25 January 2020

Nature and Nation, paperback

"Digging into a vast historical archive of the subcontinent and carefully moving from the past to
the present, Mahesh Rangarajan’s Nature and Nation complicates long held assumptions that have
informed popular understandings of South Asia’s environment. This marks a historiographical
shift from the dominant trend till the early 1990s where there is often a convergence between the
concerns of the environmental movements and the framing of history. What emerges in turn is a
nuanced picture of a rather dialogical relationship between ‘nature’ and ‘nation’. Bringing together
a selection of essays written between 1996 and 2012, Rangarajan, the longtime environmental
historian, demonstrates – what he has been arguing for quite a while now – the need to examine a
longer-range history with all its attendant regional variations"
Tanmoy Sharma, South Asian History and Culture

Writing India’s environmental history is not easy. The country’s territorial vastness, geographical complexity, and unusual biodiversity make the task difficult. Relatively few scholars have shown the historical range and intellectual depth required to tackle the area compellingly and with sophistication.

Mahesh Rangarajan is among the foremost scholars in this field. The papers and books he has written or edited over more than two decades have helped craft and enlarge Indian environmental thought as a whole. They have established his reputation as a stimulating and wide-ranging historian-thinker in the discipline.

The present collection comprises ten essays showcasing the core of Rangarajan’s thought and interventions. They include comparisons of the subcontinent with the world beyond, most specially with societies in Asia and Africa once under Western domination. They also include studies of specific historical conjunctures under regimes such as those of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere.

Environmental shifts and continuities in a massive Asian society and polity are the central focus of this book. It discusses events and processes to show how specific environmental changes happened. It discusses the global ecological dimensions of Indian transformations. Economy and ecology, state-making and identity, nature and nation converge and cohere to make this a book for every thinking person.

MAHESH RANGARAJAN, has been Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. His many books include Fencing the Forest (1996), India’s Wildlife History: An Introduction (2000), The Oxford Anthology of Indian Wildlife (2 vols, edited, 2001–2), and India’s Environmental History: A Reader (2 vols, 2012, coedited with K. Sivaramakrishnan). Mahesh Rangarajan studied at Hindu College, Delhi. A Rhodes Scholar, he was at Balliol and then Nuffield College, Oxford. He has been Professor of History, University of Delhi, and Visiting Faculty at Cornell University, Jadavpur University, and the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru. In 2010, he was chair, India’s Elephant Task Force, and was for many years a political analyst and columnist in print media as well as on television.

360 pp | PB | Rs 595

13 January 2020


The EPW Review of
Neeladri Bhattacharya
The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World

