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Towards Universalism: A Historiographical Advance

Towards Universalism: A Historiographical Advance A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire by Sugata Bose; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2006;


Towards Universalism: A Historiographical


A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire

by Sugata Bose; Permanent Black, Delhi, 2006; pp 333, Rs 695.


Hundred Horizons is an original and exciting contribution to the study of globalisation and its history. Sugata Bose, and Homi Bhabha conduct together a significant programme at Harvard entitled ‘South Asia without Borders’. Bose is eminently qualified by academic experience and language skills (he turns out in this book to be a considerable translator of the poems of Tagore) to write on the modern history of the Indian Ocean. This book covers a stretch of space seemingly as vast as the Indian Ocean and as much sans disciplinary borders as his well known programme. One chapter glides smoothly into another. The running thread is somewhat concealed, and the chapters could well stand severally. It is therefore important to grasp at the argument.

But first some background would be useful, especially the historiographical background to the book. If I remember correctly, I first came across the term “globalisation” in the 1990s, some time after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Saskia Sassen of US, an authority on globalisation, confirmed this at a conference on ‘Asian Horizons’ at the National University of Singapore on its centenary in 2005. She mentioned the early 1990s as the time when the term caught on in the press and the public. Obviously, this coincided with the establishment of the global hegemony of the US. As I pointed out at the same conference, there is a good case for arguing that several globalisations have occurred before globalisation. Not all of them were necessarily of western origin. One could argue, too, as Sassen did, that the global hegemony of Capital since the 1990s has still left some space for manoeuvre, to the opponents of globalisation. So alternative globalisations may still occur. Clearly, however, there is no alternative to globalisation.

Bose, like Sassen, is an alternative globaliser, but in his own distinct way. In the 1980s, south Asian history had come under the practical hegemony of subalternism. For some time the “fragment” was lionised as against the whole. Throughout these developments in south Asian history, Bose had conspicuously kept out of the advocacy of the fragment, and out of subaltern studies. Then, in the course of the 1990s, the historical and historiographical foundation of subalternism began to crumble. This happened because of globalisation, despite the incontestable truth that postmodernism and subalternism were both odd parts of globalisation.

The beginning of the millennium in 2000 brought globalisation into historiographical perspective, and eroded the historical basis of the subalternist fragmentalism. In the question hour of a paper on ‘The Subalternist Critique and After’ which I presented at Bose’s ‘South Asia without Borders’, an American professor asked me pointedly: “You have spoken mostly on subalternism: what is the after?” I had no hesitation in replying that after the “fragments” must come the “connections”. And I referred to the recently published work of Claude Markovits and the still forthcoming work of Sugata Bose. These were examples of the shift from the fragment to the connection. The publication of Bose’s work confirms this historiographical shift. While both Markovits and Bose differ from subalternist fragmentalism, however, there are important differences of emphasis between the two.

As subalternism, with its emphasis on the local and the particular, went into its terminal decline, both the local and the global came into focus. In 2000, Markovits, in The Global World of Indian Merchants 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (Cambridge 2000), argued the importance of the local caste groups (in this instance the Lohana merchants of Sind) in the emerging international networks of trade (in this instance, the trade in ‘hundis’ and curios). He consciously left out the national dimension that might mediate between the local and the universal, and he ignored also the wider community of patriotic sentiment that arose out of diasporas and which reached out well beyond the nation state.

The nation state and nationalism were objects of suspicion to both the subalternists and to Bose’s immediate predecessor Markovits. Avoiding both the “global” and “fragmentalist” viewpoints, Bose steers clear of the macro-approach (“world system”) and the micro-approach (“subalternism”). Between the local and the global, he locates the national and the diasporic, a broader extra-territorial community of national sentiment independent of any centralised nation state and evident in overseas patriotism. The transnational arena he homes in upon is the Indian Ocean, a distinct pre-existing entity known to the Arabs earlier as Bahr al Hindi. He gives us separate and tasty slices of Indian Ocean history, avoiding exclusive obsession with the local and the particular so as not to leave out the whole and yet sidestepping all-encompassing meta-narratives of capital and labour networks.

This enables the historian to come face to face with the actual life experience of mobile people across the Indian Ocean. Rejecting postmodernism, Bose calls upon his fellow academics “to weave together communities and fragments into a larger and more generous pattern of human history”. There are strong echoes of early

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 20th century humanism in this. Tucked away in an obscure corner below a picture of Tagore with a Bedouin chief in Iraq (1932) is the central tenet of the work: “…universalism was hardly a quest over which European modernity had any kind of monopoly. Local, regional and national cultures in different parts of the globe were not just jealous guardians of their own distinctiveness, but also wished to participate in and contribute to larger arenas of cultural exchange”. This broad humanistic approach is especially welcome after the postmodernist interlude in the Social Sciences and Critical Theory. Bose’s book, however, would have been a stronger champion of this approach if the slices of human history had been skewered together more evidently. Had the humanism that is evident in the chapter on Rabindranath (‘A Different Humanism?’) blown more strongly through the other chapters, then the ideological ground of Bose’s opposition to the postmodernist ideology would have been clearer to the reader; it is there, but the reader has to know this as the key, and to search for it through the otherwise smooth flow of the chapters.

