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India in Transition

Rahul Sagar on How 19th Century Indians Grappled with the “Great Questions of our Age”

Rahul Sagar & Rohan Venkat
November 6, 2023

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

A provocative 1992 piece by the RAND Corporation’s George Tanham argued that India has no strategic culture, in part because Indians were “uninterested” in it. In response, many have, over the past few decades, looked to India’s ancient and medieval pasts for texts, like the Arthashastra, that might help us locate the sources of Indian thinking about the world. In Rahul Sagar’s view, this focus on the distant past may be interesting—but isn’t useful in helping us understand the deeper sources of Indian conduct today.

Instead, Sagar—Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University Abu Dhabi—turned to Ideas of India, a database of every major English-language periodical published in India between 1800 and 1950, that he assembled, to get a glimpse of how Anglophone Indians in the 19th century were thinking about the world. “The political forces these elites birthed became central in the post-Independence period,” he writes in the introduction to his book, To Raise A Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics (Columbia University Press, 2022). Sagar has been a CASI research collaborator on projects and workshops related to India’s foreign relations. Ideas of India and research for his 2022 book were made possible partly through a CASI-awarded grant, led by Devesh Kapur (CASI Director, 2006-18) with Sagar as co-Principal Investigator.

CASI Consulting Editor Rohan Venkat asked Sagar about the book and what it tells us about the global debates that animated 19th century Indians.

Rohan: Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to study political theory and Indian international thought—especially given all the other things you are working on (Lee Kuan Yew, “Secrets & Leaks,” etc). Did you always know you wanted to work in this space, or is it something you stumbled into?

Rahul: One of my earliest memories is of the ’84 riots. It was the first moment when, camped out on rooftop with our neighbors, with rumors of attacks circulating, that I became sharply aware of the state—or the lack of it. I saw frightened adults and felt the dread that arises when mobs are in charge. A little later I had the good fortune to visit Singapore, and there I saw, by contrast, what good leadership could accomplish. Over the next few years, these contrasting fates, of a dynastic and corrupt regime in India and a meritocratic and lawful one in Singapore, came to occupy my mind. In the wake of ’91, when Narasimha Rao began freeing up India, I dreamed of becoming a development economist and helping close the gap between India and the “Asian Tigers.” Not many teens were fawning over the World Bank’s East Asian Miracle, but I certainly was. But by the time I reached Oxford the “Jungle Raj” was at its zenith, and so I gradually came to the conclusion that leadership, not technical advice, was the critical factor. Good economists can be purchased by the dozen, but good leaders are much harder to come by.

Back then, I could not see how political theory might help in judging leadership. I twice selected—and twice dropped—classes in political theory. I was baffled by the excessively philosophical approach that was in fashion then—“ideal theory” as it is sometimes called. All this changed when I got to Harvard and entered the orbit of Richard Tuck. Every seminar was a revelation, but it was his class on Roman political thought, which introduced me to Tacitus and Sallust, among other marvels, that most affected the course of my intellectual life. Roman historians revealed how history could not only explain ideas and events but also teach morality. In their intense focus on the conduct of leaders, they satisfied my craving for a way to make sense of politics “from above.” Since that time, my research interests have had a broad, unifying theme: I am interested in statesmanship or those pivotal moments in which leaders make decisions that are beyond the sight or the comprehension of the masses. Whether it is a President negotiating in secret, or Lee Kuan Yew building up his “little red dot,” or Madhava Rao reforming Travancore, I am interested in those vital moments when statesmen make hard choices for the sake of the people—when they serve as the guardians or trustees of generations to come.

Rohan: For the readers who are unfamiliar, what is the Ideas of India project? How did it come about?

