A Conquest of Past(s) – Faridah Zaman

A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia

by Manan Ahmed Asif

Harvard University Press, 272 pp., 2016.



‘The stories we tell have consequences.’ The last line of Manan Ahmed Asif’s A Book of Conquest gestures in multiple ways to the work of reimagining history contained within its pages. In his bold re-reading of a thirteenth-century Persian text, Chachnama (‘book of Chach’), Asif demonstrates over and again how the narratives we choose to tell, and those which we choose to forget, not only shape historical memory but also hold the power to open and foreclose spaces of political thought in the present.

Chachnama has long been an important text for the study of Islam in South Asia. Written in 1226 by ‘Ali Kufi, Chachnama purports to be a faithful translation of a much earlier account of two notable rulers of Sind. The first is the eponymous Chach bin Sila’ij, a young Brahmin in the service of the king of Sind in the seventh century who, through a series of manoeuvres orchestrated by the queen, captures the throne himself in c. 632. From there, Chach embarked on a campaign to conquer the four quarters of Sind. After the death of Chach, his sons Dahar and Daharsia vied for power, with Dahar eventually coming to the throne. Chachnama in this portion of the text demonstrates three overarching and profound concerns according to Asif: ‘the basis of legitimacy for the ruler, the good counsel of the advisor, and the need to create a justly governed polity’, much like a Renaissance mirror for princes.

Chachnama then pivots from the exploits of the virtuous Brahman king to the period of the Umayyad Caliphate’s repeated attempts to exert political control over Sind in the eighth century. The account focuses particularly on the young commander, Muhammad bin Qasim, sent to Sind in 711 to diminish the threat of Dahar’s polity, now a haven for Arab rebels, pirates and roaming warlords. After a string of military successes, Qasim proceeds as far as Multan and captures political power. His rule is cut short, however, when he is accused by Dahar’s daughters of sexual violence; the caliph orders Qasim to return himself to Baghdad in a wooden container. The honourable Qasim dutifully obliges the whims of a corrupt caliph; by the time he arrives, he has perished. The story of Qasim closely mirrors that of Chach – or perhaps the latter foreshadows the former – and, as Asif tells us, the main themes here remain ‘good counsel, good governance, and the need for a coherent political theory for a polity’.

Kufi’s claim that his account was based on the translation of an earlier Arabic manuscript is one that historians have hitherto largely accepted; though it might have contained some accretions derived from local traditions, there is general consensus that the account is veracious and requires only the paring away of the thirteenth century to behold an authentic, early history of pre-Islamic Sind and Islam’s venture therein. Asif contends, however, that we should dispense with Kufi’s own claims and instead understand Chachnama to be a decidedly thirteenth-century text with no prior original. The Persian text is neither a ‘translation’ nor a ‘carrier’ for a now lost Arabic text. Asif compellingly argues that Kufi was part of a ‘prestige economy’ and likely constructed the artifice of translation in order to assert his ‘right to produce texts, to interpret them, and to present them to an elite ruling class’. The evidence that Chachnama was in fact a creation of the thirteenth century rests largely upon how dissimilar this text is from extant early Arabic conquest narratives, as detailed in chapter 2.

The implications of revising the genesis of Chachnama are profound, both for historians of Islam in South Asia and historians of political thought more widely. Qasim’s arrival in Sind has constituted, at least since the writing of histories of India by British Orientalists from the eighteenth century onward, a ‘book of conquest’. After excising parts of the text that related to the pre-Islamic period, ‘Chachnama became the social, philological, and historical foundation for [their] unitary understanding of Islam’s origins’ – that is to say, the key source for the origin myth of Islam in South Asia. For the British, Islam was always foreign to India, appearing and conquering by force of arms and ruling through tyranny; generations of colonial officials imbibed these histories and prejudices. Some version of these histories now survive in the historiographies of both postcolonial Pakistan and India, as Asif recounts in the Introduction.

Unsettling the carrier thesis uproots not only one specific origin myth but, by virtue of Chachnama’s foundational significance, the very notion that there can be a unitary understanding of Islam’s origins in South Asia. For Asif, the search for origins is a fool’s errand, since the task fundamentally misunderstands how flows of people, goods and ideas moved in the Indian Ocean region before and after the advent of Islam. A concern with origins, moreover, produces a narrow view of the past that rejects all that is curious and ambiguous. Asif’s A Book of Conquest is, at its heart, ‘an argument against origins’, a work committed to the ‘anti-foundational’.

As such, and despite the title of the book, Asif shifts his analytical gaze away from questions of conquest and origins to questions of ethics and governance. Chachnama emerges in Asif’s reading as a text purposefully created in the thirteenth century, reflecting the ideas, ideals, and concerns of that period. By bringing the oft-overlooked portion on the Brahmin Chach back into view, Asif demonstrates that for Kufi, Chach and Qasim were archetypes of kingship that exemplified certain ethical qualities and political strategies. We might therefore learn from Chachnama not only something about the political thought and praxis of two specific historic rulers but what begins to look much more like a complex and ‘fully Indic’ theory of politics.

Re-designating Chachnama as a work of political and ethical theory means reading it as a prescriptive text composed to influence the world around it, akin to the ethical advice (adab) literature of South Asia. Chachnama should be regarded, according to Asif, as deliberately inculcating the values of dialogue and diversity above all else. These values are highlighted in two key chapters at the heart of the book which demonstrate most vividly how Kufi’s history can be reconstructed as a ‘political theory for the present’. In chapter 4, Chachnama is explored as advice to rulers on how to negotiate difference, govern diversity, and dispense justice through accommodation and alliances rather than compulsion. The parables of Chach and Qasim’s treatment of newly conquered subjects, at their most radical, gesture towards belief in the equivalence between sacral traditions. Chapter 5, meanwhile, explores Kufi’s treatment of women: a diverse array of women appear as sources of wise counsel in the world of Chachnama, with elite women in particular exhibiting a notable degree of political agency. Asif infers that Kufi regarded women as ‘ethical subjects par excellence’ and that Chachnama therefore contains a normative claim about the importance of assimilating women in political and ethical decision-making. Together these chapters demonstrate how, starting from new premises and with new questions, even familiar texts can be made to bear new fruits.

Asif reappraisal of Chachnama, then, combines two distinct interventions: that the Persian text is in no part a translation but a wholly original text and, secondly, that is not a conquest narrative but should be read as a work of Indic political theory. The latter is in many ways the more interesting claim and one that highlights the fact that some of the most stimulating examples of South Asian intellectual history produced in recent years have focused on re-evaluating ancient and medieval texts. It is the former claim, however, that has proven most provocative amongst medievalists, distracting from the book’s potential contributions to the field. This might lead us to ask to what extent the latter claim requires the former to be true. It is worth considering whether a work of deliberate translation or the transposition of earlier fragments into a new composition can in itself be tantamount to producing political theory.

