit the discussion around the life of the individual but also within a framework of mainstream national history in which these actors need to presented to the reader within certain established tropes. This plays an important role in the selection of the actors around whose lives the historical narrative is constructed. The burden of constructing national and popular histories also reinforces tropes such as oppressive indigenous rule, a fragmented polity, the absence of strong central leadership, with tragedy and betrayal accompanying the end of heroic resistance against oppressive and scheming invaders.

In addition, these frameworks also re-enforce established racial, communal, and linguistic tropes used in defining the region. This furthers the ‘othering’ of communities which does not conform to the dominant idea of South India. Thus, the Indo-Portuguese, the Anglo-Indians, the Afghans, Rajputs, and many others who made their careers in the region, and whose families subsequently stayed on and became naturalised residents of South India, do not get adequate space and attention. They are, in a way, perpetual outsiders. One example is the discussion on a South Indian Muslim ruler like Hyder Ali. Though the author acknowledges that nothing much is known about his ancestry, he nonetheless comments on Hyder’s fair complexion and potential West Asian origins. Similarly, older stereotypes about Muslims and non-Muslims are re-enforced in the case of Purniah, who served in the administrations of Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan, the Wadiyar ruler of Mysore, and under the English Company. Purniah’s fluency in Persian (an administrative language used in most parts of South Asia during this period) is described as being comparable to ‘any Muslim noble of the Mysore of Haidar and Tipu’. Such tropes stand out because they would never have been deployed when commenting on a South Indian’s fluency in Hindi (also an administrative language in the twentieth century). Thus, while the author attempts to negotiate the very tricky terrain of cultural pluralism, he is unable to establish a new narrative that questions the dominant popular notion of the Muslim invader, oppressive Muslim administrator and the othering of diversity within the political cultural worlds of South India, furthered in the colonial histories of South Asia. Similarly, the role played by the Christian communities in shaping the history of modern South India also does not find a visible space in this narrative. Gandhi is largely silent about the role of the Indo-Portuguese, Anglo Indians and local Christian communities in the making of modern South India. At times, the reader senses echoes of an old political and academic tension where many are unable to separate the Christian from the colonial.

There is a need for a peoples’ history of modern South India, which challenges the dominant definitions of the region, and offers local communities rather than their leaders a greater agency in the historical narrative

These issues raise questions about how we engage with the memory of the shared pasts of a region that has historically been multi-lingual, and where boundaries between Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Dekhani, Konkani, Tulu, Malayalam and Telugu have frequently blurred. While the author attempts to engage with some of the concerns raised here, there is a potential for more such intellectual engagements on the history of South India. There is a need for a peoples’ history of modern South India, which challenges the dominant definitions of the region, and offers local communities rather than their leaders a greater agency in the historical narrative. Such an approach could yield a more inclusive history, and provide a more adequate account of agrarian, pastoral and maritime society, marginalised social and religious groups, and of environmental and ecological regions.

This book is a necessary read for those interested in a popular history of South India as it has the potential to reopen many old lingering questions. The author in this volume, by skillfully integrating history and different formats (biographical, thematic and event based narratives), establishes an interesting narrative. No one history can ever be the last word on any theme, but every new account of the past, in its own way opens up more questions, which eventually produce enquiries that enrich our understanding of the past

The writer is professor of history at St Stephen’s College, New Delhi

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