ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Nationalism and Social Reform

with the title of

brahmins, can one really privilege them with the title of ‘nationalism’? The wider

Nationalism and

social base of these plays needs to be demonstrated. Further, it is important to emphasise the highly fractured nature of

Social Reform

Nationalism and Social Reform in a Colonial Situation

by Arvind Ganachari; Kalpaz Publications, Delhi, 2005; pp 254, hardback, Rs 690.


he book under review is a collection of 12 articles, all of which are based on empirical archival material from that rich and seemingly inexhaustible source: the Maharashtra State Archives at Mumbai. Most of these are in the form of detailed and finely crafted micro level case studies. Very often, the complications and fractures that are swept under the carpet while discussing broad, macro level themes tend to reassert their presence in the micro form. Very few books that study socio-political history of western India have paid adequate attention to learning from detailed micro level studies. It is for this reason that Arvind Ganachari’s book is a landmark in the historiography of western India. Ganachari’s mastery over the Mumbai archives is generally a subject of wonder and amazement among historians of western India. Most of the archival material that he uses in the current book is fresh and hitherto unutilised. The treatment carries the stamp of thorough and painstaking inquiry that one normally associates with his work. The potential value of the archival material that the author has unearthed is immense. Ganachari uses this material to explore issues relating to nationalism and social reform in the late 19th century and early 20th century Bombay Presidency. The articles cover a wide spectrum from the role of proscribed Marathi theatre in the nationalist movement, to the attitude of the colonial government and the education of dalits in the first half of the 19th century. However, one must say that the richness of the author’s archival material does not get translated into an equally fresh interpretation of wider processes or categories that he is primarily concerned with. The book remains a treasure-chest of information on a wide range of issues, but perhaps does not do justice to its own richness.

Marathi Theatre

The first article is titled ‘Maharashtra’s Response to Colonial State: The Role of the Proscribed Marathi Theatre: 18721916’. In this article, the author explores the use of explicitly political plays written by militant nationalists and the government’s response to them. The government prosecuted and eventually banned or proscribed several of these plays. Several court cases are discussed in detail. Ganachari discusses the attitude of the Bombay government as well as that of government of India towards these plays in particular and the wider issues of political protest as they evolved over the years. It is interesting (and something that the author does not comment in depth about) that nearly all the plays were staged by admirers of Lokmanya Tilak. Also to be noted is the fact that almost all the writers were chitpawan brahmins. Several of these plays exploited historical plots to spread their message. The author claims, “With the introduction of the Satyagraha movement by Gandhi and participation by the masses in the national movement, the fear of the legal oppression was lost. The necessity of using covert method such as the theatrical movement for mass mobilisation gradually faded and it gave way to direct participation under the Gandhian satyagraha agitation.” Though an interesting hypothesis in itself, the essay by itself does nothing to demonstrate the validity of this position. On the contrary, it seems that militant plays were essentially the handiwork of chitpawan brahmin followers of Tilak; a large section of this following did not go along with Gandhi but supported militant Hindu movements after Tilak’s death.

Also, another plausible argument could be that several of Tilak’s supporters were in awe of Tilak as a person; after his death their participation in the politics of the Congress could simply have fizzled out. This also raises the related issue: If the plays that the author writes about were the handiwork exclusively of chitpawan Indian nationalism. The nationalism of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, that of Mahadeo Govind Ranade and the nationalism of Vasudev Balwant Phadke were entirely different things and cannot be reconciled under a catch-all phrase like ‘nationalism’. A serious student of Indian history is obliged to take account of a variety of nationalisms, many of them running counter to each other. Similarly, one needs to analyse further the nationalism of Tilak’s followers as it came through in “nationalist” plays. Some of these plays, as the author points out, were using the idiom of Shivaji fighting the ‘foreign’ rule of Muslims. The reader is left wondering whether the ‘nationalism’ of these plays that the author writes about was not the Hindu revivalist ‘nationalism’ inherent in a section of the followers of Tilak. Further analysis of the plots and language of these plays would give us a better insight into the history of nationalism, as well as its complexity.

