Reading (the) Late Chris Bayly: A Personal Tribute

Dipesh Chakrabarty,* courtesy of South Asian History and Culture, vol.  7, no. 1, Jan. 2016

bayly 22Everything seemed normal about the weekend of April 18-19, 2015 in Chicago until it ended with a very cruel blow to many around the world. Without any warning or early signs that could have prepared anybody for what was to come, it took Chris Bayly – Professor Sir Christopher Alan Bayly (1945-2015) – who was then visiting us at the University of Chicago, away. This tribute is in part a statement of my admiration for Bayly’s evolving academic personality; it is also an attempt to understand the shifting terrains of academic historiography that brought us together. Beginning from very different academic and social positions, following pathways that intersected as often as they diverged, we had come to a point, late in our careers, where I felt privileged enough to think of Bayly, an infinitely more accomplished person than I, as a “friend.” Not a close friend by any means, but we bore each other much good will and warm feelings of friendship. I had a role to play in Bayly becoming a visitor to the University of Chicago. Age-wise, Bayly was my senior by only a few years, but the gap between our careers was substantial. He was already a published scholar when I had just begun to dabble in historical research in Calcutta in the early 1970s. Bayly finished his Oxford DPhil in 1970. I finished my ANU Ph.D in 1983. His academic life spanned some forty-five years. From his first book, The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), to the book he was working on till that fateful weekend last April, a history of the world in the twentieth century, it was a long and rich journey that included some significant, and sometimes collaborative, forays into South East Asian and other histories as well. Moved along by the sheer force of his erudition and research, and that of his intelligence that could connect events across very large gaps of geography, I also, like many others in my position, learned to evolve as a reader of Bayly.Christopher-Bayly2_20150425As someone who received his training in history from leftist historians in India in the early 1970s, I should explain what it meant to learn to read Chris Bayly in those early years of modern South Asian history. E. H. Carr once said that every generation writes its own history. If he had seen Indian historians at work in Calcutta, Delhi, or Aligarh in those years, he would have probably said: “True, every generation of professional historians write their own history, but they do so through their students.” Modern South Asian history as a field was very young, hardly eight or ten years old, when Bayly finished his dissertation in 1970. And though this emerging field was structured around the shared themes of imperialism and nationalism in the subcontinent, it was also very divided internally. Our Indian professors, particularly those trained in Oxford and Cambridge, were proud of their blighty” connections but rejected the British Empire with the passion they had imbibed in their nationalist youth of the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Bayly’s mentors, on the other hand, had seen the empire decline and disappear; they got interested in finding out why and how it once mattered and worked. When my academic cohorts came of age in the world of historical scholarship in India in the early 1970s, they became, naturally, the inheritors of their teachers’ nationalist passions that had by the 1970s been yoked to some global developments in the realm of thought and ideology: the Latin American dependency theory, for instance, that helped to provide a perspective that saw colonial rule as a huge and tragic rupture in India’s historical time, a rupture that quashed all possibilities of independent modernization and capitalism. This was spelt out most passionately and vigorously in Bipan Chandra’s essays collected together in Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1977). A much more nuanced and theoretically inflected version was presented in the works of Asok Sen, a professor of economics who worked at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta where I experienced my early apprenticeship in modern South Asian history. The 1960s had, in any case, filled us up with anti-imperial, in many cases anti-US, sentiments. The Vietnam war culminating in a Communist victory in 1975 gave a new fillip to Maoist theories of peasant rebellion that were already politically influential in India from the 1960s. These theories came to enjoy academic respectability globally in the 1970s and ‘80s, the process seeing, in India, the emergence of the series Subaltern Studies (under the intellectual leadership of Ranajit Guha) that became an inspiration for many of my generation.