Jayati Ghosh

It is a rare but exhilarating experience to realise, some way through reading a book, that you are holding what is destined to become a classic. This book is nothing less than a tour de force of the historian’s craft: making a profound point with analysis that is at once sweeping yet detailed, comprehensive and careful; filled with novel approaches and entertaining stories; and beautifully written throughout. But Neeladri Bhattacharya’s brilliant book provides much more than only historical insights: it opens up various terms, categories and analytical constructs that are regularly deployed in various social sciences, including in economics, politics and sociology, to generate a much more thoughtful and nuanced understanding of their origins and meanings.
The central argument of this book is that the colonial agrarian conquest of north India was a deep conquest in many ways, going well beyond the explicit dramatic (and often violent) assertion of control from above that could be easily observed. It operated equally and possibly more fundamentally – if more silently and over a long period – from below, “by developing a new and enabling imaginary whereby the rural universe could be made afresh: revisualised, reordered, reworked, and altogether transformed”. (page 1).  This involved the introduction of new categories – property rights and tenures, habitations and villages – that were then coded through laws and established through customs. By refiguring the terms used for social relations and the ties that bound communities together, it actually altered notions of space and time, of what was legal and what was permissible. Since it posited settled peasant agriculture as the norm, over time it devalued and denied the possibility of other forms of rural livelihood and landscape.
The book deals with colonial Punjab, although it has much wider resonance in space, across different geographies, and even in time, hinting at some remarkably contemporary analogies.  The account of the conquest is bookended by two evocative descriptions of journeys on horseback, the first a literary account in the early days of colonial control of the region in 1846, and the second a century later, on the very eve of Independence. The shift from the muscular and masculine paternalism of colonial conquest embodied by Henry Lawrence in the mid-19th century to the more sober and reflective journey of Malcolm Darling in the winter of 1946-47 encapsulates much more than a change in colonial attitudes. The intervening period is one in which the agrarian reality through which these men rode had been completely transformed, not only in the approach of the colonial rulers, but in the perception and understanding of the ruled.
For economists and sociologists, some of the most fascinating parts of Bhattacharya’s book are those that deal with categories and concepts that are too often simply taken for granted. As someone who decades ago researched agrarian economic change using colonial land settlement records, I realised (with some regret) how much of my analysis had been based on an over-simplistic understanding of these categories. But this flaw is indeed quite widespread among social scientists.
The “village” is one such category, unquestioningly accepted as the defining principle of the rural in India, as indeed elsewhere. Gandhi’s famous statement that “India means her seven hundred thousand villages” was for a very long time taken as both obvious and hortatory, and social scientists have generally tended to equate the rural and village residence. Yet Bhattacharya shows that in 19th century Punjab, settled agriculture within clearly demarcated villages was neither universal nor even the norm. Villages generally appeared in riverine plains, which were areas of intense cultivation. Elsewhere, there were vast stretches where neither villages nor settled agriculture were pervasive – amounting to around 60 per cent of surveyed land in 1870.  Depending on the landscape (forested, semi-arid, desert, and so on) there were many different forms of both settlement and livelihood, ranging from shifting dry cultivation to pastoral. But the colonial administrators operated with an idealised notion of settled agriculture based on the village, an approach that effectively erased the legitimacy of other spaces and forms of habitation, such as forests, scrublands, pastures, deserts, meadows, hilly regions.
How was this done? The most significant instrument was the revenue settlement, which required constituting a “village” through records, and ascribing some form of property and/or occupancy right on all lands. Each set of revenue records included a “history” of the village, which validated its existence as a distinct spatial body even if that was not at all how the inhabitants or local custom perceived it. Claims to accuracy were substantiated by patwari records, even as these were sought to be “modernised” and fitted into the colonial scheme of things. They were further buttressed by the use of cartography: mapping and cadastral surveys became essential instruments of the project of ordering, appropriating and dominating the landscape. Bhattacharya provides some maps that indicate the inherent contradictions of this endeavour, as the enthusiastic British sought to impose their notion of a settled agrarian order on arid tracts with pastoral livelihoods and shifting habitations, or on hilly areas that regrouped scattered hamlets and cultivated plots into new revenue circles called mauzas, announcing boundaries where none existed in reality. The villages of the fertile plains thus became the template that all other forms of habitation had to be squeezed into.
These processes also involved asserting – and in some cases reaffirming – traditional social hierarchies. But also, local peculiarities had to be captured in more general terms that fit with colonial ideas of stratification. Colonial revenue manuals classified north Indian society into zamindari, pattidari and bhaiachara tenures, which were duly enumerated annually. While these were claimed to describe pre-existing rural realities, in effect they were colonial constructs that “redefined the meaning of custom, the shape of social relations, and the meaning of property” (page 111), effectively refiguring the entire rural landscape.
Bhattacharya describes the desperate efforts of Baden-Powell and others to translate this theory of tenures into operational reality in the face of the much greater complexity, fluidity and variation on the ground. It meant that the terms had to be stretched, redefined, forced to accommodate contrary meanings. “Yet, though the officials found them useless, the terms were retained – misleading and fictive, but in the end indispensable.” (pages 125-6). This tenurial classification became another instrument of agrarian conquest, as all rural social groups were identified not only as living in villages, but as members of communities operating with particular defined tenurial systems.
This forcible straitjacketing impacted pastoral communities in at least two distinct trajectories. In some regions, tribes were forced to settle with land revenue imposed jointly on members of a particular tribe. Elsewhere, individual holdings were brought together and declared to be a (bureaucratically instituted) village community. But the order all this supposedly imposed was fleeting and often illusory. “Exasperated officials found it impossible to classify any particular village through a single category. Different parts of the village seemed to conform to the characteristics of different tenures” (page 141) to the point where the tenurial records were often entirely misleading.
Importantly, this classification and gradation of rights based on blood and ancestry consolidated patriarchy and a male brotherhood, marginalising women and castes and groups that could not belong to the defined lineages. Since the colonial power sought to govern through local institutions, the village brotherhoods that were so created were sanctified by empowering panchayats, which could quickly dispense justice on the spot. While the attitude of the colonial state to these local panchayats went through a complex evolution, they became a crucial site for the consolidation of patriarchal power in the villages (both original and created) with long-lasting implications for the distribution of rural power as well as for women and Dalits in particular.
Just as the colonial rulers coded land into property, so they sought to codify social customs. Yet the recording of social custom that became such a feature of the politics of paternalism in Punjab was done through the prism of British perceptions, conventions and assumptions. This process, too, was rife with Orientalism, the anxiety of the rulers and associated contradictions. This was evident in the attitude to the pandits who at first were treated as the intermediaries in relaying customs to the British, even as the Company’s intellectuals increasingly laid claim to the moral authority to record and represent Indian tradition. Effectively, therefore, the rhetoric of custom became a new language of power, legitimation and ultimately control. As with land rights, this reinforced patriarchy: by emphasising agnatic descent even when cognatic practices had earlier been prevalent; by making the rights of women dependent on notions of bodily purity; and in several other ways.
However, this colonial control, though all-pervasive, was never complete. Bhattacharya notes that it was never able to create a seamless and uncontested regulatory regime that incorporated subjects within it. Instead, there were spaces of confrontation and negotiation – and several fascinating instances of such ruptures and negotiations are described, including court cases that brought out the contradictions of the colonial codifications.
These contradictions became even more significant with the emergence of the commodity economy, as claims and obligations had to be categorically stated in the language of contract, so that even affective ties acquired legal forms. Colonial administrators assumed that joint holdings would disintegrate over time, moving to partition into individual shares and then individual possession. Yet joint holdings persisted, often because they could be “the anchor around which peasant life moved” (page 310), for example by enabling migration for certain periods. Attempts to reduce fragmentation of holdings by consolidation likewise collapsed over time, as the new large holdings created through land grants were split into smaller plots and leased out for cultivation.
Bhattacharya’s description of the colonisation of pastures and other common lands has remarkable contemporary resonance. He examines the pastoral tract of the high grasslands to the west of the river Sutlej, where the colonisation began with the (artificial) marking of boundaries through placing stone pillars, which were first simply ignored by the locals because the very concept was so alien. These then became the basis for levying a tax – tirni. This became a crucial way in which colonial power announced itself, since it went beyond the revenues collected to an assertion of rights over open lands, grazing fields and even sheer wilderness. Tirni eventually became an instrument of settling nomadic groups and confining them into demarcated spaces, reinforced by the inevitable maps with often fraudulent boundaries that even some colonial officials protested against.
But this was not an easy process: the authority of the new norms was always under question and often contested. Local pushback against this was treated with fear and loathing, to the point that a spate of wild fires was ascribed to malevolent villagers, even though an official enquiry determined otherwise. But the arguments used then can still be heard today. Consider this: “forest officials saw themselves as bearers of science and truth, reason and rationality, and the villagers as primitive and irrational, ignorant and unreasonable. The project of conservation was visualised as a war again unreason and the battle against those seen as pyromaniacs was viewed as a struggle for science.”(page 372) This contradiction was intensified by something that is also still present: the mixed use of land, whereby cultivated and forested lands cannot be easily separated, rather they are “honeycombed together”.
The project of canal development in the Punjab was similarly not just about rural infrastructure, but became a grand project of social engineering, In the Canal Colonies, officials who had long despaired at the absence of order with the agrarian landscape could finally try to impose their own sense of order, such that the entire landscape was plotted with a network of straight lines: the entire area became “a regime of squares”. Villages were enclosed and bounded, with single points of entry and exit – ostensibly for their own protection, even as it made official surveillance and policing easier. This was closely associated with the enclosure and demarcation of all fields. There were of course local reactions to this, particularly from herders and other excluded by this process. But more to the point, Bhattacharya notes that the promise of much higher yields on canal tracts turned out to be a mirage, largely because of the ecological barriers presented by waterlogging, salinity and their impacts. “Science could not easily sustain the self-arrogance of modernity. The promise of modernity crumbled, afflicted by the antinomies of development.” (page 435)
The experiment in the Canal Colonies typified the top-down, overt pattern that Bhattacharya describes as one of the two paths of agrarian conquest, whereby the colonial state sought to impose an entirely new order from above. By contrast, the other path, described in much of the earlier part of the book, was one of agrarian conquest from below, which proceeded “slowly, carefully, almost surreptitiously”– one that was supposedly founded on custom and native institutions, but actually “remapped the landscape, redefined custom, refigured rights, reorganised social relations, and re-ordered agrarian regimes”. (page 436) Inevitably, the distinction between these two paths broke down over time, as the agrarian conquest from below could not proceed without state initiatives from above.
Yet the contradictions of this process – and the wider and deeper contradictions of the paternalistic ideology of colonialism in the Punjab – became only too evident from the early 20th century. While Bhattacharya does not deal with this later period at any length, his account of the many forms of contestation and rebellion, of the exercise of agency by subjects in the second half of the 19th century, enable a better understanding of how such a regime could not survive a new language of individual rights, and most of all, the hope of the universal cry of azadi.
There is of course much more in this wonderful book than can be captured by a short attempt at summary. But the most important takeaway for this reader – beyond the unpacking of widely used concepts that are too often inadequately understood – is that a conquest of deep, profound and even phenomenal, proportions need not always be grand and dramatic; it can occur through “the seemingly routine, the undramatic, the everyday, (through) acts that organise life and institutionalise practices”. (pages 2-3).  As we live another period of conquest today, possibly even more complex, this insight is all the more powerful.