Few texts, after all, demand to be translated and decision-making infuses every part of the process. Translating can be a deeply political act and any such undertaking is necessarily conscious of its own times. That Kufi may have been trying to draw lessons from the past for the rulers of his own day was already mooted as a possibility by Peter Hardy in 1981, as Asif readily acknowledges. In discussing Muzaffar Alam’s influential Persianization thesis, moreover, Asif expresses his own preference, following A. C. S. Peacock, to see early Persian ‘translations’ as in fact ‘transcreations or commentarial interpretations’; this, too, allows that translating produces something fundamentally other. To what extent, then, can the claim of Chachnama’s utter originality be delinked from the claim of its significance as a window onto thirteenth-century political thought? The latter, following Asif’s intervention, should no longer be in any doubt.

A further aspect of A Book of Conquest that should prove stimulating for the field irrespective of the translation thesis is its intriguing approach towards accessing the world of a text through immersion in the material site of its creation. Asif has evidently spent significant time in Uch, where Kufi penned Chachnama, walking among its topography and ruins. The book is interspersed with photographs taken by the author during his extensive walks, the narrative weaving together close-text analysis with accounts of encounters with locals. We might reasonably point out how much the physical landscape of Uch has no doubt changed since 1226, but to his credit Asif stops short of romanticising ruins, gesturing towards timelessness, or invoking spectres and ghosts. Indeed, his point is rather that pasts are alive and ‘active’ in Uch and we ought to acknowledge the presence of these other modes of being, these other temporalities. In the book’s closing pages, Asif suggests that local historians of Uch who imagine the past in ways that are at odds with facts and evidence may actually have a truer sense of the spirit of Uch’s history – a sense that accounts for the particularities of Chachnama’s composition far better than histories written by outsiders.

What, then, is the value of the outsider? One way in which we might think of the role of ‘professional’ historians on a subject such as Chachnama is through their capacity to speak directly to present concerns. Much recent scholarship on ancient, medieval, and early modern South Asia, for example, has strived to demonstrate that religion did not matter in affairs of the state as much as was once assumed (or, indeed, as is still assumed in popular memory and school textbooks). Even the most apparently zealous of Muslim rulers frequently employed Hindus and others in their governments, and vice versa, we are now routinely told. Religion may have been important to them, but the exigencies of politics, power, and maintaining social harmony and order were often more so. Such scholarship suggests we ought to think of syncretic, adaptive, and often pragmatic traditions of political thought and governance in South Asia, wherein ‘Muslim’ and ‘Indic’ were well-integrated.

The search for syncretism is of course itself a politically- and morally-minded task, conducted in the shadow of South Asia’s recent history. A decade ago, Neeladri Bhattacharya framed this predicament in the following terms:

‘We secular historians are haunted by a deep anxiety, a paralyzing fear of reaffirming somehow the founding assumptions of communal perceptions. We see violence on the street, the endless cycles of communal riots, the spectacles of blood and gore. We return to the past in search of humanity, tolerance, openness; we discover histories of syncretism, assimilation, and accommodation; we reassure ourselves with histories of intercultural dialogue… We hesitate to dwell on the histories of intolerance or sectarian conflicts. We are reluctant to recognize the role religion plays in the politics of everyday life. How can we transcend the limits that the politics of the present seems to impose on us? Do we need to delink our lives as citizens from our work as historians? Should we stop returning to the past in order to rethink the present?’

A Book of Conquest avoids relegating religion to the sphere of rhetoric, but it does choose to foreground intercultural dialogue and accommodation above all else. Relatedly, the question of violence is not absent but – having moved deliberately away from narratives of compulsion and conquest – nor is it fully resolved. What is apparent is that the anxieties that haunt scholars of South Asia are underscored here to a degree that is unusual in academic histories and therefore all the more welcome; colonial and postcolonial interpretations and appropriations of Chachnama bookend this analysis, literally and figuratively. Asif is a scholar who is clear-eyed about the role of history and memory in shaping the possibilities of the present and his work is suffused with this awareness. One might even suggest that, like Kufi, he is offering us tools for the present in the guise of history. As such, this book does not provide an answer to the question of how historians might transcend the limits of the present; instead, it responds to the more fundamental question of why we would attempt to do so at all.


Faridah Zaman is Associate Professor in the History of Britain and the World at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Somerville College. She works on questions of empire, religion, and historical scholarship.


Managing Maladies – Anna Ruddock

Do We Care?:  India’s Health System 

by K. Sujatha Rao

Oxford University Press, 479 pp., 2017.


For an administration of such scale, retired Indian bureaucrats reveal remarkably little about their experiences of how policies are made and implemented. Memoirs tend to come from prime ministerial circles, offering a seductive blend of office gossip and the gilded intrigue of foreign policy machinations – pre-filtered through dinner parties before arriving on the shelf at BahriSons. Domestic health policy, by contrast, is not sexy.

On page 389 of “Do We Care?”, former Indian health secretary K. Sujatha Rao notes that building consensus around policies for effective and equitable health systems is a “tedious but vital” process. There were moments when I felt similarly about wading through this 433-page tome. As a field, health policy in India is in need of a comprehensive yet pithy overview that transcends sweeping rhetoric fuelled by cherry-picked stories of corruption and sensational malpractice, but also avoids alienating non-expert readers through the minutiae of health economics.

“Do We Care?” is not that book. Nor should it necessarily be – the responsibility for elevating health as a policy priority cannot solely be laid at the door of former bureaucrats. And the wealth of detail here is a goldmine for students of public policy that they won’t find elsewhere. On balance, Rao’s palpable frustration with India’s failures to establish reliable public healthcare, and the firsthand experience she draws on to suggest potential remedies, rescue the book from the risk of tedium. It is, let’s say, dense but important.

Rao spent much of her civil service career working on health issues, culminating in her tenure as director of the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and Union Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare during the Congress led-UPA 1, before her retirement in 2010. India’s long-standing political apathy towards health notwithstanding, Rao worked in interesting times. NACO and the National Rural Health Mission, both of which she was intimately involved with, receive exhaustive attention in their own chapters, each of which is almost 100 pages long.

