For the past 40 years, scholars working on modern South Asia have produced some of the most dynamic, theoretically sophisticated, and influential innovations within the historical discipline. In the early 1980s, a group of postcolonial scholars, including Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, and Gayatri Chakravtory Spivak, revolutionized the way we study the history of marginalized groups, laying the foundations of what would become known as Subaltern Studies.1 More recently, historians like the late, great Christopher Bayly and Sunil Amrith have been at the forefront of the so-called ‘global turn’, which has transformed both university curricula as well as the way historians think, discuss, and write about historical connectivity.2 The continuing richness of historical scholarship on modern South Asia is attested by the dizzying array of new works that continue to be produced by scholars around the world, which are far too numerous to list here. Indeed, this author recalls being daunted as a graduate student, new to this field, by the sheer scale and complexity of literature on the subject.
Thankfully, for several years now, students interested in learning more about the history of modern South Asia have been well-served by a number of excellent surveys produced by leading figures like Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Barbara and Thomas Metcalf, and Ian Talbot.3 Harald Fischer-Tiné and Maria Framké’s new edited volume, the Routledge Handbook of the History of Colonialism in South Asia, offers a valuable and important contribution to this body of work. Unlike other overviews, which tend to be written by one or two authors, the volume in question brings together a diverse group of scholars. These range from well-known luminaries – such as the late, great David Washbrook, or Tanika Sarkar, David Arnold, and Will Gould – to a new generation of younger scholars who are already beginning to make their mark on the field. The volume offers a comprehensive, nuanced, yet highly accessible and readable introduction to the key historiographical and methodological debates that have shaped the field of colonial studies on South Asia for the past decades.
What makes the volume so useful is that it is able to provide both breadth and depth to the subject matter. Each chapter is written by a specialist, who not only outlines the general contours of their respective areas of expertise, but also provide a more granular examination of deep dive into some of these, often based on their own recent research. These contributions cover everything from politics, warfare, economics, science, technology, medicine, law, culture, religion, nationalism, political violence, ecology and the environment, education, gender, ideas, and the burgeoning field of the history of emotions. While the well-studied Indian Uprising or ‘Mutiny’ of 1857 does not receive its own individual treatment – as the editors point out, this topic has been exhaustively studied already – its undisputable impact is threaded into several of the contributions. The volume is helpfully divided into six different sections that provide some much-needed structural coherence to the huge array of topics discussed: 1) ‘Overarching Themes and Debates’; 2) ‘The World of Economy and Labour’; 3) ‘Creating and Keeping Order: Science, Religion, Law, and Education’; 4) ‘Environment and Space’; 5) ‘Culture, Media, and the Everyday’; and 6) ‘Colonial South Asia in the World’. Some of these sections hold together a bit better than others (the chapters in ‘Creating and Keeping Order’ are quite eclectic and wide-ranging), but this does not really detract from the intellectual value of the individual contributions.
With so many different contributors, there are noticeable differences in the scale, range, and sophistication of some of the pieces. In characteristic style, David Washbrook effortlessly traverses from the macro- to the micro-level with his sweeping examination of South Asian economic history. In contrast, many of the contributions by younger scholars tend to focus on more specific, granular examinations of their respective areas of study. While some of these topics may initially appear to be somewhat ‘niche’, they all tie into wider themes about how racial hierarchies, law, science, and nationalism shaped the political, economic, and cultural landscape of colonial South Asia. Many (though not all) of the contributions come with useful ‘résumés’ at the end, and all of them situate their specialist topics within the wider debates and trends in their respective areas of study. While many historians are understandably wary about prognostication, this author wonders whether there might not have been a slightly missed opportunity for this volume to also reflect on what some of the ‘futures’ of modern South Asian colonial historiography might look like. Considering the volume’s keen attentiveness to how the field has evolved over the past decades and the ways contemporary political issues – whether these be the fierce contestations around ‘decolonization’ and ‘imperial nostalgia’ in Britain, or the apparent ascendancy of Hindutva in India – continue to determine the way we engage with the history of colonialism in South Asia, it might have been interesting for the editors to include a ‘coda’ addressing these.
Some students or teachers may be deterred by the sheer size of this volume. It is certainly a rather chunky, weighty book, and is not really meant to be read cover to cover. Rather it functions as a reference guide, allowing readers to easily navigate and locate key debates, themes, and topics. The volume will be most useful to newcomers to the field of modern South Asian studies, as it provides effective and eminently readable introductions to some of the key debates, schools of thoughts, and developments in the historiography of this region over the last four decades. At the same time, the volume will also be useful to more seasoned practitioners who are seeking to expand their teaching or research by providing detailed bibliographies of the latest research on these topics. Overall, this volume provides a valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of South Asian colonial history and historiography, and this author anticipates it will quickly become a standard text assigned for courses about the history of modern South Asia and the British Empire in India.
1 Ranajit Guha / Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected Subaltern Studies, New York 1988. Even their detractors cannot deny their sheer influence: Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London 2013.
2 Christopher A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914. Global Connections and Comparisons, Oxford 2004; Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal. The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, Cambridge, Mass 2013. For a good overview of some of the salient debates on global history, see Richard Drayton / David Motadel, ‘Discussion: the Futures of Global History’; and David A. Bell / Jeremy Adelman, ‘Replies to Richard Drayton and David Motadel’, Journal of Global History, 13 (2018) 1, pp. 1-21.
3 Sugata Bose / Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asian History. Culture, Political Economy, New York, 2nd ed. 2004; Barbara D. Metcalf / Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of Modern India, Cambridge, 2nd ed., 2006; Ian Talbot, A History of Modern South Asia. Politics, States, Diasporas, New Haven, CT 2016.