It was not easy to read Bayly in this context. When he first appeared in print in India, with a brilliant essay entitled “Patrons and Politics in North India, 1880-1920” in a landmark collection called Locality, Province, and Nation: Essays on Indian Politics 1870-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973) edited by Anil Seal, Gordon Johnson, and Bayly’s supervisor, John Gallagher, and published as a special issue of Modern Asian Studies in 1973, we mistook him for a member of the so-called “Cambridge school” even though his differences from them were difficult to overlook. This collection itself was seen as the first statement of the new “Cambridge School” that superseded the premises of Anil Seal’s 1968 volume, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Our reception of Bayly’s classic Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazar: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) in 1983 was similarly complicated. The massive research in the book, the novelty of his view of the eighteenth century, and his capacity to bring together a wide variety of material to mount a large synthetic argument about the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in India, were undeniable. His discussion of life and social change at the level of qasba or his discovery of the naupatti sabha, an association (theoretically) of nine merchant families that ran the city of Banaras, introduced some startlingly new features and facts into modern South Asian history. But at the same time his claim that Indians were actively involved in building the institutional basis of colonial rule and therefore had “agency” in the process, rang to our anti-imperial ears attuned to E. P. Thompson’s popularization of that word, very much like a perverse use of it. Furthermore, his point that colonial rule in the nineteenth century was based on new social and institutional developments in the eighteenth went against the very grain of the thought – popular in the history circles of India in the 1970s and the ‘80s – that “colonialism” marked a radical break from all that preceded it and completely transformed Indian society beyond recognition, destroying all its potential for regeneration from within. It was not easy to read Bayly in those years from an Indian-nationalist perspective that we had inherited from and shared with our teachers.

Bayly did not have much sympathy either for the work that was being published in the series Subaltern Studies. He wrote a long review essay in 1988 in The Journal of Peasant Studies of the first four volumes of Subaltern Studies. His tone was characteristically polite; he acknowledged the quality of individual essays but the enterprise as a whole did not seem to amount to very much in his judgment. He was clearly underwhelmed, however, either by the achievements of the series and its authors or by the intellectual paths they had taken. Most importantly, he mistook our borrowings from – and fascination for – the tools of structuralist analyses (without an appreciation of which the founding text of Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, OUP Delhi, 1983, cannot really be understood on its own terms) as just so many simple-minded expressions of “essentialism” or, worse, Orientalism. This was most clearly expressed in his assessment of Guha’s and Shahid Amin’s work (especially the latter’s well known essay, “Gandhi as Mahatma” published in the third volume of Subaltern Studies):

Ranajit Guha’s own approach (set out more fully in his monograph) seems sometimes to postulate the existence of an unchanging peasantry and unified peasant consciousness defined by struggle against colonialism. Shahid Amin .. seems to adopt a notion of an essential peasant ‘moral economy’ or ‘popular culture’ … For all its empirical richness the feel of the argument is sometimes not dissimilar from the ‘oriental peasant mentality’ postulated by contemporary district officers. (Bayly, “Rallying Around the Subaltern,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 16:1, 1988, pp. 114-115)

Bayly was, of course, not alone in making this charge or in thinking of what we saw as “structural” (in the Levi-Straussian or Barthian sense) as unthinking reproductions of colonial stereotypes. The late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar and others would make the charge even more volubly later on. And the charge is still made, as loudly as ever, in the more recent critiques of the series. (I have tried to explain the intellectual reasons for the attraction that structuralism held for us in a recent essay, “Subaltern Studies in Retrospect and Reminiscence,” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 38, 1, March 2015, pp. 10-18, a somewhat revised version of an essay first published in Economic and Political Weekly, March 23, 2013 but I doubt that my explanation will have much impact on our uncomprehending critics.)

Having started our respective careers with so much dividing us, Bayly and I eventually became friends – not just friendly to each other, but co-inquirers: we shared drafts of articles and chapters, organized a couple of conferences together, and talked about our old differences and hostilities partly with the sense of amusement that  comes with the passage of time but, more importantly, with a shared sense of the changing topography of the historiographic and the academic terrain we had both inhabited and traversed. I was very happy to learn that Bayly was a reader for the press for my book on Sir Jadunath Sarkar (The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015) and thus all the more sad that I could not give him a copy of the book when it was published. He once visited – in 2012, I think – an undergraduate class I was teaching on Subaltern Studies at the University of Chicago. A student from that class, now pursuing doctoral studies at another university, wrote this to me on hearing of Bayly’s sad and untimely death:

I just caught news of Prof. Bayly’s passing, and wanted to offer a few words. It’s not easy to find productive critics who are also cordial colleagues. Based on your hosting him in our class, I’m guessing he fell into that category. It was especially useful to learn about the issue of navigating historians and histories that highlight old paradigms of power with the tact and grace you two showed. As I prepare to jump into my own networks of resistance and power, I’ll always be drawing upon his discussions in reference to the work of the SS collective. (personal communication, April 20, 2015).

