Rahul Sagar on Finding India's Hidden 19th-Century History

Shruti Rajagopalan and Rahul Sagar discuss the legacy of Madhava Rao, British influence on the Indian princely states and much more

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Rahul Sagar about East India Company rule vs. crown rule, public finance constitutionalism, effects of technology on India’s intellectual history, historic preservation and much more. Sagar is the Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi. His primary research interests are in political theory, political ethics and public policy, and he has written on a range of topics including executive power, moderation and political realism. His books include “The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government,” “To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics” and “Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy.”

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

Today my guest is Rahul Sagar, who is Global Network Associate Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi and the author of two recent books, “The Progressive Maharaja: Sir Madhava Rao’s Hints on the Art and Science of Government” and “To Raise a Fallen People: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Indian Views on International Politics.”

We spoke about the Enlightenment ideas of Sir T. Madhava Rao, his public finance constitutionalism, Company rule and misrule, the railways, finding India’s lost histories from the 19th century and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.

Hi, Rahul, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here. This is such a pleasure.

RAHUL SAGAR: Thanks, Shruti. It’s a delight of mine, too.

The Enlightened Prime Minister

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to first start with “The Progressive Maharaja.” This is your work on Sir Madhava Rao. This is Sir T. Madhava Rao, who was the dewan of Travancore and then Indore and then Baroda. One of the most celebrated—I don’t know what to call him—he’s a minister, but he’s also a bureaucrat. He gets the honorific of a raja.

To start with your big theme, which is his work on the art and science of government, based on his lectures to the king of Baroda, what struck me at the end of that is this quote by Adam Smith: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

I was just struck by how much of that I saw in this book. Is this Enlightenment thinking? Was it popular during that time? Is Madhava Rao unique in bringing that to India? It doesn’t seem to be a big theme in the way the [East India] Company ran things.

SAGAR: That’s a really lovely framing of the conundrum during this period that Madhava Rao is dealing with. In the background, you’re absolutely right. At least in Indian India, which is to say in the Indian principalities, in the native states as they were called at that time, there was absolutely no sense of this broader Enlightenment and what we would call early liberal thinking about markets, individuals and individuality.

The emphasis in the world that Madhava Rao is circulating in and sharing these ideas with are people that have a couple of different ideas in their heads. One is the classical idea that the purpose of the ruler, the monarch, is to maintain order, and that’s the most important thing. The social order, the political and religious order, and stability is essential, and defense, and things of those kinds. That’s the “Arthashastra” and the Kautilya tradition or the Chanakya tradition that we’re familiar with, but it has multiple versions, multiple commentaries.

They’re read, they’re understood, and that the durbars of the maharajas are not vacant spaces. It’s not like they don’t have ideas. They really think hard about this. They’re often educated in these ideas in their early education. This is one idea out there, and it has very little Adam Smith in it. Though, of course, as we know, Chanakya and others have this deep understanding of the importance of markets and trade and commerce, but it isn’t fixed on the individual. As you were so nicely pointing out when you were citing there that famous paragraph, that quotation, it isn’t focused on the natural inclinations of people. It’s what the king organizes and structures.

The other great idea that’s circulating at this time, and particularly in western India, the Maratha states, is the idea that the king, and particularly the nobles, the sardars, they have a certain social structure with certain values which are all—like they are in Rajasthan, like they are in even places like Travancore—they all are martial in one form or another. They should learn to ride horses, they should learn to fight, they should learn to wrestle, those sorts of things. Their primary focus should be on somehow trying to regain or at least maintain what little sovereignty is left to them.

Into this world plops Madhava Rao with his education. He’s the first batch of the first British school. What’s today Presidency College, back then was Madras High School. He’s exposed straightaway, from the very beginning, to these sets of primary texts. He reads Smith very, very carefully, thinks very hard about—and reads Hume very carefully, thinks very hard about these basic principles that we later ascribe to the so-called Enlightenment. He reads Montesquieu, he reads Locke.

From all of these figures, he takes away exactly, as you put your finger on it, the sense that really what’s essential is to create the conditions for individual enterprise and rationality to have its play. This enterprise and rationality have been stifled or limited by a variety of things. He’s not hostile to Indian culture. He thinks there’s many valuable things in it, but there are practices, institutions, perversions that have emerged over time that have basically obscured the individual and obscured rational choice.

The last thing I’ll just say on that is, you’d asked about what was happening in British India. This is where he tries to draw out a unique story. It’s absolutely true that the Company is fairly focused on its own profits and focused on basically acquiring territory through the early years of Madhava’s life. At least until 1857, it’s still expanding. It’s still sorting out its borders and its territory, and it’s still fairly ruthless at moments.

In spite of that, the one thing that Madhava Rao sees in practice—so this is not so much from the principles that he’s learning in school, but from the practice of the British—is that as they take over province after province, kingdom after kingdom and principality after principality, like the Governor-General Dalhousie says when he almost takes over Travancore, he thinks that the natives of those places breathe a sigh of relief when the British take over. Why? Because now they have the basics of rule of law, corruption is minimized or limited.

You get the essentials in terms of public infrastructure spending on those things and much less amount of money being spent on either defense—because now security’s gone away as an issue—or on patronage and courtly ritual. He sees that in practice, where the British turn up, they produce far more economic growth and order and stability from the perspective of the ordinary person. There’s that rule-of-law stability. Of course, the Company is taking away the cream. We all are aware of that economic story, but on the ground, for the ryot, for the farmer, for the cultivator, there is stability.

Madhava Rao mixes, to answer your question, these two things: the practice of the Company on the ground, and the theory that he learns in Madras High School about why it is this stuff is working out the way it is. It’s because when you free up individuals, you get investment and consumption going, rather than people putting money under their huts in the ground, worried about the next raid that will take away their life savings.

Company Rule and Misrule

RAJAGOPALAN: I think on this last point, it’s also striking because he basically grows up in Madras and what is modern-day Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Then his first gig is in modern-day Kerala. These are parts of Company rule quite far from the excesses of what they did in the 18th century and the 17th century in Bengal and Bihar and Odisha. Those excesses have already been curbed to some extent by the time the Company heads south and conquers Mysore. It is a slightly different Company with a lot more interest in bypassing the old layer of nawabs and dewans and creating and developing some kind of local state capacity.

In some sense, Madhava Rao actually witnesses that. If he had been born in Bengal, I wonder if he would’ve had the same experience or the same story, even if he had actually encountered the Enlightenment values.

SAGAR: Yes, that’s very nicely put. They are Bengalis, zamindars and so on. They don’t have quite the same schooling or quite the same institutions, but Macaulay and others are—Charles Trevelyan—are instrumental in setting up Hooghly College, for instance. There are other institutions in Bengal. They’re certainly exposed to these ideas, but they don’t see, in Bengal Presidency—you’re absolutely right—what they see in Madras Presidency, and that includes Mysore and so on, includes—I mean, it’s not a part of Madras Presidency, but it’s visible.

What’s happening there is this sense that by the 1820s, the decade in which Madhava Rao is born, the two crucial things that have changed is, first of all, the Company’s hold over India is now solidified. They’ve won the third Anglo-Maratha War. They have no real competitors anywhere in the Deccan, all the way up to northern India. You only get to Sindh and Punjab before you encounter—or Nepal on the other extreme—where you encounter non-Company forces. Even Ceylon has now come under the Company, and the French have left all their little territories, except for a handful: Chandernagore, Pondicherry, et cetera.

It puts the English in 1820, exactly as you put it, in a very different mindset. And you see this constantly in the archives with their letters and their minutes and memoranda: Now it’s time to govern. Our fears of the French, our fears of insurrection, our fears of revolts are behind us. Again and again, when they write about the various royal families or the landlords who are even within their own territories, they say they are pacified. We should now treat them no longer as insurgents, but as loyal tributaries. You see this phrase again and again.

That’s one very important thing. The second one, which I think has been so fundamental—it was important for Madhava Rao to look at his entire family, and all of the people around him were, in one way or the other, involved in revenue collection; they all saw this firsthand, but he saw it himself—was the introduction of the ryotwari system. For that, Thomas Munro, who is the central pivotal governor for Madras Presidency in this era, this is something that matters deeply to him. He’s a man of the ryot. He dies on horseback, lives on horseback.

