Over the last 15 years, India in Transition has brought readers brief, analytical perspectives on the ongoing transformations in contemporary India based on cutting-edge research across a wide variety of subjects. This year, IiT is bringing you another way to engage with insightful scholarship on India: in-depth interviews with researchers, where we hear directly from them on what inspired their work, how they are choosing to dig deeper into the subject, and how it adds to our understanding of the country.
Send feedback and suggestions on our new feature to CASI Consulting Editor Rohan Venkat, by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
In the broad story of national politics in independent India, the currently dominant Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as the natural counterweight to the Indian National Congress, which towered over the field in the first few decades of the republic. But the BJP and its predecessors have not always been the principal opposition force in Indian politics, and not even the only ones taking on the Congress from the right.
In 1967, the Swatantra Party—championing conservative social ideals and a market-based economy—became the single largest Opposition party in the Indian Parliament. Although its electoral prominence would be short-lived, the Swatantra Party and the diverse cast of thinkers, businessmen, and politicians who filled its ranks left a lasting impact on Indian politics.
In Toward a Free Economy: Swatantra and Opposition Politics in Democratic India (Princeton University Press, 2023), historian Aditya Balasubramanian offers a complex portrait of the personalities who built the party and the ideas—of Opposition politics, decentralized policies, and the need to spread economic awareness—that fueled its rise. Over the course of the book, Balasubramanian, a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University, also draws out a compelling history of “Free Economy,” the Swatantra Party's nebulous economic ideal that overlapped only partially with neoliberal ideas that were gaining prominence on the other side of the globe.
CASI Consulting Editor Rohan Venkat spoke to Aditya Balasubramanian about the book and what Swatantra's story tells us about Indian politics.
Rohan: How did you pick up this topic? The project had its origins in an undergraduate dissertation, right?
Aditya: I was interested in the American economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, and his time consulting for the Planning Commission in the 1950s, and looking at that period against his later stint as the US ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration.
Galbraith was notably critical of the statism of the Indian economy, and particularly of the railways, despite being a Keynesian economist. He actually wrote to Milton Friedman that if there's one country where your ideas would benefit from more takers, it is probably India. But in his papers, which are located in the Kennedy Library, I began to find newspaper clippings which revealed a kind of Indian critique of planning that led me to the protagonists of my book. And it was a sustained curiosity in these figures that led me to first write an undergraduate dissertation on this topic and then to try to further develop it into a Ph.D.
At the time, my motivation was trying to understand who were the people interested in liberalizing the Indian economy before liberalization? But I would be very cautious to draw a line from Swatantra to 1991. From today’s perspective, the project is more salient, I think, in prompting us to consider the kind of capitalism that you have in India today, versus what Swatantra was interested in, which is a decentralized small-business type of capitalism. I hope it also prompts us to consider what the prospects are for a vibrant opposition in a post-colonial democracy?
Rohan: Can you give us the elevator pitch for the book?
Aditya: Toward A Free Economy is a history of informal economic ideas and post-colonial politics. It reconstructs a project to introduce a strong opposition to deepen democracy in India and places India's market turn in a social historical context with a focus on communities. It shows how a powerful current of what I consider economic conservatism arose in post-colonial India during the 1950s and is expressed in the electoral platform of the Swatantra or Freedom Party that rose and fell between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.
Swatantra became India's key opposition to the then mighty Congress Party and contributed to the weakening of the one-party dominant system during the subsequent decade. The book shows how changes in society and economy in the post-colonial period drove ideas and politics, focusing on Western and Southern India rather than the much more closely studied North India and Bengal. Instead of a history of economic theory, it offers a history of economic consciousness and communication. Looking to the present, it shows us an alternative brand of democratic right-wing politics from the authoritarian crony-capitalist version unfolding around the world.
Rohan: You’ve described this as a book that looks at informal thinkers, and I'm curious, what drove you to make that decision? You're very clear that this is not an electoral history. This is not just a political look at Swatantra. It’s broader.