Of Laws and Revolutions

The second article has a related theme, “Evolution of the Law of ‘Sedition’ in the context of the Indian Freedom Struggle: 1837-1922.” In the words of the author, “It seeks to trace the evolution of the law of sedition through the diverse phases of India’s freedom struggle and to point out how the law of sedition and the Indian nationalists acted and reacted on each other.” This chapter documents the evolution of the law of sedition in India in the context of a rising tide of nationalist activity in the late 19th and first decades of the 20th century. An important angle in the paper is the evolution of what constituted ‘sedition’ as against mere ‘disapprobation’. The Pratod case, concerned with a newspaper which was being published from Satara in Maharshtra is crucial here. This case is important because it involved a judgment by M G Ranade in which he very clearly defined the term ‘disaffection’, which invited penal action, as against ‘disapprobation’, which did not. Interestingly, as the author points out, Ranade’s definition did not differ materially from that of the European judiciary which the author claims was only acting as a “coercive arm” of the repressive state.

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 So, where does the author place the likes of Ranade in his definition of nationalism? This is yet another fracture in that illchosen term ‘nationalism’. There were nationalisms and nationalisms, not all mutually compatible with each other. Any use of the term as if it was a single, analytically sharply defined concept, is likely to cause trouble, as it does to Ganachari. Ganachari has defined his working concept of nationalism on the first page of the introductory chapter, where he reproduces Hans Cohn’s definition from a book published in 1946. According to Ganachari, “Nationality is not only a group held together and animated by common consciousness; but it is also a group seeking to find its expression in what it regards as the highest form of organised activity, a sovereign state...”. However theoretically apt such a definition might be when describing nationalism in the abstract, it does not help when describing nationalism in the concrete, as Ganachari is doing. When one tries to apply such definitions to concrete empirical material, contradictions like the one mentioned above seem to surface without end. Abstract nationalism could be an appealing concept to a generation that grew up immediately after independence, but its analytical value when doing micro level empirical work is certainly doubtful. It is such a slippery fish that it might be better to let it go.

At the end of the second paper, the author returns to his unsubstantiated conclusion from the first paper, i e, the advent of Mahatma Gandhi and the Satyagraha movement “removed the terror of law” from the minds of people. Some old school historians liked to see ‘great men’ as breathing a spark of life into the inert, passive mass of people, making them ‘see’ the ‘truth’, transforming them from nearvegetables into fighting men. Such a treatment of the ‘masses’ is quite undemocratic. At the other end, modern writers like to see the ‘masses’ as constituted of autonomous groups that have their own agendas. These groups construct their own ‘great men’. For example, in a recent biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, Benjamin Zachariah argues that the ‘masses’ rallied round Gandhi because for various groups, Gandhi was a convenient symbol to mobilise around for reasons that were quite different from Gandhi’s own. Gandhi threw himself open to multiple appropriations by autonomous groups. People could make of Gandhi’’s message whatever they fancied. While referring to Gandhi, Ganachari says, “In fact, he set the agenda for national movement, and the administration had to work in it.” The author seems to incline towards the ‘great man leading ignorant masses’ school. One cannot help feeling that he needs to engage seriously with newer interpretations of the nationalist movement.

The third article is titled ‘Tilak and Gandhi towards British Indian Law in Their Political Agitation: A Study of Strategies’, which studies the attitudes of Tilak and Gandhi to the authority of British rule. The author argues that Tilak respected British law, while Gandhi asked whether moral law, the law of conscience, was not higher than the oppressive law of the British Indian state. On the basis of Tilak’s foreword to a biography of Gandhi, the author attempts to argue for some essential similarities in the attitudes of the two leaders.

The fourth paper in the book is a study of the British official view of the Bhagwad Gita as a textbook for revolutionary training. Basing itself on extensive and welldocumented archival research, the article argues that the British view of the Bhagwad Gita as a revolutionary manual crystallised after its reinterpretation by Tilak and was based on deep official animosity towards Tilak. The treatise was used extensively by revolutionaries. The author claims that the official view changed only when Gandhi gave his own interpretation which was far less open to appropriation by violent extremist groups. Towards the end of this paper, the author states a conclusion that flies in the face of his own conclusion in the previous chapter. In the previous chapter, the author had underlined the continuities between the political ideologies of Tilak and Gandhi. Here, he presents the two as irreconcilable! The author should have elaborated in greater detail on the subtleties and differences between the two.

