Review: Modern South Asia

Modern South Asia
Modern South Asia: History Culture, Political Economy
Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal
London: Routledge, 1998

Review Copyright © 2000 Garret Wilson — August 4, 2000 9:35 p.m.

The Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy of Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal is an academic work. Not only in the sense of "drawing on the newest and most sophisticated historical research and scholarship in the field" (as says the back cover), the content of this overview of India is more analytic than explanatory, more exploratory than introductory. The work reflects a desire to go forward, to press the boundaries of knowledge.

An introduction Modern South Asia was never meant to be. Although there is an undercurrent of relating events as the book unfolds, perhaps to reacquaint rather than teach the reader with the history of the region, background and common knowledge is assumed throughout. The authors choose instead to analyze in-depth and present the results of their studies, the sources of which are listed at the end of the book. These results cannot necessarily be described as "facts", but rather "conclusions."

The conclusions offered are sometimes hard to relate directly to the sources without doing some of the same research the authors undertook. The authors claim, for example, that research shows that the famine of 1943-4 which killed between 3.5 and 3.8 million people in Bengal stemmed not from a food shortage but from "a drastic decline in exchange entitlements of vulnerable social groups" due to the economic conditions brought about by the borrowing of Indian funds by the British (157). The basis of other assertions are even more difficult to ascertain: referring to the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, they claim that "the death of an individual leader, however great, cannot be sufficient explanation for why Pakistan slipped off the democratic course" (213), but offer no reasons for this assumption.

Nevertheless, while the entire work adds valuable knowledge to an understanding of South Asia, its worth is derived from its conclusions on the history surrounding partition. The authors display the actions of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the creation of Pakistan as largely if not entirely political, and certainly not religious. "An all-India federation offered no consolation to Muslims in provinces where they were in a minority. Separate electorates, even with weighted representation, were simply inadequate. Even if there was a miraculous convergence of their identity and politics, Muslim numbers in the federal assembly would be insufficient to override the Congress vote. So long as they remained a minority, Muslims could not expect anything more than a marginal role in settling how power was to be shared in an independent India" (173-174).

The authors claim that, without the ability of the Muslim League to have political clout in the current arrangement of an India with a strong central government, Jinnah advocated the idea of Muslims as a separate nation. Pakistan would therefore remain part of India but be way "in which Muslims would have an equitable share of power at a centre reconstituted on the basis of a partnership between two essentially soereign states, Pakistan (representing the Muslimi-majority provinces) and Hindustan (representing the Hindu-majority provinces)" (177).

In fact, Jinnah "In 6 June 1946... rejected such a sovereign 'Pakistan', paving the way for the All-India Muslim League's acceptance of the Mission's plan for a three-tiered federal arrangement" (181). "Jinnah soon realized that the Mission's proposals would not stick for long after the British withdrawal" and soon advocated "a 'Pakistan' with its own sovereign centre" (182). Jinnah's appeal for a Pakistan to gain political clout then became, the authors imply, more than Jinnah bargained for; Jinnah used religion as "less a device to be deployed against rival communities, and more as a way of papering over the cracks in the splintered ranks of Muslim India" (193).

The rest of the work break some new ground and bring out important points that may have been missed in other historical recountings. Mohammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, for example, "had no difficulty celebrating Hindustan as his own" in his "Tarana-i-Hindi" (The Anthem of Hind):

Sarey jahan sey achhaa, ye Hindustan hamara

Hum bulbulen hain iske, ye hulsitan hamara

(Better than the whole world is our Hindustan

We are its singing birds, it is our garden of delights)

The status of women in Indian history also brings some surprises: "One early Delhi sultan of the Mamluk dynasty — Raziya Sultana — succeeded in becoming the first Muslim woman ruler in the [South Asian] subcontinent." "One of the first mystics of Islam was a woman, the chaste and pure lover of God, Rabia, who lived in Basra during the eighth century and won the admiration of fellow male Sufis" (31).

On religious tolerance: "Akbar displayed impartiality towards his subjects, regardless of religious affiliation, by abolishing the jizya — a tax imposed on non-believers in Muslim states... In 1582 he announced his adherence to a new set of beliefs, drawing on elements from the mystical strains in both Islam and Hinduism and deeply influenced by Zorastrianism, which he called Din-e-Ilahi or the Divine Faith. He did not, however, try to impose Din-e-Ilahi as a state religion... His policies of public tolerance and private ecclectism were continued by his son and grandson, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Indeed the mother of Jahangir was a Hindu Rajput princess, Jodhabai" (40).

There are several noteworthy points brought out about the history of South Asia:

The analysis offered by Bose and Jalal is certainly worthy of acquisition by any student with a firm grasp on South Asian history. Its purpose is, after all, not an introduction but, to quote the back cover again, a "synthesis and interpretation." For exposing the reader to new viewpoints based on extensive research, Modern South Asia fulfils its purpose.