From ‘Fragment’ to ‘Connection’

Since the book begins with the economic history of the Indian Ocean, the unwary reader is unlikely to grasp immediately that humanism is the key to the book. The 19th century flows of capital and labour along the rim of the Indian Ocean tied up unexpectedly with this human history in the 20th century, producing communal and sectarian conflicts in south-east Asia and elsewhere. Bose shows that the flows of capital and labour were determined by three things. First, the overpopulated and commercialised agrarian zones in the colonised Indian subcontinent pumped out labourers and traders outwards. Second, plantations and mines sprang up on new frontiers out of this colonially induced human migration. Third, new rice frontiers sprang up for feeding the plantations and mines in the south-east Asian river deltas. There was a strong Indian component in the new colonial economy. Later, the changing human geography produced ethnic and religious conflicts. One example of this is the Burmese discontent against the migrant Indian community, and yet another the headlong Indian flight during the Japanese invasion of Burma. The Saya San rebellion of 1930 was partly directed against Indian immigrants and moneylenders. Economic competition produced communal and racial hostility between Burmese and Telugu labourers in Rangoon in the same year. In fact, the Indians were the majority in the Burmese capital by then. This turned their flight from the Japanese into a huge demographic incident. From Bose’s book, one begins to sense the scale of the human and demographic disaster that the Indian flight from Japanese-occupied Burma caused in the early 1940s.

At the same time, Bose uncovers the roots of the diasporic patriotism of the Indians in Malaya and Burma. It manifested itself in the Indian National Army’s (INA) war against the British under Subhas Chandra Bose. As the author shows, the INA soldier could be a petty trader from Burma, or a shopkeeper from Thailand, or a labourer from Malaya. He would march hundreds of miles on foot, or in crammed goods trains, to pick up the rifle for a cause that he held sacred and dear. The general point that emerges is the existence of a larger cultural community. It existed beyond the centralised nation state and exhibited itself in expatriate patriotism. Janaki Davar, a leader of the women’s regiment in INA, had never seen India. This is ecumenical history, yet it does not eschew the national focus and it avoids the false glorification of the local and the particular.

As we proceed through the book, it becomes evident how closely the story of India and the Indian Ocean are intertwined economically, politically and culturally. This is one aspect of the story that Bose hammers home, with no ambiguity: a theme running clearly through the book, assisting the smooth slide of the successive chapters from the economic to the political, and from the political to the cultural. European colonialism transformed the Indian Ocean economically, especially by forming large settler communities of Indians outside India. Then in the 20th century, an explosion of oceanic anticolonialism followed the Japanese occupation of Singapore. That in turn materially assisted the liberation of India from British Imperialism. This is part of the more general story of globalisation before globalisation. Between the global and the particular stands the national, and without that dimension it is just not possible to make sense of history. Bose observes in this connection: “It is

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

impossible to fully comprehend Indian nationalism, sense of self, and mission without knowing the experiences of those who operated in the wide Indian Ocean arena. The oceanic dimension of anticolonialism may go some way in freeing the study of nationalism from its landlocked state.”

How was this broader national dimension forged in the Indian Ocean arena? To begin with, the various Indian settler communities were divided up by caste, language, religion and region. Each group led a separate existence. The INA, when it was forged, was a union of diverse elements. A contemporary observer bears witness: “Every region in India was represented and every religion and caste, mixed inseparably together not only in large formations but even in small platoons and sections, each unit being a living tribute to the unity of India”. M K Gandhi himself commented on the unity of the INA. In a way, this was, as Sugata Bose implies, strangely reminiscent of the Indian struggle in Natal under Gandhi’s leadership earlier.

As the local and particular opposites were forged by Gandhi in Natal and Bose in Singapore into a national unit, nationalism and ecumenism shaded into each other. Patriotic Gujaratis in South Africa, nationalist Tamils in south-east Asia, pan-Islamists in India and abroad are examples of patriotism with a broad non-state dimension. Sugata Bose demonstrates that. He rewrites the history of Indian nationalism, incorporating Gandhi in Natal, Subhas Bose in Singapore, and the Indian diaspora in the Indian Ocean. He shows at work here a logic independent of the British colonial state and its Englisheducated Indian opponents. Again, the extra-territorial affinities of patriotic pan-Islamism had a universal oceanic dimension that transcended the local and even the national. Bose establishes conclusively that the history of modern Indian nationalism can no longer be told in terms of just the Raj and its enemies within. The beginnings and the end of the freedom struggle cannot be located in India alone, but must also be looked for across the Indian Ocean to Natal at one end and Singapore at the other.

Finally Bose moves beyond the economic and the political to the cultural and takes a close look at Rabindranath Tagore’s journeys to Argentina, Java, Bali, Iran and Mesopotamia. Even before he met Victoria Ocampo, he was writing, on board the ship, as if in prophetic anticipation:

Our meetings ended – no more speech Availed in that touchless infinity. An anguished fiery vapour fills the sky And all alone, in songs glowing in the fire I create a world of dreams.

This was written while the poet was moving across the Indian Ocean on board the Harana Maru in 1924. He was destined soon to meet Victoria Ocampo, and to ask:

O alien flower, when I ask you, tell me, Will you forget me ever?

Later on, Rabindranath undertook another voyage to Java and Bali in search of Greater India, to trace, as he put it to Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis, “the signs of the history of India’s entry into the universal”. There were indeed globalisations before globalisation, and alternative paths to it. As Bose shows, Rabindranath Tagore sought and forged an alternative universalism based on Asia, from Java at one end of his journeys to Mesopotamia at the other.

This book, then, is a plea for universalism rather than globalism. It seeks to move beyond “the territorially bounded nation state”, yet it does not condemn it. What it does is to plead for a broader community of national sentiment that is like an “oceanic Circle” (a term used by Gandhi in another context). This book will be a landmark in the advance from the fragment to the connection.


Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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