Rao has since become a regular in the Indian English language media; her op-eds strike an effective balance between evidence-informed critique and value-based rhetoric. “Do We Care?” clearly demonstrates an ambition to go deeper. The book is very much a project. Fuelled by determination and, I suspect, a sense of obligation to speak a certain truth to power once its author was unshackled from the implicit and explicit strictures of the civil service. It is an impressive attempt to interrogate India’s enormously complex healthcare system (or lack of). Part memoir, part manifesto, part textbook; in one sense the book is a cri de coeur, in another the apologia of a former bureaucrat looking to both prove her understanding and seek understanding in return about the constraints she operated within.

The book offers compelling diagnoses of the various ailments afflicting India’s health system:

‘Not achieving improved health is not a question of a lazy government or insensitive doctors but a reflection of the relational power balances between the political and economic forces at play, competing priorities, implementational capacities of public institutions, the extent and strength of the prevailing structural inequalities and the effectiveness of public policies in addressing them, and so on.’

Rao is similarly convincing when she urges a political economy approach to understand the power imbalances and market asymmetries that plague India’s health system and skew it away from the interests of the poor. She is vehement of the need for improved health governance, as well as the more common demand for an increase in GDP devoted to health from the current 1.02% to 2.5%. Historical apathy, and the contemporary corruption of key institutions – most notably the Medical Council of India (MCI) – are discussed in a tone of bewildered fury that any student of Indian health systems will recognise.

By dint of its length and the sheer density of administrative detail, “Do We Care?” is inevitably preaching to the converted. Its passages of scholarly argument elevate the book above polemic and lend it an undeniable intellectual credibility. Whether anyone reading this book needs a detailed explanation of the core tenets of health systems theory, whether those who do would come to this book looking for it, and whether the inclusion of such academic detail detracts from the book’s overall power, however, remains open to question.

I imagine those picking up this book are looking for additional detail about the workings of NACO, or arguments around the conceptualization of the National Rural Health Mission, from the specific perspective of the central roles Rao held. The book serves that purpose wonderfully. Similarly, there is enormous value in reading a long-serving bureaucrat’s confirmation of the political apathy (“the lack of will to govern” as Rao puts it) towards health that scholars have long puzzled over.

Rao often returns to the need for health policy to be better informed by evidence, and there is an enjoyably wry invocation of Keynes’s pronouncement that ‘there is nothing a government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult’. How to effectively institutionalize the use of research and operational data in policy making is a complex challenge, however. The memoir format offers the luxury of being able to suggest the kind of sweeping reforms needed to ensure health policy works in the interests of India’s most vulnerable citizens, and not predominantly those of corporate hospitals, while sidestepping details of implementation. Rao, at least, obliquely acknowledges this – to ignore it would be to undermine the principle of the book. She describes reforms as painful processes:

‘…they hurt some, benefit others. But they need to be undertaken – revamping regulatory authorities, rebuilding anew the broken health system, and fixing it in a manner that makes all stakeholders accountable to serving the last person standing in the line. This calls for thinking.’

It is in this final statement that the power of the book lies. It is a thoughtful and committed reflection on a career in one of the most vital and least valued sections of the Indian civil service. And in this critical global political moment, calls for those in power to stop and think should be encouraged and amplified. Calls to stop and care, even more so.

Dr Anna Ruddock is a writer and social scientist currently working on a book about MBBS education at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi. She also works as a global policy advisor at the Wellcome Trust in London.

A History of Himsa – Joseph McQuade

Political Violence in Ancient India

by Upinder Singh

Harvard University Press, 616 pp., 2017.



Shortly after independence, India’s first government, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, designated a graphic representation of the lion capital of the Sarnath pillar as the official emblem of India. The pillar was one of many erected by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism after a deadly battle, leading him to  discourage animal slaughter and violence during the third century BCE. The emblem, a symbol of Mauryan political iconography, also signalled the new Indian nation-state’s commitment to the non-violent principles that Mohandas Gandhi had exemplified during the independence struggle. In the wake of Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist, the decision also served as a rejection of the more militant wing of nationalist politics that had provided the main counterweight to Gandhi and Nehru’s non-cooperation movement through the early twentieth century. The symbolic adoption of the Ashoka capital and its framing of India as a country rooted in a deep and ancient history of non-violence was premised upon two historical erasures. The first was the role that revolutionary violence, called terrorism at the time, played in the defeat of British imperialism in India. The second was the long and deeply embedded intellectual genealogy of political violence that permeated India’s ancient history and traditions.

It is this second erasure that Upinder Singh takes to task in her well-written and deeply researched book, Political Violence in Ancient India. In this book, Singh charts an intellectual history of political violence in India from 600 BCE to 600 CE, presenting a complex and multifaceted portrayal of kingship, force, and state-formation that has been sorely missing from contemporary scholarship on both India’s ancient history and Indian intellectual history – and indeed global intellectual history – more broadly. In this sense, the title of the book is a bit misleading – while the book certainly does draw out a nuanced and layered intellectual history of political violence, it also does much more, elaborating extensively on theories of kingship, just rule, religion, politics, and the relationship between humans and their natural environment.

The book is divided into five chapters – the first three chronological, the final two more thematic in nature. The first three chapters examine a range of textual responses to the relationship between violence (himsa) and non-violence (ahimsa) from the foundations of India’s state structures to their maturity in the middle of the first millennium CE. While some reference is made throughout the book to earlier precursors such as the Harappan civilization and the Vedic corpus, the book’s analysis begins in earnest with a close reading of the early Buddhist, Jaina, and Brahminical texts, as well as Ashoka’s edicts and the classical epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The second chapter focuses on the transitional period from 200 BCE to 300 CE and examines the competing yet interconnected approaches represented by dharma (order) and artha (prosperity) perspectives on kingship and violence. This chapter deals with Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a political treatise that is often anachronistically referred to as India’s version of The Prince, despite the fact that Kautilya predated Machiavelli by more than a thousand years. The chapter also consults a range of lesser-known sources that include the Manusmriti, the Buddhacharita, and the Jataka as well as a series of plays and inscriptions. The third chapter builds on the previous two by demonstrating how earlier ideas of violence and kingship came to be appropriated and reimagined within the context of a more established political order under the Gupta and Vakataka rulers of the mid-first millennium CE. The sources consulted for this section include inscriptions by these rulers and other  notable works that include the Nitisara and the Panchatantra, both of which are brought to life in a fascinating way in Singh’s narrative.