Rahul: Ideas of India is a database that indexes the contents of every major English-language periodical published in India between 1800-1950. It came about because of a conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta. I was trying to figure out what to teach my students about Indian political thought and he pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, it was unrealistic to think that I would find in the Indian context canonical texts like those in the Western tradition, the latter being the product of a particular set of circumstances. I then began poking around in the archives and came across a number of these periodicals. As I worked my way through these periodicals, I realized how deeply important they had been to India’s intellectual life and development. They emerged at a time when Indians were beginning to collectively grapple with modernity due to rapid advances in education and connectivity. Given the cost associated with writing and publishing books, these periodicals, which were more marketable because they contained everything from essays to advertisements, became the venue where Indians set about questioning and re-fashioning inherited ideas and institutions. Once I became aware of the scope and scale of these periodicals, which numbered in the hundreds, and featured every important author of the day, I made it my mission to recover as many of them as I could, so that generations to come are able to understand the intellectual forces that birthed modern India.

Rohan: At what point did the work on Ideas of India coalesce into To Raise a Fallen People? Were you looking for pieces about Indian international thinking or did the argument and crux of the book come afterwards?

Rahul: It was very much the latter. When I began building Ideas of India, I was operating under the mistaken assumption that there were not many periodicals published in India prior to 1900. I thought that Indian Review, Hindustan Review, and Modern Review, the most influential periodicals of their era, were pioneers. I soon realized that they were in fact standing on the shoulders of giants such as Dawn’s Magazine and Indian Magazine. As I went along uncovering these earlier periodicals from the nineteenth century, I read everything they contained about politics. Gradually, the realization dawned that there was much more reflection on international politics than scholars have hitherto realized. That was the genesis of To Raise a Fallen People.

Rohan: How would you summarize the book’s argument for those unfamiliar with it?

Rahul: To Raise a Fallen People argues that the worldviews prevailing in India today actually emerged in the nineteenth century. Thus, if we want to understand the ideas and sentiments that motivate contemporary India, we would do well to pay close attention to what was said and done in that century. To put it another way, whenever someone today asks why some policy is a good idea—freeing the economy, abolishing caste, living under constitutional rule, building a worthy military—the trail of answers inevitably leads back to some foundational debate in nineteenth century India. One of the most important debates that occurred in that century, whose consequences we live with every day, was over whether India should strive to become a traditional great power or an exemplar of a “higher” morality in international politics.

Rohan: In your introduction, you say that “contemporary India openly neglects policies that would allow it to marshal resources and compete more effectively in the international sphere...a halfhearted approach to great power politics.” Can you tell me what you are referring to with this? Are you thinking specifically about the military/security aspects of great power conception—or something beyond that?

Rahul: I am referring to the full spectrum of policies—political, economic, and social—that allow a country to maximize its “power potential” or its ability to control and manage the external environment. I would be the last to belittle all that India has achieved up to this point, but we would be remiss if we do not acknowledge how halting our progress has been on these fronts. The question I am interested in is why we have been lackadaisical. There are a number of proximate explanations for our plodding than racing toward great power: a chaotic democracy, quirky personalities, bureaucratic inertia, colonial hangovers, and so on. I do not contest these claims, but they still leave us with a puzzle. In a democratic polity, if the populace truly wants something, they get their way. A single-minded conviction of this kind is missing in the Indian context. What has caused this? My view is that our half-heartedness is a direct consequence of a debate that we have been having for more than a century now. This debate, which began in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, is about the purpose of power. What is it good for? What should it be used toward? In the domestic context, there is broad consensus that power should be used to advance social justice. But when it comes to international politics, we lack similar clarity. The problem here is not a lack of ambition, but a divided heart: should we strive to be a traditional great power or not? The tendency has been to leave the reckoning to another day.

Rohan: You ask whether ancient and early modern Indian statecraft, in which there has been a renewed interest of late, can “truly be the source of contemporary conduct.” Tell us a little bit about your thinking on this. There are some who believe that readings of texts like the Arthashastra through the lens of modern theory, for example, are often quite simplistic.