Aditya: Two things. I think that in terms of Swatantra, the electoral footprint is significant in the sense that they get 44 seats [in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament] in 1967. But it's not a huge electoral footprint. What's interesting is what [political scientist] Rajni Kothari remarked at the time, which is that [Swatantra] helped make politics more ideological.
What is interesting is how the leaders who are putting together the platform are coming from communities that are in the process of moving into new forms of economic activity and it's significant that they are either landowning dominant castes or mercantile communities. I found that to be compelling and interesting. This critique that you're hearing of Indian planning is actually not coming from economists. It’s that source material that led me to think about and ask, how do we modify the scholarly approach to give these people a voice?
When you actually go back and think about it, economic narratives are such a powerful factor in our lives. And the language of the politicians who speak to us, via various forms of media, the people with whom we interact in our day-to-day exchanges, and the kinds of decisions we make on our own, are based on a particular kind of economic common sense and understanding. In a way, that’s even more important than the formal economic thinking that takes place inside the academy. It's something that is never actually studied and I think it should be, and that was part of the motivation in writing this book and orienting the study in this manner.
Rohan: Swatantra’s history of opposition to the Congress is something that was familiar to me. But the book really offers a sharp sense of how deliberate the thinkers in the party were about building an opposition politics.
Aditya: What was unique about Swatantra is that it took a kind of educational role quite seriously. And of course, this is the period that Dipesh Chakrabarty describes as one in which the leaders of post-colonial democracies take a pedagogical approach to politics. But that is something that you see of leaders in office: Sukarno, Nehru, etc. Seeing the educational role assumed from the opposition side was something that I found to be unique. So too, in the context of the time, was the idea that the opposition should work to provide checks and balances on the party in power.
The third thing is that they see democracy as an end in itself. Whereas for example, the other large opposition parties of the day—the communists—are interested in, ultimately, the proletariat seizing the means of production and the dissolution of the state. The communists operate within a democratic framework, but that's not the end goal.
Similarly with Jan Sangh, which is the other prominent opposition party, but on the right, the end point is about allegedly returning to a society of a hundred Mahajanapadas, and as we hear today, Vipaksh-mukt Bharat (Opposition-less India). It's not about multi-party democracy. There was this understanding [in Swatantra] that a multi-party system is a valuable thing to have to prevent a country from going down the road to authoritarianism.
In a very moving passage in the Idea of India, Suni Khilnani writes that by the 1970s, Indian democracy became purely about winning elections and cynical electoral calculus trumps all. Now, of course, there is certainly an element of realpolitik in Swatantra's activities, particularly in the 1967 alliance with the DMK. But there is a larger project [of democracy] which—without glorifying or fetishizing—we can broadly say they helped advance.
It’s also worth noting that Swatanra was given an environment in which it could make itself viable. Nehru welcomed opposition parties if they were able to provide something constructive. And that's harder for opposition parties today. And there was also greater independence of institutions like the judiciary in those days.
Part of Swatantra's project of opposition politics was to use the tripartite system of government to impose checks on the ruling party, whether that meant passing no confidence motions or sitting on parliamentary committees, etc. One of the things that they're able to do is to bring court cases to the Supreme Court on the issue of the right to property and win. Now that presumes an independence of the judiciary, that's willing to go against the executive.
Rohan: Tell us about the title. What is “Free economy” and where does it come from? You’ve called this a “prehistory” of neoliberalism.
Aditya: Free economy is a key word that is used by various figures who are disgruntled with the policies of the Congress and the way in which India is going during the 1950s. It describes a staggering variety of visions of what an alternative political economy for India will look like. And they emanate chiefly from Southern and Western India.