To listen to TWO excellent discussions on this book,
the first including Romila Thapar,
click here

and the second including Partha Chatterjee,
click here

This book examines how, over colonial times, the diverse practices and customs of an existing rural universe – with its many forms of livelihood – were reshaped to create a new agrarian world of settled farming. While focusing on Punjab, this pathbreaking analysis offers a broad argument about the workings of colonial power: the fantasy of imperialism, it says, is to make the universe afresh.

Such radical change, Bhattacharya shows, is as much conceptual as material. Agrarian colonisation was a process of creating spaces that conformed to the demands of colonial rule. It entailed establishing a regime of categories – tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations – and a framework of laws that made the change possible. Agrarian colonisation was in this sense a deep conquest.

Colonialism, the book suggests, has the power to revisualise and reorder social relations and bonds of community. It alters the world radically, even when it seeks to preserve elements of the old. The changes it brings about are simultaneously cultural, discursive, legal, linguistic, spatial, social, and economic. Moving from intent to action, concepts to practices, legal enactments to court battles, official discourses to folklore, this book explores the conflicted and dialogic nature of a transformative process.

By analysing this great conquest, and the often silent ways in which it unfolds, the book asks every historian to rethink the practice of writing agrarian history and reflect on the larger issues of 
doing history.

 "The Great Agrarian Conquest is at once deeply theoretical as well as solidly empirical. It elegantly bridges different fields and approaches generally treated in a segmented manner by less accomplished (or less ambitious) historians. It integrates texts with contexts, discursive practices with material reality. This is a history of ideas and of institutions, of livelihood practices and of everyday social relations. It investigates both structure and agency, the reshaping of rural Punjab by a colonial ideology of codification and improvement as well as the actions of individual officials which were often at variance with each other.
At the level of method, the great achievement of Bhattacharya’s book is that it successfully brings together agrarian history and environmental history, two sub-disciplines that have tended to work separately and in isolation from one another...The Great Agrarian Conquest is a subtle and substantial work of scholarship. If there is one book Indians need to read to understand how colonialism actually worked (or did not work), this is it. says Ramachandra Guha, in WIRE

Neeladri Bhattacharya's "path-breaking monograph on significant transformations  in Punjab under British rule (1849-1947) adds to his legendary  reputation of a teacher" says Razi Aquil in Sunday Guardian


taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University for forty-one years, from where he retired in 2017 as Professor of History. He has been a Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and has held visiting professorships in Europe, South Africa, and the USA.

