Journal of South Asia Women Studies

Book Review - Storia dell'India

by Sumit Guha

Storia dell'India

By Michelguglielmo Torri

Torino, Italia: Editori Laterza, 2000

Pp. XXII + 839, Lire 33,57. Price EU 33.57

Review by Prof. Sumit Guha, Rutgers University March 3, 2005

This volume by a senior Italian scholar of Indian history attempts a comprehensive survey of the history of the sub-continent from the beginnings of civilization to the present in less than a thousand pages. It opens with a critique of previous historiographic approaches, commencing with the nineteenth century work of James Mill and Max Mueller. The critique is particularly aimed at the idea of fundamental civilizational essences - the "Orient", "Islam" and the "land of Bharat" - to which all real historical events may be reduced. He continues by pointing out that the idea of an essentially stagnant "Indian civilization" is based on three axioms:

  1. that socio-economic life was based on unchanging autarchic village communities;
  2. that cultural life was based on a similarly unchanging Hinduism, and
  3. that India was essentially unaffected by the external world until the beginnings of the colonial era.

While disagreeing with this, Torri does point out why the recourse to a body of sacred texts are representing the immutable core of a civilization tempted so many scholars: it provided mental "clarity, logic and neatness". (XIV-XV) Nonetheless, he advises historians to eschew it and offers an alternative characterization of Indian civilization: that it was foundationally multivocal, characterized by a "concordia discors". It was possible to hold every conceivable opinion, to enjoy very divergent life-styles with, he adds drily, the sole proviso that there should be no overt threat to the ruling elite. This broad tolerance - not attained in Europe before the late eighteenth century - was, in Torri's judgement, more a feature of the civilization than a characteristic of Hinduism as such, since he finds it in the pragmatism of Alauddin Khalji and the religious syncretism of Akbar. The civilization has changed continually, adding new fundamental features down to the present. So, he argues, while discarding the animal sacrifices mentioned in its foundational texts (the Vedas), it has foregrounded the idea of reincarnation which Torri speculates was borrowed from Buddhism; musical traditions elaborated at the court of Akbar in the 16th century, the separation of political power from religious doctrine that Torri finds in the Arthashastra (?300 BCE-200 CE?) and the ideas of Alauddin Khalji (1290-1316 CE). In the modern era, Torri mentions, the Gandhian idea of politics as an extension of personal morality; the Mazzinian idea of the re-awakened nation, the freedom of the press and civil liberty taken from 19th century Europe, and finally, the development of a gigantic and vital, if occasionally flawed democratic process. (XVII-XIX)

The parameters set, Torri moves on to a judicious discussion of the Indus Valley civilization and the "Aryan" debate. In common with most modern scholars, he discards the racial idea of Aryan origins, but leans a little in the direction of technological determinism, suggesting that the Vedic language prevailed because it was associated with a superior technology - the use of iron. Here the influence of D.D. Kosambi and his followers, like Romila Thapar (much cited through the work) is evident. This ignores the early finds of iron in Southern India, and recent doubts of its immense technical value - points made in several works by Dilip Chakrabarty, a leading archaeologist whose writings find no mention in this book. As far as technologically driven models of language diffusion are concerned, Colin Renfrew's more persuasive idea that it was the diffusion of agriculture that propelled Indo-European languages from the Tarim to the Ebro and from Lithuania to Sri Lanka is never considered. Subsequent chapters on the rise of states and then empires in the late first millennium also largely follows the socio-political narrative developed by Kosambi. Torri after providing a clear and lively description of new currents of thought (Jainism, Buddhism and others) but then explains them in terms of the rise of "new men" and "bourgeois attitudes" in that period. Subsequent chapters highlight the contacts with the Greco- Roman world and then the rise of the Gupta, who dominate the north Indian heartland during the fourth and fifth centuries CE. He dates the fall of the Gupta rather precisely at 510 CE, and describes it as the beginning of the Indian medieval epoch, characterized by greater social conservatism and practices such as widow immolation (sati) and pre-pubertal marriage. He makes the bold suggestion that the weakening of external trade and gradual economic decline had already hollowed the Gupta economy even before it was destroyed by the onslaught of the Huns in the early sixth century.

