All-India Congress Committee


All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Karagham


Alternative Survey Group


All India Backward and Minority Employees’ Federation


Bharatiya Janata Party


Bharatiya Kranti Dal


Bharatiya Lok Dal


Bahujan Samaj Party


Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices


Communist Party of India


Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)


Congress Socialist Party


Dravida Munnetra Karagham


Indian Civil Service


Indian National Congress


Janata Dal


Maoist Coordination Centre


Members of the Legislative Assemblies


National Sample Survey Organization


Non-Resident Indians


Other Backward Classes


Republican Party of India


Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh


Scheduled Caste


Scheduled Tribe


United Nations Conference on Trade and Development


Uttar Pradesh


Vishwa Hindu Parishad


Both of us have researched in and on India throughout our professional lives, and this book is in part our attempt to make sense of that experience, stepping far beyond the particular engagements of our ‘field’ researches in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal. In its conception, design and writing, the book has involved each of us in equal measure; we hope that readers will find no awkward seams in our text.

We are grateful to a number of friends and colleagues for sharing with us some of their own experiences as citizens or students of India, and for encouraging us in this venture: thank you, then, to Jim Bentall, Arvind Das, Haris Gazdar, Anil K. Gupta, Ronald Herring, Craig Jeffrey, Sarah Jewitt, Sudipta Kaviraj, Sanjay Kumar, Satish Kumar, James Manor, Emma Mawdsley, Saraswati Raju, V. K. Ramachandran, Sunil Sengupta, Manoj Srivastava and Rene Veron. We are also grateful to Alpa Shah and Glyn Williams for commenting on the drafts of some chapters, and, most especially, to Barbara Harriss-White in Oxford and Meghnad Desai and Chris Fuller at the LSE for their many detailed comments. In several places we have indicated where one or other of them cannot be entirely exonerated from responsibility for the interpretations that we offer, although for the rest we alone are responsible. We would also like to thank two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on a first draft of the book; P. Jacob, Deputy Editor of ‘Frontline’ (Chennai) for his courteous assistance; and Sandra Byatt, Sarah Dancy, Lynn Dunlop, David Held and Anna Oxbury for their editorial advice and support.

We are also grateful to the University of Chicago Press for permission to reproduce as Map 1 a version of a map prepared by Matthew Edney for his book Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India 1765–1843 (1997); and to Oxford University Press (India) for permission to quote from P. Chatterjee, A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism (1997).

And for so many gifts that have nothing (much) to do with writing books a specially big ‘thank you’ to Joan and Joanne, and to Gundi, Mark, Kaveri and Elinor.

S. C. and J. H.

Miami and London


The Light of Asia? India in 1947

In the mass of Asia, in Asia ravaged by war, we have here the one country that has been seeking to apply the principles of democracy. I have always felt myself that political India might be the light of Asia.

Clement Attlee, 19461

Clement Attlee’s remark about political India serving as the ‘light of Asia’ was probably well intentioned, and in some respects it marked a new beginning in the history of relations between imperial Britain and colonial India. By 1946 it was clear to most observers that India’s independence was not far off, and not many months later a future President of the Republic of India, Dr Radhakrishnan, was quoting Attlee’s remark in favourable terms in the Constituent Assembly. Post-colonial India would be a beacon of democracy and liberty in a world emerging from fascism, war, and Empire. Even so, the irony of Attlee’s declaration would not have been lost on those members of the Constituent Assembly charged with inventing a new India in the years 1946–9. Most Congressmen took the view that Britain, by 1946–7, was bent on destroying the fabled unity in diversity of India, and had succumbed to and fostered the two nations theory put forward by Jinnah and the Muslim League. They were soon proved right. In addition, British rule in India could hardly be described as an experiment in democracy, either in representative or in participatory terms. The British ruled India with the help of local notables, but with little regard for the claims of political citizenship that grew to fullness in Great Britain between 1832 and 1928. India was pivotal to the Empire from which Britain benefited, yet few coherent efforts were made to improve the living conditions or education levels of the majority of India’s households. For most such men and women the light of Asia shone very darkly, if it shone at all.

In chapter 2 we examine the Constituent Assembly’s attempts to invent a post-colonial India which, rhetorically at least, would be everything that British India was not: a democratic, federal Republic of India committed to an ideology of development. Before embarking on this examination, however, it is important that we say something about the state of India in 1947, and that we briefly consider the political and economic legacies of British rule in India. We will also make some preliminary observations on the programmes of the nationalist elites who delivered India from Britain on 15 August 1947.