He makes it a point to set in place systems and procedures and processes that will take away randomness and intimidation from the mind of the ryot. This has, I think, a fundamental effect on Madras Presidency, which you just do not see in other presidencies in quite the same way. Growing up, Madhava, because of this different Company, a Company focused now on building infrastructure, on education and those sorts of things, and the visible practice put in place by people like Munro, who are loved, by and large, in spite of their earlier conquests, they’re still loved for their fair-mindedness, for their settlements, the ryotwari system.

That puts him on a completely different trajectory, exactly as you said, from someone 20 or 30 years before. Tanjore, 30 years before Madhava was born, it’s a hellhole of intrigue, espionage, plots, assassination attempts. It’s a whole different world. You’re exactly right.

Native-Born, British-Educated Technocrats

RAJAGOPALAN: The other interesting thing I think is also what’s happening in the rest of the world. When we look at the late 18th century, the technocratic class is quite different in the sense that when Cornwallis comes in and he takes over from Hastings in I think 1768 or so, given his experience in the U.S., and how the Americans (who they thought were their own people) actually go against the crown, Cornwallis brings in all these prohibitions on mixed-race officers in the civil service, in the military service. Any children of mixed-race couples cannot actually enter Company service.

He starts bringing in all these really strange prohibitions where before that, the view was very much we need to assimilate. Cornwallis creates this weird new technocratic class where Britishers need to be imported in. We’re going to bring in these aristocrats who will help us govern, and that becomes untenable as the territories get bigger and bigger. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is, with the introduction of English, and with the Company simply not having the state capacity and enough officers for the amount of territory they’ve conquered, early 19th century to mid-19th century sees a new class of native-born but English-educated technocrats.

To me, it seems like Madhava Rao is really the first of that generation. So were his father and uncle, but he’s the breakout character in that generation. Is that a good way to think about that time and Madhava Rao, or is he just exceptional? I’m trying to connect too many dots in this story.

SAGAR: No, you’re exactly right, I think. The way you framed it is exactly how it works out. Between 1790, when Cornwallis returns for the second time, and he’s also crucially succeeded by John Shore, and they have this—

RAJAGOPALAN: The great debate.

SAGAR: Exactly. Yes. You get this interregnum between the conquests. During that time, they become very clear about the fact that they’re trying to build a state that will last, a state that will replace what they’ve lost, what Cornwallis and others have lost in America. They now set themselves the task of, as I think the phrase is, the great project of actually founding the Company’s rule on sound principles. That’s a phrase that appears again and again: sound principles. Sound principles means you have to start rooting out corruption, the freewheeling ways of the earlier generations.

Exactly, you need to govern according to a set of clear procedures and rules. The first 20 or 30 years in which this occurs, you’re exactly right when you point to Madhava Rao’s father, but especially his uncle. They take, very often, Maratha Brahmins who have been engaged in the revenue business. It’s not linked so much to caste as it is to practice. These are figures that have worked in the revenue business, so to speak, for native princes, for the British as they slowly expand in the Deccan. They understand the ways in which people function, the ways in which markets function, the ways in which people cheat.

Crucially, they are dubashi [translator]. Almost all of them quickly pick up some form of rudimentary English, and then some get pretty good at it, like Madhava’s uncle, who’s basically perfectly fluent in English and is a star of his generation. He is by far and away the most important revenue servant in all of southern India. The first generation are these, and the famous description goes, “Every great Englishman in the Deccan has one or two Maratha Brahmins hanging around him at all times.” Basically solving all his problems that he doesn’t actually know what to do with.

You go from that, what we call today a private secretary—they don’t actually have a public function; they’re working for you—they go from having that private secretary function to having a public secretary function in the 1830s and ’40s, where they slowly start getting drafted in as tehsildars and as assistants and junior assistants, as Madhava Rao was, into the revenue administration.

As the British now, exactly for the reasons you pointed out: limits on the willingness of people to come out, limits on the willingness of people to serve hardship postings, high levels of mortality and illness, and all of these kinds of things, as you rightly pointed out—expansion of territory—you get the need for people to be able to serve, be skilled in multiple languages, but crucially also understand what the British are trying to do.

The difference between Madhava and all the generations or the two generations before him, his father and his uncle included, is that because he schooled in English from the bottom up—they’re not, they’ve learned on the job, on the fly. He is schooled from the bottom up. He can hold his own with absolutely anyone. He can sit in a conversation with the viceroys—he does, multiple times in his life—or with the governor, and have a conversation that moves equally between ancient Greece, modern France and contemporary India, or contemporary Madras, whatever it might be. That just creates a class and a type of person that, for the next really, frankly, 60 or 70 years, has the run of the road in southern India.

Public Finance Constitutionalism

RAJAGOPALAN: What I love about him, he is this solid public finance guy, like just old-school public finance. Fiscal conservatism is in his bones, and the entire effort is very similar to—we’re running something called the 1991 Project at the Mercatus Center, where we look at the balance-of-payments crisis that happened in the late ’80s and 1990—how India came out of it, the reforms. So much of the first-stage reforms in India at that time were just bringing deficits under control, having sensible value for currency, slashing tariffs, opening up to trade. And it’s so interesting that when Madhava Rao goes to Travancore, that’s literally exactly what he does.

Make sure that you get deficits under control. There’s actually a surplus by the end of it, which is also helped by the fact that they’re not maintaining these huge armies, they’re not warring all the time, and Company as the super-sovereign is sort of established. They have some military expenditure, but not like the previous century. Just cutting down tariffs, having sensible customs officers—though that’s also quite complicated, and there are lots of interesting stories.

It just seems like someone who thinks about administration really from public finance point of view, and now the public finance principles actually extend to all the constitutional principles, right? For a good source of revenue, you need stability. You need law and order. You need to make sure that the monarch is not nuts and arbitrary. You need to make sure that he doesn’t surround himself by cronies and doesn’t have all this kind of rent-seeking and favor-seeking. You need to make sure that the palace expenditure is under check and under a separate account and not the public account.

It just seems to me that all the constitutional principles that flow out of this are really just sensible public finance principles. I am trained in public finance, public choice, so to me it just felt like, “Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why does no one know about him?” Is this something that you observe in his work? I mean, you’ve written it.

SAGAR: Yes, you completely got him.


SAGAR: You’ve completely got him. Yes. You’re exactly right. When he asks himself the question, “Why are the native states of India in the kind of trouble they are?” When he takes over, Travancore was about to be swallowed up by Dalhousie, and he just about rescues it. The answer is because they haven’t gotten their finances right. Of course, maybe we have a tendency to think, if you’ve got a hammer, then you’ll see nails. Since he comes from a revenue background, of course, he’ll think revenue is the source of all their problems.

Actually, there’s a very deep, I guess, point in political economy or on governance that he’s playing with. There were two kinds of fiscal conservatism that were prominent in India in the first part of the 19th century. The great figure, the one who the British praise and love, is the dewan of Mysore, called Purnaiah, who served as dewan to the Wadiyars, then to Tipu Sultan. To Hyder, then to Tipu, and then back to the Wadiyars again.

RAJAGOPALAN: And the job that Madhava Rao eventually wants, and is gunning for, but never gets.

SAGAR: Yes. Exactly. That’s exactly right. He wants to take over Purnaiah’s job, but the British don’t give him the chance. They’re too worried about the influence he has already. One of the reasons he wants that job is he wants to show that there’s another way of running public finance. What was Purnaiah famous for? This first style of dewanship, till Madhava Rao turns up on the picture and totally revolutionizes it. You were right when you said, “Why don’t people know about this person?” The ordinary person who thinks about Indian history, or even scholars, don’t realize the magnitude of the change that occurs under Madhava Rao.