The idea of a more or less linear relationship between the shrinkage of trade, the decline of cities and the rise of "feudalisms" is continued in subsequent chapters. Yet, Torri himself concedes that trade certainly flourished on the coasts of Southern India, linking and exporting to both China and the Mediterranean world, but still characterizes the region as part of a "feudal" society. He is also overly dogmatic in dating Pauranika texts to specific centuries and assuming them to depict aspects of social reality such as the number of castes extant at the time. Most specialists would be far more cautious on both these points. Torri characterizes the main currents in religious thought as Tantra accompanied by the worship of powerful goddesses, personal devotion as salvific (bhakti) and the new monism of Sankara. He then seeks to explain the decline of Buddhism, and veering once more in the direction of reductionism, suggests that Buddhism lost its intellectual vigor because of the decline in its social base. It gradually assimilated to Hinduism and its vestiges could not stand the shock of the Islamic conquest of north India in the thirteenth century.

This period is characterized by Torri as one of economic and demographic expansion, based as in Ming China on the expansion of rice cultivation in key areas from the 12th century, and by the economic superiority of Indian manufactures in the world economy under the Mughals. While case of Chinese quick-maturing rice has been documented by Ho Ping-ti, the application of the theory to India lacks all evidentiary basis, and seems motivated simply by the desire to find some "material" base for every period of centralization and urban expansion in Indian history. The arrival and rooting of Islam is clearly explained, and Torri emphasizes that Islam arrived before military conquest, even though the establishment of Muslim dynasties was an important for the development of Indian Islam, and finally that there was no complete conversion of the inhabitants of any part of India to the new faith. The doctrines and practices of the sufis and parallel non-Islamic religious groups are lucidly described. While the account generally follows what may termed the liberal consensus around these issues, Torri does several times present hagiographic stories as direct evidence - an incautious thing for an introductory text-book to do. He concludes by pointing out that the period of the Sultanates (c.1200-1500 CE) which saw campaigns of reconquest and religious extermination in Western Europe saw in India the evolution of a modus vivendi between Hinduism and Islam, one that continued under the Mughal Empire in subsequent centuries, culminating in the reign of Akbar.

The political structure and culture of this Empire are lucidly sketched, and the rise of resistance from the Marathas and Sikhs discussed at some length. The events of the eighteenth century culminating in British domination of the sub-continent by 1818 clearly delineated. The important innovations of the East India Company in the administration of law and taxation are outlined, with Torri emphasizing that several of these revived obsolete institutions and in general, fore-grounded the more conservative elements in the social life of the time. As regards, the political economy of the East India Company's government, Torri largely follows C.A. Bayly's writings of the 1980s. Intellectual reactions to the west are largely described from a Bengal-centric viewpoint, with Derozio and Rammohan Roy duly prominent. After a brief description of the outbreak and suppression of the Revolt of 1857-58, The text moves on to consider Indian intellectual life through to the early twentieth century in terms of intellectual, cultural-religious and political reactions to the West. As might be expected, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League figure are the major protagonists under the last head. Their rapprochement in 1916, the rising tempo of agitation during World War I, the appearance of Gandhi and the Amritsar massacre all figure. Torri then continues with a close exposition of crucial decisions that can be seen as opening the way to the emergence of separate states in 1947. The significance of Liaqat Ali Khan's "anti-capitalist" budget in this regard is perhaps exaggerated. The chapter ends with a consideration of the Kashmir dispute which suffers from the author's misreading of the cease-fire agreement on the sequence of demilitarization and plebiscite in the state.

After this the History focuses on the Republic of India. The Nehruvian phase is sympathetically described, though Torri's complete reliance on Neville Maxwell produces a less than balanced analysis of the border dispute with China. The potentials for rent-seeking corruption in the "socialistic pattern of society" do not escape notice. At the same time, he adopts the now refuted view that the "Green Revolution" technology was of no advantage to smaller farmers. The social and political bases for the rise of Indira Gandhi are clearly set forth, and events up to 1989 covered under the rubric of "The Decline of the Nehruvian System". The rise of religious fundamentalism in the 1990s is explained in relation to global trends and to the supposed fact that the fruits of Nehruvian development were limited to a small middle class. Torri suggests that this class then turned to Hindu fundamentalism in defense and justification of its undeserved good fortune. But this would not easily fit with his observation that economic growth accelerated in the 1980s, and even more in the era of economic reform after 1991. The new domestic politics of the BJP-led coalition governments is discussed, but not the continuity in nuclear policy with previous regimes that culminated in the Pokhran tests of May 1998. In conclusion, Torri hopes that the fundamentalists of the late twentieth century - whom he compares with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb - will meet with the same ill-success as their seventeenth-century predecessor.