Prime Edition

India Since 1950

Edited by Christophe Jaffrelot

Yatra Books

Pages: 934 Rs. Rs 995

Dissecting the great Indian democratic trail since 1950

Vivek Dehejia writes how this latest collection of essays on India by French academics is a comprehensive study and a must-have for anyone interested in studying contemporary India

Vivek H. Dehejia  18th Mar 2012

Lack of articles on the Anna effect lends an unfinished quality to the work

his is a big book: not just in the sense of being long (it runs over 900 pages), but ambitious in scope. It represents the best of recent and contemporary scholarship on India in the French language, and makes this available to the reader in India in very fine and idiomatic English translations. This in itself is an important achievement. For many of us, and I plead guilty, our knowledge of non-Indian scholarship on India is restricted to what's available in the English language. We thus lose access to the varied and rich Continental tradition of thinking and writing about India, which historically has had different roots and emphases than the Anglo-American literature with which we're familiar.

Many of the scholars whose writings are collected here are based at prestigious French universities and research institutions, yet most of them will be unknown to readers in India. The notable exception, of course, is the editor, political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, who is well known through his important work on political movements, ranging from Hindu nationalism to the rise of caste politics, which are available in English. Readers will also know the U.S.-based scholar Mira Kamdar from her 2008 book, Planet India.

A note on organisation: the book is divided into four thematic sections, starting with economics and politics, continuing with public administration and public policy, then sociology, and concluding with media and the arts. Within each section, where appropriate, chapters are arranged chronologically. Each section begins with a brief introduction, summarising the main issues and themes, unsigned, but presumably by the editor. Apart from the essays themselves, the book contains a useful chronology of events, from 1950 to the present, and a compendious bibliography, keyed to the individual chapters.

The first four chapters of the first section, by Jaffrelot himself, are a series of linked essays which trace the political history of India from 1950 to the present. The last of these chapters leaves us, tantalisingly, just as the Anna Hazare movement was building up steam in the middle of last year, and reads as though unfinished, awaiting a sequel. There follow a series of parallel chapters, by different writers, also arranged chronologically, on the evolution of the Indian economy and on foreign policy. The odd man out in this section, strangely, is an essay by Kamdar, "Is India's development sustainable?" Eschewing the cool Gallic scholarly style of the other contributors, hers is a feisty piece, as much an extended op-ed as a work of analysis, which chides contemporary Indian policymakers for pursuing an environmentally and ecologically unsustainable development trajectory.

We thus lose access to the varied and rich Continental tradition of thinking and writing about India, which historically has had different roots and emphases than the Anglo-American literature with which we’re familiar.

The five essays in the second section hopscotch over important terrain, and span the nature of federalism in India and the "Dravidian issue" to the conflicts in Punjab, Assam, and Kashmir. Christiane Hurtig's essay on the Kashmir conflict is admirably balanced and matter-of-fact, a rarity for writing on this subject. It, too, ends rather abruptly, with an epilogue on the violence that broke out in the Valley in the summer of 2010. She is, rightly, equivocal on the American role, observing with ironic understatement: "However, America's interest in India is largely economic."

The third section kicks off with a superb essay on the demographic situation in India by another scholar who is well-known to English speakers, Christophe Guilmoto. Readers might recall that he's one of the important cast of characters profiled in Mara Hvistendahl's Unnatural Selection. His analysis of population dynamics raises the important question of whether our much-vaunted "demographic dividend" will turn into a nightmare instead. His conclusion, though, is well-tempered: "In a context of accelerated social and developmental change, the population factor will therefore retain a central role in the struggle between gender and social groups to harvest the fruits of growth."

The remaining essays in this section again zigzag over quite different subjects, all of them unified by a sociological analysis of the issues at hand. These range from labour movements and caste politics to three chapters on Muslims in India and a concluding chapter on the Christian community. Catherine Clémentin-Ojha's essay chronicles the history of Christianity in India, and finishes with a thoughtful reflection on the possibility of creating a uniquely Indian Christian identity, from the design of churches to participation in public life.

he final section of the book, on media and the arts, runs the gamut from contemporary painting and sculpture to cinema and classical music. There is much to relish here. Emmanuel Grimaud, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker himself, contributes a fascinating essay looking inside the "black box" of the practice of filmmaking in India. The chapter on music, which combines two mini-essays, one each on Hindustani and Carnatic music, is more encyclopaedic than analytical, but it provides a useful introduction for the uninitiated to the two Indian systems of classical music and their major practitioners. Likewise, Michel Renouard's essay on Indian writing in English is more a catalogue than a critique, but would serve to introduce an unfamiliar reader to the history of the Indian novel in English and the major modern and contemporary novelists. The penultimate chapter is a potpourri of mini-essays, stitched together, which surveys the range of writing in Indian languages — Bengali, Hindu, Urdu, Marathi, and Tamil. Again, there is nothing new here for the connoisseur of those literatures, but useful summaries for those unfamiliar. Between them, these two chapters should generate a spike in sales for Flipkart!

The final chapter constitutes Jaffrelot's concluding reflections, entitled, "India 2025." As if to lull the reader, he harks back to a 2004 prediction by Dani Rodrik and Arvind Subramanian that India is bound to sustain a 7% growth rate until the 2020s because of high savings and investment rates. That prediction, which might have been plausible even a year ago, seems overly optimistic today, in a political economy characterised by falling growth, policy paralysis, and the decisive turn of the ruling dispensation from economic reform to political populism. Indeed, the Rodrik-Subramanian argument serves merely as a prelude to his real concern in the essay, which is to understand the challenges to growth posed by demography, the transformation of agriculture, and the development of infrastructure. After surveying the scene, he strikes an aptly well-balanced tone: "The Indian growth rate may not remain as high as anticipated by Goldman Sachs and others because of these [demographic and other] bottlenecks, but it should not be as low as the prophets of doom predict." The final section documents the rise in income inequality and the threat to the polity posed by the Maoist phenomenon. Jaffrelot shares the view of many scholars and observers when he argues a causal relationship between social deprivation and support for the insurgency.

In sum, Jaffrelot's collection is timely and welcome, and it deserves a place in the library of every scholar and observer of contemporary India. Depending on her specific interests, the general reader will also find it a useful reference book. Indeed, unless you're a scholar yourself, I'd suggest dipping randomly into the book, as there are many valuable nuggets to be found scattered through its pages.

Vivek Dehejia is an economics professor at Carleton University, and a writer and commentator on India. He lives between Canada and Mumbai.


The author of the review received the following email from Mira Kamdar, making a correction to the article:

I am not "U.S.-based". I have lived off and on in Paris for more than 35 years, and permanently here for the past two years. I write a regular column for Courrier International (in French) "Le Mot de l'Inde" and I teach at Sciences Po. So, though I hold a U.S. passport, I have a French Carte de Séjour and a very strong French background. I actually have a PhD in French Literature, which in those days meant French philosophy, and studied with Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-François Lyotard, etc. and wrote my dissertation in French.

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