The next paper titled ‘White Man’s Embarrassment: The European Vagrancy in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century Bombay’. This paper examines the issue of European vagrants in India against the background of colonial ideas of racial supremacy. Given the ideas of native backwardness, the general inability to be “independent”, “equal” and “fit”, and the need to preserve “proper” distance from the “native” populace, the presence of European vagrants was a perpetual embarrassment to colonial rulers. The colonial government saw them as a serious stigma on the government, a loss


Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

of prestige in the eyes of the native population. The author emphasises this context and then examines the attempts by the government to alleviate the problem through a combination of legislation in the form of a Vagrancy Act as well as through social policy measures. The government sought to make employers pay for the cost of sending vagrants back, while business argued that it was the state’s responsibility to do so. The article examines the difficulties in legislation, such as the need to define ‘European British subjects’, the need to amend the Criminal Procedures Act so that European vagrants came under the jurisdiction of European judges exclusively, etc. The article also emphasises the openly racist attitude of the colonial administration in dealing with the issue.

The next article discusses two revolutionary associations of Indians in Japan and US. In particular, the article throws new light on Indian revolutionary activities in Japan before Rash Behari Bose’s better documented efforts. The following article concerns the contribution of Myron Phelps (1856-1916), an early American supporter of India’s struggle for freedom. The article is helpful in tracing the American roots of the Indian freedom movement, which have hitherto not been sufficiently or strongly emphasised. The American connections of Pandita Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi, the American connection of Swami Vivekanand, as also the influence of American missionaries on Mahatma Phule are all well known. This article brings out a hitherto little known connection through the activities of Myron Phelps and his Indo-American National Association.

Social Reform

The next article is about a relatively better known area, the issue of infanticide of illegitimate children in colonial western India. A good deal has already been written about this issue, especially the Vijaya Lakshmi case. The article emphasises how the social discourse surrounding this case was highly loaded against the widow, as she alone was held responsible for maintaining individual morality and social ethics. What is particularly interesting in the article is the conservative role of V N Mandalik, the state counsel. Was not an ‘orthodox native’ instrumental in manufacturing state action? In important instances, colonial policy should be seen in the light of a consensus and collaboration between significant native groups and the colonial state, rather than in the light of a repressive white ruler-native ruled relationship. The article also discusses the divergent opinions expressed in the native press and among associations like the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha.

The next chapter examines the contribution of Mary Carpenter (1807-1877), celebrated English reformer and penologist, to the social reform movement in western India, particularly to female education. She also was significantly interested in setting up reformatory schools, industrial schools and prison discipline.

The tenth paper in the book, ‘Dilemmas of a Convert: Pandita Ramabai’s Confrontation with Apologists – Hindu and Christian’ is a sensitive portrayal of the brave fight of a sensitive and intelligent person against religious orthodox mindsets. Ramabai was baptised on September 29, 1883. The article shows how her conversion was seen as a great triumph by her benefactors, having converted such a high caste and learned a woman. But the lively and inquiring mind of Ramabai had great difficulty regarding the doctrine of trinity, the divinity of Christ and the Sacraments. When she expressed her doubts, the sisters of the Athanasian church would attribute her doubts to ‘the influence of the devil’ and advise her to learn ‘Christian warfare’ in order to combat it! Ramabai was certainly too intelligent and erudite for her keepers. She once infuriated Sister Geraldine by asking her not to call the dissenters heretics, because she herself belonged to a dissenting sect (the Athanasians) of the Roman Catholic Church. She was simply too intelligent and knowledgeable for any sort of orthodoxy to handle.

Ramabai’s steadfast refusal to equate nationality with religion was another thorn in the side of the church. She refused to wear the cross with Latin inscriptions ‘Sacraments and Priests’. She said ‘I stick fast to Sanskrit, not because I think it to be sacred or the language of Gods, but because it is most beautiful and oldest language of my dear native land ... I do not myself understand the Latin and neither do my countrymen”. Indeed, the reader’s heart reaches out to this bright mind, who never allowed orthodox thinking to bind her. Ganachari sensitively portrays the trials and tribulations of the Pandita’s mind. Her forthrightness was also directed at conservative and orthodox leaders of Hindu opinion during the age of consent debates. Ganachari discusses the debates between Ramabai and orthodox opinion in newspapers like Jagadhitechhu or Kesari or that expressed by orthodox leaders like Tilak, Zalkikar, Rango Vaman Katti, etc. Ramabai almost single-handedly exposed their anti-women ideology. Indeed, Indian feminism must be proud to have such a sterling founder.