1.1 The Political Legacies of Empire

When the British left India they left behind them two countries – India and Pakistan – that had been shaped by more than 250 years of economic, political and cultural contact with the English East India Company and the Raj. This is not to say that Indian history during this period was made only by the British, or by Indians reacting to and resisting British definitions of modernity and community. The writings of nationalist, ‘Cambridge school’2 and subaltern historians alike have discredited this sort of imperial history. Nevertheless, the very geography of India in late 1947 pointed up the contradictory and contested legacies of European rule in South Asia. When Nehru was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of India he took charge of a country that was still being carved up by Cyril John Radcliffe, the mapmaker of Partition, and where ambitions for a unitary territory were disrupted by the remnants of French and Portuguese conquests in South Asia (as in Pondicherry and Goa) and the need to integrate 565 Princely States into the new Republic.3 Meanwhile, in divided Bengal, the government had to face up to the tragic legacies of the famine of 1943–4 – a famine caused in no small part by the state’s failure to provide an adequate system of relief to compensate for the lost entitlements of agricultural labourers and artisans.4 To uncover these legacies in more detail, it is useful to review some key moments in the political construction of power in British India, from Company rule to the end-games of Empire by way of the age of high imperialism that peaked around 1914.

Company rule

The British were not the first European power to acquire a base in South Asia, but the English East India Company was more successful than its French, Dutch, Danish and Portugese rivals in moving inland from its footholds on India’s eastern and western seaboards. Following the battles of Plassey in 1757 (where Clive defeated the French and their Indian allies after moving north from the Company’s base in Madras), and Buxar in 1764 (where the British defeated the Nawabs of Awadh and Bengal, and after which the Mughal Emperor ceded the Diwani (the right to the revenues)), the Company was secure in its control of much of eastern India. This security derived in part from the strength of the Company’s standing army, and from British seapower, but it derived even more so from the Company’s success in winning the support of certain Indian social groups.5 Many of these groups, including trading and banking houses, were free to transact with the British on the fringes of a Mughal empire that was slowly being unpicked. For their part, the British were content at first to clip into the uncertain and overlapping sovereignties of the Mughal Empire.6 By the early nineteenth century, however, there were signs that the British would attempt to rule India in a more unitary fashion than had been attempted even by Moghul emperors like Akbar or Shah Jehan.7 The growth of the Company’s standing army was one sign of this intention; another was the growth of a civilian bureaucracy. Following Lord North’s regulating act of 1773, the Governor-General and his council in Calcutta sought to rule British India with the assistance ‘of about 400 covenanted civil servants’ (Bose and Jalal 1998: 68), and with the consent of a Parliamentary board of control in London.8

In practice, British rule in India had depended from the outset upon the recruitment of Indian troops and Indian civil servants. These networks of rule became more extensive in the first half of the nineteenth century as the British moved to acquire Gujarat in 1803 (to ward off a Maratha threat in western India), as well as Punjab and Sind in the early 1840s. The British also entered into treaty arrangements with Indian rulers outside the areas of direct British rule, as in Hyderabad or Mysore. By the middle of the nineteenth century, these Princely States were under British indirect rule through the Residency system, and most had surrendered powers over foreign and defence policies to the British Paramountcy. Some States also surrendered their fiscal and monetary powers to the British, and herein lies one key to British rule in South Asia.9 To finance their military campaigns in India, not to mention their trade with China, the British relied heavily upon their control of land revenues in the subcontinent.

The East India Company devised two main systems to guarantee a flow of tribute from rural India. In Bengal, Governor-General Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement of 1793 in the forlorn hope of turning local revenue collectors (zamindars) into improving landlords. The zamindars of Bengal were expected to collect rents from the raiyats (peasants), and remit a fixed sum each year to their colonial masters. Many zamindars were unable to meet the regular demands placed upon them by the British, and many were bankrupted in their attempts to squeeze the peasantry for the benefit of the Company. Some zamindars found their rights to property and the revenue being transferred to other zamindars, or to bankers and traders in urban Bengal. The peasants, for their part, soon found that British rule required them to support a coercive and many-tiered system of tributary colonialism – a system that would make agricultural improvement difficult for more than 150 years.10 Elsewhere, raiyatwari systems of land revenue administration were put in place that linked the colonial authorities directly to the raiyat (if not the actual tiller of the soil) by means of land revenues that could be periodically reassessed. The raiyatwari system took hold in about two-thirds of the Madras Presidency, and was reinvented with local variations in parts of the Bombay Presidency and Punjab.

