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Making of a Nation

Baghelkhand, or The Tigers' Lair: Region and Nation in Indian History by D E U Baker; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xviii + 345, Rs 750.

Making of a Nation

Baghelkhand, or The Tigers’ Lair: Region and Nation in Indian History

by D E U Baker; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007; pp xviii + 345, Rs 750.


n 1947, when the British quit, India was still – as it had been throughout history – a monarchical polity. Yet by 1956, by means of the enactment of the new republican Constitution of the Indian union, and the final full integration of the princely states in the linguistically reorganised polity of 1956, that age-old Indian monarchical system was completely replaced by a democratic structure. It was a momentous change; and within that narrative, the place of the princely states – where Indian monarchical tradition lasted longest – has to be of particular importance. Two-fifths of the area of the British Indian empire was held by the princes and so our understanding of how the states became part of the modern nation state is a major part of the overall history of the construction of the modern democratic state in India.

Important work on this question has already been published1that provides an overview of the processes by which the princes apprehended the coming of independence and how they coped with the changes that the period after 1947 brought to their traditional roles and recognition. Now, David Baker, of St Stephen’s College, has made an important contribution to this literature which links the regional characteristics of the states and the operations of the rulers of the states in the face of the changes taking place. Against a very comprehensive analysis of the regional evolution of Baghelkhand in central India, he has made a close study of how the maharajas of the princely state of Rewa – which was the central political formation in Baghelkhand – sought to retain their position and the autonomy of their state through the late colonial period and into the early years of independence, integration and reorganisation.

In his earlier work, Baker concentrated on British India’s “Central Provinces”; this new work shows him extending his interests to other parts of central India with good effect. His deep and thorough command of the literature and archival sources of Baghelkhand gives him an exceptionally well-grounded historical under standing of the region; and to this he has added extensive fieldwork in the region.

On this basis he has produced a firstrate study of Rewa – but in the wider context of “nation-building in India”. This nation-building approach was sparked, he says, by what he sees as a key problem: “How do we account for the creation of the Indian nation in 1947?”

The emergence of the nation in an India that is essentially “a congeries of regions” had to be the result of “the nationalisation of the regions”; and that process of “nationalisation” has to be seen as “one of the epic themes of Indian history”. It is a theme, however, which has not been given adequate attention in past historical studies of the subcontinent. In his study of Baghelkhand, therefore, Baker seeks to provide a case study of how a region came into existence; how the region’s particular characteristics were developed; and then why and how it was possible to incorporate the political heart of that region – Rewa – into the Indian “nation state” after independence in 1947.

His central argument is that the incorporation – “nationalisation” – of Baghel khand was “the outcome of a dialogue between the region of Baghelkhand and centralising states, located mostly in northern India, and other external forces such as migration”:

Events surrounding this dialogue assumeda complex and even paradoxical shape: onthe one hand external states and forces brought new political, social and economic influences to bear on the region, givingit a distinct identity; on the other, they alsocreated political, economic and socialcommonalities with other regions subjectto the same influences or from where migration developed. The influence of external states and myriad commonalities advanced the nationalising process to a pointwhere it led to the region’s incorporationin the Indian nation in the 20th century.

Given this approach, he points to his study, not as “a history of Baghelkhand” but as “a study of nation-building in India”. The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with the development of the Baghelkhand region in terms of three long time periods: (i) the long period of old Stone Age and neolithic development of tool-making, the working of iron and the deve lop ment of settled agriculture down to c 800 BCE; (ii) the period of the develop ment of India through the great attempts at imperial consolidation by the Mauryas and Guptas, the religious impact of Buddhism and resurgent Hinduism and the coming of the Sultanate of Delhi by 1300 CE; (iii) the centuries

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

from 1300-1800 which were marked by the rise of the Mughals and the coming of and expansion by the British. Following these three chapters, chapter 4 provides a wide overview of Baghelkhand’s modern cultural identity.

His analysis in the first section is based on the ways in which regions such as Baghelkhand acquire regional characteristics in language, social organisation, economic and political structure and cultural formations through the interaction of people with the physical environment and the influence of migrant and other external forces on the growing identity of the region. In the case of Baghelkhand he shows that what appears to be a relatively isolated region in central India was, in fact, well-placed: it had substantial importance as a key point on the paths from north to south; as an early iron-working culture it developed important trading links with Gangetic Valley cultures; it also attracted interest from those powers with imperial aspirations in north India because of its strategic importance; and as a prise for rajput groups on the move from the west, ending with the assumption of regional power by the Vaghelas, from Gujarat and the formation and elaboration of their Rewa kingdom.