While the first three chapters set the stage by establishing Singh’s archive and outlining the contours of broader textual debates and discussions surrounding violence and politics in ancient India, each of the final two chapters brings together the entirety of this corpus in analyzing the two themes of war and wilderness. In both cases, Singh refrains from neat conclusions or a simplistic reading that would posit a single essentialized “Hindu” – much less “Indian” – approach to war or the wilderness. In the chapter on warfare, we see the contrasting views presented by various texts and, indeed, contrasting interpretations within each text. Gandhi famously interpreted the Bhagavad Gita, a central book within the Mahabharata, as promoting the philosophy of ahimsa, while the same text was widely read by twentieth century revolutionaries as justifying the use of force to achieve  political goals. As Singh shows, political theorists in ancient India – including Buddhists and Jainas famed for their emphasis on nonviolence – viewed war as a legitimate and inevitable function of kingship, while simultaneously seeking to constrain a monarch’s ability to wage unfettered warfare against his adversaries.

Singh’s discussion of the wilderness is perhaps the most interesting, as well as the most innovative, part of this book. The wilderness, defined broadly as comprising forested or unsettled tracts of lands across the subcontinent, is the backdrop against which the violence of the state acts itself out upon three distinct but interconnected groups: forest people, animals, and the natural environment. Singh does an excellent job of tracing the variety of ways in which the king’s relationship to these three categories simultaneously legitimized and discouraged the use of political violence in different contexts. Ashoka, while advocating a significant reduction in the killing of animals and promoting a largely vegetarian ethical imperative for members of his court, simultaneously made explicit threats against the forest people who lived at the peripheries of his jurisdiction. In the ancient world, cities and forests often existed side by side, meaning that relatively autonomous forest communities presented a unique challenge to state sovereignty while simultaneously occupying spaces rich in desirable natural resources, creating high potential for resource-based conflict. Similarly, in the Mahabharata hunters in the forest are typically portrayed negatively due to the supposedly polluting nature of their livelihoods, with several characters sustaining curses as a result of hunting mishaps. By contrast, the Ramayana contains several favourable portrayals of forest people such as the Nishada king Guha, but despite its strong sympathy towards animal characters it also provides some justification for the trapping and killing of animals in the discussions surrounding Rama’s killing of Vali.

The breadth of material that Singh is able to weave together in this book is truly impressive, covering epics, religious tracts, political treatises, edicts, plays, fables, inscriptions, and coins over a twelve-hundred year period. Unfortunately, the breadth of this material does paradoxically result in one of the few drawbacks of the book – its relative inaccessibility to general readers. Though the book is compellingly written and covers a subject with great appeal to interested non-specialists, the variety of sources that Singh draws upon and the relatively sparse grounding of the intellectual history within a more prosaic, nuts and bolts history of ancient India mean that a reader unfamiliar with the historical period covered might have trouble keeping up. Chapters four and five do provide more historical context than the others, but this comes relatively late within the narrative, and the first three chapters, while fascinating, do not provide sufficient context to pull in readers unfamiliar with at least the broader outlines of India’s pre-modern history.

Having said that, for anyone with even a passing familiarity with India’s ancient history, this book reinterprets familiar material in new and interesting ways, as well as drawing on less familiar sources to flesh out an impressively rich portrayal of ancient Indian political thought. Ultimately, Singh concludes that while violence was not any more prevalent in ancient India than it was in comparable civilizations such as the Achaemenids, the Greeks, or the Chinese, there is also no reason to believe it was any less prevalent. While somewhat  self-evident to some scholars of the ancient world, this notion is profoundly important given the frequent deployment of India’s supposedly pacifist past by figures ranging from British colonizers to Gandhian satyagrahas to Hindu nationalists determined to assert a muscular international clout in compensation for what they see as a humiliating history of subjugation and defeat.

While Singh is realistic regarding the important distinctions between ancient and modern statehood (the coercive power of the modern state being something that Kautilya could only have dreamed of), she does nonetheless provide important insights into the role of political violence in modern Indian society, particularly when it comes to the Indian state’s fraught relationship with its tribal or forest communities. Just as the forests of ancient India represented a key site of economic extraction, supplying the state with lumber, minerals, and war elephants, today’s corporations work hand-in-hand with the government to gain access to profitable mining and drilling contracts in India’s forested regions, sparking conflict with adivasis, Maoists, and ethnic minorities seeking to protect their traditional lands. Now, as then, political violence and the state remain inextricably intertwined.   

Joseph McQuade is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies in the Munk School of Affairs, University of Toronto. He completed his PhD in History at the University of Cambridge in 2017 as a Gates Scholar.

Consigned by Caste – Sneha Krishnan

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

by Sujatha Gidla

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 306 pp., 2017.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that the political bar these days is pretty low: patrician and civil forms of prejudice find ways of continuing to thrive as extreme right-wing ideologies threaten more spectacular forms of violence. In India, we celebrate our secular past and the communal harmony that hegemonic narratives have written into it, as Hindu Nationalism grows bolder every day.

To such complacencies, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants is a refreshing antidote. In this, the book stands in stark contradiction to other internationally-distributed books on India like Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu’ that recuperate the nation-state’s constitutional commitment to social equality. Excavating family narratives and life-histories, Gidla tells us why the violence of untouchability is not so much the exception to the liberal nation-state and its promise of progress but undergirds it. With vulnerable communities increasingly under threat in India’s current Hindu nationalist regime, violence against Dalits has been flagged as an endemic problem. Gidla’s book is a necessary reminder that this is not a new state of affairs. Violence against this community – lowest on the caste ladder – has long pervaded life in India: melding into what upper-caste Indians, even liberals, Communists and others who might consider themselves progressive, think of as ordinary life in a thriving postcolonial democracy.

The book’s searing kill-your-darlings approach leaves no room for naïve utopias. Nehru – typically celebrated as a champion of secularism and communal harmony – is shown to have held little appeal to Dalit communities. Set in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a region that was among the earliest in demanding recognition within India’s federal constitution, Nehru in ‘Ants among Elephants’ is not so much the benign Chacha (uncle – as he was popularly called) but the Prime Minister who marched his armed forces in to establish order. At the same time, Communists are shown to be mainly upper-caste elites whose critique of class left no room to address caste. Revolutionaries like Gidla’s uncle Satyam, who is – if there might be such a figure in a book such as this – her protagonist are shown to lack a critique of gender relations, leading to the marked inequality that Gidla’s mother, Manjula suffered in relation to her brothers.