11 January 2020



NEWS JUST IN (January 2020) . . .

Admirers of Sanjay Subrahmanyam's many magnificent "connected histories" will be happy to learn that they -- having long lost count of the number of European languages he reads and lectures in, and having lost count also of the number of monographs he has written on Portuguese and Mughal history, maritime history, economic history, cultural history, and travellers' accounts, and God knows what else -- can now also start losing count of the number of international history prizes he has won. As we already know, Subrahmanyam is the only Asian to be made Professor, International Chair in Early Modern Global History at the Collège de France. This happened in 2013. We also recall that he won the Infosys Prize the year before that.

We have now received news that this former enfant terrible of Indian and European history (we can certify that he is, for many years now, entirely sober, mature, and dignified, in line with his stature) has been awarded the Prix International d'Histoire (International Prize of History) by the International Committee of Historical Sciences (ICHS). 

The committee will give Subrahmanyam the award at a ceremony in Poznań, Poland, in August 2020, at the XXIII Congress of the ICHS, which is held every five years. The citation speaks of his "contributions to the progress of historical research and to the dialogue between cultures, opening many new perspectives and training generations of scholars." The prize, like the Prix Goncourt, is not monetised (what a pity), but we believe Subrahmanyam will get a very fancy medal and a very fancy watch! 

More to the point, this prize is open to a historian of any country, of any time period, and any theme!

Sanjay Subrahmanyam (black beard) with Simon Digby (white beard)
It used to be said of the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the great violinst Jascha Heifetz that their individual achievements were not only head and shoulders above those of every other past and present pianist and violinist, but that they were likely to remain head and shoulders above those of every future pianist and violinist too. Even if we take such grandiose declarations with a pinch of salt and discount the element of wanton exaggeration in them, there is little doubt that Subrahmanyam's accomplishment as a historian is, quite simply, staggering.

Permanent Black is privileged to have published several of Sanjay Subrahmanyam's books, including most recently IS INDIAN CIVILIZATION A MYTH?, and EMPIRES BETWEEN ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY 1500-1800, and (co-authored with Muzaffar Alam) WRITING THE MUGHAL WORLD.

It may interest readers to know that Sanjay Subrahmanyam's brother S. Jaishankar is India's foreign minister in the BJP government, and that his father K. Subrahmanyam was the foremost advocate of India's atom bomb; and that Subrahmanyam, whose histories have shown the cross-fertilisation of cultures and civilisations and the porousness of political boundaries, has been consistently a staunch defender of secular values . . . So, a variety of opinions and possibly differing positions, all within the same family -- and thus a most potent and heartening example of the coexistence of difference that India is now rapidly in danger of losing.

23 December 2019

The Press on the Roof of the World

 Somewhere in these mountains is the only independent press situated on the roof of the world. 
It will turn twenty next year. 

To mark the end of our teens, we've instituted a prize. The Kosambi Memorial Book Prize will be given annually to the best student in ancient Indian history at Ashoka University, Haryana.  The first prize was awarded on 13th November 2019 to Revanth Ukkalam and Haritha Govind of Ashoka University's Class of 2020. 

Haritha Govind with Mahesh Rangarajan
Revanth Ukkalam with Mahesh Rangarajan, Nayanjot Lahiri, and Pratyay Nath
The prize also marks our extensive co-publication programme with Ashoka University in the series Hedgehog and Fox, edited by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Over 75 titles have been published in this series in the five years since it came into existence.

As every year here at Permanent Black we proved that you don't have to add to the world's carbon footprint to publish internationally. We did not fly to bookfairs in Frankfurt or London but our books went places.

Some exciting literary reading included Joan Salés Uncertain Glory, published under license from Maclehose Press, UK; Neelesh Raghuvanshi's Girl with Questioning Eyes, the translation of a novel that has been described as 'Hindi fiction's most moving portrayal of small-town India' and iconoclastic poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra's Translating the Indian Past.

We also brought back into print Ramchandra Gandhi's "unusual and genuinely original book . . . on the basic problem of our existence as persons in community"
Our last book of the year was the final one of M.S.S. Pandian's brief, brilliant life:  
As always we are grateful to our readers, to the community of scholars and students who look out for our books and a few who read them with an eagle eye and get back to us with typographical errors. Our typesetter Guru Typographics runs a small, sturdy, independent ship as do our printers, Sapra Brothers. We thank them, as well as our main proof-reader Shyama Warner, and Orient Blackswan, wonderful publishers who have supported us right from the start by distributing our books. 
Most of all, none of these books would have reached you without the help and supervision of our core management team, comprising Barauni Junction (left), Piku (centre), and Sodamini a.k.a. Soda (right), which is responsible for the division of labour and resources.

We wish everyone a kinder, calmer year 
than this one has been.

19 December 2019


"Being the only boy in the house, I ran errands, went to the shops to buy our necessities, and delivered small quantities of milk and buttermilk which we sold to some neighbours, and then had my morning meal. Breakfast consisted of a small quantity of rice kept overnight in rice water which by the morning had slightly fermented, and a little lime pickle or chutney made dal, tamarind, and chillies. Sometimes a single hot chilli was all that was available to eat with the rice."