But the lowest common denominator, or what they have in common, is that they come from a broadly anti-communist disposition. The votaries of free economy are also all people who believe in the defense of private property. They believe in unfettered private economic activity. And they believe in the decentralization of economic activity. So those are the four elementary aspects, if you will. And this discourse originates in what's called the Libertarian Social Institute in Bombay, that's run by a very fascinating man named Ranchoddas Lotvala, who used to be a patron of communism in India before steadily drifting rightward, and his daughter and collaborator Kusum Lotvala. By the 1950s, the Lotvalas are concerned about the so-called socialist planned economy and prefer something called “free economy” instead.
I should clarify that I don't believe the votaries of free economy to be neoliberals. Of course, that raises the question of what is neoliberalism, right? Neoliberalism has meant many things to many people, including everything you don't like about the world since 1980, to the much more specific definition, which is a project to insulate markets from politics that is driven by experts. And I think that the most coherent articulation is given by Quinn Slobodian in Globalists through his study of Geneva-school intellectuals.
It's also worth noting that the discourse of neoliberalism is actually used by people. Sometimes you will say, no, nobody actually uses this terminology. But there are a group of Atlantic intellectuals, journalists, etc. who are part of what's called the Mont Pelerin Society, founded in 1947, to bring what its key organizers call rebirth of liberalism, and in response to Keynesianism, which is becoming the new paradigm for economic policymaking. One of the founders is Friedrich von Hayek, who actually does, at some point, use the terminology of neoliberalism as a description for this project. The person who inherits the mantle of that organization is Milton Friedman. So, I use this terminology in a very specific form.
What I find in my book is that the interlocutors of mainstream neoliberals in India are the votaries of free economy, but they are not neoliberals themselves because there are certain basic differences. So, for example, they are not methodologically individualists. For most of them, the caste and family continue to be important. They're not interested in some of the issues that preoccupy neoliberals, like the international division of labor or even something like free versus floating exchange rates. Nevertheless, it's significant to think of free economy as part of the history of neoliberalism because it is the history of people who are interlocutors outside the heartland. The history of something is also the history of that which it is not, right?
It's significant that figures like Ranchoddas Lotvala are encountering the likes of Hayek and his early mentor Ludwig von Mises through pamphlets that are coming from the United States. But they are essentially using those dimensions of neoliberal rhetoric and ideas that are appropriate for them. My protagonists remain very much firmly anchored in their own context, responding to their own issues. They are also operating in the Indian sense in a Cold War context, whereas the neoliberals in the Western context are often Hayekians against Keynesians. Here it's also something that we can see as a kind of anti-communist discourse.
Rohan: The book makes a good point—hard for some of us who have access to the internet to understand—about how even the access to some of these economic debates was circumscribed by what material made it to India and how. Since we’re on the topic of labels, why call some in the Swatantra party “conservatives?”
Aditya: This is something that a few people have asked me about because some of the folks in Swatantra can talk about themselves as pursuing a conservative project; in that Congress is trying to move in a progressive direction, and they feel they need to kind of reel things back. Conservatism has to always be understood in a particular context. It's always a question of “conservative relative to what?” Other people would say that Swatantra is a classically liberal party. If you were to take certain kinds of understandings about the freedom of the individual and their attitude toward political economy, this can be reconciled with a certain kind of classical liberalism—to which my response would be, I think that that's acceptable in a sense. But if we're to situate them historically and contextually, they are to the right of pretty much everybody else of their day. One objection that was raised by somebody at one of my book events was “how does it make sense to call them conservatives if what they're advocating for is India's transition to a certain kind of small-business-led or regional business-led capitalism and a capitalist industrialization is actually not a conservative thing.” That's a serious question. And there's always a choice that one has to make with terminology. But the impulse behind the party, it is a conservative one.
