Post-independence India had a big problem–about 40% of its land wasn’t, well, India. Instead, this land was in the hands of the princely states: Rulers who had signed agreements accepting the rule of the British Empire, while getting a relatively free hand to rule their local jurisdictions. And these weren’t small states. Hyderabad—whose ruler made noises about independence, at least initially—had a larger income than Belgium, and was bigger than all but twenty UN member countries.
The northeast Indian state of Assam has had a complex history. As independence loomed, Assam was a large British province, bordering the fellow British colony of Burma and covering a large segment of India’s northeast. Today’s Assam is much smaller: First Partition cut Assam off from the rest of India, with just a tiny “chicken neck” of land connecting the state with India proper. Then decades of tension between the Assamese and minority groups led to new states being created from within its borders: Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, to name a few.
Assam, which shares borders with Bhutan, Bangladesh and used to border Myanmar and China, is the largest state in India’s volatile Northeast region. Many of the Indian states that now border Assam; Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, were all carved out of Assam’s territory post-Independence following fierce political battles for representation and autonomy. Therefore a study of Assam is vital not just for understanding events in one of India’s most geopolitical important regions, but for understanding wider South Asia politics.
It is appropriate (and perhaps not entirely coincidental) that John Zubrzycki’s Dethroned: The Downfall of India’s Princely States—the story of how India came to be a unitary state rather than a patchwork of autonomous if not independent polities—appears during India’s 75 anniversary.
In 2008, Amitav Ghosh released A Sea of Poppies, the first in a trilogy of historical fiction set in India and China in the 1830s amid the outbreak of the First Opium War. The Ibis trilogy details the growth of opium in India, the role of British agents in shipping it to Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) and the massive international impact of the opium trade. Now, eight years after the final book in the trilogy was released, Ghosh has released Smoke and Ashes, a non-fiction compendium to the series, based on his extensive historical research conducted while writing the trilogy. The book is a mixture of a travelogue, a reflection on writing and research but mainly an expansive history of opium’s cultural and economic impact that takes us from the 18th century to the modern day.
In Anarchy or Chaos, Ole Birk Laursen sets out to bring the life and intellectual contributions of MPT Acharya, a relatively unknown yet vitally important Indian revolutionary, to a wider audience. This biography delves into Acharya’s involvement in nationalism, anticolonialism, revolution, and anarchism, drawing extensively from memoirs, letters, newspapers, and intelligence reports. The result is a remarkable and comprehensive portrayal of a man, for whom much of his life was spent at the centre of major radical activity.