British control of India’s land revenues did not go uncontested, any more than did their attempts to introduce or impose European languages or laws. In the 1820s and 1830s there were revolts in Chota Nagpur and western India which pitted the Kols and the Bhils, respectively, against Company officials who sought, amongst other things, to increase revenues by converting forest lands into fields.11 These local rebellions were followed in 1855–6 by the Santhal Hul (uprising) in Bihar, and in 1857–8 by the military mutiny or Revolt across northern India. In the wake of these rebellions, the British moved in 1858 to a system of direct (crown) rule in India. Henceforward, ‘the ratio of Indian to European troops was [intended] never to be more than 2:1’ (Bose and Jalal 1998: 96), and new steps were taken to bend India’s economy to Britain’s imperial purpose. In the fifty-year period leading up to World War I, the Indian economy was opened up to British manufactured exports, and most obviously textiles, even as peasants in the Indian countryside, along with some estates and plantations, were encouraged to grow cotton, tea, jute and indigo for sale abroad. The railroad system that took shape from the 1850s helped to speed the growth of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay as major port cities, and the British sailing and steamships that linked the sub-continent to Europe and China bolted together a system of payments that allowed Britain to finance its deficits with the rest of the world by running a substantial trade surplus with India.

Empire and reform

These economic arrangements inspired early Indian nationalists like Naoroji and Dutt to maintain that India’s potential investible surplus was being lost to Britain. Instead of benefiting from British rule, India’s wealth was being used to fund its own subjugation, and its industrial development was arrested by tariff and capital market policies which sought to make India safe for British manufactured goods.12 As Bose and Jalal point out, it was partly to ameliorate ‘[s]uch charges of exploitation’ that the British moved after 1858 to temper ‘the rules of governance in India’ (1998: 101). Some of these reforms had an obvious economic component, as for example did the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885, or the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908. These Acts sought to pacify rural eastern India by protecting peasants there from the ‘unscrupulous’ merchants, rent-collectors, moneylenders and landlords who preyed upon them.13 Still other reforms were meant to address questions of political participation, and the legacies of these reforms continue to shape Indian politics in the post-Independence period.

Most aspects of the reform process in British India related to the problems that the colonizers faced in securing a measure of consent to their rule. Following the revolt of 1857–8 the British moved quickly to assure India’s princes that their privileges would not be disturbed. The British also retreated from some of their policies for social and cultural reform, such as those previously embodied in Macauley’s education minute of 1835, or the campaigns against thuggee and sati. Henceforward, the British would seek to rule India with some Indian support, but not by seeking the Europeanization of India. The British now sought to distance themselves from their Indian subjects. In the late Victorian period an unpleasant mixture of social Darwinism and racial theorizing encouraged the British to draw sharp lines between so-called European and Indian lifeworlds, a project that was exemplified in the clubs and military and civil architectures of the time.14

These competing ideologies of cooptation and exclusion were soon given a new twist in urban India. No matter how much the Raj relied on the fruits of rural India to balance its books worldwide, it also needed to secure a measure of political support from India’s urban elites. From the time of the Indian Councils Act of 1861 the British sought to secure this consent by means of the slow and limited introduction of self-government. The act of 1861 provided for Provincial Councils to be set up in Bengal, Madras and Bombay that would be dominated by British officials but which would allow ‘a few nominated non-official Indians [to be] consulted on legislative matters’ (Bose and Jalal 1998: 104). This provision was extended by Lord Ripon in 1882 to municipal and local boards, and was taken rather further at the time of the Morley-Minto reforms in 1909. The Morley-Minto reforms continued the British policy of making self-government financially dependent upon the raising of local taxes, but they went beyond Ripon in their willingness to see elected or nominated Indians break out of the municipal circuit of politics to contribute at the Provincial level, or more rarely in the Legislative Council in Calcutta. This process of cooptation was developed further by the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, and the Government of India Act of 1935, both of which extended the franchise among Indian communities (albeit only to men in 1919) even as they steered Indian politicians away from the Centre and towards the Provinces.15 Here is one key to British rule in India in the first half of the twentieth century, and one of the Raj’s enduring legacies in terms of the politics of post-colonial India. The Raj was constructed on the basis of a unitary conception of Indian territory and on the back of an unyielding commitment to political centralism. At the heart of the Raj was Calcutta, until 1912, and then Delhi or New Delhi. Even as Indian nominees and elected politicians were brought into the corridors of power in Patna or Lahore, they were kept away from those political responsibilities, notably defence and foreign policy, that were arrogated to the Centre. This remained true even after 1935, when the 1919 model of dyarchy (or separate lists of responsibilities for Indians and non-Indians at the Provincial level) was abolished in favour of the full participation of Indians in all departments of provincial government, and when the franchise was extended further. As most nationalists well knew, power in India rested with the Centre, and it was the capture of power at the Centre that came to define the political agendas of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League.16

