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Response to Review no. 60

We are most grateful to Professor Peter Marshall for writing a detailed and rigorous review based on a careful reading of our book Modern South Asia. Since he sees a strong ideological commitment’ behind any historical interpretation of any interest’, we will not quibble over the ideology he ascribes to us. At the invitation of the editors of the journal, we would like to respond briefly and respectfully to two points of substance and one of style.

First, Professor Marshall correctly notes our interest in writing history from below’ and our focus on Indian intermediate and subaltern social groups. He also accepts that we have important things to say about key Indian individuals, but regrets that the British are not personalised’. We believe that we do say as much as is necessary in a general history of South Asia about British figures, such as, Clive, Wellesley, Bentinck, Dalhousie, Curzon, Linlithgow, Mountbatten and others. We advance a clear argument in our book about the need to place colonialism as an agency of historical change in its appropriate social context’ and to study it in its interplay with the culture and politics of anti-colonial resistance (p.5). For more on British empire-builders we have referred our readers not to self-congratulatory books of The Men who Ruled India genre but to scholarly works such as those by Professor Marshall on the establishment and consolidation of British rule in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Second, Professor Marshall suggests that the 1935 Government of India Act does not look all that different’ from our ideal’ of a political and state system based on layered and shared sovereignties’. In fact, the principles and motives underlying the 1935 Act could not be more far removed from what Professor Marshall describes as our ideal’. In Chapter 10 of our book titled High Noon of Colonialism, 1858-1914′ we have shown how the colonial state juxtaposed to its own conception of monolithic, unitary sovereignty at the centre a shallow, if not fake, version of sovereignty reposed in the persons of traditional’ rulers’ (p.103). In Chapter 12 on Colonialism under Siege’ and also in Chapter 14 on The Depression Decade’ we dwell at some length on the ways in which the 1935 Act sought to deploy the weight of princely India to retain all the vital attributes of sovereignty in British hands at the centre. Despite much song and dance about provincial autonomy,’ we argue, the centre was equipped with all the authority necessary to curb power in the provinces'(p.130). The legacy of the 1935 Act has been detrimental to the prospects of a healthier centre-region balance in post-colonial India and Pakistan. The only British-sponsored constitutional scheme that came anywhere close to approximating the notion of layered and shared sovereignties’ was the ill-fated Cabinet Mission plan of 1946 that proposed a three-tiered constitutional structure for a federal India based on grouping of provinces.

Third, we respond to Professor Marshall’s comment about exposition’ only to absolve our copy editors of any culpability. Style is in any case a matter of personal predilection and we are gratified to note that other reviewers have found our book to be elegantly written’ (e.g. Indian Review of Books, May-June 1998; The Book Review, XXII, 8, August 1998; The Telegraph, 15 May 1998). Since most general histories of South Asia take no account of key historiographical developments of the last two decades, we felt it necessary to tell our readers what these were and where we stood in relation to the major debates. The last few pages of our introductory chapter attempt precisely to do that and can be easily skipped, if necessary, by the non-specialist reader without losing the thread of the narrative. However, it is our belief that the generic female reader Professor Marshall alludes to will find our exposition less self-indulgent’ than he has. She had no need of our condescension since she had our respect. Our aim was to challenge her, not to make her feel comfortable.

Professor Marshall’s words of praise will serve as encouragement and his critical remarks a goad to rethinking as we prepare a revised and expanded second edition of the book for the new millennium.