The memoirs and lectures of A.N. Sattanathan, presented here in a fully annotated edition, with a critical introduction, constitute a key literary-historical document of the caste struggle. Sattanathan’s autobiographical fragment is a unique record of non-brahmin low-caste life in rural South India, where the presence of poverty and caste prejudice is the more powerful for being understated.

As the experience—sparsely and beautifully rendered—of the low-caste but not stereotypically ‘untouchable’ villager, it is, quite simply, revelatory, and will make an impact as such on the English-educated reader, to whom that experience has been so far unavailable.

In a complementary narrative, Sattanathan’s lectures — on ‘The Rise and Spread of the Non-Brahmin Movement’ as ‘the most outstanding event in South Indian History in the twentieth century’— offer a lucid summary of the cultural and historical conditions that find more personal and immediate expression in the memoirs.

A.N. Sattanathan had a distinguished career in the all-India services. He was Collector of Customs and Central Excise, Calcutta, and in later life wrote and published widely on politics and economics in India. In 1969 he was appointed Chairman of the first Tamilnadu Backward Classes Commission and made a lasting impact on the state’s policy of affirmative action towards lower castes.

Uttara Natarajan is Reader in English at Goldsmiths College, where she teaches and researches in nineteenth-century English literature. Her publications include Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense and Blackwell Guides to Criticism: The Romantic Poets.
Paperback/ Rs 595

01 December 2019

I AM THE PEOPLE: A truly global account of populist and popular sovereignty

“In these masterful lectures, Chatterjee provides a truly global account of the logics of populist and popular sovereignty in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Drawing on the example of modern Indian capitalism and governmental techniques, Chatterjee shows that the career of the ‘people’ and populism in India enables a richer, deeper, and more complex account of populist politics than is the norm in current debates in Euro-America. ”
Thomas Blom Hansen, Stanford University

“Partha Chatterjee’s scintillating intervention is essential reading for a global constituency that is being encouraged, by journalists and polemicists alike, to understand populism, racism, and xenophobia through facile, divisive polarizations—the elites vs. the masses; globalization vs. the nation-state; tribalism vs. democracy. He is able to engage with the ideological ambiguities, political contingencies, and democratic antagonisms of our age while providing a constructive compass on where we are today and what is to be done. I Am the People is a fine achievement.”
Homi Bhabha, Harvard University

“Chatterjee sets forth an entirely original genealogy of political populism built around the theoretical significance of populist politics in India and their unexpected convergences with the West. No other political theorist has the range, analytical depth, ambition, and sheer novelty of political imagination to traverse this truly global story of popular sovereignty. Chatterjee has also delightfully given a new life to Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution for a new age and a new generation of critical theorists.”
Karuna Mantena, Columbia University

The forms of liberal government that emerged after World War II are in the midst of a profound crisis. In I Am the People, Partha Chatterjee reconsiders the concept of popular sovereignty in order to explain today’s dramatic outburst of movements claiming to speak for “the people”. Drawing on thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau, and with a particular focus on the history of populism in India, I Am the People is a sweeping, theoretically rich account of the origins of today’s tempests. 

To uncover the roots of populism, Chatterjee traces the twentieth-century trajectory of the welfare state and neoliberal reforms. Mobilizing ideals of popular sovereignty and the emotional appeal of nationalism, anticolonial movements ushered in a world of nation-states while liberal democracies in Europe guaranteed social rights to their citizens. But as neoliberal techniques shrank the scope of government, politics gave way to technical administration by experts. Once the state could no longer claim an emotional bond with the people, the ruling bloc lost the consent of the governed. To fill the void, a proliferation of populist leaders have mobilized disaffected groups into a battle that they define as the authentic people against entrenched oligarchy. 

Once politics enters a spiral of competitive populism, Chatterjee cautions, there is no easy return to pristine liberalism. Only a counter-hegemonic social force that challenges global capital and facilitates the equal participation of all peoples in democratic governance can achieve significant transformation.

is professor of anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies at Columbia University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (Permanent Black, 2004) and The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Permanent Black, 2012).

HARDBACK/ 212 pages/ Rs 595/ For sale in South Asia only

30 November 2019


M.S.S. Pandian (1958–2014) was an eminent historian of South Indian politics, caste, culture, and cinema. His writings offer distinctively Tamil insights on these areas. In this book his chief focus is Tamil political culture for roughly thirty years since 1985. His success lies in bringing a historical understanding to bear on what he called “the strangeness of Tamil Nadu”.

A key figure in Pandian’s thinking was E.V. Ramasamy “Periyar”. Pandian argues that Periyar’s ideals and strategies long remained popular among Tamil progressives, but that their survival became difficult because of radical changes in pan-Indian political culture. To show these changes, this book is organised chronologically as well as along thematic sections that reflect the themes of Periyar’s Dravidian ideology: linguistic identity, state politics, religion, and caste. 

Periyar’s ideas, Pandian argues, can still provide productive standards for critical analysis of politics in India. But because they are not widely known or appreciated outside Tamil Nadu, they represent the “strangeness” of Tamil politics instead of being adapted as progressive in the country as a whole.

"“The DMK–AIADMK era provides the political context for the writings collected in this book . . . Pandian had purposefully organised these short chapters chronologically, and in thematic sections that reflect fundamental subjects for Periyar’s Dravidian ideology: linguistic identity, state politics, religion, and caste.

