Less concerned with who’s first up against the wall than with how to decorate it

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Jack Graham

Jack Graham writes and podcasts about culture and politics from a Gothic Marxist-Humanist perspective. He co-hosts the I Don't Speak German podcast with Daniel Harper. Support Jack on Patreon.


  1. Simon Blake
    November 23, 2018 @ 10:31 am

    “we gaze with horror at our domestic monsters as if they’re the only ones that matter”

    I had a conversation several months ago in which I mentioned Narendra Modi in the context of nationalist politics. Someone said Trump was much worse for the world. I said that sounded a bit Western-centric, and asked why they thought Trump was the bigger danger. Their answer was: because he has nucular (sic) weapons!



    • TomeDeaf
      November 25, 2018 @ 5:33 pm

      It’s getting worse, yeah. Anecdotal evidence but… My dad grew up in India (full disclosure: as the grandson of a Methodist bishop in the church of South India there), he’s been a fair few times over the course of his life for work purposes, and he said that his most recent visit (about a month or so ago) was absolutely unprecedented in terms of the hostility towards non-Hindus entering the country … he’s a C of E priest but also an academic specialising in Islam (he was there for an interfaith conference) and the slightest whiff of a foreigner connected with Christianity or Islam sets alarm bells going off at the airport. He was questioned all day. Anything that could risk the pipe dream of “India for the Hindus” is instantly suspect.


  2. Aylwin
    November 23, 2018 @ 8:42 pm

    Picking up on the question of Indian unity, I’m not sure there is much in support of Tharoor’s assertion on the political level beyond “there were other empires before”. India certainly has a clear geographical logic as a unit, and has long possessed a strong cultural and religious commonality, and been regarded as an entity on these terms. But then, one could say similar things about Europe, and, well…[gestures at European political history].

    Not that India has the same geographically-rooted and consistent tendency to political fragmentation as Europe, but it lies, shall we say, somewhere in the mid-range of a spectrum from Europe to China (in the sense of “China proper”), rather than grouping closely with China in its tendency to recurrent and persistent unification. History does reveal a tendency to recurrent unification within the Ganges basin, commonly also encompassing other parts of the north. It is conspicuous, though, that every empire before the British that tried to unite the subcontinent by incorporating the Dravidian-speaking south came apart at the seams rather abruptly before completing the task. (The first such empire, the Mauryan, may have persisted a bit longer than others on an almost-all-Indian scale, but its actual maximum extent may have been smaller than tends to be assumed.)

    It is also notable that the only empires even to come to close to achieving such unification, give or take the Mauryan, and certainly the only ones in the last two thousand years, have been the creation of foreign invaders. This seems more than accidental, given the tendency for the more militarily successful rulers in pre-Islamic India to construct loose and unstable hegemonies through wide-ranging and almost ritualised campaigning, rather than systematically (and often bloodily) asserting direct control in the manner of the Muslim empires, or (to a lesser extent, given the widespread tolerated survival of the “Princely States”) the British. An “impulse to unification” is not what springs to mind when looking at the prevailing norms of India’s strictly native political tradition.

    Even within the Indo-European speaking north, the recurrence and persistence of empires was matched by that of polities based on smaller geographical units around the periphery of the Gangetic heartland, such as Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and Kashmir, which typically corresponded roughly to linguistic units. The argument is made (I don’t know enough to assess its validity) that by the time the Mughals invaded some of these entities were on the way to crystallising into nation-states, and that, to roll the counter-factual back another empire’s worth, had India been spared the Mughal conquest, we might today have a very different idea of its “natural” political geography.

    In so far as there is a point to all this, it is not only to question the contention that without British conquest India would very probably have wound up united, but also to highlight the unexamined assumption shared by Tharoor and the British imperial apologists he takes issue with, that the existence of such a colossal all-India or most-of-India state is an inherently desirable state of affairs in the first place, which at the least requires some justification.


    • Jack Graham
      November 24, 2018 @ 9:16 am

      Fascinating context, thank you. I wouldn’t want to argue with anything you say really. It doesn’t fundamentally alter my point though, because I think the main thing is that imperialism takes the options and possibilities away. It overwrites one history on top of all the other potential ones. As Yasmin Khan put it in her book, Partition “‘stands testament to the follies of empire, which ruptures community evolution, distorts historical trajectories and forces violent state formation from societies that would otherwise have taken different and unknowable paths”.


      • UrsulaL
        November 26, 2018 @ 4:32 pm

        The passage of time overwrites one history on top of all the other potential ones, as the possibilities of the future become the actualities of the past.

        When an Indian historian says that India has a historical tendency to unification, they are making a political statement about the present, even more than a historical statement about the past.

        They are commenting on the legitimacy of contemporary separatist movements, and the appropriateness of the British decision to try to unify British India and the princely states, and the tactics used by the Indian and Pakistani central governments to force the princely states to join one or the other. (Particularly the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.)

        Other issues such a claim touches on include whether or not the Mughal Empire should be considered as properly “Indian,” and whether their rule and attempt to unify India was desirable. Even the choice to use the old Mughal capital for the new nation, symbolically tying the new government to that regime, and extending it over southern regions that were historically independent and resisted the invaders.

        In addition, if the Mughal empire is the historic template for a modern unified India, it represents a Muslim minority ruling over the larger, mostly Hindu, population, and also powers from the northwest conquering the entire subcontinent.

        If India’s natural destiny is unification, and unification is legitimate, then both those who resisted unification in the past and those who resist today are not legitimate in their goals and desires.

        Its a political and historical minefield. An Indian historian can make such a claim knowingly, aware of the implications. I’m not sure you see the hand-mines ready to grab your ankles when you use the quote.


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