Our Place in the World
Rahul Sagar’s anthology of 19th-century writing shows that Indians have been trying to piece together the jigsaw of international politics for longer than we think
Anandibai Joshi and Bal Gangadhar Shastri Jambhekar are hardly household names in India today. Perhaps they should be. In Rahul Sagar’s To Raise a Fallen People, we can once more read their words— words that shaped colonial Indian society. Sagar’s anthology brings together the writings of several figures from the 19th century, arguing for their lasting intellectual impact. Joshi, who in 1886 became the first Indian woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and Jambhekar, a polymath of sparkling intelligence who died tragically young in 1846, are only two such examples.
At the heart of this book are two questions. For how long have Indians thought about modern international politics? And does this history help explain 21st century
India’s hesitation about embracing great power politics? For Sagar, the answers lie in furious debates conducted in 19th-century journals and newspapers. The towering influence of Gandhi and Nehru has tended to overshadow these longer intellectual roots, yet in many ways the 19th century is highly relevant for understanding contemporary political and diplomatic dilemmas.
It was in this era that separate constellations of thought formed. One group of Indians embraced western education and stressed the need for India to learn from Europe, while another affirmed that it was Mother India who needed to instruct the West. Simultaneously, Indian thinkers wrestled with diplomatic questions. Some forcefully advocated positions in the Anglo-Russian Great Game and Britain’s policy towards Ottoman Turkey. Others adopted a renunciate position, arguing that “international politics was sordid and self-destructive”. In such debates, Sagar sees the origins of how India, today, adopts a “half-hearted approach to great power politics”. Those 19th-century debates have remained unresolved.
Sagar’s book has utility well beyond the realm of modern diplomacy. It is a welcome addition to a growing number of anthologies such as Ramachandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India and the Sources of Indian Traditions series from Columbia University Press. This brings us back to half-forgotten people like Joshi and Jambhekar. The pathetic condition of most Indian archives and libraries no doubt contributes to how India has a remarkably short historical memory (except when history can be abused for political gain). Sagar’s anthology helps rescue these individuals from dusty historical oblivion in termite-infested godowns, putting their writings back into circulation and public memory. We can observe how, in many ways, these writings speak to continuing social problems.
Take, for example, the status of women and India’s unsteady record on female education. Joshi’s decision in 1883 to travel to America caused scandal among orthodox Hindus. She responded through an extraordinary extemporary speech that laid bare the challenges faced by educated women and her resolve to defy her critics. Was she worried about losing her caste upon her return? “I do not fear it in the least,” she stated. “I will go as a Hindu, and come back here to live as a Hindu.” Instead, she extolled the benefits to Indians— including Indian women—of “seeing other countries”. “We enlarge our comprehension to new ideas,” Joshi declared.
Joshi’s courage and intelligence resonates across the centuries. To Raise a Fallen People contains many other such striking examples of Indians who thought deeply about the world around them, proving that the 19th century is far closer to us than we think. ■
In the anthology, we can see how half-forgotten 19th-century writings speak to continuing social problems