Rajmohan Gandhi’s book could not have been timed better. The idea of south India as a distinct socio-territorial entity has a longer history, but has become more visible in recent political imaginations, with a growing perception by the Union government. Amidst such stirrings, Rajmohan Gandhi‘s book traces the history of the region since the fall of the Vijayanagara empire with entry of the Dutch, British and the French East India companies.
Anchoring the early narration around the evolution of operations of the British East India Company in the south, Gandhi, much like William Darlymple in his White Mughals, maps the shift in native-colonial relations from being marked by interactions on equal terms to one tinged with racial markings as the company established political control. Moving on to the late colonial and then to post-colonial developments, the book ends with short commentaries on latest events, the rise of the Hindu right-wing forces in particular.
Along the way, Modern South India mobilises a rich set of sources to convey aspects of the region’s history that speak strongly to contemporary politics. It tells us why we must not interpret past events in the light of modern understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘nation’. Gandhi does a remarkable job of this as he takes us through the wars for control over the region driven neither by the imagination of an Indian nation nor by religious imperatives. In fact, he shows how developments in colonial India coalesced to forge such a nationalist imagination much later. His mention of Tipu Sultan’s support for the Sringeri mutt after it was desecrated and ransacked by the Maratha rulers is a case in point. He also shows how religious identities never stopped rulers from appointing members from other religions to head their armies or administration. Gandhi also manages to trace certain common threads across linguistic divisions in the southern region, like musical and poetic traditions, and the emergence of socio-spiritual movements against caste hierarchies.
The book, however, is not without its share of problems. On occasions, the biographer in Rajmohan Gandhi tends to overwhelm the historian. This is particularly evident in his extensive treatment of Thiru Rajagopalachari. Though Gandhi concedes that like all histories this one too is personal and selective, readers are likely to find such selectiveness problematic. Rajagopalachari receives far more attention compared to personalities like Kamarajar or Periyar, though the latter leaders had a far more significant role in shaping the trajectory of Tamil Nadu. Modern South India also does not quite tell us how progressive movements like the Dravidian movement or the Communist movement in Kerala managed to generate political trajectories that continue to resist substantial incursions of the Hindu-Hindi right wing. It may well be because of a lack of engagement with vernacular sources. Most importantly, the book leaves us with an unanswered question: What is it about south India that makes it socially and economically more inclusive than the rest of the country?