The roots of this friendship lay, I think, – putting questions of personalities aside – both in Bayly’s sense of history as well as in a certain “turn” in this work in the last decade of his life. There had also been shifts in my position but the aim of this short tribute is to understand this turn in the later works of Bayly. There were certain long-standing characteristics of Bayly’s work that I have noticed as someone reading him for years. He was a historian who wanted to see everything from three distinct perspectives: (a) with an eye on the local but not catering to any localism – his very first book on Allahabad began by declaring “this book is history from a local standpoint rather than a local history,” – and hence emphasizing connections between the local, the regional, and, where necessary, the global; (b) someone acutely sensitive, however, (as evident in his 2004 book on The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914) to the point that connections could actually heighten one’s sense of difference (hence his lifelong interest in the Malaviya family of Allahabad and in their soft Hinduism and the contrast they presented to the Nehrus), and finally (c) as someone who always insisted on seeing things in what he himself described as “a long historical context” (as he put it his 2012 book, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 357). Bayly’s curiosity knew no national bounds. His comparative work on empires, on modern nationalities in South Asia, on South East Asian history, on world and global history made him the preeminent historian that he was. But this horizontal spread never came at the expense of the specific and the “long historical context.” He gave even his books a “long historical context,” as when he described his work on Indian political thought, especially liberalism, as an “extension forward in time” of his 1996 book Empire and Information. And, of course, his 1983 masterpiece, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars, put the very question of colonial India in a “long historical context.” This was a controversial move, as I have said before, but I think Bayly won that debate decisively. That book not only changed the face of the eighteenth century in Indian history, it changed our understanding of the transition to colonial rule. When I now teach the history of the eighteenth century in India, much of the picture I present to students is that drawn by Bayly or pictures that his research helped others to (re-)draw.

People praise good losers. But Bayly was a very good winner, generous to his opposition even as he won an argument. He concluded his 1991 epilogue to the Indian edition of Rulers, by acknowledging that the debate over colonial rule would “probably never end.” And he now made a very significant admission absent from the work of the younger Bayly or from the earlier edition of the book: “It is probably true that western writers tend to underestimate the disruptive impact of colonial rule, just as most Indian writers employ it overmuch as an historiographical deus ex machina. We will remain indebted to each others’ correction.” (Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991 p. 499). Having won that debate much earlier, he could have, like the proverbial winner, “taken all”; he did not need to produce that middle ground. What spoke through those sentences was his intellectual generosity and the capacity to see a debate not as an all-out war in which one point of view must vanquish and annihilate opposition but as a conversation, a dialogue. The same spirit was reflected in the opening pages of The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) in his attitude towards points of view he regarded as “post-modernist”. Most historians I know think of “post-modernists” as a bunch of “idiots” who go around proclaiming that there is nothing called facts; most historians are therefore disdainful in their attitude to scholars they see as “post-modern.” Not Bayly, even though he also disagreed strongly with currents of thought he identified as “post-modern.” He acknowledged the existence of so-called post-modern points of view that “stringently” criticized “the basic assumptions of world history writing” on the ground that such histories “homogenize(d) human experience and ‘airbrush[ed] out’ the history of ‘people without power.’” Bayly disagreement is clearly evident but he was not dismissive. “Controversies of this sort can be quite productive,” he wrote, and added: “History has always flourished when questions about ‘What happened’ are challenged by the question ‘Who said so?’ and ‘What did it mean?’” (The Birth, p.8)

This late Bayly, it seems to me, was much more dialectical in his approach to argumentation (and therefore a pluralist who was more open to different approaches to history) than the younger Bayly of 1988 who damned the contributions of Subaltern Studies with faint praise. His work had taken a turn. This turn was – in addition to the accidents of meetings and personalities – what, I think, created the ground for our intellectual openness towards each other. (I had also moved away from some of what I perceived as the inadequacies of Subaltern Studies though I still value the contributions of the series.) If I were asked to describe this turn in Bayly’s writings, I would describe it as a growing openness to the role of ideas and ideologies in history, including those of historians themselves. I quote again from the opening chapter of The Birth (p.6): “Yet to stress the importance of industrious revolutions, as this book does, is not necessarily to give priority in historical causation to just another type of economic motor. For industrious revolutions … were also revolutions in ‘discourse,’ to use today’s jargon. People’s horizon of desire changed, because information about the ideals and life-styles of ruling groups was already circulating faster.” The turn is on full display in his book Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), first presented as the Wiles lectures at the Queen’s University of Belfast in 2007. Here Bayly delved into the world of “ideas, projects, and sensibilities” of Indian intellectuals and public figures in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Preface). Issues of translation, something so close to the analytical heart of postcolonial criticism, now interested him deeply: “The concept of liberalism as used by British public men of the classic generation of John Stuart Mill and his successors does not translate directly, either linguistically or conceptually, into the South Asian world. … Nonetheless, the power and influence of liberal ideas in India are hard to overestimate ….” (Recovering, p. 3) It would be interesting to see if the turn is sustained in his last book – to be published posthumously – on the history of the twentieth century. I suspect it will be.