If we look at one of the definitions of conservatism, it is to preserve a social order, resisting its progressive transformation. Sure capitalism, relative to feudalism, is progressive transformation of the social order. And that then raises another question that someone put to me: Why use conservative or liberal at all? Are they not just libertarian? That's an interesting question. Certainly the Lotvalas who set up this Libertarian Social Institute consider themselves to be libertarian. Here again, I think if we look at the various different individuals of the Swatantra party, it starts to become a little more difficult to characterize them in one word. Because there are people who have different kinds of ideas about the role of the state in economic life.
For example, one of the characters is interested in agricultural price stabilization, coordinated globally, to compensate farmers adequately. Now, in no world would that be considered libertarian, right? And so, I come back to my choice. We might say that relative to a socialist state, such an idea is conservative because it essentially wants your landowning dominant elites who run the agriculture of the rural area to perpetuate their power.
Rohan: At one point Nehru dismisses Swatantra as a party of ghosts, which today reads odd, in part, because people sometimes now see Swatantra as ahead of its time, as the party that foresaw the 1991 movement. So, why was Nehru dismissing it as something of the past?
Aditya: It's interesting because the headline of one of the reviews of the book was “A Party Ahead of its Time.” In the journalistic and think tank sphere Swatantra is considered to be a harbinger of 1991 and ahead of its time. In the academic literature, the persistent characterization has been based on the questions: Who are the vote banks of this party? And who are some of the prominent people who are getting those vote banks delivered? And in that you see a lot of maharajas, zamindars, etc.
And so “ghosts of the past” are essentially Nehru's characterization, which in a sense accords with the social scientific characterization of [Sudipta] Kaviraj and those of various political scientists of the 1960s. It’s this understanding that Swatantra is a residue of all of the people who are nostalgic for a kind of feudal political economy and a particular kind of 19th century understanding of laissez faire. In other words, they don't live in the 20th century, they are of the past. They are nostalgic for a time when they were economically dominant.
What that characterization does is profoundly disregard the changes that are taking place driving the emergence of Swatantra. So yes, on the one hand, the vote banks are certainly coming from Maharani Gayatri Devi, in Rajasthan, or the Kshatriya Sabha in Gujarat. All of that is true. But these are not the people who are defining the party's agenda. These are not the people who are generating the ideas of the party. And if you go and look at the concrete practices of political economy that are taking place in places like Gujarat—in Anand and Vallabh Vidyanagar. Or when you think about the Gounders in South India, that is actually a transition to agro-industry, a transition to certain kinds of organized capitalism To use Harish Damodaran's term, “India's new capitalists” are partaking of Swatantra. So, the ghost characterization is one that is related almost purely to the vote bank analysis of Swatantra, which is a relic of a particular kind of interest group approach to the study of Indian politics of the mid-20th century.
Rohan: Tell us a little bit about these people who are defining the ideas of this party.
Aditya: I would think of Ranchhodas Lotvala as somebody who is sitting in an urban context, but he is thoughtful about the agrarian decentralization of political economy. And in fact, he is quite conversant with the ideas of this American anarchist individualist called Ralph Borsodi, who sets up a school of living in upstate New York and then a university in Melbourne, Florida, interested in cooperative-based living. And it's associated with the critique in the United States of the New Deal kind of big government-based programs and also of urban industrial life.
So, you have somebody like him in this sort of origin point, but then you have both agrarian figures like C. Rajagopalachari who derives a kind of economic common sense from the village context. He's somebody who doesn't really move to a city until much later on in life. And he is somebody who is quite shaped by the experiences between 1925-35 running Gandhi's Tiruchengode ashram. Influenced by a state that is quite thin, in one sense, in so far as the personnel of the state that is in colonial Madras Presidency is almost purely focused on revenue collection in some sense.