Rahul: The classical tradition of statecraft is profound in every respect. It discerns, with marvelous clarity, the close connection between the domestic and the foreign, whether in the realm of economics or culture or politics. It is also conservative in the conventional sense that it rightly sees how difficult it is to acquire and wield power. The rarest thing in this world, our classics teach us, is prudence and righteousness. Being acutely conscious of this, they display none of the hubris that accompanies modern European thought, which frustrates itself by constantly seeking to and then inevitably failing at remaking the wider world. In this sense, our classics deserve our most careful study because many of the lessons imparted are timeless.

All this being said, the contemporary relevance of classical traditions everywhere are limited by two factors. The first is our changed social circumstances. In every classical tradition, ruling is understood as the business of the prudent few, a form of government made less plausible by the democratic and egalitarian tendencies of the modern age. Second, and still more fundamental, is the growth of interconnectedness, whether in terms of trade or tastes, or our shared vulnerabilities to global events such as climate change or financial crises. Classical traditions, which were devised for a very different age, both in terms of challenges that societies faced and the technologies available to redress them, are imperfect guides to many of the difficulties we face today. It is here that varieties of liberal and cosmopolitan thought, which try to overcome hierarchy and sovereignty, rightfully demand our attention. It does not help, however, that the institutions that have been created to advance a more egalitarian and responsive global order have, in practice, become vehicles for hypocrisy and hegemony. It is disgust with selfishness under the guise of liberalism that propels so many to seek solace in classical traditions, which have the great virtue of being honest about the weaknesses of the human race—such as our tendency to partiality.

Rohan: How did you decide what constitutes “international politics/thought?” For example, if there was jockeying and discussions of strategy and policy toward (and between) princely states—technically separate entities—did you consider that for inclusion within here, or did you broadly think of it as “Indians” looking beyond the subcontinent?

Rahul: This is a very interesting question. I focused on “British India” and I incorporated the princely states within this broader political unit. There were two reasons for doing so. First, as a matter of both theory and practice, the princely states ceded control over foreign affairs to British India, which was the “paramount” power. This means that we do not, as a matter of course, find the princely states making public declarations on international questions. This does not mean that the princely states did not play an important role in shaping and articulating Indian worldviews. On the contrary, the resources and powers at the Maharajas’ disposal made them important actors on the international stage. Whether by supplying troops or by traveling around the world, Maharajas did much to shape how Indians perceived the broader world—and vice versa. But—and this brings me to the second point—the Maharajas did not see themselves as articulating worldviews that were somehow unique. The more important rulers were educated by British tutors and their darbars were stocked with Indians educated in or borrowed from British India. This meant that the princely states became important voices in debates that were occurring within British India. They did not see themselves as outside British India in this regard. To Raise a Fallen People contains a number of important examples on this front—essays by darbar officials that were widely-read because they clearly and thoughtfully articulated what position British India (and with it, Indian India) ought to take on the pressing international questions.

Rohan: Do you read the “moral/spiritual” argument of Indian self-conception—which turns up often in these essays—as purely one that emerges from European Orientalist readings? Would you say the Vishwaguru/Civilizational framing of today also emerges from the same strain?

Rahul: The view that India has a distinctively “spiritual” role to play in the world is very much a product of European Orientalism. It owes to the outsize influence that Max Müller, in particular, had on a generation of Indians. Disgusted by the excesses of European colonialism, Indians of the late nineteenth century were in search of an alternative conception of world order, which Müller’s vivid imagination provided them. Not one of the Indian principalities that had existed earlier in the very same century would have believed any of what Orientalists would pass off as hoary tradition. A quick glance through Shelford Bidwell’s still-excellent Swords for Hire gives a very good sense of what Maratha sardars like Sindhia and Holkar were up to in the decades before they were outdone by the East India Company. Canons, not charkhas, was what occupied them. Go back another century and read the works of statecraft produced by Shivaji’s officers, especially the Ajnapatra, which declares building and managing forts as the “essence” of statecraft. It quickly becomes clear from all this that Indian statecraft had never failed to give international politics the attention it is owed—until the Orientalists came on to the scene and persuaded us otherwise.

