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From Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern IndiaFrom Plassey to Partition and After: A History of Modern India by Sekhar Bandyopadhyay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘From Plassey to Partition and After’ is that rare unbiased book on modern India. Objective and comprehensive, it is the one and only book you need to read to grasp the complex contours of modern Indian history. What distinguishes it from other books is that the author Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is careful to treat modern Indian history as a site of intense contestation. He doesn’t thrust a particular narrative in your face, like Bipan Chandra pushes his Marxist nationalistic narrative of India’s freedom struggle in India’s Struggle for Independence. Rather, Bandyopadhyay recognizes that freedom meant different things for different socio-economic groups and furnishes a well-researched summary of various historiographical strands.

He also incorporates recent academic work on economic history and explains modern political developments in the context of material conditions, marking an illuminating shift from the usual personality & ideology centric approach to historical events. For instance, he writes that Pakistan was presented as a ‘peasant utopia’ to the peasants of East Bengal, which would liberate the Muslim peasantry from the hands of Hindu zamindars and moneylenders, thus representing a break from existing agrarian relations. He also writes about the balancing act Congress had to perform between indigenous capitalists and the working class. He writes that working class support for the Congress was, in general, weak – industrial workers in Bombay had meanwhile thrown in their lot with the Communists – with the exception of Bengal where their fight was against the British capitalists.

He also writes about how caste relations played a role in the success of Congress-led mass movements. In general, many 19th century peasant movements with a significant element of self-initiative were co-opted into the Non Cooperation Movement. Regions with no pre-history of peasant mobilization remained quiet during so-called ‘national’ movements. And regions with long-standing resentments often spiraled out of the hands of Congress leaders and turned violent. The movement was controlled and successful primarily in the region where dominant peasant communities such as the Mahishya caste in Bengal and Patidars in Gujarat held sway over lower caste agricultural labourers. Regions with more cross-caste mobilization, such as Awadh, tended to turn violent.

The book is a scholarly achievement, a task made all the more difficult by the proximity of the period under study. The only thing this book needs are some section headings between the relentless paragraphs. This will help the reader mentally categorize the various crisscrossing strands and combine them to harvest an accessible account of this complex period. This quibble aside, From Plassey to Partition is easily the most enlightening book on modern India I’ve read. Highly recommended!

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