Number, divide and rule

In addition to opening up avenues of political participation within the Raj, the British sought to define the terms under which different groups of Indians could participate in the political process. Herein lies a darker legacy. Although we do not subscribe to the view that the British invented caste or religious community identities in India, it is clear that British policies of enumeration, and divide and rule, did much to harden these identities in the seventy or eighty years before Independence.17 Part of the damage was done through the Census of India which the British introduced in 1872, and which was administered on a decennial basis from 1881. As Barney Cohn points out, ‘what was entailed in the construction of the census operations was the creation of social categories by which India was ordered for administrative purposes’ (Cohn 1996: 8), and by means of which supplicants could be recruited to the British cause. The blunt categories of caste and religion which feature in the Census of British India were not designed to respect the particularities of jati, and nor were they attentive to the possibility of forms of religious affiliation, like bhakti cults or Sufism, that cut across the boundaries between ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Islam’. The colonial authorities then sought to build upon these brute categories by linking the (slow) evolution of representative government to the award of separate electorates and reserved seats for Muslims and Hindus. These awards were built into the reforms of 1909 and 1919, and were anticipated by Curzon’s decision in 1905 to divide Bengal into ‘Hindu’ west Bengal and ‘Muslim’ east Bengal.18 In the 1930s Britain sought to extend this courtship of Muslim landed interests by appealing in similar terms to lower caste Hindus; indeed, the aptly named communal award of 1932 saw British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald promise separate electorates for the (Hindu) Depressed Classes, much to the consternation of Mahatma Gandhi. In the event, Gandhi was able to secure the consent, finally, of B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of India’s ‘depressed classes’, to a pact which refused the British offer of separate electorates, even as it accepted a larger number of reserved seats for the Depressed Classes in the Provincial councils.19

The Poona Pact found expression in the arrangements made for the 1937 elections to the Provincial Councils under the terms of the 1935 Government of India Act. But this was a minor concession by the British. As the Empire moved towards the endgame of 1946–7 it was clear that a negotiated transfer of power could not proceed without close regard for the power of the Centre in India’s ‘federal’ set-up, or without recognizing the politicization of India’s religious identities. In the end, British India was not able to hold together. By 1946 the Muslim League had regained much of the ground it had lost in the 1937 provincial elections, and its leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, refused to accept that a Congress party in control of a unitary India would safeguard the interests of the country’s Muslims. Jinnah chose to throw in his lot with the landed interests of Muslim Punjab, and with some Muslim groups in Bengal, and he grudgingly agreed to Mountbatten’s plan, in 1947, to create a new state of Pakistan from the western and eastern fringes of India.20 For its part, the Congress came to power in August 1947 in a country beset by the horrors of Partition, and within whose major borders power had recently been shared with more than 500 Princes. In so far as the Congress had achieved its goals by electoral as well as non-electoral means, it had done so on the basis of a franchise that was restricted in the 1940s to less than 30 per cent of the adult population. Here was another legacy of British rule in India.

1.2 The Economic Legacies of Empire

The political landscapes of the Raj were shaped by Britain’s commercial and strategic imperatives in the subcontinent. It is worth recalling that the English East India Company acquired territories in eastern India to secure a supply of goods for exports. Politics were ever driven by commerce in the days of John Company. But the economic dimensions of Empire remained strong even after the Company lost its trading monopoly with India in 1833, and long after the transfer of powers to the Crown in 1858. In the second half of the nineteenth century the rhythms of the Indian economy were dictated to an increasing extent by the rhythms of the European world economy. The Indian economy did well enough in the 1880s, but it suffered sharp downturns in the 1870s and 1890s, just as it would do again in the 1930s. India’s manufacturing economy also had to contend with the Lancashire lobby in England. British cotton textile interests made it difficult for the Government of India to provide a measure of protection to the modern textile industry that emerged in the Bombay–Ahmedabad region in the late nineteenth century.

Limited structural transformation

It would be wrong to suggest that manufacturing industry failed to take root under the Raj. There were enclaves of industrial capitalism in India under British rule, and these were the more visible when compared with what was happening – or not happening – in colonial territories like Korea or Dutch Indonesia. The jute industry, centred in Calcutta, was dominated by British capital, but the cotton industry, based at first mainly in Bombay, ‘was essentially Indian in origin, largely controlled by Indian investors, and increasingly administered by native managers and technicians’ (Morris 1982: 572). India was the first country in Asia to have a modern cotton textile industry, preceding Japan by twenty years and China by forty (Maddison 1971: 56). By the First World War India had become, next to Britain, the world’s greatest exporter of cotton yarn. By this time, too, the Parsi businessman, Jamshetji Tata, had opened the first Indian steelworks in Jamshedpur.

But if India was by 1947 the seventh largest industrial country by volume of output, it remained a predominantly agricultural country nonetheless. The national income accounts for 1950–1 show that agriculture accounted for 51.3 per cent of the total (in China, at about the same time, it made up an estimated 47 per cent of national product), while ‘large-scale industry and mining’ still accounted for only 6.5 per cent of GNP, and ‘small-scale industry’ for a further 9.5 per cent. In the labour force over 70 per cent of labourers were employed primarily in agriculture and less than 10 per cent in manufacturing (not counting household-based industrial production). Indian agriculture, meanwhile, was characterized by low levels of productivity when compared with other major Asian economies. Overall productivity (in relation to land) was almost twice as high in China, and in East Pakistan, as in India in the early 1950s; it was twice as high in Indonesia, more than three times as high in Malaya and five times as high in Japan.21 Output of foodgrains per capita was estimated to be 269 kg in China, compared with only 194 kg in India (Byres and Nolan 1976: 14), while the reported figure for rice – the most important foodgrain in both countries – was 119 kg per capita for China as compared with only 66 kg in India.

