The modern history of India, for the convenience of understanding, can be broadly read under four approaches—the Colonial (or the Imperialist), Nationalist, Marxist, and Subaltern—each with its own distinct characteristics and modes of interpretation.
Classification of Modern History
However, there are other approaches — Communalist, Cambridge, Liberal and Neo-liberal, and Feminist interpretations — which have also influenced historical writing on modern India.
The production of histories of India has become very frequent in recent years and may well call for some explanations. The reason is a two-fold one: changes in the Indian scene requiring a reinterpretation of the facts and changes in the attitudes of historians orb essential elements of Indian history. - Percival Spear
1. Colonial Approach/Historiography
For the major part of the 19th century, the Colonial School occupied a high position in India. The term "colonial approach" has been used in two senses. One relates to the history of the colonial countries, while the other refers to the works which were influenced by the colonial ideology of domination. It is in the second sense that most historians today write about colonial historiography.
Certain characteristics common to most of the works of these historians are the following:
(i) 'Orientalist' representation of India.
(ii) The opinion that the British brought unity to India.
(iii) The notions of Social Darwinism—the English considered themselves superior to the "natives" and the fittest to rule.
(iv) India viewed as a stagnant society which required guidance from the British (White Man's burden).
(v) Establishing Pax Britannica to bring law and order and peace to a bickering society.
2. Nationalist Historiography/Approach
- The nationalist approach to Indian history can be described as one which tended to contribute to the growth of nationalist feelings and to unify people in the face of religious, caste, or linguistic differences or class differentiation. This approach looks at the national movement as a movement of the Indian people, which grew out of the growing awareness among all people of the exploitative nature of the colonial rule.
- This approach developed as a response to and in confrontation with the colonial approach. It should be noted that the nationalist historians of modern India didn’t exist before 1947. Before 1947, nationalist historiography mainly dealt with the ancient and medieval periods of Indian history.
- The only accounts of the national movement were by nationalist leaders (not historians) such as R.G. Pradhan, A.C. Mazumdar, J.L. Nehru, and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. R.C. Majumdar and Tara Chand are noted nationalist historians of modern India.
3. Marxist Historiography/ Approach
- The beginning of the Marxist approach in India was heralded by two classic books—Rajni Palme Dutt’s India Today and A.R. Desai’s Social Background of Indian Nationalism. Originally written for the famous Left Book Club in England, India Today, first published in 1940 in England, was later published in India in 1947. A.R. Desai's Social Background of Indian Nationalism was first published in 1948.
- Unlike the imperialist/colonial approach, the Marxist historians clearly see the primary contradiction between the interests of the colonial masters and the subject people, as well as the process of the nation-in-the-making. Unlike the nationalists, they also take full note of the inner contradictions between the different sections of the people of the Indian society.
4. Subaltern Approach/ Historiography
- This school of thought began in the early 1980s under the editorship of Ranajit Guha, as a critique of the existing historiography, which was faulted for ignoring the voice of the people.
- Right from the beginning, subaltern historiography took the position that the entire tradition of Indian historiography had had an elitist bias.
- For the subaltern historians, the basic contradiction in Indian society in the colonial epoch was between the elite, both Indian and foreign, on the one hand, and the subaltern groups, on the other, and not between colonialism and the Indian people.
Subaltern historiography, the working class and social theory for the global south
- A few historians have of late initiated a new trend, described by its proponents as subaltern, which dismisses all previous historical writing, including that based on a Marxist perspective, as elite historiography, and claims to replace this old, 'blinkered' historiography with what it claims is a new people's or subaltern approach — Bipan Chandra.
- Nationalism, say the subalterns, ignored the internal contradictions within the society as well as what the marginalised represented or had to say. They believe that the Indian people were never united in a common anti-imperialist struggle, that there was no such entity as the Indian national movement.
5. Communalist Approach
- The historians of this school, relying completely on the colonial historiography of medieval India and colonial-era textbooks, viewed Hindus and Muslims as permanent hostile groups whose interests were mutually different and antagonistic to each other.
- This view was not only reflected in the writings of the historians but it also found a more virulent form in the hands of the communal political leaders.
6. Cambridge school
- Fundamental contradiction under colonial rule was among the Indians themselves.
- It takes the mind or ideals out of human behaviour and reduces nationalism to 'animal politics'.
7. Liberal and Neo-Liberal Interpretations
- According to this interpretation, the economic exploitation of the colonies was not beneficial to the British people as a whole.
- The availability of markets for British industrial goods in the colonial world and capital investment in overseas markets (like laying of railways in India) might have actually discouraged domestic investment and delayed the development of the 'new' industries in Britain.
8. Feminist Historiography
The shift in terms of the writing of women’s history began with the women’s movement of the 1970s which provided the context and impetus for the emergence of women’s studies in India. Very soon, women's history broadened and assumed the more complex shape of gender history.Feminist Historiography
In the colonial period, two works based upon the women’s question in India—The High Caste Hindu Woman (1887) by Pandita Ramabai, and Mother India (1927) by Katherine Mayo—attracted international attention.