Those themes embody a message that Pandian highlights in his Introduction: Periyar’s ideas still provide productive standards for critical analysis of political practice in India. The importance of this message reverberates through all his chapters, because Periyar’s ideas are not widely known, understood, or appreciated outside Tamil Nadu; and thus, they represent the “strangeness” of Tamil politics in India, rather than being sufficiently appreciated for their progressive potential in India as a whole. Dravidian ideals are anathema to the BJP Hindu nationalists who now rule in New Delhi and who cultivate popularity in most of India but yet remain uniquely (“strangely”) unpopular in
Tamil Nadu.

Periyar’s ideas are radically progressive but ignored by secular progressives in the Indian Left. His ideas have nevertheless been embraced by the downtrodden low castes, i.e. Dalits, all across India, who appreciate Periyar against all the odds . . . Most importantly, perhaps, Periyar’s ideas facilitate radical political thought and action focused on patriarchy and caste as multi-layered structures of inequity and power sustained by Brahmin authority and Hindu ritual.”

From the Introduction by Anandhi S. and David Ludden.

M.S.S. Pandian (1958–2014) was, at the time of his untimely demise, Professor, Department of Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He was co-editor of the twelfth volume of Subaltern Studies. His books include The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Films and Politics (1992), and Brahmin and Non-Brahmin: Genealogies of the Tamil Political Present (2006).

Hardback/ 264 pages/ Rs 795

07 November 2019

TRANSLATING THE INDIAN PAST by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

An excellent review of this book THE TRIBUNE by the renowned Tamil scholar A.R. Venkatachalapathy (click here or paste the link into your browser: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/sunday-special/book-reviews/a-subtle-feast-of-words-to-be-valued/829591.html) is good reason to remind readers of how wonderful, as a work of Indian literary and cultural history, this book really is.
"Critic, poet, anthologist, scholar and translator. Mehrotra’s literary career is as multifaceted as it is difficult to write about. To do justice to it, we would need a higher vantage point than what’s afforded by the book review format. For those who haven’t read Mehrotra before, Translating the Indian Past serves as a decent introduction to the author’s longstanding literary preoccupations; the book can also be seen as a belatedly written preamble to the poems" Vineet Gill, Scroll

Through his poems, criticism, translations, and edited books, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has played a major role in defining Indian literature in English. This, his second essay collection, carries all the elegance, incisiveness, and erudition of his first, Partial Recall.

Some of the essays here are on an unexamined piece by Toru Dutt; an old appreciation of Amrita Sher-Gil by an obscure critic; the almost forgotten Srinivas Rayaprol who corresponded with William Carlos Williams; Arun Kolatkar’s unknown early poems and his letters to his first love, Darshan Chhabda; Eunice de Souza, admired for her spareness and acerbic feminism; and the reclusive Dickinsonian poet Reshma Aquil who loved anonymity. Throughout the book the collective presence of the ‘Bombay Poets’ is unmistakable.

What animates many of the essays is Mehrotra’s hostility to contemporary critical amnesia and his affection for quiet, unflamboyant writing. His distinctive view of the past stitches these pieces into something like an argument: if we value a complex literary history of Indian writing, he says, the byways and shaded locations need to remain visible.

ARVIND KRISHNA MEHROTRA was born in Lahore in 1947 and educated at the universities of Allahabad and Bombay. He has published six collections of poetry, three volumes of translations, and edited several books, including An Illustrated History of Indian Literature in English. He lives in Allahabad and Dehradun.


HB/ 270 pp/ Rs 795/ BUY

27 October 2019


This collection explores what may be called the idea of India in ancient times. Its undeclared  objective is to identify key concepts which show early Indian civilization as distinct and differently oriented from other formations.

Read an excerpt here in Scroll.in

The essays focus on ancient Indian texts within a variety of genres. They identify certain key terms – such as Janapada, Desa, Varna, Dharma, Bhava – in their empirical contexts to suggest that neither the ideas embedded in these terms nor the idea of Bharatvarsa as a whole are “given entities”, but that they evolved historically.

Professor Chattopadhyaya examines these texts to unveil historical processes. Without denying comparative history, he stresses that the internal dynamics of a society are best decoded via its own texts. His approach bears very effectively on understanding ongoing interactions between India’s “Great Tradition” and “Little Traditions”.

As a whole, this book is critical of the notion of overarching Indian unity in the ancient period. It punctures the retrospective thrust of hegemonic nationalism as an ideology that has obscured the diverse textures of Indian civilization.

Renowned for his scholarship on the ancient Indian past, Professor Chattopadhyaya’s latest collection only consolidates his high international reputation.

B.D. Chattopadhyaya retired as Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His work on ancient India has been widely acknowledged. His many books include The Oxford India Kosambi: Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (2009), Studying Early India: Archaeology, Texts, and Historical Issues (2003), and The Making of Early Medieval India (1997).

For Sale in South Asia only| PB| Rs 595| BUY

24 October 2019

Sumit Guha: History and Collective Memory In South Asia

“Much of this rich and exciting material has not been discussed in published form before. The subject of how South Asians have constructed the past has been an increasingly important one in the field; this book will become one of the most original and substantial contributions to this literature”
Douglas E. Haynes 
“Guha reminds us that the now-standard Western method of history writing, as practiced and taught in university departments, is of fairly recent vintage. This book should go well beyond the usual circles of South Asia specialists to general readers” Samira Sheikh

“Not only does Guha possess a mastery of a staggering diversity of historical practices in South Asia, his analysis extends to a thoughtful discussion of (and argument about) the origins and development of European history writing” William R. Pinch

“Guha charts the rise of historical memory in South Asia in a way that moves past literary affect or philosophical predisposition, refusing to reduce his subject to a reconfiguration of Western historiography even while he traces parallels in colonial institutions. Instead, Guha engages everything from family lineages and modes of accounting, to grand memorial narratives of the rise and fall of dynasties, to give us a comprehensive study of how social memory, wedded to evidence-based reasoning, transformed into the historical arts of South Asia, and finally how history matters even now in a ‘post-truth’ age” Christian Novetzke
In this far-ranging and erudite exploration of the South Asian past, Sumit Guha discusses the shaping of social and historical memory in world-historical context.

