Publication Date

May 1, 2011



Detail from a Mughal miniature showing Emperor Akbar receiving the Akbar Nama from Abul Fazl. India's political history, traditionally replete with the biographical narratives of the elites, has moved away from such "high politics" to considerations of the politics of marginal groups. Digital image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Several years ago, I assigned E.H. Carr’sWhat Is History? to a group of undergraduate history majors for a seminar that was intended to introduce them to historiography. It was a lazy choice; I had read it as an undergraduate history major in the 1980s and I happened to find an inexpensive Penguin version in a bookstore in Delhi the winter before I was scheduled to teach the course.1 The assignment worked well for reasons I had not anticipated: Carr’s chapters are a series of lectures intended for undergraduates at Cambridge in the early 1960s, so the book was well suited to undergraduates: accessible, readable, and (I say this in a spirit of admiration), avuncular in its tone. To the question, what is history?, Carr replied: “our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.”2 The book prodded historians to think of themselves as products of particular political moments, writing history with our ideal futures in mind. Carr pressed the idea that historians are (or should be) optimists, an idea that my relatively untroubled undergraduates had little trouble embracing.

In Carr's preface to the second edition, written shortly before his death in 1982, he noted that he had written the book at the start of the 1960s in a spirit of great optimism, as "signs were beginning to accumulate that we were beginning to emerge from some of our [postwar] troubles." Although the 1980s were looking decidedly less sunny, and in the minds of many leftist intellectuals as if the end was nigh, Carr concluded that he would "strike out a claim, if not for an optimistic, at any rate for a saner and more balanced outlook on the future."3

Carr's optimism about the future and the relevance of history are crucial to political histories produced in our post–Cold War, postcolonial present. The case of India, the world's largest and long-lived postcolonial democracy, is a good example for thinking through some of these questions, particularly in redefining how we write a political history that accounts for radical protest and revolutionary politics.

Over a decade ago, Sunil Khilnani declared, "Political history has been neglected—the doings of the state, of its elites, and of the many significant individuals in India's 20th-century history."4 Khilnani noted that the rise of “specialist and innovative” studies had widened the field of South Asian history and he gestured to the proliferation of histories of marginal groups that had previously not been studied. But he despaired that the expansion into other kinds of history (unnamed, but one can imagine: subaltern, gender, caste, cultural, social) undermined some of the dominant and unifying themes inherent in the political history of India.5The Idea of India, published originally in 1997, was partly a celebration of a half century of independence, and analyzed what he called India’s “democratic experiment” through several essays on democracy, urban life, modernism, technology, and citizenship with an eye toward democracy’s future in India. The kind of “high” political history that Khilnani imagined, of leaders, elites, and the state, has thrived with the publication of biographies of Mohandas Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Indira Gandhi, and many lesser-known leaders of the nationalist period.6 The recent publication of a sourcebook of political ideas,Makers of Modern India, further suggests why India is a particularly rich site for the study of political history. As historian Ramachandra Guha, who edited the book, put it, “The country’s leading politicians were its leading political thinkers.”7 For Guha, India’s exceptional position in history—it has remained a democracy through decolonization, the Cold War, and several serious challenges by minority states demanding secession—makes it a worthy object lesson for understanding democratic politics and the value of history-writing as political practice for the future. Guha sees India as a kind of model postcolonial liberal state, with a free press, freedom of religion, and universal suffrage for a population of unparalleled ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity.

Writing political history as optimistic and future-oriented reminds us of political history's Whiggish origins, which pitted the idea of monarchies against democracies or republics, despotism against liberty, feudal obligations against individual rights. Until the interwar years, political historians were prone to declaring the triumph of republican and liberal ideals in the making of the modern nation-state and the modern citizen. The regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin made it impossible for political historians to remain smug, and the progressive lineage of liberal representative democracy had to be rethought with a cynical eye to why a progressive history of politics went very wrong in late (or post-) modern Europe.

In the decades after the Second World War, the emergence of global peace framed by the Allied victory and concomitantly, the decolonization of many parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, gave political history a new lease on life as constitutions, bills of rights, and social contracts between decolonized subjects and their newly chosen leaders were forged.8 This is what E. H. Carr witnessed when he wrote confidently, “We had quietly dissolved the British Empire, almost without noticing it.”9 (He had apparently forgotten about the violent suppression of uprisings in Kenya and Malaya.) The political lineage of many self-consciously modern liberal nation-states as colonial powers (Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, among others) might have made it difficult to sustain the fiction that liberal nations always behave liberally. Yet the decades of decolonization appeared to redeem this troubled political past, making possible a world of new postcolonial democracies that could emerge alongside the older well-established democracies and republics.

