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C.A. Bayly, 1945-2015 - a tribute by Mukul Kesavan

24 April 2015

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The Telegraph - April 22 , 2015

Past continuous - C.A. Bayly, 1945-2015

Mukul Kesavan

Detail from the cover of Bayly’s Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2011

When he died in Chicago last Sunday, C.A. Bayly had been for a generation the most important interpreter of India’s modern history. From The Local Roots of Indian Politics to Recovering Liberties, he produced a series of revisionist books and essays that changed the way in which historians addressed the great themes of India’s colonial modernity.

In the context of the ideological cut-and-thrust of historical writing in India, "revisionist" is an odd adjective to apply to Bayly’s oeuvre. His speaking manner and writing style were the very opposite of polemical; in his best work, he used his own research and the work of others to uncover neglected or obscured historical processes that called into question, by implication, the prevailing historiographical consensus. Most famously, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, his pioneering elaboration of the social, economic and commercial vitality of Gangetic north India in the post-Mughal period, helped unsettle the received wisdom of general economic decline in the 18th century.

Just as important was Bayly’s quiet insistence that India’s history as a colonized subcontinent was not to be seen in terms of historical rupture, that there was no sudden transformation after Plassey that made India another country. His argument that the transition to a wholly colonial modernity was more gradual and drawn-out than was commonly assumed, fed into a related argument that Indians and their pre-colonial histories contributed more substantially to the construction of the colonial India than was generally allowed.

This preference for explanations that emphasized gradual change over the long term (as opposed to the idea of abrupt structural change brought about by colonial conquest) also characterized Bayly’s understanding of the two great themes of late colonial history, nationalism and communalism. Unlike his work on the 18th and the early 19th century, Bayly’s treatment of these themes was overtly revisionist and his weapon of choice was the essay, not the full-length book.

His provocative 1985 essay, "The Pre-History of ’Communalism’?", complete with question mark, challenged the orthodox view that communal violence and the consolidation of communal identities, were urban, late-19th-century phenomena. Citing the research that bore witness to communal rioting in the 18th and early 19th centuries, he tried, characteristically, to complicate our understanding of the history of communal antagonism and offered, in passing, a materialist explanation for the ups and downs in communal co-existence in India’s early-modern and modern history. He knew that his revisionist argument was potentially provocative: it is to his credit that he ran that risk and produced an essay that forced others, whether they agreed with him or not, to re-examine their assumptions.

The same temperamental bias in favour of continuity, produced his most underrated book, a collection of essays, mostly on nationalism titled The Origins of Nationality in South Asia. In these synthesizing, speculative essays, Bayly both acknowledged the modernity of Indian nationalism and tried to block in the pre-colonial intellectual contexts that determined the way in which this new Western idea was domesticated. To this end, he drew attention to the regional patrias or homelands that had emerged out of the subcontinent’s medieval history and which, he argued, had imbued their inhabitants with a sense of territorial affinity underwritten by religious, linguistic and political sentiment. These watans and the emotional solidarities that they inspired were not, Bayly conceded, nationalisms in the modern sense, but they explained in his view, the alacrity with which the idea of the nation was adopted and adapted, and the idiom in which this happened.

His arguments weren’t always persuasive - he never explained quite how these regional patriotisms with their parochial and religious baggage morphed into the eccentric pluralism of pan-Indian Congress nationalism - but he successfully questioned the blithe assumption that the mere fact that nationalism was a Western idea freed historians of India of the need to examine the prior ideas and attachments that Indians brought to their enthusiasm for a nation-state.

His most recent book, Recovering Liberties, was a sustained attempt at writing an intellectual history of modern Indian political thought that wasn’t suffocated by the sweaty embrace of nationalism and communalism, which treated the ideas of India’s principal public figures in the 19th and 20th centuries as desi improvisations on broad liberal themes. This reframing, this treatise on liberalism-in-a-warm-climate, helped rescue these ideas from what would have been their sell-by date if explaining Independence and Partition had been their object. Bayly’s broader view helps us understand how alternative understandings of liberalism and political representation have continued to struggle for the Republic’s soul right up to the present.

Bayly’s insistence on continuity was also an argument about agency. There is a massive consistency to his insistence that Indians while being collaborators, compradores, subjects and victims of the colonial State were also actors and agents who vigorously tried, often in the face of great odds, to shape their own destinies. This emphasis was sometimes construed as an apologia for colonialism, almost as if every degree of volition attributed to desis, mitigated in exactly the same measure the exploitative omnipotence of the colonial State. The irony of an English historian framing Indians as agents and Indian historians indignantly reframing them as victims gradually became apparent and by the end of his life the charge of being a liberal apologist for Empire was less frequently made.

Bayly’s great achievement was to connect colonial India with its historical antecedents, to question settled narratives of political and social change and to explain, as great historians have always done, change over time, in the long term and in a materialist way. He wrote self-consciously as an outsider to the world he chronicled, who made no claim to the insider’s intimate knowingness, who chose instead to build broad contexts, synthesize the growing body of research he had contributed so much to, into an expansive, caveated narrative of India’s struggle with that two-headed god, colonial modernity.

Interviewed by the anthropologist, Alan Macfarlane, last year, Bayly spoke of how thoroughly his upbringing had inoculated him against two things: religion and competitive sport. It isn’t surprising, then, that in an academic province defined by ideological akharas, Chris Bayly of Tunbridge Wells, Allahabad and Cambridge, became a champion without ever being a sectarian or a pahalvan.