The second section discusses Rewa’s relations with the expanding British raj from 1800 to 1947 and with the newly independent India nation from 1947 to 1956. This section is organised into three particular focal points: (i) the period from 1803-1922 in which British relations with Rewa were built up along lines dictated by the paramount power; (ii) the period of maharaja Gulab Singh’s rule in Rewa and his attempts to assert his – and his state’s – autonomy; (iii) the period from 1942 to 1956 in which the state was drawn in exorably into the new nation and fully incorporated in the new state of Madhya Pradesh.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the Rewa maharajas looked to assert the autonomy of the state; but three times in the period from 1803 to 1922 the kingdom was brought under the direct administration of agents appointed from the government of India’s political service. Baker suggests that as a result, Rewa deve loped some characteristics akin to those of the directly-administered British territories – although the maharaja from 1922-42, Gulab Singh, did his best to nullify these influences during his reign. However, even with Gulab Singh in the first half of his rule, the British recognised the importance of Rewa in central India and continued to bolster the maharajas’ position. Despite this, once Gulab Singh succeeded to the ‘gaddi’ he made every effort to underline his refusal to toe the line for the raj and to assert what he saw as his personal ownership of the state, its peoples, its resources and its finances. He even played similar roles in the chamber of princes and the round table conferences, where he took a strong stand against “federation”, the means proposed by the British to provide for the continued operation of the Indian states in an Indian polity, if and when inde pendence became necessary. And as that independence drew nearer, Gulab Singh was among the princes who were most insistent on looking to their own “independence” if the British gave up “paramount power”, the basis on which the relationship between the raj and the princes was based.

Gulab Singh’s fiercely autocratic regime saw growing political tensions in Rewa and the beginnings of political organisation among elite, landholding elements in the population. Over the 1930s, these dissident voices begin to link themselves to the Indian National Congress’ organisations concerned with the position of the people of the Indian states and some popular political activity followed, even though it was heavily circumscribed by the maharaja and his functionaries. By the early 1940s Gulab Singh’s increasingly dysfunctional rule led the government of India to depose and extern him from the state. Succession was passed to his son, Martand Singh, who as the maharaja from 1946, had to handle the incorporation of Rewa into the independent nation state.

Baker’s discussion of Baghelkhand and Rewa state in the first important stages of nation-building raises some important questions. Viewing the process by which the new democratic structures were built in post-independence India from the vantage point of the region/state shows very clearly some of the key difficulties which the states’ position raised for the implementation of democracy, such as the continued status of the princes and their families. What also emerges from the discussion is the relative weakness of popular political activity in a state such as Rewa. Given Gulab Singh’s attempts to restrict any such activity in the 1920s and 1930s, his imperious refusal to heed any voice other than his own and his reliance on clandestine networks in administration, there was, as we have seen, little develop ment of popular politics outside the atte m pts by some members of the landholding elite to band together and to look for support from the Congress organisations. Baker shows in chapter 7, moreover, that those politicians were not the strongest of figures in the political arena after independence, though one or two did get opportunities to play significant political roles, at least for a time. Of course, it is possible that narrating the events of this period from the vantage point of the maharajas might lead to a lessening of the significance of other political actors in Rewa. It would be interesting to know if there is any sign of a more robust political effort among the people in the late colonial and early independence periods.

One other point which needs further consideration is the identification of Rewa

– especially in the form of the maharaja and the court – with the Baghelkhand region. Given the diversity of the cultures deve loped in the region (e g, in chapter 4), it seems somewhat constricting to allow almost the entire regional response to be represented by princely responses and reactions. Would the situation look somewhat different if the angle of vision were changed to that of the “people” – or at least specific groups among the people – traders, public officials, brahmans, the “middle classes”, hill and forest people and other such groups? Perhaps, in terms of the records and the materials this is asking too much; nonetheless, it seems pertinent to ask if the people of the region had views to set against those of the maharajas and their courtiers.

These points aside, the attempt to show the foundations of Baghelkhand as a region and to show how the Rewa court used its pre-eminence in the region to look to its interests and to use the state as a basis for those interests, adds an important ele ment – and an important case study – to our understanding of the role of the regions and the princely states in the reconstruction of the Indian political system in the mid 20th century.




1 See, for example, the excellent bibliographies in the following: Ian Copland, The Princes of India in the Endgame of Empire 1917-1947 (CUP, 1997) and State, Community and Neighbourhood in Princely North India, c 1900-1950

(Palgrave Macmillan ,2005), Barbara Ramusack,

The Princes of India in the Twilight of Empire: The Dissolution of a Patron-Client System, 1914-1939 (Columbus OH, 1978) and The Indian Princes and Their States (CUP, 2004).

Economic and Political Weekly September 15, 2007

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