India, thus, appears to be a dream case for optimists and political historians. Newly decolonized after an anticolonial movement that was largely nonviolent, India marched toward democratization in the latter half of the 20th century, creating, adopting, and consolidating its own constitution when some of its larger and economically powerful neighbors in Asia did not do so, something Guha notes with pride.10 For students of political history, India represents a new politics for the future of liberalism, democracy, and social justice, one that might be imagined as quite distinct from the old politics defined by 1776, 1789, or 1848. As Guha argues, India’s recent political history demonstrates how we might decolonize political history from its proprietary domain of Europe or the United States as models for liberal democracies and create a new set of models that reconstitute political history from the site of the postcolony.11

Yet, optimism about India's political history overlooks how we might account for radical or revolutionary strains of political thought in the history of India. E. H. Carr, a scholar of the Russian Revolution, died before the collapse of the Berlin wall and the declaration of "the end of history." Carr's What Is History? was in the process of revision and Carr hoped to write another edition that was a critique of what he considered “conservative” ideas that were resistant to and fearful of change. His final lecture in What Is History? staked out a commitment to writing the history of the revolutionary and radical: “In our day, what survives of liberalism has everywhere become a conservative factor of society.”12 It is a statement that strikes a prescient and cautionary note.

The history of India's democracy is often cast as a survival story of liberal ideals in the postcolonial era. In this narrative, democratic structures are seen as being built on, and responding to, changing political calculations of parliamentary constituencies. The emergence of political parties organized by an ideology ofHindutva, derived from the idea of India perceived as predominantly Hindu, revitalized political history in the 1980s and 1990s, necessitating new analytical models.

One might argue that the political history of India has moved beyond what used to be called "high politics," in order to trace the lineages of political thought and action for groups who were not politically and socially enfranchised, but had imagined how they might be. The expansion of the domain of the political was addressed with the methodologies of a "new political history," that encompasses many kinds of "specialist" histories. For instance, the rich field of what is often called "Dalit studies" has transformed the political history of modern India.13 This is only one example of a new political history of India, one that is built on the backs of a more inclusive history that includes Dalits, Muslims, women, tribal groups, peasants, and other “others,” drawing us away from a conventional sense of the political. 14

In the past few decades Dalits, for example, found their way into a political calculus of the state and parliamentary politics. Historians have explained their emergence as part of a genealogy of "caste radicalism" that reaches back to the 19th century.15 The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), for instance, under the leadership of Kumari Mayawati, the only female Dalit chief minister of an Indian province, is one exemplary moment in recent history that “indexes the symbolic centrality of Dalit power for transforming politics.” 16 Yet with a few notable exceptions,adivasis or tribal groups have had relatively less historical attention and political representation.

Also in the last two decades, tribal leaders formed the core of a growing "Maoist" insurrection that is unsettling the Indian state in about one-third of its territories in eastern and central India. States affected include parts of Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. Some of these groups are led by members of the Communist Party of India (Maoist); others are "Maoist" in spirit, embracing goals of economic and social redistribution to various degrees. As a self-proclaimed protest movement against the government, which they argue is undemocratic and illiberal, these groups have challenged the Indian state through a series of attacks on government officials, buildings, and property. The recent kidnapping of a government civil servant in Orissa is only one of many acts of a campaign that is both a political protest and depends on acts of violence; the Indian government's counterinsurgency efforts have been equally militant and dehumanizing, resulting in police brutality and the displacement of thousands ofadivasis from their homes. Historian and sociologist, Nandini Sundar, calls for remembering the historical indifference of the government toward adivasis and their peacefully stated demands in the 1950s and 1960s; she also notes that the Indian government seemed to have adopted the counterinsurgency methods used by its neighbor, Sri Lanka, in brutally repressing those who launch radical protest movements against the government.17

History does not end, as we know. As recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and nations across the Middle East suggest, the making of political history is ongoing. As we watch these nations and their leaders across the world struggle with what it means to accommodate the demands of a mass political movement that calls for revolutionary change, India and other postcolonial nation-states of the world should serve both as cautionary reminders of an illiberal past and (speaking in a spirit of optimism) as important models for new democratic and revolutionary futures.

is associate professor of history at Cornell University. Her publications include Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire(Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006).


1. There are several editions; mine was published by the Penguin Group (Australia) in 2008 and has the “classic” Penguin cover, orange with a penguin on it.

2. Carr, What Is History?, 8.

3. Carr, What Is History?, 4.

4. Sunil Khilnani,The Idea of India (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1997), 2–3.

5. Khilnani implicitly engaged the idea of the nation as fragments, which had been put forth by Partha Chatterjee inThe Nation and Its Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

6. See, for example, Sugata Bose, His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle against Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011); Rajmohan Gandhi, Gandhi : the man, his people, and the empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Katherine Frank,Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002); Joseph Lelyveld, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (New York: Knopf, 2011).

7. Ramachandra Guha, ed.,The Makers of Modern India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 2.

8. Something about which there has been much debate. See Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

9. Carr, What Is History?, 3.

10. Guha, The Makers of Modern India, 284.

11. Guha,,The Makers of Modern India, 465–67.

12. Carr,152.

13. Christophe Jaffrelot,India's Silent Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Ramnarayan Rawat,Reconsidering Untouchability: Chamars and Dalits in North India (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Kancha Ilaiah,The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought (New Delhi, 2010).

14. Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), is very suggestive on the subject of a collective agency for women.

15. A term used by Rao, Guha, and others.

16. Rao,The Caste Question, 283.

17. Nandini Sundar, “Why Everyone Speaks the Flowing Language of Blood,”Outlook, October 26, 2009, online at (accessed February 27, 2011). Sundar’s observation recalls the classic Marxist historiographical arguments on the subject of protesters turning to actions categorized as crime as a form of protest: see, for example, Eric Hobsbawm,Bandits (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969) and Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.