Most of all, this book leaves no sanguinity about the law and the nation-state as repositories of justice. The practice of untouchability was abolished in independent India’s constitution, prepared in substantial part by the ‘untouchable’ leader, BR Ambedkar. Ambedkar also coined the term ‘Dalit’ – literally meaning ‘broken’ – to radically claim experiences of caste humiliation as a site of identity. He also articulated deeply-held ambiguities about the potentials of the law and felt no optimism about the Indian constitution’s potential to uproot caste. Gidla’s writing, in some ways, builds on this legacy. In calling herself ‘untouchable’ she asks how modern political institutions – even as they make lofty claims to caste-transcendence – ultimately re-inscribe Dalits as surplus populations or socially abandoned subjects whose lives, to cite another closely-aligned movement, appear not to matter. The book thus unsettles the postcolonial nation-state’s articulation of its own forward-moving temporality, to which the ‘untouchable’ is an anachronistic subject of a backward past. It makes a case for untouchability not as an aberration to modernity but as forged at the intersection of colonialism, capitalism and nationalism.

The structure of the book as family history – beginning with Gidla’s ancestors and working its way to her own experience – allows her to sketch this history of two centuries. The narrative begins in the 1800s when Gidla’s ancestors became cultivators only to lose their land to usurious upper-caste moneylenders. Like many thousands of untouchables in the 19th century, the family converted to Christianity to escape the indignity of caste. Their proximity to missionaries allowed her grandfather and parents the education denied to their ancestors. Despite this education, however, Gidla shows that caste unambiguously determined her family’s everyday life. Manjula, Gidla’s mother, finds herself unable to find a stable job, and early in life, is discriminated against at school. Gidla’s uncle, Satyam finds that a wealthy friend turns down his romantic advances saying, plainly: ‘We are brahmins. You are have-nots, we are haves. You are a Communist. My father is for Congress. How in the world can there be anything between us?’

In these details, the story is also fiercely intimate and visceral. Another reviewer, compares it – not unfairly, if seemingly oddly – to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series in its telling of a densely woven-together family history in the shadows of Marxism’s failures. Its viscerality, however, comes from another place: the necessarily embodied form that the experience of caste takes. Who can wear what? Who can marry whom? Whose bodies can be claimed for sex without allowing them the dignity of marriage? Whose bodies can be disposed of when they make claims beyond their station in life? Early in the book, Gidla writes of her instinctive knowledge of caste and its hierarchies in her hometown, a place where ‘Christian’ was code for ‘untouchable’: ‘I knew the cross-eyed, drooly-mouthed man was fucking my aunts…but not marrying them because they were Christians. I knew a Christian boy who was pushed in front of a train for falling in love with an uppercaste girl’. The body, in this story, is an intimate carrier of caste. We learn that upper-caste Hindus are straight-backed, and stare straight ahead, not seeing those who must bow to them and step aside, making themselves invisible. We learn that upper-caste Christians – whom Gidla first encountered in films from Kerala, a region with a substantial elite Christian community – are not so different: wearing crisp white gowns and refusing their daughters matches with Dalit men. The political scientist, Gopal Guru, writes that the embodied experience of humiliation is central to the power that untouchability holds. Gidla’s narrative bears this out, getting graphic in parts in its description of the violence that upper-caste communities as well as the police inflict on Dalits. Indeed, it is the experience of being held by the police that eventually dissuaded Gidla herself from pursuing a revolutionary life, leading her to choose to migrate to the United States. Her uncle, Satyam, on the other hand inhabited his revolutionary dream: his body growing frail at times from the endurance such tribulations demanded of him.

At the same time, care and community too are lived in the body: most striking is the clipping of nails and shaving of his chin that run through Gidla’s account of her uncle Satyam’s life as the acts of care provided by family members and friends. This little detail takes on different forms through the narrative: suggesting the family’s understanding of Satyam’s caste trauma in college, his status as a major figure in revolutionary politics, and his followers’ devotion to him. Similarly, recalling Franz Fanon’s suggestion that bodies become sites where the psychic ruin of imperialism endures, the bodies of elderly Dalit men and women that Gidla interviewed for her book find expression in her narratives as frail repositories of a time of revolution. When one of them falls down, the memory is knocked out of her; ‘Her Memory!’ Gidla reiterates in frustration. Similarly, others ­– healthy one day, if aging rapidly – are suddenly unable to speak.

The intensely sensory quality of this book makes it simultaneously compelling and a difficult read. Ants among Elephants is, however, essential: its searing critique is an important reminder that the current moment in which extreme right forces are on the rise globally did not come to be in a vacuum. While the book itself makes no claims to speak at this scale or answer this question, it forces the reader to address the deeply discomfiting question of how then to understand the failures of elite liberalism. How to rethink the standards we set ourselves as political subjects, through the experience of those who dwell on the margins of our ‘ordinary lives’?

Sneha Krishnan is a human geographer, interested in gender, childhood and the afterlives of imperialism in South Asia.

A Country whose Time has Come – Kunal Singh

Our Time has Come: How India is Making its Place in the World

by Alyssa Ayres

Oxford University Press, 360 pp., 2018.


In a February 2018 article for War On the Rocks, political scientist Paul Staniland warned US policymakers against “excessive optimism about India’s ability”. “India is a hard-pressed power,” Staniland continued, “facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders.” Therefore, Staniland argued, there are “real limits” to what India can deliver. While this seems a reasonable argument, Staniland did not suggest concrete policy recommendations. Conceding that an “American tilt toward India … is a smart long-term strategy”, he wanted the US to “keep its expectations limited and realistic”.

Staniland failed to reconcile the factors that make India a good partner for the US in the long term with those that make India less worthwhile, presumably, in the shorter term. This is where a new book by Alyssa Ayres fills the void. The central objective of Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place In The World is to explore the puzzling “duality” of the Indian state— where growing external power coexists with internal fragilities. A glance at India’s per capita income will make it difficult to sustain any claim of India’s growing heft. But it is India’s size and location that make it important to the US and rest of the world. Ironically, Staniland’s article is a response to, among other things, Ayres’ book itself. Ayres, however, does not brush India’s challenges under the carpet. To the contrary, she undertakes a holistic appraisal of India’s capabilities by situating its myriad challenges alongside its growing material capabilities since the economic liberalization of the early 1990s.

It is this paradox of the Indian state—external strength based on aggregate measures and internal weaknesses manifested in per-capita terms—that helps us understand many aspects of India’s external engagement, which can, at times, bamboozle sane observers of global politics. Take, for example, India’s negotiating approach in trade and climate change negotiations. As the world’s sixth largest economy and third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, India is crucial to the success of multilateral negotiations on trade and climate change. Yet its behaviour—often to the frustration of other leading powers including the US—mostly conforms to that of a poor country which contributes very little to the stock of greenhouse gases. And indeed, India is not just poor but also a negligible emitter of greenhouse gases in per capita terms.