Cutting Expenditure vs. Growing Income

SAGAR: Before him, all dewans are celebrated for basically controlling expenditure. That’s the key skill. You find ways to manipulate your debts, you don’t pay your debts, you give haircuts to all sorts of financial houses and bankers and so on. You find ways to squeeze the poor farmer, you change rents, you change contracts. Your crucial thing is, limit expenditure and squeeze out as much income from them as you possibly can. If you can’t squeeze any more income, at least cut expenditure.

You get relatively little—it’s not like you don’t get any expenditure on public goods, you do, but it’s quite restrictive. And it’s often concentrated in the visible areas around the major center, where the king might live or religious and other sites they hold important. The classic example is a person like Tukoji Holkar, who Madhava Rao goes to work for. His town today, Indore—which, after Madhava Rao, begins this process of becoming one of the cleanest towns in India; it’s often called that even now.

At the time Madhava Rao goes there, there are regularly fires that burned down most of the town. There’s cholera. There’s almost no public hospitals of any description; there are just some random clinics. There’s dilapidated jails, no roads, it’s all slush. When it rains, you just basically can’t use any public transportation. This is the world Madhava Rao sees.

The problem with that system, even with Tukoji Holkar (who considers himself his own best dewan), is when you cut expenditure, you basically leave the individual completely at the mercy of elements and chance and everything else that comes with it. Madhava Rao changes the story by saying, “We can solve the fiscal problems of the native states, not by cutting expenditure but by growing income.”


SAGAR: The way you grow income, it’s such a basic, but it’s a very important philosophical—it’s a switch in how you think about the problem. To us today, of course, and post ’91 as you were saying, these things seemed obvious in retrospect. But at the time, telling people that, “Look, you need to provide public goods such that individuals engage in enterprise. When they grow, you grow”—that classic, “all good comes from individual good,” that view—getting that going, or thinking it through, is his major contribution.

I’ll just add this much: that it’s not like others, when they see the Company, don’t get it, that he is purely an intellectual genius. In fact, his real genius I think lies in one, understanding that, but in number two, in seeing that you have to actually carry it through. You have to deliver. You can’t just say, “I want markets to grow.” The problem for most of the princely states was, even when they got good advice from residents, they were just terrible at state-building. To make markets work, to make tax collection work, to make taxes go on the basis of income tax rather than the basis of indirect taxes, which they all did indirect taxes—so easy to do and so inequitable.

These changes required recruitment, promotions, screening of candidates, all of this sort of stuff. This is what he was good at. He was, I’d say maybe I’ve come around to the answer, he’s both a public finance guy, but he’s also a brilliant HR guy.


SAGAR: You have to make those two things run in sync. The HR folks or the good human resources make the public finance system work. That’s this marriage that he accomplishes.

The Dharma of Aligning Self-Interest with Social Interest

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re absolutely right. Again, the Enlightenment insight that by promoting individual interest, you can align through institutions and promote social interest—he also flips it on its head in the sense that that’s also his first fundamental principle that he teaches all the princes. The minor wards who have been sent to him for basically an education in statecraft, first in Travancore and then in Baroda, to a more limited extent. The starting point in both cases, and in these lectures, is you can do good for yourself, but only by doing good for your people. That’s the No. 1 rule.

What I found remarkable is he manages to connect that Enlightenment principle to local custom. Whether it is through Dharma, or whether it is through how the ancestors have behaved in Travancore, or the long lineage in Baroda, it’s very much about how do we marry this principle in some way with local custom such that this can actually sink in to the monarch, and how important that figure is in making that credible commitment to law and order, stability, sensible taxes, no arbitrary decision-making and so on.

SAGAR: Yes, that’s right. He encounters both when he teaches the princes and Travancore himself, then his family. His sons become tutors to Holkar in Indore. Then he himself again is deeply involved in Sayajirao’s education. Through this whole process, he certainly places a lot of emphasis and hopes as much as he can and works as much as he can to get princes to accept these ideas. He’s completely willing, and recognizes that simply putting good ideas before princes doesn’t mean that they will absorb them and follow them.

He uses a whole, exactly as you said, a whole set of other devices. Not that he’s doing this cynically or something. He really, himself, does believe it. He tries to draw on a set of other devices. One, he says, “Well, this is also Dharma, so don’t think you are doing, what I’m telling you are ‘English ideas.’ These are universal ideas.” I think that’s really important about him, that he sees what he’s aiming for.

Again and again, he says in the books, “The principles that I’m telling you are the principles of the British, but they’re also principles that our forefathers have expounded and elaborated. It’s just I’m giving it to you in a slightly different language and a slightly—with different examples and illusions, but it’s the same thing.” That’s one. He appeals to Dharma.

The other, both in Travancore and particularly in Baroda, is to appeal to local or regional pride. “Your ancestors founded this state. You don’t want it to be swallowed up. If you don’t want it to be swallowed up, you’ve got to do these things because it’s very clear you’re currently digging yourself into a hole, and the hole will only grow deeper if you don’t do these things.” There’s that appeal to communal or to pride in one’s ancestors.

Then I think the last appeal often is—which is usually the most ineffective in his case—is to appeal to expertise: “Look, I’ve done these things. Look at my track record. Look at the results I can provide you. Defer to experts.” He tries this, and the person he’s least successful with is Sayajirao, who often wants to believe he can do these things. He’s smart enough.

Again and again, Madhava Rao tries to convince him, “Look, no matter how smart, no matter how talented, everyone has to delegate. It’s just the nature of specialization, the division of time and labor.” Again, also ideas from Smith and others. He doesn’t succeed as much on this third, on this idea of deferring to expertise in technocrats, but he does make quite significant headway on the first two. He uses a whole range of these approaches to try and convince rulers to do the right thing.

Emergence of Railways

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of his exceptionalism do you attribute to the simultaneous emergence of the railways? One, it is a part of the state capacity-building process and also eliminates a lot of the regional differences within the princely states. Because there are parts of princely states, the big cities, where the palaces are, which have always been somewhat well off; there are the far-off farmers and the ryots who are not plugged into the global trade system, who are really suffering.

One of the things he does—and in fact, that’s part of what happens in Indore. Even though there, they don’t completely take all his advice, but he’s very much part of bringing railways to Indore and building that out. When he’s teaching Sayajirao, he talks about how you can’t really behave badly anymore. Free speech is part of the program now. He’s like, “You have the railways. Nothing is really within the walls of the fort anymore. Everything goes out fairly quickly, and people will find out about the malfunctioning state, or the lack of governance and so on.”

It seems like railways is this very important ally both in improving public finance by plugging himself into global trade routes, but also, in some sense, integrating what were originally slightly aloof palace politics into the broader British Indian system, but also with their neighbors and other princely states and what’s going on there.

SAGAR: Yes, that’s a really lovely observation and a very profound point. The 1860s, which is Madhava Rao’s great decade in Travancore when he really makes the success of the place, for the rest of India, exactly as you said, and for the reasons you pointed out, is a transformative decade. We often forget when we think back to that period—because we often tend to think about very material revenue facts. We think about the agricultural system. For many years, our historians have focused on that aspect or on trade. We tend not to think as much about the impact that technology has on India at this time.

There’s two or three major changes. The first is, exactly as you said, the railways, which reduce journey times. When Madhava is young, it can take one to two months to get from Travancore to Tanjore. This journey, though not in the years he’s there, but soon after, is reduced to a matter of a week or so. This is a phenomenal change in the ability to transmit information.

Then there’s another one, because the 1860s are also the decade in which the telegraph appears in India. One of my favorite little letters that I have saved up is of the governor-general in India receiving, or at that point now already the viceroy, receiving a telegram from Salisbury, in London, the secretary for India, and to whom he replies and he says, “Is it not incredible to be able to receive a message in less than four days?” Because that was the fastest they could possibly work within India, and now it was almost instantaneous.

When you take the railways, which allow newspapers to be distributed, and the telegraph, which allows correspondents to communicate back to their bases, the third missing piece in this puzzle, which I just gave away, are newspapers. You get the emergence of public opinion in a way that really has not existed prior to the 1850s, 1860s. Let me be really clear, there are akhbaars. The Maratha world, the Mughal world, the princely states are full of akhbaars, full of rumors and all sorts of conflicting and confounding stories.

