Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to Our Times

Rajmohan Gandhi

Aleph

Rs 800; Pages 508

There used to be a telling anecdote doing the rounds in the mid-1990s. A poorly educated but very populist chief minister of Uttar Pradesh asked the chief minister of Kerala to write to him in Hindi. The latter is believed to have replied: “Why don’t you first teach your people to read and write Hindi?”

Kerala had just attained 100 per cent literacy. UP’s was at about half that.

The tale is instructive because to practically all North Indians the people who live in the five states that comprise peninsular India — the South — are kalay Madrassi. Not just that: thanks to British prejudices, they are also rice-eating weaklings. And, further, thanks to the caricaturing by Bollywood until the 1980s, they are also objects of ridicule.

This despite the fact that taxes collected from the south finance the north.

Modern South India

Picture: Amazon.in

So Rajmohan Gandhi, who can write history better than most, has set out to educate the North Indians. As well he might: if Gandhiji was his grandfather on the paternal side, C Rajagopalachari was the other, on the maternal side. He knows Tamil. He understands the South’s culture. Above all, he writes with marvellous fluidity.

The South, says Mr Gandhi is, and has, a distinct identity. It goes beyond the idli-dosa-sambhar description of it, which is like the South describing the North as chappatti-walas.

Mr Gandhi has culled information from hundreds of sources. He has then distilled it all into a much-needed book of the South, the first perhaps since K A Neelakanta Sastri’s book, which was published in 1955.

He says the book is a “Dravidian story… involving four centuries, the 17th, 18th, 19th and the 20th.” If you are looking for a quick account of those 400 years, this is the book for it.

It is also the perfect textbook because it is not written like a typical textbook, you know, the ‘one-damned-thing-after-another’ style. Only established facts are narrated. There is virtually no opinion, and adjectives, too, are absent.

Every topic and personage is treated with respect. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh does not put in an appearance till page 394 — in the context of the Emergency.

So no one can take offence because even Nehru is not magnified out of all proportion — no one is, not even E V Ramaswamy Naicker, the father of the political Dravidian movement in the Madras presidency.

Mr Gandhi also deals dispassionately with a major controversy — created by North Indian pamphleteers — regarding CR’s initiatives with Jinnah after the British had jailed the Congress leaders in 1942.

An agreement was almost at hand, says Mr Gandhi but Jinnah stalled it. CR has had to take the blame for it.

There is, however, a problem: the book is in English, which the North has been slow to learn. I would strongly recommend Hindi translations and abridged editions for senior school syllabi in all Hindi-speaking states.

Mr Gandhi is fair. He adds that the Tamils and the Malayalis and the Andhras and the Kannadigas can also be quite ill-informed about each other. “The scene has not dramatically improved in 150 years,” he says.

He also points out that South Indian chauvinism is driven more by pride in the languages. This had been in evidence from about 1917 when the Congress formed separate provincial bodies for the four main language areas of the peninsula.

So this book should be read in the South as well. In English as well as in translation in the four languages of the South.

The South has been a pioneer in most things that came late to the North. It was in the Madras Presidency that a government not dominated by the upper castes was formed in 1919. This was fair, considering the non-Brahmins were 90 per cent of the population.

It was also there that reservation by caste in government jobs was first introduced in 1919. In 1921, reservations were extended to promotions.

Kerala has the dubious honour of having had the first lot of people being asphyxiated to death in a railway goods wagon. They were mostly the Muslim Mapillas but three Hindus also died in that ill-fated coach. In all 70 persons died.

Even in what is now called ghar-wapasi, Kerala took the lead after the Mapilla rebellion. The Arya Samaj led from the front, asking those who had been forcibly converted to Islam to ingest “five cow products (milk, ghee curd, urine and dung) each day.” Mr Gandhi doesn’t say whether this was to be done sequentially or all at once in combination.

That would have been a nice detail.