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Since 1st March, 1999
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Sovereign Spaces : Princes, Education and Empire in Colonial India By Manu Bhagavan, Oxford, Rs 575

There are two dominant schools charting various dimensions of British rule in the subcontinent — the nationalist and the imperialist. Combined with the post-Orientalist and the post-colonial debate, subaltern scholars are reinterpreting and re-evaluating previously held grounds. However, post-colonial reassessment of modern south Asian histories almost misses out the role of the princely states within the colonial discourse. This omission is striking given that princely states and semi-autonomous territories covered roughly 40 per cent of the subcontinent. Dominant academic narratives also term the princely states as “collaborators” in the colonial project. In spite of this they have been largely marginalized and the book under review is an important corrective.

Manu Bhagavan breaks new ground in studying two progressive princely states in 20th century-India — Baroda and Mysore. The book interrogates the dynamics between colonial authority and princely subordination, central to which were the ideas of good governance, Western education, social reform and modernity. Colonial authority was challenged and negotiated through both direct political action and more subtle, long-term social and cultural reforms. While colonialism and orientalist thought assumed the inferiority of the Indian people, it also promised to deliver “progress” to them through modernization and by making the colonized “civilized”.

This assumed inferiority of the natives and the discrimination and dissension that followed created internal conflicts in the project of imperialism. The colonial structure became a site of resistance. And Baroda and Mysore took full advantage of the situation. Despite claiming to be loyal representatives of the British empire, they defended their people from the full onslaught of the “English evil”.

Dissatisfied with the extensive colonial intervention, failed promises of deliverance, and their own insecurities, Baroda and Mysore resisted colonial control by actively reconstituting within the inner political sphere, a native modernity, which in turn subsumed the social and cultural realms. This not only opened the ground for competing modernities but was also a comprehensive assault on the ideological soul of colonialism and its idea of a single Western modernity. During the first three decades of the 20th century, Sayaji Rao of Baroda and Krishnaraja Wadiyar of Mysore pursued extensive reforms — social justice, equal distribution of wealth and resources and the reduction of caste, class and gender inequity. Reforms also centred around movements for universities. The project of reclamation, of reinterpreting ideas and institutions and assigning them new and native values, according to Bhagavan, formed the core of reforms. By painting British Indian universities as backward and behind the times, the princes temporally separated the colonial from the moment of the modern and positioned themselves and their new institutions to fill the void. Universities were thus refashioned as a non-colonial instrument of modern- ization.

Bhagavan rightly argues that whether the university as an institution actually emerged or not was not as important as the act of creating the university, of producing the institution in a rhetorical space determined and dictated by the colonized people as a weapon of resistance. Baroda and Mysore provided spaces for post-colonial imaginations of the university long before the formal demise of the colonial rule. This piece of original work by Bhagavan will be useful for specific research in south Asian history as well as for comparative understandings of imperialism.

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