Just this morning, I was looking through a set of archival documents where a correspondent—this is in the 1820s—writes back and says, “I’m really confused. There’s four different rumors. I don’t know which one is true. Clearly, my being here makes no difference compared to your being there.” He’s writing to his editor in Kolkata. This is in the 1820s. By the 1860s, this issue is more or less gone because you’re on the spot, and you can report in the day or change the story the next day, and that’s that.

The world of the akhbaars, which are fairly ragged and confused and rumor-bound, is giving away to structured public opinion, where there are opinion editorials, where there are reports and follow-up reports, and the story is doggedly chased. The moment the British press starts to expand in the 1850s and ’60s, you start to get Parsi and other newspapers, particularly in the western part of India, where the Parsi community is dominant, writing either bilingual or English papers of their own. They’re even better connected into the flow of information and news.

Now, Madhava Rao says, exactly as you put it, the combination of newspapers, circulated by train and reported by telegraph, means you really fundamentally need to think twice about the way you behave, and the old days are gone for good. There’s been a structural, material change in the world around you.

RAJAGOPALAN: I was just struck by how he might have been one of the first few people in positions of power to have that insight, because it’s happening while he is on the job. For about 100 years after that, Indians thought about—the dominant narrative was, “Oh, the railways were brought in as the tool for extraction,” the British extraction. Then to support the war effort in the early 20th century. The late 19th century, early 20th century, it’s also about diverting food away from famine and drought areas, the pandemic, the plagues and the Spanish flu spreading through the railways.

The railways, in one sense, the dominant narrative was, it just gets a really bad rap. Of course, in economics now more recently, we have Dave Donaldson, who’s actually estimated the general equilibrium impact of the railways and finds what matches our current intuition. It eliminates all this price arbitrage that you have between different regions, it increases real income, it reduces the transactions costs of trade and so on.

The fact that Madhava Rao figured this out while the railways were being built in other places, and brought it to his principalities to be built, and was able to see this long-term impact, I find that truly remarkable. He’s not an engineering guy. Because the Company and the crown also had a group of surveyors and civil engineers, and there was that cadre, and he’s not from that. But he somehow has cracked this insight, which most people have still not cracked 100 years after the event.

SAGAR: Yes. I’m working on his biography, and I’ve gone through every last scrap of information. Years and years of digging. I have everything down to his examination papers. I managed to dig them up.


Applying Science To Solving Problems

SAGAR: Because he was such a model student, they ended up getting published in a book of model essays by students. No one knows these exist, and I managed to find them. In these model essays, he’s writing when he’s 17 and 18. Model essays from the perspective of the British. From his perspective, he’s just sitting his examinations. They are full of an appreciation because what he studied and loved the absolute most—he always loved English, and he was a master of English literature and writing and so on—but what really was his passion, all through schooling, all through his life, his hobby on a daily basis was science of one kind or another.

He loved physics, chemistry, not as much biology, but he loved particularly how they were applied. These essays that he writes for his high school, which I found, are all about the importance of applying science to solving modern problems. To make human life more convenient, to make trade smoother and faster and to, exactly as you put it, eliminate distortions.

Wherever he goes, as soon as he enters Travancore, the first thing he starts pushing for is an engineering department, which his predecessors had created but lacked money. They didn’t have the funds to do much with it. The office itself fell into dysfunction. Indeed, Travancore was almost swallowed up by the British.

The moment he got the surpluses going within two years, he rolls out a brand-new engineering department, its own set of surveyors who weren’t working for the Company, so that they will do the job that he wants them to do. He sets about doing a set of two or three things that we, again, as you were putting it, we would now think of as our intuitions would suggest are the right things to do.

Build ports, because in Travancore, that’s essential to trade. Clean up lagoons, which in Travancore, the backwater is essential to connectivity and trade. Seek out public markets, which many of his predecessors had been keen on, places like Kottayam, et cetera, and organize these markets so that you remove unfair access and arbitrary rent collections and things of that kind. Then, of course, railways, as you said. Try and connect up wherever you can.

In Travancore, his big focus was roads, and then in Indore and Baroda, because of their particular strategic location in all sorts of ways—they were a junction for everything: for carrying crops, for troops, for trade, for commerce, all kinds of things. As you were saying, the railways have gotten a bad rap. They were deeply important to central India and made it, in fact, a junction point because of its amazing centrality. They also helped eliminate famines. They may have caused or exacerbated famines at one point, but at others, they helped provide relief supplies quickly.

He noticed these features. Why I was giving this Travancore story is that it wasn’t just railways for him, it was all of these. Every form of connectivity was valuable because it would reduce distortions, allow trade to flourish, open up avenues of trade and enterprise. He went for all of them. Light railways in Baroda, the big grand trunk in Indore, thousands of miles of road in Travancore, and so on.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. If I remember correctly from your introduction, I think you said he inherited about 50 miles of broken roads, and he leaves Travancore with over a thousand miles of pretty good roads, where you can have serious goods trade.

SAGAR: That’s right. If you look at the statistics—recently, I was giving a presentation on some of the long-term consequences of the kinds of things that Rao got going. If you look at connectivity in Travancore, even in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, it has more public transport than British India, than any of the other principalities because of this vast road network. It has more hospitals. It has more trade and port avenues per person, per capita than any other native state. All of this is a long-term consequence of this thinking.

Impact on Modern-Day Kerala

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of modern-day Kerala’s success do you attribute, not just to what happened under Madhava Rao, but more generally that time and the leadership in Travancore, both his uncle before him but also the princes that he tutored, who took over and very strongly created this tradition of investment in public goods and infrastructure, building state capacity, both human capital, physical capital and so on. Can you draw a direct line to how Kerala is acing all the development indicators even today, or is that just too far-fetched?

SAGAR: I’m working on this. This is actually exactly in the midst of what I’m on now. There’s the famous debate over the Kerala model, and I’ve been looking at this paper that Amartya Sen wrote in the early 1990s called “India’s Missing Millions.” In that paper, there’s this one line where he says, “Kerala successes have to be traced back to the enlightened policies of its monarchs.” To which then a number of figures responded very upset and said, “Surely, it’s a result of communist rules since the 1950s. That’s what’s really responsible for the Kerala model.”

Sen makes a really nice point, which I have then been digging further. I think this creates some complications for his own theory. I don’t know if he wanted to always say this, but he pointed out that in 1949, 1951, when the first major survey census happens right after independence, before the communists have come to power, Travancore’s public developmental statistics are significantly, on almost every factor, two to three times better than the rest of India.

That gives us clear, a bit of evidence as you want, that Travancore in 1950 or at the time of independence was already head and shoulders above on almost every public development indicator, even though its income was just middling, which tells us already for 100, 150 years, funds had been spent in a particular way. So, what we tend to celebrate about Kerala, its high levels of human development were already in place by 1950. I’ve now been working backward. I’ve also collected the census data from prior decades.

I was recently presenting this material. As far back as 1901, for example, which is the first major census that Kerala, under Madhava Rao and others, also conducts its own censuses. But we don’t have matching data for British India, so I haven’t been able to do the comparisons. In 1901, for instance, life expectancy in Travancore is twice that of British India. Twice. It’s about 28 or 29. It’s a bad year because of the flu, but British India is 29 and Travancore is 47.


SAGAR: It really gives you a sense of the scale of the difference. This is 1901. I think the Kerala story cannot be told without the monarchs. It’s not just Madhava Rao; the story begins about three or four decades before him, both with his father and his uncle, but actually, a figure even before them, which is someone I’m now writing about. The book is called “From Swords to Words,” which is basically the story of how we go from revolutionary violence in the 18th century, as you were saying, to a very different approach, to development and politics in the 19th century.

It’s this transition that occurs, starting in about 1810 in Travancore, that sets the story in motion for the next 140 years, which gives Travancore those amazing statistics in 1950. I think it’s a long story, and it can’t just be a modern contemporary one.