External observers also find it difficult to grasp why India hesitates to embrace capitalism and globalization whole-heartedly even though it has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of freer markets and expanding trade linkages. A number of reasons shape India’s reticence, ranging from its history of colonization to the entrenched political economy of an erstwhile socialist state. But there is also a concern for equity—that unrestrained opening to global capital and markets may adversely affect India’s poorest. Whether such concerns are well-founded or not is another matter altogether.

Ayres devotes a large part of the book to India-US relations. The aforementioned paradox also, in many ways, mediates this critical bilateral relationship. The US has endlessly urged India to open up its markets to foreign investment and reduce barriers to trade. New Delhi’s response has been positive but tepid, occasionally putting off India’s best friends in Washington. The history of colonization also explains why India values its autonomy to a great extent. Slow movement on issues of importance to India-US relations is seen by leaders as insurance against charges of kowtowing to American primacy. For instance, India took more than a decade to negotiate a logistics exchange agreement with the US. There are two other “foundational agreements”—aimed at facilitating greater operational integration between the armed forces of the two countries—pending for a period longer than that.

How does India manage to resolve such contradictions? Ayres does not provide a direct answer but hints appear scattered through her book. There are three visible patterns in how the Indian leadership reconciles India’s poverty with its growing external power. One, leaders keep highlighting the fact—especially post 1990s liberalization—that India is rising. While India remains decades behind China in both economic and military terms, the narrative of a rapidly growing India is essential to make both internal and external constituencies not lose hope in India. (It is good to remind ourselves that the story of China’s phenomenal rise is also based on aggregate measures of power, not on per capita income).

Two, Indian leaders habitually refer to India’s past glory. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders are more prone to such rhetoric than those in Congress. A constant reminder of the golden past of Indian civilization instills hope in, again, both the internal and external audience that a reversion to the old mean is eminently possible.

Three, India does not complain of its poverty but, in fact, positions itself as a leader of poor and developing countries. This way, poverty serves as an asset, not just a constraint. This behaviour has been seen in not just multilateral negotiations on trade and climate change, but also in its traditional leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). In its early years after independence, Indian leaders championed decolonization and South-South cooperation. Of late, one can see a shift in India’s approach, especially with regard to NAM­ and climate change negotiations. But it still, from time to time, continues to pose itself as a challenger to Western dominance. India’s participation in BRICS (an emerging nations block comprising of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) are examples of this equipoise.

One reason why many people, including scholars, find it difficult to make sense of India’s behaviour is because New Delhi does not follow prescribed norms of balancing and bandwagoning as predicted by dominant theories of international relations. According to realism, a newly-independent India should have bandwagoned with stronger powers and gradually transitioned to a balancing role as its economic and military power grew. If India were to follow the logic of constructivists, India should have done the opposite—balanced stronger powers in its infancy and bandwagoned with them as views on key issues converged. But as can be gleaned from Ayres’ account, India does not follow either of these trajectories. India’s behaviour is much more nuanced and somewhat sui generis.

But this does not completely address the specific points Staniland raises. It is true that India is beset with domestic challenges. A country populated by one-sixth of humanity will have its set of problems. And when all of them are listed together, the task before it can seem daunting, if not insurmountable. But rather than focusing on the absolute scale of challenges, one should focus on trends. Domestically, Staniland concedes that the Maoist insurgency has mostly been quiet. He could also have mentioned India’s successes against insurgencies in Punjab and Mizoram. According to recent reports, a deal with rebel groups in Nagaland is about to be concluded soon. Kashmir remains a festering wound but a growing India should have the necessary resources to deal with problems in the Valley.

As far as regional challenges are concerned, Pakistan is increasingly becoming a subset of the China problem. Indeed, the China problem itself is much bigger than ever. And it is precisely because India cannot deal with China all alone, a partnership with the US becomes useful. For the US too, India along with Japan and Australia is a helpful balancer against China’s hegemony in Asia. To present the strategic rationale for the Indo-US partnership—the growing threat in China—as also the reason for the US to not bet on India is, in my view, a bit strange.

Ayres’ book is targeted at an American audience. Those immersed in India studies on a daily basis will not find anything new. Moreover, her coverage of Indian domestic politics is a bit simplistic. This seems deliberate so as not to complicate the narrative for her primary set of readers.  But even India scholars will end up with a better handle on the “duality” of the Indian state. Most of the wisdom in Ayres’ book is scattered through the pages and has not been bound in a carefully crafted framework. It is here that Ayres could have done a better job than leaving it upon her readers—whether they are experts on India or not.


Kunal Singh is a member of the editorial team at Mint, India’s most respected business daily.

Museum of Loss – Vipul Dutta

Remnants of a Separation: A History of Partition through Material Memory

by Aanchal Malhotra

Harper Collins India, 386 pp., 2017.


The Academy Award winning film The Reader (2008) based on the eponymous novel by Bernhard Schlink (1995) serves as a poignant reminder about the enduring relationship that objects share with grief, longing and loss. Set in post-War Germany, the film is centred on Nazi war crimes trials where the the protagonist, portrayed by Kate Winslet, is revealed as an SS Guard accused of letting several Jewish women burn to their death in a burning church. Also in the courtroom is David Kross who had had a brief affair with Winslet and is stunned upon discovering her past. Kross continues to keep up with Winslet during her incarceration by sending her audio-recorded books – relics of their past relationship where he often read to her. In the end, Winslet kills herself, driven by the guilt she felt after reading about the experience of one of the survivors (Lena Olin) of that fire who had, earlier, testified against the SS staff. Winslet leaves behind a tea-tin with some cash asking Kross to hand it over to Olin. As the movie grinds to its conclusion, Kross is seen travelling to New York to deliver the money to Olin who is unmoved with the gesture and suggests dispensing the money to a charity instead. Not the one to grant absolution to Winslet, Olin, nonetheless, decides to keep the tea-tin because it is similar to the one taken from her in the concentration camp. Olin places the tin next to a family photograph – almost as if she is piecing together the memories of her family from the blinding haze of the holocaust.

