“India and the World: A History of Connections, c 1750–2000” by Claude Markovits

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The tendency to view post-Mughal India’s relationship with the wider world primarily through the lens of empire has spawned a voluminous literature on the global entanglements of the Raj and the networks, activities and writings of a few key Indian figures spearheading the assault on empire. Yet as the French historian Claude Markovits points out in his new book India and the World, considerably less work has focused on the global travels and overseas sojourns of Indian traders, indentured laborers and sepoys (soldiers) that did not play a crucial or eloquent part in this “from empire to nation state” story. Markovits charts their movements and experiences against the backdrop of the global economy, the labor market and, as in the case of Indian sepoys, the demands of war. While some of these movements were energized by empire, others, as Markovits points out, built on earlier networks and cannot be exclusively grasped through an imperial prism.

This research agenda reflects a renewed emphasis on social as opposed to political history. Sunil Amrith’s acclaimed Crossing the Bay of Bengal from 2013 showed how a less empire/state-centered approach can bring into view all sorts of commercial, religious and migrant networks that transcended the colonial sphere, and by implication, the Indian subcontinent. Markovits, who previously studied the global networks of Sindhi trading communities, extends the scope of this “history from below” perspective. Rather than focusing on one region or case study, India and the World aims at nothing less than a comprehensive overview of India’s global entanglements in the period 1750-2000, and lays emphasis on how Indians of different regional, religious and class backgrounds engaged with the world at large. Although evidently informed by a life of learning, Markovits wears his considerable erudition lightly and the result is a lucidly written introduction to India’s many and multifarious global entanglements, a book that is pioneering in scope and brimming with thought-provoking insights.

Following a kaleidoscopic overview that maps India’s pre-modern role in transregional trade and religious networks, Markovits explores different aspects of India’s relationship to the world in seven essays that can be read in any order and resist easy summarizing. Apart from the global circulations of Indians, the book covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from the fascinating afterlives of Indian cinematic productions in the Soviet Union to the global impact of the Great Revolt (1857) and Partition (1947), and the emergence of Gandhi and Tagore as icons with a global appeal. Some of the most rewarding and original parts of India and the World discuss rarely studied sources that open fascinating windows on individual Indian experiences abroad. These include the archival traces left by Indian sepoys involved in the British attack on Spanish Manila in 1762, the experiences of Indian cavalry forces deployed at the French front during the Great War, the memoirs of a Muslim sardar (overseer) who worked on a Surinam plantation and wrote poems eulogizing Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, and the reminiscences of a Tamil trader based in a Burmese village during the tumultuous years following the Great Depression.

 

India and the World: A History of Connections, c 1750–2000, Claude Markovits (Cambridge University Press, March 2021)
India and the World: A History of Connections, c 1750–2000, Claude Markovits (Cambridge University Press, March 2021)

Markovits points out that Indian perceptions of the world outside India were characterized by a degree of myopia and often decidedly Indocentric. This observation could be extrapolated to the accounts of some traveling elite figures such as Gandhi and Tagore. The former was, following his long sojourn in South Africa, primarily interested in the predicament of Indian overseas communities, while Tagore’s travels in China and across Southeast Asia were inspired by his quest for the cultural and religious legacies of ancient India. Markovits also pays attention to the reversed gaze and evaluates how Indian diasporas were perceived in different African and Asian settings. Markovits concludes that the positive resonance of “Spiritual India” was, especially in Asia, matched by a rather negative assessment of the Indian presence:

 

Despised as coolies, often resented as moneylenders…and feared as policemen, Indians tended to be viewed negatively in most societies of the colonial and semi-colonial world. Their reluctance to marry outside their group did not make for increased popularity. The image of Indians tended thus to contrast with that of India, which was often highly idealized: to Buddhists across Asia it was ‘Holy India’, a place of pilgrimage for those seeking the traces of the Enlightened One; to Africans battling European colonialism it provided a comforting hope of liberation from colonialism’s shackles.

 

Local attitudes to Indian diaspora communities were, thus, often disconnected from abstract notions of India floating in the realm of ideas. As Markovits shows through a wide array of examples, perceptions of Indians were shaped by very context-specific factors, ranging from white racism (in South Africa) to competing economic interests (for example in Burma). Attitudes were also never stable and constantly reconfigured in the heady days of postcolonial nation state formation which played out quite differently for Indian communities based in Kenya or British Malaya.

Markovits’ approach is especially well-suited to think through processes simultaneously unfolding across different contexts but which are usually studied in isolation. However, Markovits does not offer a clear-cut suggestion how Indian agency and experiences can be meaningfully explained and understood outside the imperial frame. In fact, empire remains omnipresent throughout the book and appears to be the central force driving as well as limiting the circulation of most Indian protagonists encountered in this book. This is self-evident in the case of Indian sepoys, but it could have been interesting to probe in further depth what the entanglements and experiences surveyed in this study can tell us about the limits of colonial hegemony.

 

This study wraps up around the year 2000 and although the conclusion briefly ponders the turn to Hindu nationalism, Markovits refrains from addressing what the connections charted in this book can teach us about contemporary India. The experiences of indentured laborers, traders and soldiers certainly enriches our understanding of what it meant to be Indian in different places across the globe. Yet in order to understand Modi’s positioning of the Republic in “the Asian century” as well as contemporary contestations over the “idea of India”, the interwar visions of Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and the Hindutva ideologue Savarkar remain a crucial reference point. Besides, there is in today’s India far more interest in the ancient Hindu-Buddhist legacies across Asia than any post-1750 entanglements.

Modi’s global projection of the Republic as a great civilizational actor, as opposed to a territorially-bounded nation state, harks back to a Golden Age of civilizational exuberance when India was, in many ways, the linchpin of a vast connective web branching out across Asia. At no point were these loose ties consolidated into an empire controlled by a South Asian polity, but in the Hindutva reading of history the ancient transregional circulation of Indic art, religions and culture is turned into a glorious nationalist saga with strong moral and diffusionist overtones. Such visions of “Greater India” are at the heart of Modi’s “Buddhist” and “Ramayana” diplomatic overtures and a wide range of initiatives that aim to leverage Indian civilization as soft power. This soft power offensive mirrors China’s framing of the Belt and Road Initiative in charmed language evoking the ancient land and maritime Silk Road connections.

Although it remains to be seen to what extent the rhetoric of “Greater India” can be converted into concrete geopolitical currency, it is nonetheless evident that “connected histories” are not only an academic fashion and increasingly mobilized to buttress political agendas in the Asian theatre.


Yorim Spoelder is a Dutch historian based at the Graduate Institute in Geneva (IHEID) and Free University Berlin, and the author of the forthcoming book Staging the Nation Beyond the Raj: Transcolonial Knowledge Networks and Visions of Greater India, 1800-1950s.