- Makers of Modern India by Ramachandra Guha
This book is an excellent introduction to modern Indian intellectual history through the writings of nineteen thinker-activists who have shaped the idea of India over the past nearly 150 years. Carefully chosen excerpts from their most important and insightful writings are preceded by thoughtfully written introductions situating each individual in his or her social, political, and intellectual contexts. These writers are further divided into five chronologically arranged sections, with each section again preceded by a nuanced introduction.
The prologue highlights the uniqueness of this intellectual tradition and makes a cogent case for why studying it is important for understanding the problems and prospects of mankind in the twenty-first century world at large. In this regard, Guha points out that these individuals lived through and shaped the five great transformations that have occurred simultaneously in India—the national, democratic, industrial, urban, and social revolutions. It also lays out the criteria for selecting these individuals from a galaxy of Indian luminaries.
Section 1 focuses on the polyglot and polymath Raja Rammohan Roy, India’s first liberal thinker. The writings include his attack on Sati and the existing patriarchal society, and his defense of women against charges of their being physically, mentally, and morally inferior to men. Another excerpt is from a memorial addressed to the Bengal government pleading for press freedom and unbanning native publications deemed seditious. The last excerpt is from a letter to William Pitt pleading for the introduction of modern education in India rather than a Sanskrit school, which would only “load the minds of youth with grammatical niceties and metaphysical distinctions of little or no practicable use.”
Section 2, “Rebels and Reformers,” begins with the Muslim modernist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his testimony before the Hunter Commission, wherein he made a case “for impressing upon the Muhammad-ans the advantages accruing from English education.” Like Roy earlier, he wanted the curriculum to include history, political economy, and natural philosophy. Also included are his writings on Hindu-Muslim relations, in which he likened the two communities to two lustrous eyes of a beautiful bride, and on the new Indian National Congress, which he opposed given its domination by the Hindu Bengali intelligentsia.
The militant nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s “Need for a National Hero” is excerpted, in which he justifies the cult of Shivaji for his courage [End Page 430] in fighting against misrule. Tilak also defends it against the charge of being anti-Muslim. A second excerpt details his critique of moderate politics practiced by the likes of G. K. Gokhale, the next reformer selected by Guha. Gokhale’s thoughtful critique of caste Hindu treatment of the depressed classes is presented as also his dismissal of the equation of the caste system with the European class system. As he argues, while in Britain Mr. Chamberlain could rise to a high station in life despite his humble origins as a shoemaker’s son, no shoemaker’s son could aspire for a similarly high position in India. In the next excerpt, Gokhale advises the Hindu community to share a greater responsibility for Hindu-Muslim unity since they had an advantage over other communities in terms of their numbers and education. At the same time though, he opposed special status to Muslims on the grounds that they were the rulers of India before the advent of British rule.
The remaining thinker activists in this section include two subalterns. Jotirao Phule’s tracts assailing Brahmin exploitation of the laboring classes and peasants, Brahmin monopoly over education, and jobs in government are reproduced in sharp translations from Marathi. Also underlined is Phule’s demand for a new educational system free from Brahmin control that would teach agriculture, morality, technical knowledge, and sanitation, in addition to other subjects. Tarabai Shinde’s fifty-two-page book, published in Pune in 1882, calling for equality between men and women is excerpted for its sharp critique of existing gender stereotypes in Hindu society. Shinde does not spare even the gods of the Hindu pantheon for...