The low productivity of agriculture in India was widely recognized at Independence. In its terse discussion of the independence of India and Pakistan, the Economist newspaper, in the issue for 16 August 1947, expressed the hope that ‘the energy of the new governments will be concentrated without delay on the fundamental question of increasing agricultural production’. What it did not say, except perhaps by implication, was that the colonial state had failed to increase agricultural output, except in the case of some commercial crops. Indeed the output of foodgrains had tended to stagnate, and possibly to decline, in spite of increasing demand, in the period between the wars. The availability of foodgrains per capita – allowing for imports – declined during this period, and probably did not improve much in the 1950s.

An important reason for the low productivity of Indian agriculture was the low intensity of cultivation (given by the cropping index, which stood at 130.9 in China, for example, in 1952, as compared with only 94 in India in 1949–50),22 and this in turn reflected the low level of irrigation. Water is the principal determinant of productivity in most Asian agricultural systems, and only 15 per cent of India’s arable area in the late 1940s was irrigated. The colonial state invested very little in India’s irrigation potential outside Punjab, and the country’s larger irrigation systems were operated more to provide insurance against the failure of rainfall than to increase agricultural productivity.23

The failure to invest in irrigation can only be part of the reason for the dismal state of Indian agriculture, or, indeed, of rural society, at the time of Independence. There can be little doubt that the inequitable distribution of land ownership in India, and the continuing existence of landlordism (an estimated 35 per cent of cultivators were tenants at Independence, a high proportion of them sharecroppers (Byres 1974)), helped to create conditions in which the great majority of producers had neither incentive nor opportunity to invest in agriculture. This was especially the case in the zamindari areas of India, or in those areas where the British were keen to secure the consent of the landlord class regardless of the economic consequences. As Daniel Thorner, a perceptive observer of the Indian rural economy, wrote more than ten years after Independence:

High rents, high rates of interest and low prices leave the mass of petty peasant producers with very little to invest in the development of the land, and keep them at the mercy of the more powerful people in the village. Thus, on the one hand, the grip of the larger holders serves to prevent the lesser folk from developing the land; on the other hand, the larger holders do far less than they might to modernise production on that part of their land that they farm directly with hired labourers. (Thorner and Thorner 1962: 3)

Structural transformation, in short, had not proceeded very far in India by the late 1940s or early 1950s. By ‘structural transformation’ we mean that major process of economic change in which there is a shift both in terms of the value of output, and of employment, from agriculture into the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy. This follows from the fact that there are definite limits to the extent to which a purely agricultural economy can grow because of the limitations in the demand for agricultural products; economic growth entails increasing diversification and specialization of production. Tomlinson has suggested that ‘an endemic demand constraint, notably for basic wage-goods including foodgrains has been both a symptom and a cause of much of India’s recent record of underdevelopment’ (1988: 131). He maintains that this pattern extends back into the colonial period, when, it seems reasonable to suppose, most rural households should be described as (net) ‘consumers’ rather than as ‘firms’ or ‘production units’, given that they did not have access to sufficient land to meet subsistence needs. Many were agricultural labourers paid at least partly in kind; some forms of tenancy, notably sharecropping, can be seen as scarcely disguised forms of wage labour. There were also types of indebtedness which resulted in a form of wage labour, ‘especially for those dependent on loans in grain or money to sustain consumption while growing hypothecated produce’ (p. 133). The scale of this sort of non-monetized transaction remained very extensive even after Independence. Estimates from the 1950s and 1960s suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of foodgrain output was not marketed directly for cash. Given that the majority of cultivators were dependent price-takers, it seems likely that the few, dominant, controllers of agricultural surplus were able all the time to depress real wages by shifting the rates of conversion between commercial crops and food crops.24 Even many years later, in the late 1970s, it was found in one study that nominal wages paid to agricultural labourers tended to adjust to price changes so that their real wages remained more or less constant.25


These were the circumstances in which living standards in India remained depressed. They were already a matter of controversy in the nineteenth century, and became the stuff of economic nationalism alongside the theory of the ‘drain’. It seems likely that average per capita incomes were either stable or declining in the period between 1920 and 1947, having at best risen very slowly in the later nineteenth century. When the first authoritative estimates of the incidence of poverty were made, after Independence, it was suggested that in 1960–1 about 40 per cent of the rural population, and a little under 50 per cent of the urban population, were living in poverty.26 It is difficult to be sure about comparisons at an earlier stage – they are problematical enough even for the present – but it is unlikely, even so, that India (c. 1960) was exceptionally poor as compared with other major Asian countries. One estimate of the incidence of rural poverty in South Korea puts it as high as 41 per cent in 1965 (Castells 1998: 252), and one for rural Indonesia in the same year at 47 per cent.27

