Narendar Pani

The missing people

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 20, 2019 Published on January 20, 2019

Title: Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times Author: Rajmohan Gandhi Publisher: Aleph Price: Rs 799

Rajmohan Gandhi’s book drifts away from being a history of the peoples of South India

When a widely acclaimed biographer of historical figures sets out to write the history of modern south India, it raises both expectations and fears. The expectations are built around the dire need for an authoritative history of the region. While there are a number of important contributions to the history of specific elements in this story, the region is still waiting for the work that would be the point where anyone interested in the last few centuries in south India can go to.

The fears are largely methodological. In these days when biographies of historical figures, and their accompanying controversies, are the norm, would the author be able to make the transition from biographer to historian?

Rajmohan Gandhi’s Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times feeds the fears rather more than it meets expectations.

History as biography

The major challenge in a biographer’s transition to a historian is to resist the temptation to see history as no more than a collection of biographies. This is a temptation that Gandhi unfortunately succumbs to. The book is a collection of biographies of the major figures in different points in the history of south India. The choice of figures is predictable resulting in a collection of brief biographical sketches of the rulers of different parts of the region across a little more than four centuries.

For someone who has written authoritative biographies of major historical figures (for example books such as Understanding the Founding Fathers: An Enquiry into the Indian Republic's Beginnings, Patel: A Life, Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns and, importantly, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire) Rajmohan Gandhi must have been aware of the limitations of the thumbnail sketch as a means of capturing the nuances of the complex characters who populate his book.

And some of the characters find themselves at the receiving end of rather contradictory evidence. Tipu’s longstanding relationships with the Sringeri Shankaracharya and the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangapatna are noted alongside claims of his being bigoted and ruthless.

But there is little effort to understand the dynamics of the region that contributed in no small way to the contradictory behaviour of the ruler.

The inability to capture this underlying complexity is not just the result of a thumb-nail-sketches-as-history approach the task. Trying to view history entirely through the perspective of the rulers of south India leaves out the relationship between different groups that formed a critical part of the history of the region.

The contradictory trends even among Hindus, of loyalty to Tipu and strident opposition, is in no small measure the result of his approach to land relations. Tipu sought to build an direct revenue relationship with the peasants of his kingdom; an effort which brought him into conflict with intermediary groups.

In areas where the intermediary groups were powerful he faced rebellion and used eighteenth century methods to curb rebels. In areas where the intermediary groups could not provide resistance, Tipu was seen as someone who had removed one level of exploitation. The value of a direct relationship with the peasantry was acknowledged in later actions though not in word.

In many ways, Tipu’s land system was a precursor to the Ryotwari system (one of the three prominent revenue collection systems existed during the British India) that Thomas Munro (the Governor of Madras Province in the early 1800s) was to build after the defeat of Mysore.

The interaction between land relations and political power took different forms in various parts of south India, with quite varied consequences for the longer-term history of the region.

History and people

Putting together an authoritative history of these processes is no doubt a major and difficult task, but by ignoring it altogether Rajmohan Gandhi arrives at a history as if people do not matter.

The view from the top gets even more skewed as we move closer to the present day. As south India gets more closely integrated into the national mainstream, its leadership begins to play a national role.

The focus on the rulers ensures the book slips into exploring this national role. Rajmohan Gandhi’s authoritative knowledge of these individual leaders, some of whom he knew personally, allows for some interesting insights into their role in the events of India soon after independence. But these insights draw the book further away from being a history of the peoples of south India.

Towards the end of the book Rajmohan Gandhi cites eminent Telugu dramatist and poet Gurajada Apparao’s words: “Never does land / Mean clay and sand / The people, the people, they are the land (from the verse, Desabhakti).” It is a trifle disappointing that Gandhi does not allow the idea to influence his historiography.


Rajmohan Gandhi has taught political science and history at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, IIT-Bombay, Michigan State University and the University of Illinois, where he currently serves as research professor. His last two books are Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma’s Legacy and Understanding the Founding Fathers: An Enquiry into the Indian Republic’s Beginnings.

(The reviewer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

Published on January 20, 2019
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