Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

Lighting up a century

How Chris Bayly redeemed modern Indian history from a damning critique

Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses in the locker room with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup after defeating Andy Murray of Britain in their men's singles final match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne. (Reuters)
Christopher-Bayly-l How Chris Bayly redeemed modern Indian history from a damning critique. (Source: Youtube)

The passing of Christopher Bayly is an inestimable loss to the discipline of modern Indian history. If one were to list three historians of modern India, Bayly’s name would definitely figure in it. Not only because of his books, but also because of the scholars he has trained over the last four decades. I was fortunate that he generously agreed to be my supervisor for a mere MPhil thesis when I was at Trinity College, Cambridge, although he had a bevy of PhD scholars knocking on his door.

Bayly trained under the formidable Jack Gallagher at Oxford. Gallagher, along with Ronald Robinson and Anil Seal, came to found the infamous “Cambridge school” of Indian history. To put it crudely, they debunked the idea of an Indian national movement or nationalism before Independence and dismissed the role of ideology in the movement. They saw it as a series of factions and alliances where leaders at the centre acted as power brokers with the imperial British state. Leaders like Gandhi, they claimed, negotiated with the central government on behalf of local faction leaders, alternating between collaboration and resistance, as their personal needs dictated. The thesis was much reviled in India and elsewhere and to this day the phrase, Cambridge school, stands as a calumny on the achievements of the Indian national movement.

Bayly’s first book, The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880-1920, showed imprints of the people who had trained him. It was a close local study of the personages and social formations that had allowed the Congress party to become a formidable force in a north Indian city from its earliest days. To a considerable extent, it did debunk the mythology of selfless people sacrificing themselves in the interests of a national movement. However, as a social study, at the local level, of how the party came to be formed, it remains unsurpassed.

It was his next book that established him as a synthesiser of genius proportions and somebody who could transform a century of historical studies. Rarely does a scholar come along who can light up an entire century like that. To comprehend the full achievement of Rulers, Townsmen and Bazars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1780-1870, we must understand the formation of modern Indian history as a discipline. The common understanding of 18th century Indian history was that it was a period of decline. The waning of the Mughal empire allowed the British to establish their sway over Indian society and establish Pax Britannica over the anarchy that had prevailed before.

Subscriber Only Stories
Re-Defining The Tradition In Folk Art: An Art Educator’s PerspectivePremium
Symbiosis School of Sports Sciences (SSSS) launches undergraduate program...Premium
MIT World Peace University launches Five-Year Integrated B.Tech with MBA ...Premium
Bring Home The Ultimate Solution For The Whole Family With Airtel Xstream...Premium

This understanding was fostered by two gentlemen, Henry Elliot and John Dowson. Their 10-volume The History of India as Told by its Own Historians is inarguably the most influential work of Indian history. Basing themselves on Persian chroniclers, but with insufficient knowledge of Persian, they defined Indian history as a constant war of depredation by Muslim rulers over their Hindu subjects. Pioneering Indian historians like R.G. Bhandarkar and Jadunath Sarkar cemented this view. Elliot and Dowson not only provide much of the content for our Amar Chitra Kathas but also fuel a particular vision of Indian history that wants to set right wrongs done to the Hindus as a community or, as some see it, a nation.

Then along came Bayly, among others, who showed us that the 18th century was in fact a time of thriving trade and ambitious empire-builders. Rulers were doing almost the same thing in India that mercantilist empires were doing in Europe. It was no coincidence that Tipu Sultan was forging alliances with the French and writing to the French parliament to congratulate it on the revolution. Rulers had a magnificent sweep, encompassing local traders, bazaars, local notables, armies, empire-building and the whole material basis of a society in transition. Bayly followed it up with Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, where he describes the importance Indians attach to information and, as a corollary, gossip. The idea, he said, came to him because he noticed how fast news travelled in India, long before cell phones. I witnessed this a few years ago  when news suddenly spread that Shah Rukh Khan had been shot 15 times. I heard this in Dehradun and my cousins in Gorakhpur were aware of it at the same time.

Bayly could mine sources that ordinary historians would never go near. Almanacs, religious calendars, Urdu shahar ashobs or laments for cities, books on ayurveda and unani, the pothis of the Pandas of Banaras, books on alchemy, the history of Indian postal systems, the world of intermediaries and informers who worked for the British. The British had to win the war of information because Indian society, said Bayly, though not literate, was very literacy-aware. So they had to establish a monopoly over the postal system and ensure information reached them first. Wars, he showed us, are won not on the field but on information, particularly in India.


Modern Indian history and nationalism, it is assumed, started after 1857, when modern education and systems of communication arrived. In Origins of Nationality in South Asia, Bayly established that this was emphatically not so. For a hundred years before that, Indians had been fiercely defending their way of life, their culture, their notions of government and contesting all the contempt the British threw their way. Long before Gandhi, there were indigenous modes of resistance, thought and practices of government.

Later, Bayly turned to global imperial history, and his students are spread across three continents. I am blessed that I got to spend a little time with him. It is as Iqbal had said, “Bari mushkil se hota hai chaman mein deedawar paida (It is with great pains that a visionary is born)”.

The writer is a historian, translator and dastangoi performer

First published on: 05-11-2020 at 09:37:47 am
Next Story

Code of control

Latest Comment
Post Comment
Read Comments