The State Capacity Story

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. One, of course, those of us who actually dig into the archives and are studying all this historical material, we realize history casts a very long shadow. But the interesting thing about that time and now, everything you’ve said about Travancore and putting it in perspective is, early 19th century—if I were to use very public-choice terms and sort of Mancur Olson-esque thinking—the Company goes from being a roving bandit in Bengal and thereabouts to becoming a stationary bandit starting in the south.

The Travancore princely state is probably the first to follow suit, in terms of becoming the stationary bandit. Tipu Sultan would’ve been, had he not been defeated. That would’ve been the line, which was the other stationary bandit, building state capacity, public works, maximizing revenue for its people, sort of the residual claimant, even with the super-sovereign hovering around them.

That’s my hunch on how this is playing out, and the state capacity story is much more important. We tell the institutional story, we tell the story of education or the zamindari system and extraction, but I feel like the state capacity story is the link that separates all the good places from the terrible places, in one sense.

SAGAR: Yes. I actually was literally citing this Olson piece, this famous essay of his that sets that story in motion, in something I was writing earlier today. That’s exactly it. The realization that to have a going enterprise, as I put it in this thing I was writing, you have to stop roaming and start ruling. I was citing Olson. That requires putting in place, instead of plunder and extortion and nazars, as they were called at the time, bribes of various kinds and honorariums, you need a system of taxation.

Taxation won’t work unless you have a system of honest tax collectors, and you won’t have a system of honest tax collectors unless you have a working bureaucracy. A bureaucracy won’t work if you don’t have an education system that can provide you with the manpower, the people power. An education system won’t come into place unless you fund and build all the supporting paraphernalia around it. That’s the model. That’s where this entire generation in Travancore, Mysore, Tanjore and then slowly working its way upward into Maharashtra—that’s the model that all of these princely states start to copy. It begins with Travancore, which they all then mimic in one way or another.

RAJAGOPALAN: I can’t wait to read this paper, because I am looking at something on the Permanent Settlement Act in East India Company. I’m looking at property rights, so you know, all these background stories coming in in a big way. I keep thinking, “Oh, my God, they act like they’re a stationary bandit, but they’re actually a roving bandit because they keep extracting taxes to fund wars to gain territory in other parts of the country,” right? They look like they’re governing Bengal, which they’re really not governing. The Permanent Settlement Act gives it a veneer of, “Oh, we’re really in charge, and we’re going to be the revenue collectors.” They’re really not. I’ve been toying with this idea. I never knew how quite to frame it, but I guess after I read your paper I’ll get some sense of how to think about this.

Lost Histories

RAJAGOPALAN: You know, one question I have, both when I read the book on Madhava Rao and your other book, “To Raise a Fallen People”—these are volumes that have come out back to back. They’re based on your archival research, on the huge public repository you’ve created, also called Ideas of India, which we’ll get to in a bit. What strikes me is, somehow there’s this gap suddenly. It’s almost as if we know about the Mughals until the late 18th century, and then India’s history really starts in the 1900s, maybe 1890s because we’ll talk about the formation of the Congress and Dadabhai Naoroji in the House of Commons. There’s 100 years in the middle which has just disappeared.

It’s a very strange epistemic gap. What do you think is the reason for it, that these people disappeared from popular imagination? Is it because Indian nationalists are writing the history of modern India, so they really think it ought to begin with Gokhale and Tilak and all the crucial native leaders of the India National Congress? Or is it because people like Madhava Rao were really aligned with the princely states, who at the end of the day are allies of the British? When history is being written by the nationalists, there’s a tendency for them to get left out.

I also have a feeling that might be part of the story, because we know a lot about Naoroji. But we know nothing about Bhownaggree, who is also one of the very important leaders, but he’s Conservative. Not aligned with the nationalist movement, part of the Conservative support in the House of Commons. Why is there this gap? It just makes no sense to me. Because it is so close in history, and we rely on sources much before that and much after that. For 100 years, it’s like, this time didn’t exist.

SAGAR: Yes, well, you’ve asked the question that keeps me employed and up at night. I’m still sometimes baffled by it, because when you turn to the archives and you look at the richness of the material out there and the incredible turning points, it’s astonishing that people would pass it up in the past. I want to think it’s a mixture of things that have happened. I think one is, certainly I have personally benefited from the fact that we live in the midst of this information revolution, and it’s now possible to use all kinds of tools and techniques.

A simple one is the British Library has placed their archives into various trees that you can start to map out the archives in a way that someone working in the ’60s, ’70s would’ve struggled with when you were looking at paper rolls and paper copies. I now have in my head an absolute, complete, perfect image of what the British bureaucracy looked like between 1800 and 1950, and that lets me—if I need to know this thing, will it actually be in police or will it be in judiciary? In judiciary, will it be in this or in that?

You get this sense because now you can see the whole thing in front of you, and any person can go in and start constructing this tree relatively, I think, quickly now because we have these trees available to us. That’s one thing I think that makes our time slightly different from preceding generations, to give them their fair share in terms of the disadvantages they faced.

I think the second, you’ve hit the nail on the head on the nationalist movement. It’s not just that the nationalist movement wants to tell a very cohesive narrative of its heroes that gave rise and took part in the early—especially the early Congress. Then the story just gradually transforms, and so, you know, lo and behold, we get to ’47 and then the action begins. The tendency there, it’s not just a cohesive story with a given set of figures, as you pointed out with Bhownaggree and others. They actually then lose even people who were part of the nationalist movement or the freedom movement but weren’t part of the Congress. They get obliterated from the picture.

Exactly as you also said, the third problem is that so much of what happens when we think about Indians sorting out problems for themselves between 1800 and, let’s say, 1875, 1880—most of the domains of freedom where you can be inventive, where you can be experimental, are in the princely states. There’s just such an immense amount of work and variety happening there because the princely states after the 1910s become very anxious about the Congress, which is increasingly moving to the left, is increasingly becoming hostile.

Of course they’re hostile to monarchy, but they’re hostile also to landed interest. They’re hostile to markets, they’re hostile toward the idea of war and militaries and all those sorts of things because they’re moving either in a pacifist direction or they’re moving in a communist direction. Both those two major movements and ideas after Second World War, after the 1920s, makes the princes push back. And because the princes push back and shut themselves away, once more returning to their aloof palaces and kingdoms, everyone who’s been associated with them in the past is also cabined away as if they’re reactionary. That’s the term that’s often used between 1920 and 1950.

Again and again, we see the princes described as either feudal or reactionary in this denigrating way. That’s what I was saying, the thing that keeps me up at night that I hope people will understand and realize that the story of the 19th century is not the story of India after the Second or the First World War. These are completely different universes. In the 19th century, Indians are dazed, confused and baffled by everything that’s happened to them.

The simplest way I can put it is something I’m going to actually write a tweet about and an extended story about in a few days. There’s a very famous essay that was published in 1852, and the title of this essay is, “From a Factory We Grew to a Kingdom.” And it was written in The Friend of India, which was the great paper in Bengal. It said, between 1756 and 1852 (in 100 years, more or less, give or take), we’ve gone from a factory to covering this entire subcontinent. Look at how incredible we are, and look at what we’ve managed to accomplish. This is the act of providence and divinity.

The irony is, exactly at the moment they’re writing that is the beginning of the Indian return, the Indian renaissance from 1850 to 1950. And 100 years later, India is free. What I want people to understand is that the 19th century tells us why in 100 years India could collapse, and in 100 years India could be resurrected. The junction point of those two stories, our utter collapse and our incredible revival, is in the 19th century. That’s where those two eras meet. If we don’t understand the 19th century, we cannot understand why we failed and why we recovered. That’s the thing.

Indian Aristocracy and Historic Preservation

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s so well put. I always try to think about what are the incentives for people to preserve history, to write their own history and so on. The British have preserved documents that serve their interests, like all the correspondence they have with the different dewans of the princely states. Much of it is mundane, but it tells us a lot about that time. And as a class of modern-day scholars who are educated in English, who know how to work through these archives, that’s really what we rely on.

