SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

South Asia and the First World War: From anticolonial cosmopolitanism to masala commemoration

Santanu Das (University of Oxford)

Date: 19 March 2019Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 19 March 2019Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: 4426

Type of Event: 0

Even before Britain declared war or undivided India was dragged into it, the Punjabi newspaper Zamindar predicted on 30 July, 1914: 

War will not be confined to Austria and Serbia but will be a universal war in which all the great empires of Europe will be involved; for having partitioned Asia and Africa, they have no hunting grounds left and will now hunt each other. … The giant which has so far been ruining Asia will now be engaged in ruining himself; the materials of war which have so far been used to destroy Orientals will now be employed in the destruction of Europeans.

 Here, in a nutshell, is an idea which will be evolved over the next four years, into an ethical critique of war and empire by some of the leading colonial intellectuals of the day, from Egypt to India to Malawi. The horrors of the Western Front wholly undermined any claims to superiority, moral or technological, on part of the West: how could Europe carry on with its so-called ‘civilising’ mission when it could not contain its own barbarity? Yet, it is a strand of thought that has received little attention in the centennial commemoration of the war for the last four tears which has largely focused on the experience of the unlettered colonial troops. This paper will be in two parts: the first part will investigate the idea with reference to South Asian intellectual history, focusing on Muhammed Iqbal, Aurobindo Ghosh and particularly Rabindranath Tagore. This part will explore how the war made them evolve their ‘anticolonial cosmopolitanism’ into civilizational critiques, whose conceptual reach went far beyond nationalist imaginings but yet was fractured by the weight of that history and the language used. The second part will focus on the selective appropriation of such history a hundred years later, with the war being reinvented as the grand stage to play the tune of multiculturalism and imperial soldiers being turned into colonial ‘heroes’, as commemoration slips into celebration. What are the poetics and politics of the process?  I shall here look at a range of material - from testimonial, political and literary writings of the time to official centennial events and recent commemorative art work  - to examine the erasures and contradictions of colonial memory and the meaning of commemoration itself. 

Organiser: Eleanor Newbigin

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