He presents memory as the result of both remembering and forgetting and of the preservation, recovery, and decay of records. By describing how these processes work through sociopolitical organizations, Guha delineates the historiographic legacy acquired by the British in colonial India; the creation of the centralized educational system and mass production of textbooks that led to the unification of historical discourses under colonial auspices; and the divergence of these discourses in the twentieth century under the impact of nationalism and decolonization.

Guha brings together sources from a range of languages and regions to provide the first intellectual history of the ways in which socially recognized historical memory has been made across the subcontinent. This thoughtful study contributes to debates beyond the field of history that complicate the understanding of objectivity and documentation in a seemingly post-truth world.
SUMIT GUHA read history at St Stephen’s College, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Cambridge University. He was a professor of history at Brown University and Rutgers University, and is currently a professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. His books include Beyond Caste (Brill Publishers and Permanent Black, 2013), and Health and Population in South Asia (Permanent Black and Hurst Publishers, 2001).  

HB| Rs 795

Hedgehog and Fox series
Co-published with Ashoka University
For sale in South Asia only

02 September 2019


 A PS to our 2013 post on 


1 September 2019

"The Jawaharlal Nehru University administration has asked historian Romila Thapar to submit her curriculum vitae so that it can decide if she should continue as professor emerita, The Telegraph reported on Sunday. Thapar had retired from the university in 1991 and was made professor emerita two years later.

An emeritus position is an honour conferred by the university on a retired professor in appreciation of their past work. Once chosen, an academic typically continues in the post throughout, unidentified JNU faculty members told The Telegraph.

The university’s website already has Thapar’s CV, though seemingly an earlier version.

“It is a very unfortunate thing,” Thapar told Anandabazar. “We are going through a strange time. Emeritus is not a mere designation. It is an honour related to the university’s goodwill.”

Writing in Economic and Political Weekly, economist Prabhat Patnaik said any periodic reassessment of emeritus professorship is out of the question. He said Thapar had responded to the JNU administration by reminding them what it means to confer an emeritus professorship." Scroll

The scandalous and bumbling effort to dishonour

Romila Thapar has caused an uproar throughout 

the reading world and resulted in at least one 

hilarious spoof -- to read it, click here.

The great academic book often gestates for a very long period before it appears in print and, like wines of a high quality, acquires body, maturity, and distinction as it ripens in the author’s mind. In the high-calibre territory of history-writing informally referred to as Ancient India, Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (700pp; published by the University of California Press, copublished by Permanent Black) is the most recent work of this monumental variety. For the obvious reasons, such books appear only once in a very long while. The scholar’s intellectual stamina needs to be exceptional. The book needs to be driven by big ideas. The end result needs to show massive scholarship, elegance in thought and style, and a range far beyond the capacities of normal human beings.

The next one in this genre of great books, originating at Permanent Black and copublished by Harvard University Press, is Romila Thapar’s The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India (776pp).

At some point in the early 1990s a series called ‘Themes in Indian History’ was initiated, and among the book possibilities discussed for that series were three historiographical volumes, one each for the ancient, medieval, and modern phases of Indian history. They were envisaged, at the time, as edited volumes: Romila Thapar, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Chris Bayly being thought of as the people to edit them. As is common in publishing, the editor proposes but the author disposes. About forty edited volumes appeared in the series, but they did not include surveys of historiography.

Meanwhile, the interest in answering a key question—does South Asia provide evidence of historical writing amounting to a historical tradition?—took several directions, all implicitly disputing James Mill's imperial disdain. Among the many works tackling the idea, several appeared from Permanent Black, including Textures of Time by V.A. Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Creative Pasts by Prachi Deshpande; Assam and India by Yasmin Saikia; and History in the Vernacular, edited by Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee.

Some years back the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, inheritor of the chair which Bertrand Russell once occupied, was asked to edit a volume called The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Instead of the considerable bother involved in inviting contributions from distinguished scholars, Blackburn simply wrote the whole damn Companion all by himself. This is roughly what Romila Thapar seems to have done—not bothering with a ‘Themes in Indian History’ editorial job, she preferred to make the whole blessed thing with her own sweat and blood. 

This took a mere twenty-five years of making notes, cannibalizing from her earlier papers, rethinking historical issues written up in different formats, and writing large chunks out for the first time. Not a long time, given that Ancient India stretches over twenty-five hundred or so years. Perhaps not even a long time for Romila Thapar, in her early eighties now, hale and hearty and feisty as ever. 

The years spent in thinking and writing the book show to good effect: very little is missed out, virtually everything you can think of in relation to the subject finds a place in here. Greek and European History. Chinese History. Islamic Historical Traditions. Herodotus to Hinduism, Iliad to Indica. The range is fascinating and unusual because South Asian historical forms and traditions are seen in relation to forms and traditions thrown up by other contexts. The result is a mindstopper that's also a doorstopper. The original script weighed in at 240,000 words; it cost Romila Thapar blood, sweat, and a lot of tears to trim it down to 200,000 words. The exercise of shortening involved her and Permanent Black in several months of mutually wonderful consultation and editorial work (all supervised by her lovely white labrador Amba) splicing, excising, mauling, chopping, discarding, rewriting, tweaking, restitching. Whole sections within chapters were pushed down (what Partha Chatterjee might call) The Black Hole of Ancient India. Hands were thrown up in the air at several points. Do the seams show? We think not.