Aanchal Malhotra’s book Remnants of a Separation offers not one but nineteen such “tea-tins” to retrieve the subcontinent’s material memory from the days of Partition. Written as a set of several interviews conducted across India and Pakistan, Malhotra’s collection of testimonies are a treasure trove of memories evoked with the help of scrutinizing objects that the respondents held dear to them while moving across the border – ‘the initial moment in the formation of an archive’ (p. xiii). Conceived as a book that arose out of Malhotra’s larger digital museum of images, an initiative that she calls ‘The Hiatus Project’, it provides a riveting textual context to the stunning visual experience of scrolling down images that radiate glimpses of their journey across the border. Seventy years after Partition, Malhotra’s book elevates ‘objects’ from a more mundane existence to the status of being veritable artefacts of historical interest.

Literature on the Partition has increased in the last decade. Bulk of this scholarship—important monographs and papers based on new archival sources by the likes of Joya Chatterji, Yasmin Khan, Vazira FY Zamindar among others have upended prevailing interpretations of the event hitherto based on traditional, often party-centred sources, that revealed little about the intricacies of policies that propelled the vivisection of the subcontinent. More recently, books based primarily on oral testimonies and interviews (Urvashi Butalia) have sought to provide more grounded versions of the terrible personal suffering inflicted on countless people at the hands of reckless decision-making in the corridors of the Raj. They have set the record straight on the limits of academic scholarship to excavate human stories of conflict—not as an indictment of research, but to highlight the differences among the consumers of information which has been produced on the event.

While university presses and history monographs have furthered academic research on India’s contemporary history, including Partition, which only a few decades ago, would not have elicited serious attention from people within the history profession let alone publishers (many of whom thought, bizarrely, that post-1947events were outside the remit of history), literature on 1947 that has successfully employed alternative sources has managed to strike a bond with several readers, students, and those who experienced the horrors first-hand. It’s a success for not just direct stakeholders in the production of knowledge, but a tribute to people who occupied ring-side seats to historical events.

Malhotra’s book fits easily into the latter. Although this work is more than just a compendium of personal accounts. It resurrects an old debate on the primacy of sources in history-writing. Eschewing formal text-based archival data in favour of visual and material artefacts, Remnants is not the usual ‘subalternist’ take on history but a more important inter-generational account of the transformation of memories with the passage of time, and the role that personal objects play in teasing out and embedding memories in the everyday life of respondents. Remnants, therefore, occupies a remarkable inter-disciplinary space which draws, in equally rewarding parts, both from history, obviously, and, because she is dealing with people and their recollections through their material possessions—anthropology.

Of the many strengths of this book is its ability to seamlessly bind the two disciplines together without unnecessarily stating it repeatedly—the narrative makes it all too clear. It manages to capture personal insights through skill and sensitivity without appearing too intrusive. But its chief importance lies in highlighting the complexity of ‘material culture’ in history. By writing and delving into the multiple layers of memory, Malhotra has prized open the door to a new field of history-writing itself unconstrained by the limiting influence of sources that generations of historians have grown accustomed to studying.

Remnants is not the first book to examine material artefacts from a historical lens. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, wielded this craft with consummate skill and set the stage for a revival of public interest in forgotten histories. The distinguishing feature of Malhotra’s work is the careful scrutiny each set of objects receive from her, interwoven with the connected histories associated with those objects which render Partition memories ‘particularly pliable’. Each historical moment in the book, then, comes across as an ‘archeological site’ layered with ‘innumerable renditions’ of people’s experiences (p. 23).

These multiple versions form the bedrock on which Remnants is based. Evocation of memories through family networks (Chapter 1) where Malhotra’s family’s heirlooms, including precious vessels and a walking stick – inhabit the antique walls and traditions of their Delhi home where they migrated to after 1947 – reveal the power of kinship ties to get life back on track in a city miles away from their original home. Then there are locked memories in the warp and weft of old fabrics (Chapter 5) which come alive when the respondents unpack them from the dark recesses of their minds tracing not just the tender bonds of emotional inheritance of treasured family possessions but also revealing a bit about the famed textile heritage of the subcontinent and its tryst with Khadi (handspun cotton) long before it became a symbol of India’s anti-colonial resistance.

Malhotra also needs to be credited with historicising ‘mundane migratory objects’ (p. 25) away from the space of the museum. This endeavour is doubly challenging as artefacts outside the carefully preserved environment of the museum are rarely, if ever, deemed worthy of attention by people, especially so in India, where a robust public culture of appreciating history in museums and archives is fledgling. Secondly, public displays of history do not always reveal private and transient moments of crisis and movement. To write an intimate history of the Partition, it is imperative to excavate stories from objects that can highlight experiences of a life lived through the appurtenances of a culture prevalent during the mid-twentieth century when Partition seemed imminent.

Remnants charts the ‘manifold concept’ of memory — official, social and familial through an exciting discovery of the manner in which ‘proprietorship’gives way to an intense yet understandable ‘possessiveness’ (p. 26). In the act of reclaiming symbols of ownership like a stone plaque that adorns the house belonging to Faiz Rabbani (Chapter 7) in what is now Indian Punjab, there is a moment when the boundary between ‘Indian’ and ‘Pakistani’ blurs into insignificance as Rabbani is welcomed into his ancestral property by its Indian owners (p. 152), an oddly appropriate exception to the corrosive context of Partition property legislation that has plagued bilateral relations since 1947. It is perhaps the ‘serendipitous’ – a word the author uses often – survival of objects such as these that allow for a more reconciliatory approach towards letting people set anchor, albeit temporarily, in a more familiar sea of memories. War memorabilia, too, like other artefacts are close companions of history. Lt Gen Sharma’s war medals, his father’s and brother’s storied careers and the lasting institutional legacy of the Sharmas’ on the Indian Army have been assiduously pursued by Malhotra (Chapter 14). It is also a sensitive examination of the concept of ‘power’ and its role in ‘affirming nationhood’ straight from the man who witnessed its application from close quarters.

The book is a bold attempt to document a broad range of material data; on that count it is a resounding success because it crosses the divide between both countries by confronting the often lop-sided accounts of the Partition which have arisen due to the difficulties scholars face when trying to recover stories from the other side. There are also accounts from Bengal (Chapters 11, 19) in the book where the eastern border lay but much of it confirms the staggered nature of division and the sustained waves of migration that continued to take place long after the settlement of the dividing line in 1947 and mitigated, albeit to a limited degree, the massive disruption that occurred in the west. On the other hand, excavating histories from objects, pre-supposes the existence of a class or culture that scraped through 1947 with a far greater degree of resilience than others, many of whom didn’t live to see another day. Women, men and children who did not survive the horrors of 1947 or counted for little when the edifice of two new-nation states was being created have not left strong imprints in the archives, nor have they attracted considerable attention from scholars who might be looking to exhume accounts of a division that wrecked so many lives. Yet, their stories are important and an ‘archaeology’ of their experiences awaits a more tenacious scholarly pursuit. Remnants promises to open this field further beyond museums and laboratories where more private histories could potentially be uncovered through public artefacts.