The Vishawaguru framing of the present day has little to do with Orientalism. As a matter of diplomatic practice, it is a valuable narrative device. It presents rising India in a soft light, seeking to assuage or preempt concerns that it may become more confrontational as its resources and abilities grow. But it would be a grave mistake to think that the idea of India as a Vishawaguru is nothing more than marketing. There is an important philosophical point at stake: Indian culture has developed distinctive ways of addressing some dilemmas of human existence. At the heart of this approach is a tacit acceptance that desirable ends can conflict. An exemplar here is Bankim Chatterjee’s Dharmatattva, which ruminates on the haunting problem of balancing nationalism and cosmopolitanism, both of which make reasonable claims upon us. We have tended to respond to such moral conflicts in a distinctly pluralist way. What makes our approach distinctive is that it is grounded more in practice than in theory. Whether due to contingent history, social complexity, or religious belief, we tend not, as a matter of practice, to veer too far in any one direction on questions of value. This makes us quite unlike the modern West, which serially reduces all problems to some one problem like inequality, which it then chases headlong, only to be left wondering why its society is still beset with discontent. There is then perhaps something the world can learn from our curious, retiring style.

Rohan: What also comes across very clearly is how strong certain colonial narratives—like a despotic Muslim period, an Enlightened British one, a “spiritual” India—and so on animate these conversations, authored by Indians. Is it possible to disentangle the opinions of the colonized from the colonial narratives that were in vogue at the time?

Rahul: This is a very important question. It gets to the heart of why intellectuals in contemporary India have such disdain for their predecessors. The presiding assumption on the Left and the Right is that the intellectuals of the nineteenth century were either “reactionary” or the “denationalized” (or to put it slightly more generously, that they were simple-minded “victims” of circumstance). This way of thinking ignores agency or the possibility that these intellectuals were able to think for themselves and break free of structural and contextual limits. This happened far more often than we realize. For example, Indians of the nineteenth century were educated to believe that the British conquest of India was an act of Providence: that God had entrusted the British with the “duty” to “civilize” Indians. You will find many Indian intellectuals of that era dutifully repeating this line—when this served to blunt colonial authority. In short, our predecessors knew well the power of words, and were not shy to use them creatively. For instance, the trope of an “enlightened” Britain was used by the denizens of “backward” Madras to push the colonial authorities to establish modern schools and universities, which then empowered Indians to compete with and eventually outmaneuver the British. Now you tell me, who was the prisoner of words here?

Rohan: Were you surprised by the complexity of the debates that you found—particularly on questions like “what have we learned from the West/What can we teach it”/“whether free trade works for us or against us,” etc.?

Rahul: It was only surprising because we have been conditioned to think of the nineteenth century as an age of misery: sati, 1857, the “drain,” and so on. When we actually delve into the history of the era—by reading its many newspapers and periodicals, by recovering the half-perished volumes that were published against all the odds, and by revisiting the princely states—a very different story comes to life. The reality that the nineteenth century is when Indians began to collectively grapple with the great questions of our age, such as how to balance individuality and community, how to become prosperous in the face of global competition, how to preserve tradition in the face of commercial modernity, how to combine tradition with science, and so on. The answers were diverse and they were debated reasonably rather than passionately—unlike some of the dogmas of the following century.

Rohan: Could you tell us a little bit about the texts that you pulled out on issues like the “Great Game” and the Ottoman Question? They show quite nuanced debates taking place on international affairs in the Anglophone space.

