People of the South constitute an equal and single community: Rajmohan Gandhi

The scholar-researcher on what gives South India its distinctiveness

Updated - December 05, 2021 08:57 am IST

Published - December 08, 2018 07:30 pm IST

The story of the South as a whole has been rarely told: Rajmohan Gandhi.

The story of the South as a whole has been rarely told: Rajmohan Gandhi.

Rajmohan Gandhi has written several scholarly works on major historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, C. Rajagopalachari, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and Abdul Ghaffar Khan. The historian’s latest work, Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to our Times , dwells on the events and characters that shaped the history of southern India in the past 400 years. In an email interview, Gandhi talks about, among other things, his new book, his motive for writing it, and the South’s waning influence post-2014. Edited excerpts:

In your career as a historian, when you have written about a region, you have tended to focus on the history of a state, such as Punjab. What prompted you to shift gears and write the history of a comparatively amorphous entity such as South India?

I wanted to test an instinct that South India was not as vague or amorphous an entity as generally assumed. True, no political kingdom or state simply called ‘South India’ ever existed. But at least during British rule, and in the 71 years thereafter, notions such as ‘She is a South Indian’ or ‘I am a South Indian’ were expressed or felt, even if always there was more to be said. A people within a clear geographical area have a history even when their political maps change over time. Yet the story of the South as a whole had been rarely told. Someone had to make the attempt.

If there is a common element to the region that makes South India a singular cultural (and not just geographical) unit, what would you say that is?

At least two common elements have given South India its distinctiveness. One, not the Himalayas but the oceans dominate its story. Secondly, the linguistic affinity among South Indians is real and proven, as is the difference between the South’s languages and the tongues of the rest of India. These major factors differentiate the South from the North and have helped shape the South’s culture, economy and politics. Because of the oceans, Portugal, Holland, England and France impacted the South in ways that left northern and central India untouched. The common Dravidian origin of most languages used in the South also placed its stamp on the South Indian story.

You note in passing that there were very few, if any, invasions from South India to the North, but plenty from North to South. If you were to speculate, what might be the reason for this?

Is it not enough, at times, to note a peculiarity or irony without immediately probing it? Seeing something on a journey that seems unusual, you take a snapshot and move on. An analysis may be done later, or by another. In periods much earlier than the one I studied, the South extended its reach to Southeast Asia though not to northern India, evidence again of the pull of the sea.


Why and where does an empire start? Where does it stop? Why and when does an empire cease to be? Are there universal answers to such questions? Historians with greater imagination and insight than I possess will have to answer.

After Independence, South India was demarcated into States based on linguistic identity. How important was linguistic identity in the south, say, before the 17th century?

The fact that some ruling nayakas in the Tamil country in the 17th and 18th centuries were of Telugu ancestry elicited interest in the 20th century. Was that fact politically crucial during the 17th and 18th centuries? Not necessarily. It is significant that 17th and 18th century rulers in different parts of the south were often multi-lingual, and often assisted by similarly gifted employees.

Recently, there was a controversy over the celebration of Tipu Jayanti. Do you think it’s appropriate to celebrate him as a freedom fighter? Or was he just a tyrant who ended up with the halo of martyrdom because he happened to be an enemy of the British?

Tipu was a central figure in South India’s 18th-century saga and in the story of Britain’s conquest of the South. His fall in 1799 changed South India’s history. Was he a tyrant? Yes. A bigot? That too, probably, though we should note the mutual respect in Tipu’s relationship with the Sringeri Sankaracharya and their impressive 1791 correspondence, conducted in Kannada. Tipu was more than just an enemy of the British, who equated him at the time with Napoleon. Tipu, his father Haidar, his diwan Purniah, and the others the book looks at should be read forwards from the 17th century to our times, not backwards from the 21st century into theirs.

You suggest that elite South Indians had an acute understanding of an immediate short period but not of the previous centuries, and tended to imagine the distant past through the prism of an elongated present. Is this is just a South Indian problem or something that extends to North Indians as well?

The remark you cite was derived from a fascinating study that Charles Philip Brown (1798-1884) made of South India’s calendars in his time. Brown was more a scholar than an East India Company officer, which he also was. I would agree that the remark about unreasonably extending today’s battle-lines into the past was (and perhaps is) a characteristic applicable to North Indians as well.

Do you think the South’s influence on New Delhi has waned after 2014?

This appears to be the case. Though a South Indian, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu does not seem to represent a powerful southern constituency in New Delhi. While she is the country’s first woman defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman is in parliament thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s goodwill, not because of her own strength in a southern state. The days when New Delhi possessed forceful South Indian politicians like Rajaji, Kamaraj, T.T. Krishnamachari, Krishna Menon, C. Subramaniam, Narasimha Rao and Deve Gowda seem to belong to a distant past. Whether things might change after 2019 is not a subject for a historian.

Going by its past history, what probability would you attach to these two possibilities: a) the southern states coming together to exert their weight as a unitary political unit for their common interests; b) the South playing a leadership role in the destiny of the subcontinent, much as how the North has done from the time of the Khiljis to the present.

Neither possibility seems imminent. The former looks unlikely even in a longer term. A more realistic goal is the steady growth of a southern solidarity, based at one level on pragmatism and at another level on a principle long resonating in the South, which is that the people, all of them, constitute an equal and single community.

Now that this mammoth project is done, what’s next?

I want to grow a thick skin, for I am bound to be told, with perfect justification, that the many questions left unexplored in the large project were more important than what was examined. My effort will be amply rewarded if it prods a few others to study South India as a whole.

Rajmohan Gandhi will be speaking at The Hindu Lit for Life 2019, on January 12, 13 & 14, at the Lady Andal School premises, Harrington Road, Chennai. Visit to register.

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