One part of the loss is the regional languages and what was done at the time. The other part of the loss is what was written in English because these were princely states that had to communicate with the crown, and with first the Company and then the crown. But over a period of time, they not just lost their relevance and importance but also lost their source of revenue. How much of the loss of the archives of the princely states do you think is because of something like the 26th Amendment and abolishing the privy purses? They basically have no money to maintain their own history.

This is technically their family history. They’d like to have the pictures, they’d like to have the plaques commemorating who built what, but that just seems to have disappeared. Do you think the archival base of India would have been different had we had this layer of aristocracy? Which is not particularly pleasant for anyone, but at the end of the day, it does have the money to support the arts, to maintain libraries, to have archives and to really create a link between the present and the past, culturally or intellectually.

SAGAR: That’s a really, really interesting, thoughtful question. Yes, that’s a really interesting question. I think what should have been done, what could have been done, is to have collected those archives, because they were all centralized. In one way or another every princely state had its daftars where these documents were kept. In some cases, like with Sayajirao, one reason I was able to write this book at all, or write any of the other things that I’m working on, was because the Baroda Records Room was added into the Gujarat State Archives, and that saved it.

When I contacted the state archives in Indore, they had no idea what I was talking about. They were like, “No such thing ever existed.” I was like, “No, you mean you don’t have Holkar’s papers, the most important principality of central India, raging through all of central India, Rajasthan, the terror of the region? You have nothing?” And they were like, “Well, we have some documents from 1960, maybe, somewhere.”

I just stared into space for a while and uttered lots of curse words to myself. You’re left flabbergasted at what’s been lost. The way it’s happened is that, one, the Indian state failed us because it disregarded those native states for the reasons we were just discussing previously. Also, it tells us the weakness of the Indian aristocracy. They never really cared enough to learn or to appreciate more than their privileges. That was always the problem.

Again and again and again, you hear and you see—,there was Madhava Rao, there are others in his era who wrote to princes, wrote letters, wrote memoranda, advised, educated. Again and again the lesson was, “Your privileges are important, but the greatest privilege you have is to be above others with more resources that you can use. It’s not to get nazars, and it’s not to have people bow to you. It’s not to have all this wealth. It’s to be the keeper of traditions and memories and order.”

Our aristocracy was, is and will be an utter failure because of any sense of an esprit de corps, that they have a mission greater than themselves. They will preserve paintings so that they can sell them. They will preserve forts so that they can turn them into luxury hotels. They will preserve other items, cars and memorabilia, so that they can sell them through auctioneers in London. The sense that they have a deeper mission to their civilization is, I feel, lost on them, and that was lost on them a while ago. It’s not just a contemporary event.

When independence came, the idea was, by and large—there are a few families that don’t necessarily meet this condemnation, but the others, the great bulk do—was, “Let’s get all we can out of this because now we are mostly left with the Jor Bagh full of royal families that basically bought plots of land in Delhi and kept their plots of lands out in their homes.” Jor Bagh and Prithvi Raj Road, the classic versions of minor royalty of various kinds that have given up the hope, given up the flame and are living off the fat of the land and that’s it. That’s all that really motivates them.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. The one person who is probably an exception in that pack is Sayajirao Gaekwad, the then-minor prince of Baroda who becomes the monarch of Baroda. It’s a complicated relationship. It’s not the same relationship that Madhava Rao had with the princes of Travancore. He’s not exactly allowed to educate him but eventually gained some influence in educating him. The kingdom of Baroda actually ends up being very progressive.

Today, if there are two reasons or three reasons we think about Sayajirao Gaekwad, it is, one, he funded Ambedkar’s education, which you can possibly trace back to a note by Madhava Rao where he talks about, “You need to have education. You need to support talented people, pay for scholarships so they can get higher education outside the principality,” and things like that. I don’t know if I’m drawing too direct a connection.

And the other, of course, he’s the grandfather of Gayatri Devi and the founder of Bank of Baroda and that legacy that he has. His papers are pretty well preserved, and it’s also a very large state. It’s almost one of the European countries.

SAGAR: Yes. It’s about the size of Greece.

The Constitutionalist

RAJAGOPALAN: At the end of the book, you have this lovely appendix, where there’s literally a draft constitution by Madhava Rao, which is something that I had no idea about until I read your appendix. I knew that there were draft constitutions in play from—the first full draft that I had read was the Motilal Nehru draft, 1928, ’29.

More recently, through this wonderful paper that Rohit De and Ornit Shani have written, I have learned that there is actually not one draft, but many hundreds at this point. All sorts of different constitutions are being written in the different princely states, some of them to govern the princely states as a constitutional monarchy. Some of them as part of the larger question of how India must govern itself eventually, and I can’t think of anything before 1875.

Is Madhava Rao the very first constitutionalist in India coming up with a very modern draft constitution? It has protections against search and seizure. It has habeas corpus. It has protections limiting the eminent domain power. It’s remarkably modern, if one were to sit down and write it today. Where is this coming from? First of all, is he the first one? And why didn’t we have more of these and know about more of these?

SAGAR: It’s always dangerous, when one’s doing history, to lay a flag down. I believe he’s the first. I have not seen at all any other indications before this time of something like a serious, fully worked out constitution with a clear principle and structure—not some line in a letter or something of that kind. This is the first.

He writes it because after an entire career in the princely states and the legacies through his father and his uncle that he’s aware of, which is another 50 years before that, he has realized that, as we were saying, right at the beginning of this conversation, you can try and educate princes. You can try and put in place a state or a bureaucracy, but you will not be able to fundamentally make a modern state work without limitations on power. As long as there is the ability of the king or the prince or the queen to interfere, as long as there’s a shred of arbitrariness, it can grow. If there’s a crack in the door, it’ll keep opening further and further. His great goal toward the end of his life, his greatest hope, which doesn’t come to be realized, tragically, is to constrain arbitrariness.

For all that he’s learned and done, he teaches all the principles. He can tell you how to sort out your public finances, as we’ve been discussing. He can tell you how to hire and recruit and promote people. He can tell you how to manage your diplomacy, but none of these things will work if you can’t curb your own behavior. His great goal with Sayajirao, and then he hopes when Sayajirao does it, others will mimic Sayajirao because Baroda’s great. And at that point, all eyes were on Baroda because it’s such a unique experiment.

Unfortunately for him, he fails, and this goes to the heart of then the problem of the princely states. Later, what we were talking about earlier, when the princes are confronted with a growing Congress movement in the first couple of decades of the 20th century, and then as we come close to 1947, the princes realize there’s no future for them. Because their model of governance and their model of succession has no place in the modern world.

Madhava Rao had given them, back in 1875, a way in which they could have a perennial existence. They could have a continued existence. They could have been compatible with voting as, say, for example, a place like Mysore gradually went in that direction. They didn’t have voting, but at least it had representation, and that’s exactly what Madhava Rao wanted. Then representation, it could have been compatible with first part, as it is in England with democratic elections. His great hope had been when he wrote this constitution, he saw very clearly. And that’s why it’s such an important, incredible document.

\It’s important not just because it’s the first and his whole story behind why he’s the first, but it’s important more than being first. It’s the content. It’s the recognition of the realization that, specifically here we’re talking about, princely states have no future if they don’t solve the problem of arbitrariness. And this was a change that was occurring throughout Europe at this time. Madhava Rao was watching it. He could see its good effects, especially in a place like England. He wanted India and native states in India to follow suit. That was his goal, and that was why he wrote the constitution. Because it was rejected or not adopted by the princely states, they ended up with a blank wall. When 1947 came around, there was no other way for them to continue.

Company vs. Crown Rule

RAJAGOPALAN: How much of this is because Madhava Rao also sees the transition from rule under Company to rule under crown? This is the British monarchy. Of course, they’ve had a seven-, eight-century lead to what was happening in some of the princely states in India. That’s a constitutional monarchy where the ruler is very much bound, not just by Parliament, but also by rules. He, I think, references the Magna Carta. I think he says something like “the events in Runnymede” in a couple of those constitutional provisions.

