Reading… C A Bayly

So I’m reading Christopher Bayly at the moment. When he passed away last year he was one of the leading historians of British India, the British empire generally, and also of a new global history. Richard Drayton gave a nice write-up of Bayly’s work in his obituary in the Guardian.

I’ve been reading his 1998 work Origins of nationality in South Asia: patriotism and ethical government in the making of modern India. In it he argues that 20th century Indian nationalism had older roots in pre-colonial India, in the form of various communal and political attachments to place and institutions.

He uses comparative method to trace patterns in the development of Indian nationalism that are seen in European/British contexts, including a ‘traditional patriotism’ that involved ‘attachment to the territory, custom, political and religious institutions which had developed in parts of the western world before the rise of plebiscitary nationalism, the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the modern state’ (p 4).

Was ‘India’ a mere ‘geographical expression’ or an area that expressed strong regional loyalities? 19th century British contemporaries thought that different states did express a strong ‘nationalism’, although others were more like ‘states of plunder’. By the 1820s, one British officer thought Bharatpur had become ‘the very Palladium of native pride and independence’ (p 51).

In the Epilogue, Bayly gives an insightful account of his own biography and historiographical journey. In a poke at post-modernist/-colonial approaches, he believes the abandonment by Indian historians over the previous 20 years of political and economic history, in favour of histories of cultural and ‘discourse’, was ‘retrogressive’ and representing ‘a syndrome of traumatized denial’ by historians of the ongoing significance of global capitalism and an ideological Indian politics of the present day. (pp 317-318)

Bayly argues that continuity or ‘distorted continuity’ in Indian politics/society under British rule was more significant than in other places, such as Latin America or Africa: ‘… Indians recruited from pre-colonial service and commercial communities continued to control the bulk of mercantile capital and title to land and to populate the lower ranks of the army, judiciary and police…’ (p 319)

He rather provocatively notes how Ronald Inden and Bernard Cohn considered the Subaltern Studies volumes of the 1980s and 1990s as inaugurating a true indigenous and post-colonial historiography. ‘The trajectory of Subaltern Studies from class and resistance to a concern with discourse and colonial knowledge really represented the replacement of E.P. Thomson with an Americanized version of Michael Foucault. This is  what Sumit Sarkar has deplored in Writing Social History, his polemic against the  “disapperance of the subaltern” from Subaltern Studies, and the tendency of young Indian historians to try to be “with it” by hitching their colours to the mast of post-modernism. Actually, if a true “indigenous, post-colonial historiography” is coming into existence (and this is probably impossible), it is  perhaps in the regional universities and sometimes in regional languages and has little to do with the conferences, academic exchanges and refereed journals of the international elite.’ (p 321).

Food for thought, Sir Christopher.