Vipul Dutta teaches History at IIT Guwahati.

Striking back at the Empire – Annu Daftuar

The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India

by Jon Wilson

Public Affairs, 584 pp., 2016.

Wilson image

Divided into fifteen chapters, covering a lengthy timeline from 17th to mid-20th century India, The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India, is an ambitious historical project. Jon Wilson presents a narrative of the history of modern India that challenges the romantic notion that the Raj was an efficient and orderly empire and discusses a rich variety of events and instances that indicate the real, violent and chaotic nature of British imperialism in India. His work highlights the importance of some of the most pressing questions concerning the politics of representation – What is the dominant narrative of modern Indian history that has been produced and perpetuated in the historiography? What stories of the empire were told to us? Were they accurate portrayals? In readable language, Wilson argues that we have been presented with a narrative of Indian history that celebrates the high-handedness of British Empire but which does not capture the reality of chaos and unprecedented violence imposed by the Raj. He writes, “Too many historians and writers assume the anxious protestations of imperial bureaucrats were accurate depictions of stable structure of authority. The result is mistaken view of the empire.”

Throughout the book, the author tries to undermine oft-repeated claims of colonial infrastructural ‘munificence’ by underlining the chaotic, uneven and disorderly nature imperial rule. The chapters on “Forgotten Wars” and “Passions of Plassey” effectively enlist instances of the unprecedented scale of violence on Indian people. Subsequent chapters throw light on how various systems, mechanisms and technologies introduced by the English in the name of “improving” Indian society were also failures. Major irrigation works, advances in modern banking (pioneered by Indians through other private forms of credit before the British arrived) or even the advent of railways did little to enhance substantiate the colony’s economic profile. Wilson argues that they were driven more by selfish personal interests for money making or speculative profiteering, surveillance and to maintain and consolidate British power in the subcontinent.

Wilson’s narrative draws on a wide chronological canvas – detailing important milestones in the construction of the colonial edifice. The book, however, does not engage with gender politics in its narrative of modern Indian history. It doesn’t challenge Indian history’s preoccupation with mapping a masculine colonial public sphere – an arena that was not only dominated by male leaders, political or otherwise, but also involved several women. Women, then, are rendered either redundant or merely passive agents in the larger sweep of historical events. This notion is clearly noticeable in the third chapter, “Forgotten Wars” – the only chapter that does discuss a woman but does so to show how non-Asian woman’s life sat at cross-roads with the otherwise masculine narrative of Indian history.

At a deeper level, it is not the about the white English woman (or her contributions per se), but her three marriages to East India Company employees that plays a key role in shaping the Anglo-Maratha politics of 18th century Western India – a crucial juncture for the East India Company’s alliance diplomacy that sought to establish an effective bridgehead over the subcontinent. Katherine Cooke, the white English woman in question, is shown merely as a soapbox over which the British and Maratha forces negotiate their politics. And that is how she features in the book. Her life circumstances are determined by political and economic status of her husbands and their antagonistic relationship amidst intense political rivalries. On the one hand, she was celebrated for upholding her Victorian values of womanhood against Indian ‘avarice’ (while she was captured by the Maratha forces although no detail is provided) and on the other hand, she battles East India company lawyers for her dead husbands’ assets when East India company insisted that it was company assets and not her husbands that she was fighting for. As a reader, I was left wanting to know more about how gender and race influenced the complexities of political relations in this context and at what moments was Katherine’s race valued more than her gender and vice versa.

Not only is it important to discuss the participation of women in political affairs of the Raj, it is also important to read how values of masculinity and femininity shaped the politics of imperial Indian history. For the English traders and imperialists, politics was a masculine field, which they often associated with values of aggression, strength, and authority. They demonstrated this through fortification along the Indian coastlines for building maritime dominance, by developing different systems of absolute control over the physical landscape (railroads, administrative centers) as well as the everyday life of the Indian subcontinent (creating disciplined subjects through revenue collection systems, writing, education etc). Traditionally feminine values of nurturing and cooperation, reciprocity, and sensitiveness, which the author claims were an intrinsic part of Mughal empire were undermined under the East India company and British Raj. Not only did the British want to demonstrate their masculinity by exploiting and dominating the Indian physical landscape (seas and land) but any sign of “weakness” or “fragility” – or signs of effeminacy as brought out most eloquently by the historian Mrinalini Sinha – was perceived as an act of emasculation. The result was a greater urge to be more aggressive and authoritative to keep things under control signified in not just violent reprisals on protests but also realigning spaces that undergirded the ruling dispensation.

For instance, the book points out that prior to the East India Company, Indian society comprised of various autonomously functioning societies under the Mughal regime. The Mughal regime created its authority by building alliances with communities, forging a federated system of patronage to bolster the power of the Mughal ‘centre’. Authority exercised by the Mughals was different from their English successors which was hyper-masculine and totalitarian but also constantly insecure about the security of their ability to wield power while unwilling to share that power with the people over whom they came to establish their rule. The British definition of authority was associated with, as the author points out at various moments in the book, “passion” for conquest, “rage” to redeem “lost honor” every time they were defeated in a war, and “anxieties” to create an empire that is under the control of its masters. Even if they used “softer” methods such as incorporating more Indians in administrative functions and bringing in liberal and modern ideas to India, they were never implemented with the intention to reform Indian society but by the need to strengthen imperial power.

Wilson has made use of a wide variety of historical sources ranging from personal narratives to archival data and unique secondary historical sources that bring to life a vivid picture of early colonial commerce and trade in addition to other technological undertakings. But he challenges the grand vision of the empire by revisiting the diaries and self-authored books by the same grand personalities. The reader ultimately ends up reading about the lives and accounts of either white male colonizers (Warren Hastings, Lord Curzon, James Mill among others) or prominent nationalist political figures (Gandhi, Nehru, Lala Lajpat etc.) which does not allow for a full decentering of the empire as viewed from its most oppressed subjects. Nonetheless, the book is provocative enough to invite further conversations on Empire and its past and future – especially now as Britain tries to move away from the European continent while still trying to fully acknowledge its complicated legacy on the two other continents that it exited more than half a century ago.

For these reasons, the book is likely to invite plenty of opportunities for scholars to engage with the enduring theme of what constitutes the ‘Empire’ and how it sustained for so long despite the glaring contradictions within it.


Annu Daftuar is a PhD candidate for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.