Reconfiguring Empire Gently: Indians and Imperial Reform, 1917-1947

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Mistry, Heena
Global History , British Empire , South Asian Diaspora , Settler Colonialism , World War One , Liberalism , Commonwealth , South Africa , India , Twentieth Century , Race , Migration , Citizenship , Nationalism , Imperial Reform , Indian Moderates , Indian Liberals , Decolonization , Diaspora , Indenture , Greater India , Gopal Krishna Gokhale , V. S. Srinivasa Sastri , Servants of India Society , Bhawani Dayal Sannyasi , P. Kodanda Rao , Benarsidas Chaturvedi
This dissertation gives an overview of imperial reform as one of many responses to late colonial rule which existed alongside and in conversation with anticolonialism. I argue that the argument for imperial reform in India sought to institutionalize Indian settler citizenship within white settler citizenship. I delve into the importance of the interwar period as one in which Indian “nationalism” stood for many different possibilities for engagement with the struggle against imperial hegemony, including both reform and anticolonial nationalism, among others. Indian liberals put forward the case for imperial reform during meetings of the British Commonwealth in the aftermath of the First World War. They tried to act as brokers between the Government of India, Indians overseas, white settlers, and Indian public opinion in order to facilitate programs for imperial reform which they negotiated for at meetings of the British Commonwealth. The history of imperial reform was entangled with that of Indian subimperialism. Imperial reform was an argument that fell in and out of favour within a global network of concern for Indians overseas. The Indian Reciprocity Act marked Indian liberals’ disillusionment with the possibility of empire as the framework upon which Indian inclusion within a global system of liberal states could rest. This dissertation challenges the teleologies of postcolonial nationalist histories which assume the inevitability of anticolonial nationalism and the postcolonial nation-state as the exclusive responses to imperialism. The history of Indian liberal politics during the interwar years only becomes possible when the container of contemporary South Asia’s borders are set aside as units of analysis. Understanding responses to imperialism and critiques of empire outside of anticolonialism is only possible when the artificial barrier separating the histories of the global Indian diaspora and the Indian subcontinent during the interwar years are collapsed.
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