Romila Thapar raises this theme—Did My Earliest Forefathers Do What I’ve Been Doing?—to an entirely new level. Her book is a colossal survey of every kind of writing in early India that might be said to be an attempt to record the past. The first four pages, reproduced below, indicate a work that will be ‘necessary reading’ for anyone with a serious interest in Indian history. The questions asked are so fundamental, and the interpretive magnificence with which they are discussed is so compelling, that this isn’t a book which any of Ancient India’s pigeonholes and caves can accommodate. Medievalists and modernists are warned that they too will need to clear 52 millimetres (two full inches) in their bookshelves to allow for its girth. They will think it worth the while: it isn’t every day that you get to buy the first edition of what will soon be recognized as a classic.

Generalizations about the nature of a society or civilization, when they take root, spread adventitiously. A couple of hundred years ago it was stated that Indian civilization was unique in that it lacked historical writing and, implicitly therefore, a sense of history. With rare exceptions, there has been little attempt since to examine this generalization. So entrenched is the idea now that one almost hesitates to argue for a denial of this denial of history. I would like to suggest that while there may not in the early past have been historical writing in the forms currently regarded as belonging properly to the established genres of history, many texts of that period  reflect a consciousness of history. Subsequently, there come into existence recognizable forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts—those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing—were used in early times to reconstruct the past, and were drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other such resource at various times, in various situations, and for a variety of reasons. To determine what makes for this historical consciousness is not just an attempt to provide Indian civilization with a sense of history, nor is it an exercise in abstract research. My intention is to argue that, irrespective of the question of the presence or absence of historical writing as such, an understanding of the way in which the past is perceived, recorded, and used affords insights into early Indian society, as it does for that matter into other early societies.
       Historical consciousness begins when a society shows consciousness of both past and future, and does so by starting to record the past. “There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.”  To argue over whether a particular society had a sense of history or not on the basis of our recognition of the presence or absence of a particular kind of historical tradition—one which has been predetermined as being properly historical in perpetuity—seems somewhat beside the point. It is more purposeful to try and ascertain what each culture regards as its historical tradition and why it does so; and to analyse its constituents and functions as well as assess how it contends with competing or parallel traditions.
       Historical traditions emanate from a sense of the past and include three aspects: first, a consciousness of past events relevant to or thought of as significant by a particular society, the reasons for the choice of such events being implicit; second, the placing of these events in an approximately chronological framework, which would tend to reflect elements of the idea of causality; and third, the recording of these events in a form which meets the requirements of that society.
Such a definition does not necessarily assume that political events are more relevant than other sorts of events, although as issues of power they tend to be treated as such. If the above definition is acceptable, then it can in fact be said that every society has a concept of the past and that no society is a-historical. What needs to be understood about a historical tradition is why certain events are presumed to have happened and receive emphasis, and why a particular type of record is maintained by the tradition.
        A distinction may therefore be made between the existence of a historical tradition and a philosophy of history. The latter may follow the former. An awareness or confirmation of a philosophy of history may make a historical narrative more purposeful. But such a narrative does not thereby necessarily express greater historical veracity: narratives based on the theory that history is determined by divine intervention are fired by purpose rather than by the sifting of evidence. On the other hand, a historical tradition may not concern itself with either divine purpose in history or any other philosophical notion of history and yet be an authentic record—if not of actual events, certainly of believed assumptions about the past.
       A historical tradition is created from the intellectual and social assumptions of a society. Consciously selected events are enveloped in a deliberately created tradition which may only be partially factual. An attempt to understand the tradition has to begin by relating it to its social function, to ask the question: “What purpose was served by creating and preserving this tradition?” And, flowing from this, to see how a changing society made use of the tradition.
      Historical traditions emerge from and reflect their social context, and the context may produce and extend to a broad range of social forms. Within these forms, history is generally the record of recognizable socio-political groups. Historical writing in such cases tends to incorporate a teleological view, even if it seems to be only a narrative of events. So, cultural symbols and stereotypes have a role in delineating the past.
      Studying  a tradition involves looking at a number of indices: first, the point in history at which the need to create and keep a tradition becomes imperative; second, the social status of the keepers of a tradition; third, whether the tradition was embedded in sacred literature to ensure its continuity; fourth, the genres that emerged in order to record the tradition independent of other literary forms; fifth, the social context in which the historical tradition was composed and the changes that it underwent when society itself changed; sixth, the audience for which any specific text of that tradition was intended; seventh, the social groups which used or manipulated the tradition, and their reasons for doing so; for, above all, such a tradition legitimizes the present and gives it sanction. 
Together, these constitute the broad framework of analysis for the texts and traditions that I examine in the book. Flowing from the framework, certain key questions recur or are implicit during the examination of a text or tradition: does it provide an instance of a past authorship looking further back into a more distant past in order to record or interpret that past? Can it be seen as outlining a sense of time and/or a fresh chronology of past and sometimes a future time? Can we detect in the material the deployment of historical events or the construction of narratives that are at bottom historical for hegemonic purposes or for cultural and political legitimation?