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The 'Leading Natives'

The Middle Class in Colonial India edited by Sanjay Joshi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xlix+326, Rs 795.


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The ‘Leading Natives’ V Rajagopal “class” in the Marxian sense nor one only in an economic sense. There are dimensions of religion, caste and gender to it. There is then the unmistakable imprint of colonial/western education. Even more

id a “middle class” form in India during the colonial rule, or did the formation of such a group precede the colonial rule? If indeed, as many historians argue, the context of the colonial rule created conditions for the birth of the so-called middle class, what precisely was the nature of that group? What were the structural dynamics of the colonial regime that facilitated the emergence of the group? What agentic role did Indians play in fostering the identity of that group? These and other important questions are explored at length in the book under review, an edited anthology of essays by various authors.

“Middle class” is a term first deployed in the context of European history. It did not only comprise of elements of the industrial bourgeoisie, but included fellow travellers who supported the changes that came with modernity and capitalism such as writers, novelists and intellectuals (including romantics who shared the terms of the middle class discourse even when they articulated nostalgia for a bygone and never-to-return era). The term is not deployed by colonial rulers who were loath to concede the presence of a group

Economic & Political Weekly

february 5, 2011

The Middle Class in Colonial India edited by Sanjay Joshi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp xlix+326, Rs 795.

with potential for a progressive role (Claude Markovits). Viceroy Dufferin (in his speech in the anthology) chose to call them “certain number of leading natives” who were well-meaning, intelligent and patriotic. However they were a “microscopic minority” and did not represent the people of India. We do not know who used the term first. It was used in 1893 by A urobindo Ghosh, an emerging radical who became increasingly impatient with the moderate Congress leaders, and agreed with Dufferin that the “new middle class”, a group of journalists, barristers, doctors, officials, graduates and traders, did not represent the people of India. The term gained wide currency since then. It has been freely used by politicians, intellectuals and professional academics. In the Indian context, in some ways more so than in the European case, “middle class” is employed as a catch-all category for a number of groups with a variety of dimensions of social experience and standing. It is not a

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importantly, the group has nursed the political ambition to assume the leadership of Indian society. It has exhibited a “cultural entrepreneurship” which allowed it to demarcate a “model” culture that the rest of the Indian society would strive to follow in achieving upward social mobility.

Public Sphere in Precolonial India

The middle class is usually mentioned in conjunction with “public sphere”, a sphere where public opinion is articulated and reasoned debate conducted by individuals who form into temporary collectivities (or voluntary associations) during the epoch of modernity by rising above their narrow or primordial identities. Can one speak of “middle class” for pre-modern India, or more specifically for the centuries that immediately preceded the colonial rule? This question acquires significance in the context of recent historiographical trends which explore the possibilities of indigenous modernity in India before the advent of colonialism. Chris Bayly, in his contribution to the volume, argues that the guardians of a group that he chooses to call “ecumene” (roughly translatable as “civilised world”) consisting of Hindustani-writing


literati, Indo-Islamic notables, religious leaders, and officers of the State participated in public debates about rights, duties and good kingship. This group of elect people, who were also joined by common people from time to time as participants in common public discussions, can be considered as constituting a public sphere in precolonial India. They also r epresented the “opinion of the locality” to the authorities. Public sphere in the western context is defined as a domain of communication given form by the printed media and the market. Even if we agree that the market was in the process of emergence in the Indian context, one crucial difference would be the absence of print media in the precolonial Indian context. What this difference or limitation might mean for the argument about a pre-colonial middle class is not clearly spelled out by Bayly. On the related question of potentialities of capitalist development in precolonial India, B B Misra takes the c onventional position (akin to that of Irfan Habib) that while institutions conducive to capitalist development were not entirely lacking in India, they were held back due to the political system (policies of kings, royal officials) and the social system (caste).