It must be stressed that India’s poverty was not fundamentally the result of population pressures, or at least of population pressures acting independently of the forces of class, gender, community or imperialism. According to estimates made at the time, the population of India after the trauma of Partition and the creation of Pakistan was 338.7 million, or about one-third of the number estimated to be living in India in the year 2000.28 By comparison with some other parts of Asia, India was not densely populated. In relation to the area of cultivated land, the number of people living in India c. 1950 was less than half that of people living in China, or in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and not much more than half that of people living in Indonesia (even allowing for the then very sparse settlement of the so-called Outer Islands, which make up a large part of the country). Population density in India, in relation to cultivable land, was only about 15 per cent of that in Japan, and the imperial capital of India at Partition, Delhi, was still a small city – a city where those with the leisure to do so might visit its great historical sites by bicycle, following the guidebook written by the historian Percival Spear (1994).

Neither sheer numbers of people, nor population density figures, can explain the appalling poverty of many Indians after 200 years of British rule. The famines that hit India in the late 1890s and again in 1943–4 had more to do with the impact of imperial policies on the price of food and labour than with an average annual rate of growth of population during this period of about 1.8 per cent. Demographic pressures are equally unable to explain an average life expectancy of just 40 years in India in 1950, or a hideously uneven sex ratio (an estimated 1057 males for 1000 females in 1951), or the fact that less than 13 per cent of Indian women were classed as literate in 1961.29 Nor should population pressures be blamed for the extraordinary differentials in income and wealth that marked out particular households, communities and regions in India before, during and after the period of British rule. British rule may have arrested the development of the Indian economy as a whole, but it did not check the fortunes and privileges of those families upon whom the British depended for support.

1.3 The Legacies of Indian Nationalism

The contradictory dynamics of British rule in India provided fertile and often confusing conditions for the emergence of Indian nationalism. Although the origins of the nationalist movement in India are conventionally traced back to 1885 and the founding of the Indian National Congress (INC), this is to define nationalism in India in a very particular way. The nationalism of the INC was a bourgeois, step-in-your-shoes sort of nationalism30 until the time of Tilak and the ‘extremist’ tendency in the INC in the 1890s and 1900s, and only later did Gandhi convert it into a mass movement which reached out to rural India. But there were other forms of nationalism, or at any rate of anti-colonialism, that dogged the British throughout the days of Company Rule and the Pax Britannica: the revolts of the tribal periphery, for example, or of the Sepoys in 1857, or the Mundari ulgulan in the final years of the nineteenth century.31 These local traditions of dissent, which were mirrored in countless labour disputes in both rural and urban areas, were given fresh impetus in the twentieth century by the mutiny amongst Indian naval forces which shook Bombay in 1946, and by the communist insurgencies which rocked Telengana and north Bengal in the 1940s (and which encouraged ‘London ... to get out of India as quickly as possible before anti-colonial politics became more radicalized than they already were’ (Bose and Jalal 1998: 182)). We will return to these alternative or subaltern accounts of anti-colonialism later in the book; for the moment, let us put in place a more conventional narrative account of Indian nationalism.

The early nationalist movement

The foundation of the INC in 1885 followed on from a period of social reform and Hindu revivalism that was well represented in the activities of the Brahmo Samaj, which had encouraged a rather Christianized Hinduism earlier in the nineteenth century, and, after 1875, in those of the Arya Samaj. The Arya Samaj, in particular, which was strong in Punjab in the late nineteenth century, ‘sought to include reformist postures on issues such as child marriage, widow remarriage, idolatry, travel overseas and caste – within a framework of the assertion of Hindu supremacy over other religious faiths’ (Bose and Jalal 1998: 111). By advancing this sort of agenda, the reformist movements were at once able to contest European accounts of modernity (or the Christian, even secular, bias of the Raj), while also advancing a political standpoint that was modern in its own right. The tensions between religious and other forms of modern discourse in nationalist politics would later prove inauspicious. In the 1880s, however, it was common for members of Hindu India’s urban elites to move in and out of reform politics and Congress politics, and to make common cause with Muslims in the INC’s disputes with the Raj.32