Rahul: Over the course of the nineteenth century, there were two immensely important changes in how Indians perceived and engaged with the broader world: the spread of modern education and the expansion of international travel and trade, which brought Indians, especially in the metropolises, into deep and profound contact with Europe. A key consequence in the intellectual sphere was that periodicals and books published in Europe, and in Britain in particular, began to circulate and be read in India. This gave Indians a new understanding of and taste for public debate on international relations—something that had not existed in prior centuries. To these broad changes were added two contingent developments in the latter half of the century: the rise of Russia and the decline of the Ottomans. As the former expanded in the direction of Western Europe and Central Asia and the latter contracted, creating a power vacuum in the Middle East, the strategic interests of British India were imperiled in ways that Indians could not have imagined previously. The possibility that Russia might invade India or that the Ottomans might urge Indians Muslims to revolt against the British became very real concerns. During this era, Europe’s problems were thus very much our problems. The result was a flood of essays in which Indians focused on the turbulent and dangerous nature of international politics and debated what British India ought to do. These were, hence, truly transformational debates.

Rohan: As an aside, I love Bal Gangadhar Shastri Jambhekar’s essay that, among other things, says the youths of today are “pleasure-loving and afraid of the very sight of pain” —for the generation that would go on to really fight for Independence (and also echoing critiques of the youth all through history).

Rahul: Jambhekar’s concern was very much in line with the era. This was a time when war and turmoil, and therefore military and political occupations, had receded from view. Like all “stationary bandits,” the British now sought to pacify and employ the populace in “productive” ventures. Education and investment, especially in metropolitan centers, encouraged appetites for comforts and amusements. New forms of medicine and transportation reduced routine hardship and entertainments and novelties imported from urban Europe excited young minds. Simultaneously, new kinds of employment and new forms of technology lessened the extent to which an individual was dependent on others and freed them to pursue their “interests.” Jambhekar was deeply concerned about the effect that this emergent commercial modernity was having on the young. His worry here was not unlike those voiced by social critics in Victorian England who decried the “corrupting” influence of commerce. A key difference was that whereas this form of modernity had emerged gradually in England, its arrival in India had been very abrupt, leaving observers such as Jambhekar understandably troubled. The suddenness of the change in India was such that in the 1840s you could have under one roof in a Bombay Presidency a near-illiterate Maratha nobleman prepared to die in battle, and his son reading Bentham and holding forth on “happiness.”

Rohan: What misconceptions about your field do you find yourself having to correct all the time—whether from the public, the media, or even fellow scholars?

Rahul: A pet peeve of mine is the near universal belief that English arrived in India because of Thomas Macaulay. The first English-medium school opened in Tanjore half a century before Macaulay set foot in India. It owed, in substantial measure, to the genius of the Rajas of Tanjore, Tuljaji and Serfoji, who sought to make their principality the source of a new Indian modernity—and by all measures, succeeded. The story of modern India thus begins in Tanjore, not in Bengal or Bombay, and it begins with far-sighted Rajas, not benevolent Englishmen.

Rohan: For young scholars reading this, what areas of research—or tools—would you advise them to pick up?

Rahul: We are in the midst of a profound transformation in how we acquire and process information. We are moving from a culture based on print to one based on multimedia. I would therefore encourage younger scholars to use the growing arsenal of digital tools to come up with new and imaginative ways to make general audiences better comprehend the value and content of ideas. But let me not put the cart before the horse. The crucial preliminary is to have something new and important to say. This is not easy because the architecture of intellectual production is intensely hierarchical and therefore fosters conformity. It encourages work that is pleasing to cardinals: scholarship that is derivative in content and morals. And so, if a researcher wishes to make a mark, and not be a mere camp-follower, then it is crucial to search out open-minded mentors and colleagues willing to engage with, rather than crush, new ideas and approaches.

Rohan: What three works—books/papers/podcasts—influenced you?

Rahul: Since I am interested in the eternal question of how we can be ruled well, I have been particularly affected by classical works in the Western, Indian, and Chinese traditions, which are the products of centuries of reflection. Because they do not share the modern faith in democracy, these traditions have much to say on the question of statesmanship. This literature is profound and it is very difficult to select a few works. So, allow me to highlight three works in the Western canon that are not read enough today, but which teach a lifetime’s worth: Xenophon’s Hiero, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and above all else, Machiavelli’s Life of Castruccio Castracani.

Rahul Sagar is a Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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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