Was there any semblance of continuity between the “ecumene” of precolonial I ndia and the “middle class” which emerged in the colonial regime? From what we already know, the intuitive answer would be that there was not any such continuity. With the onset of colonialism, the logic of the State was disconnected from the logic of Indian society. Patronage that the e cumene received from the traditional I ndian rulers evaporated. English assumed the status of official language of the State relegating Indian languages such as Urdu/Persian and Hindustani to a subaltern status. Westernising changes were effected in the content of the educational curriculum and the idiom of public discourse. However this picture of a significant break with the past undergoes certain modifications if we differentiate the middle class into Hindu and Muslim parts (among others) and focus on the formation of the middle class among Muslims (Margrit Pernau’s essay). She forcefully argues that the Muslim middle class was not a product of western education, and the new class emerged out of a “reshifting of alliances within a traditional framework”. There was thus some continuity. However, the new group enlisted members on the basis of the new yardsticks of behaviour and achievement and valorised the values of hard work and punctuality. It also developed strong links with reformist Islam which became popular in the second half of the 19th century. If this analysis is correct, the role and significance of the westernised Muslim middle class, represented by intellectuals like Syed Ahmed Khan, calls for reassessment at least for the 19th century.

Aspirants for Leadership

There is a commonality of perspective, more or less, that is shared in the essays by Partha Chatterjee, Tanika Sarkar and Dipesh Chakrabarty. The middle class as per this perspective was an educated elite which was situated between the colonial rulers and the large majority of illiterate/ semi-literate rural masses of the Indian society. It aspired for and eventually succeeded in wresting the leadership role of the Indian society.

The main features of this perspective are that the colonial Indian social universe may be viewed as a split between a public/ material domain and a private/spiritual d omain; that Indians were denied equality and participation in the public domain; that they therefore turned to the private domain to assert the sovereignty of the newly emerging concept of nation and resisted colonial interference in the private domain; that they claimed superiority for the Indian culture over western culture by way of arguing for a uniqueness and validity of basis for Indian nationalism; and finally, that the Indian woman bore the brunt of acting as the custodian of Indian culture. There are a couple of additional points made by Dipesh Chakrabarty that the new notion of “griha-lakshmi” also drew upon the old puranic resources, and that the new middle class (at least parts of it) offered resistance to the logic of the newly forming civil society, even if in the end it could not prevent incorporation into the logic of that society (clock-time, welldefined work hours, etc). Critiques (or might one call them suggestions for mild modification) of this currently popular and hegemonic perspective in the academy are found in the essays by Sanjay Joshi and M S S Pandian. Joshi points out that religion did not merely characterise the p rivate (autonomous) domain of Indian society, but in a redefined form (modern homogeneous Hinduism) turned into an important mobilising plank for conducting majoritarian politics of a modern kind since the late 19th century. This argument finds an echo in Pernau’s essay which posits the important distinction between secularism and secularisation, argues the process of secularisation of Muslim politics (though








february 5, 2011 vol xlvi no 6

Economic Political Weekly


without secularism), and l ocates therein the practice of Muslim m inoritarian politics of the public sphere. Pandian characterises the autonomous-national domain of culture as largely an upper-caste culture that deploys the language of universalism for concealing the domination of lower castes by u pper castes.

Some contributors to the anthology have emphasised the economic character of the middle class. B B Misra, doyen of middle-class studies in India, understands by the term primarily merchants, proprietors of modern trading firms, though he also includes salaried executives, civil servants and others (again income being the criterion). Jawaharlal Nehru, in an unflattering description, calls them (the middle class) incapable of any kind of manual or technical work, uprooted from the old culture but socially conservative and only superficially modern in outlook. Prashant Kidambi identifies the origin of an urban middle class identity in Bombay city from the 1920s when white-collar salaried employees began to protest the rise in the cost of living, demanded increase in salaries and allowances, and propagated the values of thrift and simplicity in consumption. Markovits identifies one middle class group as having played a significant role in the modernisation of the colonial economy and in the commercialisation of agriculture. He sets that group apart from the educated middle class. Interaction between the two groups was quite limited, with the educated group being more r eceptive to westernising influences, while the mercantile group retained its connection with the traditional Indian ethos and orientation to a large extent. D D Kosambi identifies merchants, manufacturers from the Parsi community, and regions of Gujarat and Rajasthan among others as constituting the upper middle/bourgeois class and a nnounces their arrival and rise to domination of the Indian economy and politics in an essay written in 1946.

