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Peninsular history

EducationWorld September 2019 | Books

There are histories of India, and then occasionally we have histories of south India.

K.A. Nilakanta Sastri’s pioneering A History of South India (1955), which soon established itself as a classic, demonstrated the possibility of studying south India as a distinct historical unit encompassing the Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam linguistic regions. Even though his narrative was essentially in terms of dynastic changes, it made conspicuous the absence of the south from histories of India.

Rajmohan Gandhi has undertaken a difficult task in writing a full-length history of modern south India, from the end of the 17th century to the present, bringing the story up to August 2018 when M. Karunanidhi passed away.

Gandhi commences his account with the beginnings of Portuguese presence on the Malabar coast towards the end of the 1490s. The scene shifts to the Coromandel coast where the Portuguese were joined by the Dutch. By the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) had established control over all sea routes between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, putting an end to Portuguese monopoly over the route.

Already in the first decade of the 17th century, VOC had set up three factories on the Coromandel coast to obtain supplies of cloth for its intra-Asian trade. These included Pulicat (1610), at the northern extremity of present-day Tamil Nadu, which became the administrative centre of their enclaves in the area till the end of the century. During the course of the 17th century, the English and the French too had acquired toe-holds on the coast, with Madras and neighbouring Pondicherry becoming the respective headquarters of their operations in the South. The first half of the 18th century was dominated by a prolonged conflict between the two for supremacy, with the English East India Company (EIC) emerging triumphant by the end of the 1750s.

Anglo-French rivalry entered a critical phase from the mid-1740s onwards, and the ensuing Carnatic Wars engulfed a large part of south India as the Anglo-French conflict overlapped with violent struggles to control the territories subject to Hyderabad and to Arcot, in which the English and the French supported and encouraged a series of rival candidates. Figuring out the complicated moves of the Carnatic Wars has been a nightmare for many an undergraduate student. In recounting this story, Gandhi frequently cites contemporary observers, thus avoiding the dreary style of textbooks.

From the late 1760s down to the end of the century EIC’s expansionist drive in south India was fiercely resisted by the kingdom of Mysore under Haidar Ali and Tipu Sultan. The history of this combat is well-known. The book is rather cautious in its appraisal of Tipu, perhaps in light of the recent political controversy over his legacy. Besides, one wonders whether despite his bravery and numerous successes on the battlefield, Tipu had a thorough understanding of advances in modern warfare. Gandhi quotes a perceptive remark by Wilks. “He fell (at Srirangapatna) in the defence of his capital; but he fell, performing the duties of a common soldier, not of a general.”

South India, as the rest of the subcontinent, had a long history of anti-colonial resistance: the Poligar wars in the first decade of the 19th century; the Vellore mutiny (1806); Velu Thampi’s revolt in Travancore in the same decade; the Kannadiga Rani Chennamma’s rebellion of the 1820s. All this resistance was brutally crushed. And while it is often assumed that the revolt of 1857 did not spread to the south, this is not entirely true. There were serious disturbances in Hyderabad in July 1857, panic in Madras, incidents in Chingleput (and Salem). One might add that over a thousand sipahis of the Madras Army were subjected to court-martial on suspicion of their being sympathetic to the rebel cause.

Roots of the foundation of the Indian National Congress may partly be traced to intellectual currents in Madras, where the headquarters of the Theosophical Society were located at Adyar. Some delegates who attended the society’s annual convention in 1884 were present at a meeting held in Mylapore “to chart out a plan for the formation of a political national movement”. Similar efforts were being made in Bengal and Maharashtra.

As Gandhian mass movements gathered momentum after the First World War, C. Rajagopalachari emerged as the leading nationalist leader of the Congress in the Madras presidency. Rajaji dominates the narrative for the next few decades, though others make an appearance from time to time, as for instance, EV Ramasami Naicker (EVR), M.C. Rajah, T. Prakasam and EMS Namboodiripad, all of whom were major political leaders in the region. In his account of the period down to 1948, Rajmohan Gandhi offers a useful supplement to his exhaustive study of Mahatma Gandhi, Mohandas (2006), and his earlier biographies of Rajaji, obviously with fewer details.

Rajaji became premier of Madras in 1937. His tenure saw the beginnings of organised opposition to attempts to impose Hindi in Tamil country when he pushed for the compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools. EVR played an important role in mobilising opposition to the move. Opposition to the imposition of Hindi, the Dravidian identity and articulation of forceful critiques of Brahmin domination were to become key elements in Tamil Nadu politics with EVR and his disciples at the forefront. Political formations descended from organisations led by EVR continue to monopolise power in the state down to the present day.

Of course the book does justice to other parts of the south, describing the rise of the Communists in Kerala and Andhra, the short-lived scheme envisaged by C.P. Ramaswami Iyer for an independent Travancore kingdom, the Telangana peasant struggle led by the Communists, and the military action in princely Hyderabad to put an end to the Nizam’s designs to stay out of the Indian union.

The sordid aspect of this story, namely the accompanying communal violence and targeting of Muslims especially in western portions of the state, has generally been ignored. Gandhi examines and makes a favourable appraisal of the report of the committee led by Pandit Sunderlal, which investigated the allegations of violence. Nehru found the report too damaging for it to be made public.

Amar Farooqui (The Book Review, July)

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