Book Project

Waiting for the People: Anticolonialism and the Idea of Democracy in India (forthcoming with Harvard University Press)


It is now widely accepted that the age of decolonization was also a turning point in the history of democracy, as the vast majority of the non-European world replaced imperial rule with democratic republics. Although this fact is taken for granted, scholarly attention so far has been focused on the nationalist aspiration of the anticolonial movements and their contesting visions of self-determination. In the moment of its global conquest, democracy, it may seem, was an afterthought—or, at best, a logical corollary—for anticolonial thinkers preoccupied with overcoming empire. Focusing on colonial India, this book departs from the standard narratives of anticolonialism. It shows that democracy was neither a given ideal waiting to be claimed nor reducible to the concerns of territorial sovereignty. The book instead argues that the anticolonial project critically hinged on the necessity to reinvent the meaning of democracy for a people long deemed unfit for self-rule. In so doing, it offers a new interpretation of the anticolonial democratic project and its place in the global history of democratic thought.

The book demonstrates how the question of popular sovereignty sat at the heart of the monumental clash between the British Empire and the Indian anticolonial movement. The imperial conception of the Indian people as historically underdeveloped—thus unfit for sovereignty—led to a curiously “democratic” legitimation of empire in the nineteenth century. The imperial denial of Indian self-rule on the ground of its popular backwardness led anticolonial thinkers to repeatedly ask: what narratives of historical development are built into modern theories of democracy and what role do they play in practices of self-rule? I trace how a number of anticolonial thinkers pluralized (B.N. Seal, R.K. Mukerjee), rejected (M.K. Gandhi), and critically appropriated (Dadabhai Naoroji, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar) the developmental narratives constitutive of modern democracy. The effort to disentangle modern democracy from its deep-seated developmental and progressive assumptions, I argue, defined the anticolonial democratic project. Yet it also placed anticolonial thinkers in a privileged position to rethink the modern ideal of popular sovereignty and its implication for democratic rule. The project recovers how Indian anticolonial thinkers questioned and re-conceptualized each of the main features of “the people” of modern popular sovereignty: a one and undivided entity, the source of collective will, and the ultimate political authority. The core of the book traces how the anticolonial reconsideration of the ideal of popular sovereignty led to a searching critique of the sovereignty-government distinction central to modern democracy. Exploring the lost alternatives as well as the triumphant strains of Indian anticolonial thought, the book demonstrates how the historical prioritization of government over sovereignty—and various disputes over this prioritization—shaped the very idea of democracy in India.




Peer-Reviewed Publications: 


This article theorizes the colonial problem of peoplehood that Indian anticolonial thinkers grappled with in their attempts to conceptualize self-rule, or swaraj. British colonial rule drew its legitimacy from a developmentalist conception of the colonized people as backward and disunited. The discourse of “underdeveloped” colonial peoplehood rendered the Indian people “unfit” for self-government, suspending their sovereignty to an indefinite future. The concept of swaraj would be born with the rejection of deferred colonial self-government. Yet the persistence of the developmentalist figuration of the people generated a crisis of sovereign authorization. The pre-Gandhian swaraj theorists would be faced with the not-yet claimable figure of the people at the very moment of disavowing the British claim to rule. Recovering this underappreciated pre-Gandhian history of the concept of swaraj and reinterpreting its Gandhian moment, this article offers a new reading of Gandhi’s theory of moral self-rule. In so doing, it demonstrates how the history of swaraj helps trace the colonial career of popular sovereignty.


Recovering a marginal body of pluralist political thought from early twentieth-century India, this article explores how the question of popular sovereignty shaped the federalist reconfiguration of the anticolonial democratic project. The turn to federalism was facilitated by the Indian reckoning with Hegel in the late nineteenth century, which led to the diagnosis that the universality ascribed to monist sovereignty relies on a “unilinear” theory of development. Through a sustained engagement with British pluralist and American progressive thought, Indian federalist thinkers eventually developed a many-willed conception of the people. In so doing, they hoped to overcome the denial of Indian peoplehood on the ground of its lack of national unity and historical backwardness. However, the alternative source of sovereignty the federalists pointed to—plural and many-willed—stood in tension with their simultaneous pursuit of a people speaking in one voice. In this way, the constitutive tension of the pluralist conception of sovereignty came strikingly alive in the colonial world.

Gandhi famously shook the foundations of the British Empire and sparked the beginning of a new anti-imperial era. But his critique of empire does not quite fit the familiar script of twentieth-century anti-imperialism. Gandhi’s positions ranged from sincere expressions of imperial loyalty to a condemnation of English civilization while endorsing its moral empire, to an unqualified disavowal of the Britsh Empire without necessarily claiming independence. Reconstructing the long arc of his (anti-)imperial thought, this article shows that the idea of empire operated in the early Gandhi’s thought in two ways: as the authorizing source of the rights of Indians and as the addressee of political claims. This genealogy helps explain the complex trajectory of his two separate breaks from empire. The article ultimately suggests that the key to understanding the global resonance of Gandhi’s ideas lies in his transformation of the imperial adversary into a universal addressee of action.

Special Issue Contribution:

Independence, Freedom, Liberation: The Promise of Bangladesh’s Founding,” Economic and Political Weekly 56, no. 44 (2021)[PDF here]

The idea of swadhinata (which translates as both freedom and independence), along with a novel conception of liberation (mukti), animated the founding discourse of Bangladesh in 1971. This paper explores how these ideas, and their longer histories, jostled together to shape the promise of Bangladesh’s founding. It also reflects on how the conflictual promise of 1971 underwrote the political history of post-independence Bangladesh.