Unlike in the case of many other world historians who see “the world” and the infrastructure of connectivity as synonymous, Bayly remained interested in finding out what got truly “connected” in the world and what didn’t. He was disturbed by arguments that seemed too sweeping in their claims. What Bayly strove for, one could say, was to keep alive an eternal spirit of curiosity about the world’s history, a spirit that led to newer and newer empirical inquiries. This was no narrow-minded empiricism. But, clearly, any ideology that claimed to have a single “key” to understanding all that seemed different in the world, was not for him either. Ingrained in his approach was a profound belief of the historian: that even the most “irreducible differences” in the world could be explained by investigating the circumstances that gave rise to such differences. One might want to argue with such a position. What interests me immediately, however, is the democratic spirit inherent in it. The “small voice” of history could retain its place in Bayly’s large narratives, the experience of the local and how it was lived did not have to be explained away by the bigger sweep of an argument that assigned everything in the world to some one empirically-unobservable unifying and structural principle that escaped recognition in daily life and revealed itself only under the analyst’s theoretical microscope. It is this democratic spirit in the writings of Bayly that I came to admire. Let me end this tribute by giving the final word to my friend himself. “[T]he aim,” he wrote, “of increasing the historians’ alertness to global or international connections and comparisons should not lead to the creation of a completely homogeneous picture. It should not try to elide all differences and resolutely to relativize all important trends in economies and societies. Undoubtedly, the world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was more connected than today’s historians have allowed. Yet some differences were truly irreducible. Many societies and states were ‘exceptional’ to some degree. Some intellectual constructs were unique to some particular periods. The point is to find out why these special circumstances existed, and not merely base judgments of exceptionalism on assumptions or prejudices.” (The Birth, p. 469).


1. Bayly, The Local Roots of Indian Politics.

2. Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism.

3. See among others, Sen, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar.

4. Bayly, “Patrons and Politics in North India.”

5. Seal, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism.

6. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars.

7. Bayly, “Rallying Around the Subaltern.”

8. Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency.

9. Amin, “Gandi as Mahatma.”

10. Bayly, “Rallying Around the Subaltern,” 114–115.

11. Chakrabarty, “Subaltern Studies in Retrospect.” This is a somewhat revised version of an essay first published

in Economic and Political Weekly, 23 March 2013.

12. Chakrabarty, The Calling of History.

13. Personal communication, 20 April 2015.

14. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914.

15. Bayly, Recovering Liberties, 357.

16. Bayly, Empire and Information.

17. Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars, 499.

18. Bayly, Birth of the Modern World, 8.

19. Ibid., 6.

20. Bayly, Recovering Liberties, 3.

21. Bayly, Birth of the Modern World, 469.


Amin, S. “Gandi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 1921-2.” In Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Vol. 3, edited by R. Guha, 1–64. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Bayly, C. A. “Patrons and Politics in North India.” In Locality, Province, and Nation: Essays on Indian Politics, 1870–1940, edited by J. Gallagher, G. Johnson, and A. Seal. London: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Reprinted from Modern Asian Studies 7, no. 3 (1973): 349–388.

Bayly, C. A. The Local Roots of Indian Politics: Allahabad, 1880–1920. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Bayly, C. A. “Rallying Around the Subaltern.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 16, no. 1 (1988): 110–120. doi:10.1080 03066158808438384.

Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870. 2nd ed. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Bayly, C. A. Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870. Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Bayly, C. A. Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire. Ideas in Context (No. 100). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Chakrabarty, D. The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Chakrabarty, D. “Subaltern Studies in Retrospect and Reminiscence.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38, no. 1 (2015): 10–18. doi:10.1080/00856401.2014.977421.

Chandra, B. Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1977.

Guha, R. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Seal, A. The Emergence of Indian Nationalism: Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Sen, A. Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar and His Elusive Milestones. Calcutta: Riddhi-India, 1977.

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[1] … Professor Chakrabarty is at the South Asia Program, University of Chicago and is considered one of India’s leading historians and intellectuals — one with wide experince in teaching in India, Australia, England and USA….

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