On the other hand, you also have a figure like Minoo Masani, who comes from an elite Bombay family. He has family connections to the Tatas. He is someone who starts life as a Congress socialist. He's very intimate with Jayaprakash Narayan, but later on becomes more and more sympathetic to capitalist activity. He is someone who is an employee of the Tatas for a time, runs a management consultancy and helps the Tatas design their training programs. He's somebody who becomes very sympathetic to Wilsonian internationalism and interested in free trade for the world. He's also somebody who spends a lot of time in South Bombay, where he's from and he's interested in furthering the interests of big business. But to see him merely as a sort of caricature of the capitalist stooge whom he once decried as a socialist is not the full picture. He is also somebody who's very much a part of this Forum of Free Enterprise in Bombay, which is set up by AD Shroff, and is also interested in the interests of the small business owners in Bombay, the people who run their shops and the constraints that they are facing, after the advent of postcolonial economic policy under planning and the kind of regulatory state that emerges.
Rohan: The book is full of fascinating characters, and all of the footnotes also sent me down rabbit holes. On the one side we don't get a clear sense—because of a lack of material—of someone like Kusum, Ranchoddas' daughter, who you attribute a lot of the Libertarian Institute's success to. But we have much more about someone like N.G. Ranga, an amazing character. “Conservative in terms of national politics and leftist in his interest in Third World peasant solidarity, Ranga was a mofussil intellectual elite with a global vision of an international coalition of peasants.” Could you tell us a little bit more about them?
Aditya: Maybe I should just say what the Libertarian Social Institute is. It is an institution set up in 1947 by Ranchhodas Lotvala, who believes that political economy is the problem that India will have to deal with now that it is independent, for assuring broad based prosperity for its citizens. It's a kind of metaphysical club of sorts, in that it seeks the education of as many people as it can. And it wants to train people to become economic thinkers. The title of one of the calls for membership, says “You, Too Can Be An Economist.” And their idea is that we want to prepare people for this economic age in which we are living. It's a small outfit in Bombay. It maintains a hostel. It most prominently runs a magazine called Free Economic Review that is then renamed as Indian Libertarian, and it maintains a huge library of a few thousand books.
By this time, Lotvala is actually quite old and so it is his daughter Kusum who gives up a career as a sportscaster and badminton player to essentially make it viable. She gets literature from overseas, asking for discounts because foreign exchange is scarce, puts them in the pages of the Free Economic Review, disseminates the Review, and gets plugged into a collection of anti-communist periodicals and publications and associations that are not happy with the Congress, that, in a sense, are the mold of the pre-Gandhian political association from the early 20th century, and spread “free economy.”
To come to Ranga, he is an absolutely fascinating person. N.G. Ranga is from the Northern Circars region. He comes from a wealthy, medium-tier land-owning family of Kammas, and he goes to the UK to study. He learns economics and actually teaches economics at Pachaiyappa College in Madras. He does a lot of very interesting village economic surveys. So, he has a very good understanding of the agrarian economy. He's an important member of the Kisan Congress and he helps found the Kisan Sabha. These are groups that are instrumental in building the mass bases of the Congress, particularly in Ranga's case, in South India, but also across other parts of the country. He originally has a progressive socialist disposition. During the interwar period, he spends time in London. He gets to know leaders like George Padmore, he's friends with Jomo Kenyatta, so he's interested in anti-imperialism and people of colors’ solidarity and this kind of thing. But his Congress Socialist Party are infiltrated by the communists after the latter are formally banned and he sees a lot of his membership move away. And that starts a bitterness in him about communism. The other point is that the economic interests of his constitutents and of the Kammas, and Reddys more broadly, start to clash or conflict with the program of the Congress.
And so while Ranga is one of the foremost votaries of Zamindari abolition (in the North), when it comes to his ryotwari areas, where you do still have profound inequalities in terms of landholding, he starts to say, “Well, look, we are peasant proprietors from the ryotwari system. And if you interfere with the peasant proprietor, you are penalizing the freedom-loving peasant, who is really the vehicle of revolutionary change and progress in society and really at the heart of what this agrarian world is about.” Also, the relations between landlords and tenants in a ryotwari system, according to Ranga in his idealized view, are far less unequal than they are in other systems. So, when the Congress starts to think about land ceilings in these areas, Ranga comes out strongly against that. And that's where his conservatism in the local context starts to manifest itself.