It seems like that is the model. He’s also read the American Constitution, because the takings clause that I was looking at (because that’s interesting to me), it says, “I think there’s something like this in the American Constitution.” How much of that switch is bringing about this view that, “Hey, a constitutional monarchy is a possibility in India and the way forward, if we ever need to get out of this kind of foreign rule, as we call it”?

SAGAR: I think so. It’s a very nice observation. I think you’re right that after 1857, the beginning of crown rule certainly has an impact not just on him and on others in the princely states as a different model for how princes should function. They’re seen—especially after 1877, they’re seen as part of the extended royal family of Great Britain.

I think for Madhava Rao in particular, the crown gives him an example. It’s not that they’re influencing him. His ideas are, I think, already in place in the 1840s and ’50s, as he’s forming and concretizing his view of the world. He’s reading people like Burke, and he’s reading people like Montesquieu, and he thinks there is a place for monarchy in the world. In the 1850s or ’60s, it would’ve been almost impossible for anyone to think that India was going to become democratic.

For him, the natural way forward would’ve been to think of liberalizing and regularizing monarchy so that it becomes more hospitable in the modern world and accommodates itself to modernity. Reading Burke, reading Montesquieu, figures of that kind, reading Tocqueville, who he also thought very highly of, he could see a way forward which involved this constitutionalism and a constitutional monarchy.

When after 1858, the crown takes over, it becomes one in that arsenal of different devices he can use. Appeals to patriotism, appeals to pride, appeals to education and also appeals to the English example, as ways to convince his monarchs to do the right thing. Once again, it has limited impact because the Marathas, for instance, say, “Well, that’s what you do in England, but we Marathas were born on the saddleback.” The Maratha state emblem is the cow, and the flag has the horse on it. A Maratha without a horse is meaningless. He can’t win against the Maratha nobles, and he’s seen as this Madarasi [from Madras], as they call him, who’s come with his newfangled ideas and should go back. He has a tough going.

Rao’s Hidden Constitution

RAJAGOPALAN: The other thing that struck me about this constitution is that not only is it modern by Indian standards, it’s also very modern by British standards. It has very clear separation of powers, much stronger than what is observed in England at the time. The provisions for an independent judiciary, how they’re appointed, can they hold other jobs, provision—actually something that looks a lot like impeachment. You can’t just dismiss a judge.

Of course, the Constituent Assembly version, which decides to step away from the British system and have an independent judiciary—we have some version of it now, but that’s a separate matter. It’s just remarkably modern even in that. He just feels like he’s sprouted out of somewhere, every time I read him. Because it doesn’t feel like this is really talking about Tanjore or Mysore, where he grew up.

He’s not just borrowing from Travancore and Baroda. He’s not just borrowing from the Enlightenment thinkers he read. He’s actually trying to make a much clearer incentive-compatible system, what we now call something that has checks and balances and the different powers are aligned. It just feels very strange that this is not mentioned in any of the constitutional documents later. We don’t invoke—when we are talking about purna swaraj and the Motilal Nehru constitution, I don’t remember reading a mention of him or this particular document. Tej Bahadur Sapru wrote a version, a draft of the constitution. I don’t remember a reference to Madhava Rao.

I believe, from what Rohit and Ornit have written, that 62 states framed their own constitution, and 286 others were involved in making constitutions. I’m now becoming more and more curious about this narrative that the princely states were just these backwaters full of opulence, declining military power, warring factions and palace intrigue and no modernism. Except maybe Mysore and Travancore, we’ll name a couple of folks, and we get on with it. This is just a very strange telling of our own history.

In some sense, I feel the modern-day nationalism wouldn’t quite look like this, if only we read what our very recent history is in a homegrown sense, not imposed by Macaulay or whatever is the narrative. This is a very homegrown institutional setup that just seems to have—we seem to have lost this connection somewhere.

SAGAR: Yes, that’s very nicely put. The one reason why so few people would’ve known about it after the turn of the century is partly because Madhava Rao was blackballed because he was part of the Congress, played a very important role in building it up. He was associated with the National Social Conference. For his view was social reform before political reform. That made him unlikeable to the National Congress. He also was opposed to the idea of representation on a one-person, one-vote idea straightaway. He was okay with it later down the path, but not immediately. These two things meant that people didn’t want to talk about him too much.

He didn’t go around seeking publicity for all his views. He certainly enjoyed his public persona. He gave speeches. He knew he was popular. He knew he was famous. His picture would appear in newspapers throughout India; his columns would be carried. He knew he was famous, but he didn’t relish it or revel in it, as in, “I have to tell everyone what I did, or everyone must know.” When he wrote this constitution, originally it was written in private. It was written for the viceroy and the rulers and not shared publicly. Later, when it did become public knowledge, he never admitted that he was the one who wrote it.

People knew a native had written it. No one knew he had written it. I was able to put the dots together. I found his correspondence that showed that he’d actually written it. I would say maybe even up till the 1930s or ’40s, people did not know that he had written this constitution. That’s why his part of the story gets lost. The broader question, or the broader observation you made about how tragic it is that we know so little about the princely states and the liberalism and the ideals that grew up organically, naturally in these places.

It is a huge loss, and it’s a huge problem because we tend to think—I’ll lose my voice saying this, but I will just keep saying it again and again—that we think English education came to India and English ideas came to India with Macaulay. The first English school in India was set up in 1784 in Tanjore, by the maharajah of the Tanjore. He was not even an English-educated maharajah. He could see that there was a value to learning these ideas that were making the British so successful.

Just from a purely instrumental point of view, it was worth having people that could trade and translate in and engage in commerce and business and enterprise in multiple languages. English came to India 50 years before Macaulay turned up there. The first major sets of schools and institutions were set up in Madras before the English set up the Madras High School. It was set up because Indians asked for this school to be set up. They signed and created a monster petition, as it was called at the time, of 50,000 signatures from the gentlemen of Madras, asking for the Madras High School to be set up for our enlightenment and progress.

It’s very important for us to understand that in the 19th century, when Indians looked at their circumstances, they thought long and hard about the things that had caused them to be colonized. It’s not like they just read Macaulay or read Mill and said, “Oh, we were colonized because we were backward. We are foolish. We don’t know anything.”

They loved and respected their culture. They loved and respected their institutions, but they recognized there must be something deficient in them for this great catastrophe to have fallen upon our people, that everything that we had was simply overrun in this space of 30 or 40 years, or 50 years at the most. They earnestly asked themselves the question that, “Have we really got all the knowledge in the world that’s out there? Do we possess it? No, we don’t.” That sense of openness and self-awareness and self-criticism is a constant feature of the 19th century, and that’s something we should be proud of.

It’s something we should admire about ourselves, that we were willing to adapt and learn and change in the face of hard realities. Madhava Rao and others get forgotten, but in fact, they’re the ones who did that learning. We are their beneficiaries because they learned the lessons, and we inherited them and then turned a deaf ear or turned a blind eye to where we got them from.

Rediscovering the Ideas of India

RAJAGOPALAN: This is where I love your other project, which I guess has given birth to all these other books that you’re working on. This is the “Ideas of India.” I think the website is ideasofindia.org. It is an extraordinary public database and a repository of our history. I think you have about 400-plus journals, and these are all basically journals written in English. They’re periodicals. Some are every month, some are quarterly and so on. They have these articles, all of which are written by Indians talking about India at that time. And they’re not periodicals in the sense of they’re telling us what happened yesterday and some event. They’re not event-based. They’re very ideas-based.

Once again, this is something that I was simply not aware of until you created this database. For instance, you also reference some of these thinkers in the other edited volume. These are Bholanath Chandra or Kissen Mohan Malik, P. Ananda Charlu. They are free trade folks. When people have always asked me in a history-of-thought sense, “Oh, why aren’t there any free trade ideas? India used to be this huge global trading powerhouse when you look at the Madison Project and you look at the data and so on.” I was like, we have these trading routes, but then the British came and it turns into a mercantilist project. And people confuse free trade and mercantilism, and then India goes socialist. This is the CliffsNotes version of the story that’s told to us.

