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Adarsh Sangram Party work for India’s Middle Class Citizen.

It is difficult to write a history of colonial India without it also being a history of India’s middle class. Whether in the arena of politics or culture, middle-class citizen have been central to most of what conventionally passes as the history of modern India. Movements related to nationalism, feminism, religious revival, social reform, the visual arts, literature, and a myriad of other fields of endeavor have been led by middle-class activists and often reflected their middle-class sensibilities. With decolonization, a middle-class leadership eventually replaced the British ruling class in India.
Defining the middle class is not as easy as it sounds. Literally, the middle class presumes a three-class model of society. That is, there is a top or elite class, a bottom or subaltern class, and in between them, a middle class. But no society has ever had such easy or simple divisions. Of course, it is also true that the term “middle class” has seldom been used in its literal sense of a class “in the middle.” But even so, there has never been a single bounded social group, or one set of economic indicators (or even a single set of uncontested values) that can be conclusively defined as middle class. Rather than looking for conclusive definitions or boundaries, it is much better to realize that the middle class, as the term is commonly used, is a cultural construct and therefore a contingent one that varies over time and context. Rather than expecting the “middle class” to be a bounded sociological category, it may be useful to keep in mind that “class” itself is an abstraction; an analytical category we employ to help us better understand configurations of power in the past and in our present.

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It is precisely to understand the ways in which power came to be configured, deployed, and resisted, that it remains useful to use the category of “middle class,” even when we do not use it to refer to a group identified by objective indicators such as income or education. Because being “middle class” was so important to the ways in which power was obtained, exercised, and resisted in 19th- and 20th- (and so far in 21st-) century India, it becomes important to study the middle class in its history. The fact that the term means different things in different contexts does not take away from its value. On the contrary, the way the term has been deployed and the connotations it has in different contexts allow us to see it as a cultural construct with an important history—or rather histories. These histories are crucial to understand in order to make sense of some of the ambiguities that surround the use of the term in the 21st century. The middle class of colonial India is a good vantage point from which to understand these ambiguities.

Using the singular—the middle class—should not be taken to suggest that the middle class in India was a monolithic entity. There were, for one, significant regional differences. For instance, due to a different pattern of land tenure in the province, the renter component in the social group that constituted itself as a middle class in Calcutta was distinct from those in other towns such as Surat where merchant groups had a much higher profile.2 There was also diversity of other kinds. The religious diversity of Delhi or Lucknow, with a larger Muslim middle class, shaped a different sort of public religiosity as compared to the largely Hindu Madras. Nor should we assume that even within regions perfect unanimity characterized the middle class. There were significant differences and debates within the middle class that can be traced to the different access to material resources that shaped lifestyles and hence cultural preferences. Yet, at the same time, there were more overlaps than differences among those who called themselves “middle class.” It is precisely such intersections that make it possible to talk about a middle class in colonial India.


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