He writes a book called Credo of World Peasantry, which I alluded to earlier, in which he's interested in a global United Nations-managed system for coordinating the prices of agricultural output such that compensation to developing countries for their agricultural output is fair and insured against the fluctuations of the global market. Now, on the face of it, that seems like a very progressive thing, but as I mentioned earlier, it is a situation in which you're not necessarily changing the ownership of land in the rural context. It can continue to perpetuate rural elites in power who are exploiting lower-caste labor.
Rohan: I think I could easily spend more time asking about some of these people, but I want to draw lines from figures like Ranga to the current moment. People like to compare Swatantra and its ideas to what we have in India today. It seemed clear that Swatantra’s leaders were not interested in the much harder Hindu Nationalism that comes out of the Jana Sangh and the BJP. But is there an argument that the BJP also does not derive that much from Swatantra, given that it is less conservative in its ideas of community and the hierarchy in the countryside?
Aditya: On the one hand, there are elements within the Swatantra party who are unambiguously Hindu majoritarian and K.M. Munshi is perhaps the most prominent of those. Although I would argue that he has little to do with Swatantra's day-to-day activities. There's a question about whether or not the pro-business elements—not purely pro-big business elements but pro all-business—can be co-opted by the Hindu Right.
If you were to look at the successors of Swatantra or some of those communities, it is absolutely true. The Tamil Brahmins are quite sympathetic to the Hindu Right in these ways. But there are also communities that are so focused on their economic interest that they're willing to eschew or participate in majoritarian politics, it doesn't really matter to them. In the case of Swatantra, there was a profound Gandhian influence on figures like C. Rajagopalachari and Masani and others. And that was not secular in the traditional sense, but it was one that believed in inter religious harmony and respected the sanctity of various kinds of religious practice in India. It was a kind of “unity in diversity” disposition.
If you were to look at the BJP today, there is perhaps a certain kind of disposition toward market-based outcomes that they might share. Even if we were to take the Congress coalition that broadened the 1991 reforms, we could say that disposition is certainly shared. But there are things in both the Narasimha Rao-led government or the Narendra Modi-led government that would probably strike as anathema to Swatantra. One is the regime of welfare that you see in India today, which Swatantara—with the exception of Ranga’s Kammas and Reddys—would broadly not be something that they would be interested in. Now, something like foreign direct investment, they would certainly welcome. They always saw that as a better alternative to foreign aid because they thought it was more self-sustaining.
The BJP is trying to construct an imagined past that is distinct and has co-opted various OBC communities, for example, into voting for it, which a group like Swatantra would have had profound challenges getting support from.
I think one critique Swatantra leveled at the time of the Congress, but resonates deeply today, is of Permit License Raj. And that is not in the way that we understand it today, which is as the residue of the regulatory state in terms of economic policy and the different hurdles you have to cross to make your business work. Rather, I am referring to what Rajagopalachari meant, which was an oligarchic coalition of politicians from the party in power, big business and elite bureaucrats who wield extraordinary power. And that the nexus between these three groups, particularly in an era of electoral bonds which in some sense has contributed to hollowing out the substantive content of democracy, I think that is a critique that Swatantra would levy of the regime today. And it levied it of the Congress regime of its time.
Rohan: Indeed, the book made me think of many things, like the Aam Aadmi Party’s construction of the middle-class today. But maybe the strongest legacy of the Swatantra Party was its criticism of the Congress—the “License Permit Raj” critique, the “pseudo-secular” tag, which you mention was first used by Lotvala, but also things like taking up cudgels on the corruption question, being the first non-Congress member at the head of Political Accounts Committee.
Aditya: Absolutely. I think that's right, which is that the idioms of anti-incumbency and anti-Congress politics used by Swatantra are definitely something that we can draw a line to today, insofar as we're drawing lines.