Of course, in the middle of this somewhere there’s a handshake between Laski and Nehru, which is the exact method by which socialism got transferred. Leaving that aside, I didn’t know that there is a homegrown literature and thought on critiquing mercantilism and embracing free trade. These people, over and over again, they’re saying, “Hey, free trade is not the reason Indians are poor. It is all these other mercantilist policies. In fact, Indians are poor because they are not plugged into global trade, and they can’t benefit from the gains from trade.”

It’s extraordinary, this enormous literature that you have managed to put together. My first question is, how did this project come about? How difficult was it, and what is still missing from this repository, in a sense that we don’t have access to? Or is this about a pretty good picture of the 200 years before independence that we really need to understand Indian thought, the subcontinental thought?

SAGAR: Thanks, Shruti. Thanks for mentioning this and bringing it up. I think it’s a pretty good summary or overview because there is such a large number of journals from so many different groups and geographies and ideological viewpoints, that it gives you a sense of the interplay of ideas. How many different ideas were around, because all these journals refer to one another or periodicals.

They publish rival pieces because they’re appealing to the same audience and trying to convince them. The story behind these periodicals is that because—this is something I think is very clear to those of us working in the archives. When you look at newspapers or weeklies, they tend to focus on contemporary events, very, very transient things. The moment you move to monthlies, they become both fatter because you’re going to transport this thing, you might as well get as many pieces in as you can. Your subscribers are satisfied with this more expensive and more voluminous text that’s also going to cost you a lot more to transmit over distance.

The editors right from the very beginning have an English idea in mind, which is, “I want to appeal to reason and ideas.” And because they’ve all grown up reading these or been educated in English schools and colleges and universities in India reading these periodicals, they want to mimic them but apply them to an Indian context and develop an Indian public sphere. Indians debating Indian problems, or Indians debating global problems. They’re open to both things. They’re not at all parochial.

They focus, in these monthlies or quarterlies, on these big, big questions. Very quickly from the 1860s onward, they start to ask (exactly as you said) this question of, “Why exactly are we, when we were such a great trading—such a wealthy country before the British came, and we had traders and migrants and business interests scattered, especially across central Asia, Southeast Asia—why has that disappeared?” It’s Bholanath Chandra, for example, who you mentioned, says, “Why are Indians simply not traveling? What’s happened?”

We used to. We know from all these records that there were Indians in places like Armenia and in China and in Indonesia and dotted along the coast of eastern Africa. Where’s all of that gone? Then begins this set of analyses that emphasize the importance of regenerating enterprise in India. A large part of the entrepreneurial class has been wiped out by the conflict between princely states and the Company. The bankers and the commercial class have to pay both sides trying to keep their businesses alive, and eventually the costs of business are just simply too high.

As the new commercial class starts to appear under the British, it struggles with, exactly as you put it, the mercantilism of the British, which tries to nip in the bud this domestic entrepreneurial class. They want them simply to be producers of primary goods and not of services, and not of industrial goods. Bholanath Chandra, beginning with him—he’s the graduate of the first class of Hindu College in Kolkata—from then onward, you start to get generation after generation culminating in the greatest peak of this era, Govind Ranade, who’s just absolutely incredible on this area, and Telang, his buddy and interlocutor.

The two of them represent this deep realization that the problems in India’s trade is not a lack of enterprise or innovation, but simply British constraints, both on the kinds of trade you can take part in, on the kinds of capital you can raise and the sorts of terms on which you can conduct business, domestically and internationally. This becomes the basis of their critique, which runs all the way from the mid-1870s till the 1900s, arguing for freer markets, better integration. Ranade argues famously for more Indian migration because Indians undertake enterprise abroad more freely than they can in India. You better go do it somewhere else because you can’t do it here.

There is this really remarkable literature, Indian literature, that talks about the importance of markets and trade from the 1870s onward, which has been forgotten and lost and is highly undervalued, needs to be resurrected. Just as a minute ago we were talking about liberalism in India in its social and political sense, there is liberalism in its economic sense, which really has a great renaissance up till the time Gokhale passes. And then after that, it’s all downhill as you described.

Availability of Information

RAJAGOPALAN: What struck me as odd is, this is all in English. I would completely understand if we didn’t have access to these journals and periodicals, they were not in English, and someone had to translate, and many of these languages, we don’t have good translations. But this is all in English. Of course, there are some words which are spelled in a 19th-century way or something, but they’re very modern. They’re written exactly like if you were reading the Seminar or Frontline, very modern publication. They feel a lot like that.

They have rejoinders, where there are two people debating. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but I was truly surprised. It’s very interesting, knitting together of different interests. There are of course, the nationalist interests. There are journals which are just talking about economics. There are journals which are just talking about social reform. There’s something called the Indian Ladies’ Magazine.

There is, of course, the one on the zamindars and the Indian princely states, which was called something else at the time. It’s quite interesting that there’s the Muslim Review, there’s all the things to do with Indians, and also the reformist Hindus. They have their own journals. It’s very interesting that this was going on. It’s, of course, still the elite of the time; this is not a mass movement by any standards, but it exists.

I’m deeply grateful to you, for anyone who’s researching the time period to make this available. I also feel like in a much broader sense, given where we are culturally, I feel like this is the bridge between the very macho nationalism and the historical nationalism that we have right now, and this elite liberalism, which a small group of people advocate. Somehow the bridge between these two is Indian history and Indian historical and philosophical thought. Somehow, you’ve managed to unearth the mother lode and put it out for anyone to see and access easily. I’m hoping this is just part of a larger change in how we write these narratives about India.

SAGAR: I’m hopeful that as we become more also digitally capable right now, the ability of people to use the database, but also then to use the internet to get hold of things from all kinds of websites that they can access. One great example is Archive.org, which has done an amazing job in cataloging and collecting all these important texts so that people can quickly access this material, which even a decade ago would’ve been difficult. There’s been that change.

Earlier you’d ask me this question, which I should in all fairness and honesty also say, that—what more is left? There’s a lot more left. What I’ve done with Ideas of India helps us break in. It shows us that there’s a massive, vibrant world out there. You were saying it’s in English because it’s pan-Indian. That was the one lingua franca that could allow so many different types and groups to speak.

It is elite in the sense that it’s metropolitan. I often use that word. It’s places where there are universities. But you get places you would think of as not Delhi, not Mumbai, not Madras, but Lucknow, Bareilly and Patna, Tanjore. Places that people today in India might think of as second- or third-tier cities but in fact, back then, were vibrant and alive with all sorts of interesting ideas and connected to global ideas and currents. I think Ideas of India’s done a great job or lets us see that world, but there’s so much more still that if there are others out there, and I can only hope to encourage or inspire others to do similar things.

We need more of what we sometimes call subaltern histories. If people have family trunks somewhere that are full of letters, please hand them over to their archives. There’s one coming up at Ashoka, for instance, things that allow us to collect these little notes. Not just the big ones that I’ve tried to collect, the obvious large major centers—stories, family stories, regional stories, particularly those in regional languages. These things will really help us have a more textured, 360-view of that era and not just the one that I’ve been able to uncover.

The one I’ve been able to uncover serves my purpose; it lets me tell these larger narrative stories about the big movements. But the stories of the little guy or the little woman and the different regions will really enrich our understanding of how connected, how modern we were. I love to say we were modern before we were modern because we tend to have this idea that it was all archaic stuff, and the 19th century must have just been Sati or something like that till the British. We just don’t realize how wonderful that era was.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s a lovely phrase. We were modern before we were modern. Thank you so much, Rahul. I can’t thank you enough, but you must promise me that you will come back and talk about your other book, “Secrets and Leaks.” The other theme in all your work is, of course, thinking about executive power in different centuries, in different contexts, whether it’s the princely state of Baroda and Travancore or whether it’s the Americans dealing with secrecy and executive power and military power.

This is something I really hope you can come back and discuss with us, but thank you so much. I’m just so excited about this book. To me, even on the second and third reading, it’s like, “I’m so excited this exists.” It’s like meeting an old friend. Thank you so much for doing this. Such a pleasure to speak with you.

SAGAR: Thank you so much, Shruti. Madhava Rao has a great friend in you. I really appreciate that. Thank you.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app