In the 1880s and 1890s these disputes centred on the misuse of India’s manpower and economic resources by the colonial state. Congress asked the British to make room for elected or nominated Indian politicians in its corridors of power, and it pushed for a greater induction of Indians into the Indian Civil Service (ICS). A particular concern of educated, urban Indians was that examinations for the senior ranks of the ICS were held in London and not in India, a state of affairs that continued until 1919. On the economic front, Congress complained that the development of Indian capitalism was being held back by an unwarranted ‘drain’ of India’s wealth to Britain through the council bill system. Early Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji (who would later become the first Indian MP – for Finsbury – in England), and Romesh Chandra Dutt, suggested that 5 or 6 per cent of India’s total resources were being remitted to Great Britain. They also disputed British claims that this was no more than a payment for services rendered, or a fair rate of return on inward investment.33

The drain of wealth theory would serve as a mainstay of nationalist rhetoric until 1947. It had the great virtue of tapping a chord and holding together a diverse political constituency. The idea that India was being exploited by the British was hardly far-fetched, and nationalists were able to invoke the drain theory to good effect whenever Indian fortunes were hit by downturns in the world economy. The nationalists could reasonably point out that India’s economy had been restructured to serve the needs of its metropolitan masters, and that Indians financed both the costs of Empire (the Home Charges) and the military wherewithal which kept the Raj intact.34 The drain theory appealed equally to Indian capitalists and Indian socialists, and even to some Gandhians.35 No matter how much these competing groups differed in respect of the uses which they foresaw for India’s vanishing funds, they could agree on the importance of contesting the drain itself.

Unity was much harder to come by on other fronts. The moderate Congress of the 1880s and 1890s found it hard to extract concessions from the British, and the seeming failure of this first generation of Indian leaders encouraged the Maharashtrian, Tilak, to experiment in the mid-1890s with ‘no revenue’ campaigns and other forms of direct action. The famous split between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in the nationalist movement healed for a while after 1905, when Curzon announced the partition of Bengal. In 1905–6 Bengali leaders as diverse as Rabindranath Tagore (the poet-philosopher of the Bengali nation) and Surendranath Banerji (a first generation Congressman) joined in protest against this attempt to divide Bengal and to rule its eastern districts with the help of some Muslim landlords. With the support of many Muslim intellectuals and urban professionals, these and other leaders of Bengal began the swadeshi (self-provisioning) movement that would later be taken up elsewhere in India. But when the boycott of British cotton textiles threatened to get out of hand – that is, when it encouraged some revolutionary gangs to take up the bomb and the bullet, or when it provoked labour disputes – the moderate/extremist split opened up sufficiently for the British to exploit divisions with a characteristic mixture of repression and political reform (in this case the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909).

Gandhi and mass politics

The question of how best to deal with the British continued to be a problem for the Congress and its nationalist allies and rivals. To an extent this problem was ‘solved’ by the emergence, under Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, of a mass nationalist movement that engaged men and women in rural areas of the subcontinent. After his return to India from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi sought to transform politics by pioneering new tactics of non-cooperation (which drew on swadeshi nationalism, of course) and nonviolence. But any solution was bound to be temporary or provisional. The course of Indian nationalism was always caught up in a tensely dialectical relationship with British attempts to undo Gandhi’s campaigns, or to unpick the threads that held the supporters of Indian nationalism together. It was also beset by competing accounts of what India ‘was’ or could be expected to be – what we might call competing imaginaries of ‘India’ or ‘the Indian nation’.

Gandhi’s own career as an Indian nationalist points up these tensions very well. In 1919 he set in motion an all-India campaign of non-cooperation that protested the inadequacy of the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, that challenged the legality of the Rowlatt Act of 1919 (which allowed the British to hold Indians without trial even in peacetime), and that sought protection for the Khilafat in the wake of the defeat of Ottoman Turkey. In 1922 Gandhi called off this same non-cooperation movement. The trigger for his volteface was an attack upon a police station in Gorakhpur District, United Provinces; Gandhi was concerned that the forces he had unleashed were becoming violent and in some cases revolutionary. Meanwhile, the British sought to disrupt the politics of anti-colonialism by providing fresh incentives for Indians to engage in constitutional politics at the Provincial level; they also stoked up Hindu–Muslim tensions by continuing to provide for separate electorates. Given these sorts of responses, which were always allied to the stick of repression and imprisonment, it is hardly surprising that Gandhi was faced with fresh dilemmas in the 1930s and 1940s. The basic questions remained: what was the proper balance between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics in the struggle for dominion or Independence, a problem posed with particular force at the time of the 1937 elections? what place might violence play in the politics of anti-colonialism? how might the nationalist community be held together in the face of the communalizing policies of the British? and what sort of India did this community – or communities – wish to see created?