Caste Complications

The next article is about a rather well known event in the history of western India, the Panch Haud tea episode. This episode caused a storm in upper caste Poona society towards the end of the 19th century. Gopal Rao Joshi (an eccentric social reformer, and importantly the person, who as Anandibai Joshi’s husband, played such a large role in having her trained as a doctor in America) organised a lecture programme at the Panch Haud Mission School, an Anglican missionary centre in Poona. All the important reformers from Poona, including Ranade, attended the lecture. The lecture was accompanied by tea and biscuits served by the sisters of the Mission. Some of the audience refreshed themselves with these snacks. About a year later, Gopal Rao Joshi published a list of these guests in Poona Vaibhav, a very orthodox newspaper. Joshi thought that he could have his own either way: if the orthodoxy remained inert, it would expose the hollowness of their threats of excommunication, whereas if the orthodoxy were to threaten and reformers to seek an apology, it would expose the weakness of the reformers. The orthodoxy referred the matter to the Shankaracharya. In this article, Ganachari examines the positions of the various reformers involved. For example, Tilak submitted to the Shankaracharya and claimed that he had already been to Benares for a ‘prayaschitta’ (expiation). Ranade refused to undergo expiation for nearly a year but then decided to join a group of seven others who submitted to the Shankaracharya and underwent prayaschitta. Ranade argued that “These authorities have their uses and no great or good purpose is served by ignoring them or treating them with contempt”. The author claims that Ranade’s action was motivated by the need to retain as much as possible the support of religious leaders to the reform movement. As against Ranade, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the staunch rationalist, considered the setting up of the commission itself as a backward step. He thought that by taking such steps,

Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006 the orthodoxy would alienate sizeable portions of the Hindu population. He also thought that the popular criticism of Ranade for undergoing prayaschitta was entirely justified.

The final paper in the collection is titled ‘Dispensing “Abstract Justice”: Erloo Bin Narayan – A Mahar’s Quest for Liberal Education Crica 1856’. The official position of the Bombay government as far as education was concerned was to keep it open to all castes and creeds. Erloo Bin Narayan was a mahar from Dharwar. He submitted a petition to the governor of Bombay complaining that he had been refused admission into the government Marathi school because he was a mahar. The general official response to this was that though natural justice required Erloo be admitted, such a step would incur the wrath of the upper castes, whose support was critical in the spread of education in the presidency. The government could simply not afford to alienate these groups.The author argues that the colonial rulers had abdicated their responsibility towards the weaker sections of society.

However, it can be argued that the government’s attitude was similar to that of Ranade’s towards the Shankaracharya during the Panch Haud episode. Ranade found that it was strategically important to keep a channel of communication open with him. Similarly, the simple context of Indian society as caste society required the colonial government to accept this compromise in order to have any education at all in the presidency. The funding that was coming from the natives would simply have stopped coming in. In a way, it can be argued that the progressive intentions of the colonial government were being thwarted by the orthodox opinion. The colonial government seems to have taken a pragmatic, non-radical position towards reform. This was also Ranade’s style. The author is willing to accept Ranade’s compromises and backtracking, but is not willing to allow the same latitude to the colonial government. It is important to remember that the colonial administration

Sage Ad

was created by a carefully crafted consensus between the British rulers and the dominant Indian elite. Colonial rule therefore was not autonomous of Indian social opinion or realities. The government faced nearly the same obstacles that Ranade faced. Like Ranade, its efforts at reform were a curious mix of well-spoken intentions, backtrackings and compromises. This important dimension needs to be developed further. Case studies based on detailed archival work, like the ones presented by Ganachari in the present book, can be extremely useful in bringing out these complexities.

In all, Ganachari has produced an extremely valuable collection. Every student of the history of western India will benefit immensely from the papers in this collection. The interpretative issues notwithstanding, the archival material presented here as well as the sources quoted will surely be of immense value to any student of history.



Economic and Political Weekly February 11, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top