The cultural dimensions of the middle class receive attention in the essays by Boria Majumdar, A R Venkatachalapathy and M Madhava Prasad. In his analysis of the history of cricket in colonial Bengal, Majumdar recounts how middle class Bengalis increasingly preferred cricket to indigenous games. He also locates the

Economic Political Weekly

february 5, 2011

popularity of cricket in a larger nationalist ethos of valorising physical culture and acquiring the capacity to beat the English at their own game. While there is a dimension of physical culture to any sport, a game like football typified physical culture much more than cricket did. Cricket, especially of the early 20th century, typified skill rather than physical prowess, and it was of course equally important to demonstrate that Indians could match the English skill in cricket. Venkatachalapathy’s essay narrates the gradual spread of the habits of coffee and tea drinking in the Tamil region and how coffee came to be associated with brahmins and tea with the urban working class. While the appellation of “brahmin coffee hotel” has long been banished from the landscape of Tamil Nadu, several small restaurants bearing that name continue to exist in the towns of Andhra Pradesh, where anti-brahmin sentiment has been less strident for historical reasons. While Prasad’s essay on middle-class cinema after 1947 would, strictly speaking, fall outside the scope of this book which purports to deal with c olonial India, it is nevertheless a welcome addition. The films analysed had been produced during the phase of post-1947 India when the middle class (government employees with limited incomes and others with comparable incomes) was numerically significant and functioned as the “model” group whose status most people aspired to achieve. That scenario has changed quite a bit, especially after 1990, and a “new middle class” is popularly b elieved to have come into existence (it is not a lakhpati any longer, but a crorepati who is accorded status). Accordingly, the new “model” group of the Indian cinema of recent times has come to be the “new middle class.”

Middle Men?

In perhaps the most significant essay in the anthology, Michelguglielmo Torri rigorously interrogates the notion of middle class in the Indian context. Torri recounts the perspective of the Cambridge School, as found in the analyses of Judith Brown and David Washbrook, that the middle class in colonial India consisted of “middle men” who mediated between different factions and their leaders. Their presence was located not so much in the political

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body of the Indian National Congress as much as in the institutions created by the modern colonial state such as the bureaucracy, municipalities and the universities. Torri discusses Rajat Ray’s critique of the Cambridge School that vertical formations fell apart due to the centralising tendency of the colonial state. The tendency of the horizontal class formation, Ray argues, resulted in the formation of a non-unitary “intermediate” class. Not persuaded by Ray’s conclusion, Torri instead explores Italian history, especially the ideas of Gramsci, to come up with an alternative formulation. He deploys the Gramscian category of “intellectuals” to characterise the group and classifies both vernacular literati and westernised intellectuals mostly hailing from upper castes as “traditional intellectuals” in the Indian context. The bottom line, for our purpose, is the great unease that Torri has with the category of the middle class.

The catch-all category of the middle class then consists of a motley crowd – traditional and westernised intellectuals, salaried government employees, professionals, merchants, traders, entrepreneurs, landed proprietors, teachers, students, educated unemployed, and so forth. There was hardly any cohesiveness to this group, or more appropriately groups, whose responses to nationalist ideology, colonial rule and changes in Indian society were heterogeneous, variable according to contingent circumstances, and often at loggerheads with one another. The attractiveness of the term “middle class” owes in some measure to the elegance of its brevity, which may be why popular accounts of the “Great Indian Middle Class” continue to be written into the 21st century. Perhaps the time has come to leave the term behind and discuss the experiences of different groups in a distinct fashion, in the interests of getting on with intellectual enquiry. The book might inadvertently serve that purpose. Notwithstanding this assessment, the book, with a competent and succinct introduction by Joshi, is a must read for all researchers of modern Indian history.

V Rajagopal ( is with the Department of History, University of Hyderabad.

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