Imagining India

In one sense, of course, we know the answers to these questions. The Congress was largely successful in the 1930s and 1940s in reworking a politics of civil disobedience and non-cooperation which culminated in the Quit India movements of the 1940s. The British were unable to persuade respected Indian leaders to agree to the sorts of power-sharing arrangements that kept elected Indians away from the imperial capital. The ledger books of Empire also worked in favour of the Quit India movements. By the end of 1945 London was in debt to Delhi and Washington, the power of the Raj on the ground was fading fast – as Sir Stafford Cripps conceded when he introduced the India Independence Bill in the House of Commons in 1947 – and the Labour Government of Clement Attlee was forced to negotiate Britain’s withdrawal from India, something which the British had failed even to contemplate at the time of the 1935 reforms.36 In the event, the end came sooner than London or the nationalists had anticipated, and withdrawal was accompanied by a Partition of India which revealed the failure of Gandhi’s attempts to keep Hindus and Muslims together.

There are dangers, however, in closing a narrative account of Indian nationalism in such simple terms. For one thing, it implies that history was less messy than it really was. The Partition of India may well have been the product of Hindu–Muslim antagonisms, albeit manipulated by a colonial power desperate to buy time in its most prized possession, but as late as June 1946 Jinnah’s All-India Muslim League was rejecting calls for a sovereign Pakistan and was exploring the 1946 Cabinet Mission plan for a three-tiered all-India federation where Hindus and Muslims would share power and seats according to a complex regional formula. We should also note that the Muslim League was unable to win the votes of a majority of India’s Muslims until as late as the 1945–6 elections; its performance in the 1937 elections was quite abject, even in Muslim-majority areas. There never was a single Muslim identity or constituency in British India (any more than there was a singular Hindu or Indian identity). In addition, a remembrance of the nationalist struggle which is written around Gandhi, or even Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, might remain faithful to many nationalist histories of the Freedom Movement, but it would not do justice to the range of individuals and groups who worked with, and sometimes against, these remembered heroes. This is not just a matter of finding room in our accounts of Indian nationalism for tribal revolts and kisan and labour struggles, although that is important enough. It is also a matter of recognizing, as many historians have not recognized until recently, the achievements and agendas of Vallabbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, B. R. Ambedkar and Vinayak (Veer) Savarkar, to name but four leaders of the anti-colonial struggle. These leaders outlined different agendas for dealing with the British (Bose preferring to raise and equip an Indian National Army to fight the British alongside the Japanese), and they developed very different perspectives on the possibilities and agendas for Indian nationhood and economic regeneration.

This last point matters to us because it highlights the uncertainty and conflicts that surrounded ‘the invention of Independent India’. Although we will argue in chapter 2 that post-colonial India was invented in accordance with certain well-defined mythologies of rule (socialism, secularism, federalism and democracy), it is certainly not part of our purpose to suggest that ‘Nehru’s India’ was the only India imagined by nationalist politicians, or that Nehru’s vision was ever properly made flesh. Chapters 2 and 3 will offer commentaries on the ambitions of and inconsistencies in Nehru’s design for a ‘modern’ India. As regards alternative visions of India (or Bharat), it is well known that Gandhi was opposed to the dirigiste and westernizing visions of Nehru. Gandhi (1997) made clear his views in Hind Swaraj, a book that he wrote in haste in 1908 but to which he remained true until his death in 1948. For Gandhi, the enemy was not only British imperialism, but the enemy within: the cancers of materialism and envy and excess which can take root in the minds of men and women, regardless of colour, caste or creed. True independence for India would have to attend to the body corporeal as well as the body politic. Swaraj, or self-rule, would be found, Gandhi argued, in a politics of truthfulness (satyagraha) that would deliver the body from false desires. (Gandhi’s account of swaraj drew inspiration from most of the world’s great religions. Although Gandhi was perceived by many Muslims to be the embodiment of a certain form of Hinduism – and by some ‘Untouchables’ too – it is not inconsistent to say that Gandhi’s Hinduism was of a non-textual kind which found room for the more ascetic teachings associated with Christ and the Buddha, as well as Kabir and Mohammed.37)

What is less well known is that Gandhi’s remarks in Hind Swaraj were addressed rather more to Veer Savarkar, the ideological father of Hindu nationalism and the author of Essentials of Hindutva (Savarkar 1922), than to Bose, Patel or Nehru (three men not yet in Gandhi’s compass).38 Gandhi was assassinated in January 1948 by Nathuram Godse, an articulate Brahmin from Maharashtra and a lapsed member of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). At his trial, Godse declared that, ‘I firmly believed that the teachings of absolute ahimsa [non-violence, or reverence for life] as advocated by Gandhiji would ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu Community and thus make the community incapable of resisting the aggression or inroads of other communities, especially the Muslims’ (after van der Veer 1994: 96). The India that Godse wished to see built after Independence was a strongly masculine India, an India which would develop – as Savarkar argued it should – a military-industrial capability that would befit its status as a great power.

In the light of India’s nuclear weapons tests of May 1998 it would be foolish to discount the relevance of Savarkar’s views in contemporary India, and we will have cause to return to his life and teachings later in this book (chapter 839