The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Politics of the Urban Poor in early twentieth-century India By Nandini Gooptu, Cambridge, Rs 2,310

“Poor’’, as Nandini Gooptu admits in this reworking of her Cambridge University PhD thesis, is a loose and catch-all category. It is impossible to rigorously define it. She deploys it in a descriptive way “to encompass various urban occupational groups and to highlight the diversity and plurality of their employment relations and working conditions.” Within the poor there could be diverse and shared interests. This underlines the fact that urban experience is constituted by more than work and that this often determined the nature of politics.

Gooptu is aware that from the interwar period the term poor came to be used as a category in state policy to refer to the labouring classes and political formations of all ideological hues claimed to represent the poor. The term can thus be said to be an elite construct. She thinks that this gives “further relevance to the use of this term in analysing urban social contradictions in the interwar period”. Others might think, however, that because it is an elite construct, the term looses its validity.

Gooptu studies the nature of political consciousness and despite the all-India compass of her work, her empirical material is drawn from north India, especially Allahabad, Benares, Kanpur and Lucknow. The towns are significant: all of them were nationalist strongholds and also the sites of major communal upheavals. Also, in the Twenties and the Thirties, reform and politics associated with the lower castes intensified here. These towns underwent radical demographic and socio-economic transformation in early 20th century. But it was the ideological transformation, as Gooptu emphasizes, that catapulted the urban poor into political action. The latter was predicated upon the growing need for political mobilization. The consequent opening up of public spaces helped in the formation of a political consciousness. She thus underlines the interaction between subaltern autonomy and elite politics and state structures. Her take on subaltern autonomy is on their “distinctiveness of practice”, that is “their own ability to appropriate, refashion and mould, for their own purpose, the organizations, institutions and ideologies of elite politics.”

In many ways, this is an eclectic book and this is not said pejoratively. There are too many theoretical strands influencing modern historiography and their distinctiveness is often fuzzy and blurred. It is wise not to take, in such a context, a very rigid conceptual framework. Gooptu avoids this by casting her theoretical net wide. Her real strength is the rich empirical material that she has archived. This gives the book a certain density which makes it rise above theoretical controversies. Too much history these days is written for theoretical enlightenment. It is good to have a book in which the argument is driven by the richness of the material.

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