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  • The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth-Century India
  • Prasannan Parthasarathi
The Politics of the Urban Poor in Early Twentieth-Century India. By Nandini Gooptu (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xxiii plus 464 pp. $80.00).

It is no exaggeration to claim that UP, in colonial times the United Provinces and since independence Uttar Pradesh, has been the cockpit of Indian politics since the mid-nineteenth century. UP claims this status not only from its sheer size—in 1921 nearly twenty per cent of British Indians lived in the province—but also from the vitality of its politics. The province was the epicenter of the rebellion of 1857; it spawned both the movement for Muslim separatism in the late nineteenth century and the Ali brothers, the charismatic leaders of the Khilafat movement which produced the greatest moment of Hindu-Muslim unity in the twentieth century. The UP countryside threw up a massive peasant movement in the years after World War One and from the late nineteenth century also provided a hospitable climate for the forces of Hindu revivalism. And the province today continues to be marked by intense political contestation. As a stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it has given rise to great oppositional movements to Hindu nationalism comprised of complex alliances between backward castes, middle castes and Muslims.

Given the great importance of UP politics, there has been no dearth of books, articles and PhD dissertations on the subject. Yet in the great flood of writing on peasants, factory workers, urban middle classes, artisans, Hindus and Muslims, there has been little systematic attention given to the urban poor: the vast sea of workers, hawkers, sweepers, and other holders of manual jobs who made the world of Indian cities go round in the twentieth century. The work under review here aims precisely to fill this significant gap in the literature, with focus on the major cities of Allahabad, Benares, Kanpur and Lucknow in the period between the two world wars. But it also seeks to do much more as it takes on some of the central claims of the Subaltern Studies collective—the autonomy of the subaltern classes, the inherent subaltern tendency towards insurgency, and a deep belief in the inherent religiosity of the subaltern—in the process getting at issues which lie at the heart of writing social history in the early twenty-first century. [End Page 1100]

In the interwar period the urban poor of UP began to shape themselves into a potent political force, engaging in caste, class, religious and nationalist movements to combat their social exclusion and economic deprivation. At the same time, colonial authorities and Indian middle-class leaders constructed the category of the urban poverty-stricken as a depraved, unhygienic and violent presence and set about to discipline and reform them. Not surprisingly, these efforts, which included urban renewal and policing, and are chronicled in Part I of the work, had a devastating impact on the poor, exacerbating the economic, social and political uncertainties under which they already labored. Upon this economic and institutional context, Part II, which makes up the bulk of the book, examines “modes of political action and perception” by the poor, with chapters devoted to untouchable assertion, militant Hinduism, resurgent Islam, nationalism, and Congress socialist mobilization.

The book is the product of exhaustive research in local record offices in Allahabad, Benares, Kanpur and Lucknow, the UP state record office, as well as the National Archives of India. As such, all the chapters without exception are empirically rich and there is much fascinating detail on the many facets of urban life for the poor. The chapters on urban policy and policing in part I, in particular, stand out for their excellent discussions of housing, the intellectual roots of urban renewal, and police repression.

“Resurgent Islam” is the strongest chapter in part II, in the opinion of this reviewer, because it brings together the economic crisis that Muslim artisans faced from the late nineteenth century with the political movements that emerged among the Muslim urban poor. These included the Momin Conference, which argued that Muslim artisans had lost “a proud past as independent and upright artisans” because...

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