The History of Modern India

Durba Ghosh is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University, where she teaches the history of the Indian subcontinent and is currently working on a book about political violence.

History is among the most violently contested academic subjects in modern Indian politics, which may sound surprising because many of us think of history as a set of settled “facts” that can be established by archival research. Because of its growing size (India comprises nearly 18 percent of the world population) and its status as the “world’s largest democracy,” India’s history can be told from many perspectives that directly contradict one another. Writing history is a democratic exercise in India. Yet, in part because of India’s religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, developing a capacious and inclusive account of India’s history has long been the goal of academically trained professional historians. In recent years, the kind of objective truth-telling a professional history implies has been roundly contested by those who feel that elites should not be in charge of writing the history of a large and diverse population. The popular history of India is often told quite differently, and as scholars have attempted to bridge the gap between professional and popular history, many have paid more attention to non-elite and subaltern perspectives.

Many of these challenges to professional and academic historians emerges from the work of the Subaltern Studies Collective, who were deeply influenced by postcolonial theory and figures such as Edward Said. The collective, which published the first volume of its journal in 1982, became an international sensation when the first subaltern studies reader was published in 1988. Although the collective has disbanded, it nourished a field of scholarship that took peasants, workers, dalits, adivasis, women, Muslims and other marginal figures in the conventional landscape of Indian history and placed them at the center of historical experience and transformation.

This list of recommended readings draws from writers who disagree about India’s history. They all ask the question that political theorist Sunil Khilnani asked in The Idea of India (1997), “who is an Indian?” and by extension, they consider what kind of common past Indians should share.

Places to Start

India After Gandhi is a comprehensive history of India’s commitment to secular, liberal, and democratic values since 1947 when India became independent of British colonial rule. This well-written and engaging volume explains how India has persistently met the challenges it has faced, both from within and outside its borders. At once considered “modern,” because of its scientific and technological prowess, the making of modern India and Indians has been tested by secessionist and minority movements as well as by so-called “traditional” practices involving religion, gender, caste, and ethnicity.

Digging In

Written by a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective, this book is a classic text that challenges the long held perception that Indians passively accepted British rule. Guha argues that Indians were constantly resisting and subverting British colonial rule during the two hundred years of British occupation (roughly from 1765-1947). My two favorite chapters focus on rumor and what Guha calls the “prose of counterinsurgency.” By asking how rumors become believable, Guha shows that rumors explain how non-elites held a deep distrust of their rulers, and how particular suspicions were invoked in moments of crisis. By thinking about how we write about crimes, whether petty theft or drunkenness, Guha challenges us to imagine how peasants, workers, and untouchables resorted to public disorder to disrupt “normal” society.

In this elegant and slender book, Amin re-examines a well-known event the history of India’s nationalist struggle and retells it from the perspective of local inhabitants who lived through it and how these accounts conflicted with the nationalist version. The killing of four Indian police officers in Chauri Chaura in February 1922 suspended Gandhi’s first major nonviolent campaign and made Chauri Chaura synonymous with violence and a lack of political discipline; Amin raises questions about the “lesson” of Chauri Chaura and how these lessons obscure the polysemous nature of history.

Published well over a decade after the article of the same title, this book transformed how we think about debates over the status of women. Taking sati (the practice of widow-burning) as her focus, Mani argues that debates between Indian elites and colonial officials about this inhumane act allowed men to speak on behalf of women as a way to claim political authority. Rescuing Indian women from Indian men became a colonial alibi that enabled further British intervention.

New Moves

Simultaneously a collection of oral histories and a historical account of the loss suffered by the author’s mother who left Lahore to move to Delhi in 1947, this book uses personal memoir and oral interviews to show the ways that partition was more than a national event. In Butalia’s account, lives were unsettled, households broken up, and families separated; these processes transformed each of the figures she interviews. As she narrates their experience amid her own, we learn just how profoundly the event we know as partition generated many transformations.

A thought-provoking volume about the nature of archives and what historians consider historical evidence, this book compels us to examine women’s memoirs as a site for producing historical accounts. Through an analysis of texts written by three women in late colonial India, Burton demonstrates how accounts of home and households, with their rich description of intimate life and domestic space, can and should be integrated into what counts as “history.”

A collection of essays about modernity in India, these were the articles and chapters left over after Chakrabarty published his well-known book, Provincializing Europe, which challenged us all to think of the ways we might write history from a non-European perspective. Habitations is an extended set of ruminations on what such a history might look like as Chakrabarty considers the role of garbage, compassion, pity, and the law in comprehending the vexed genealogy of modernity in India as its features were produced by colonialism.

Voices and Lives

A deeply moving account of a day in the life of Bakha, a young street-sweeper in India in the 1930s. As he goes about his day, we learn of his aspirations for a better life, one that seems within his grasp. His dream is challenged in a moment rich with social tragedy, when an unfortunate encounter on the street draws his attention to the intractability of caste distinctions in daily life.

Told from the perspective of a young child, Leni, as she watches her household change through the course of the 1947 partition, the novel explains more than a historical monograph could about the dramatic and momentous changes ordinary people went through when the British left the subcontinent and created India and Pakistan. Made into a powerful film titled Earth, by the acclaimed director, Deepa Mehta, the story showcases the dramatic changes in one family.

Written shortly after India and Pakistan tested nuclear missiles in the spring of 1998, this book by Arundhati Roy questions whether developing a nuclear program or building a large concrete dams in places where large parts of the population are living below the global poverty line makes economic or social sense. Provocative and polemical, Roy’s critique of the Indian government’s policy decisions left me rethinking all national priorities that are enacted in the name of “development.” Read this once you’ve read Ramachandra Guha and you’ll get a sense of some of the fault lines in how the history of modern India is written.