Just quickly on the pseudo-secular point, it is something that I thought was quite a find. And it dates to the time when Lotvala was actually willing to countenance anything as an alternative to Congress before he jettisoned his majoritarian rhetoric. This terminology is actually used once in an anonymous 1950 article produced by Lotvala’s institute and later in a review of K.R. Malkani’s Principles for a New Political Party, a document that offers a blueprint of sorts for the Jan Sangh and is conventionally understood to be the place where “pseudo-secular” first appeared in writing.
After a while, despite countenancing the Jan Sangh, Lotvala loses interest because he believes them to be too attached to caste Hinduism and “irrational.” For example, he says they're not interested in the positive contributions of Buddhism, and they're also not adequately seized of the concerns of political economy.
There are certain vocabularies that Swatantra or the people who were attached to Swatantra contributed that have continued true to the present. But it's also worth thinking about some of the choices they made and deviations they make from the Hindu Right, as citizens explore alternative conservative politics in India going forward.
Rohan: Are there misconceptions about Swatantra, its leaders, the Free Economy movement, that you find yourself combating regularly?
Aditya: I am trying to understand India's post-liberalization society, but not by trying to figure out who are the intellectual parents of 1991. Communities like Charotar Patidars, Kammas and Reddys, Gounders, Tamil Brahmins have benefited disproportionately from liberalization. What are the idioms of discontent and practices that these people were undertaking much earlier? How can we, therefore, understand their prosperity in context of certain things that are taking place for them if we go way back to the beginnings of independent India? And what is the longer history of how a liberalization ethos becomes embedded in Indian society?
The second thing is the question of whether the Swatantra people are “soft Hindutva,” or soft majoritarians? And I think that, in a manner of speaking, people have made up their minds about this. One of the things I'm trying to show in the book is that you have those elements, but those elements are, broadly, kept in check. My question is—and again I'm not trying to be an apologist for Swatantra or anything like that—in the present moment, what are realistic forms of political organization that we've seen in the past? And how can the worst excesses of the present, perhaps, be held in check? Sometimes the attribution is then made that I hold a particular kind of politics, and I think that’s unfair and not quite desirable. I think we can stand and examine political projects that may not jive with our own politics, but still take something valuable from them.
Rohan: What are you working on next?
Aditya: I'm working on a couple of things. I'm starting a project on the economic and environmental history of roads and road transport in India. That will be focused on four sites: the Grand Trunk Road, the Old National Highway 6 from Surat to Kokata, the Mehawa Village Road in Etawah District of Uttar Pradesh and then the Anna or Gemini Flyover, the first flyover built in India’s automobile hub and my favorite place in the world, Chennai.
Through that sited approach, I hope to build a broader narrative of 19th and 20th century road and road transport history. I'm also working on a longer-term project, which I imagine will take me years and years, on micro histories of families conducting commerce between South and Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th century.
We have a lot of recent work that's been done about the labor migration in and across the Bay of Bengal and in the Indian Ocean region more broadly, and ethnographies of specific merchant communities. My friend, Michael O’Sullivan’s extraordinary book, No Birds of Passage about Khojas, Memons, and Bohras just came out. But I'm interested more in individual families and thinking about what kinds of sources can you get to tell these stories from the very small scale perspective.
Alongside those two projects, I'm pursuing an article and study of Eucalyptus planting in India from the 1960s and the way in which it's been politicized, as well as the challenges with respect to resource conflict, biodiversity laws, Adivasi dispossession, and how what was originally perceived to be a kind of magic bullet, introduced to basically help India meet its fuel, wood, and pulp requirements backfired, despite all kinds of warnings along the way.
Aditya Balasubramanian is an author and Senior Lecturer in History at Australian National University.
Rohan Venkat is the Consulting Editor for India in Transition and a CASI Non-Resident Visiting Scholar.
India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.
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