Waiting for the People: Colonialism and the Idea of Democracy in India


Recovering the hitherto unexplored entanglement between modern colonialism and popular sovereignty, my dissertation offers a new interpretation of the anticolonial democratic project. The global rise of European colonialism in the nineteenth century historically coincided with the emergence of the principle of popular sovereignty as the main normative basis of political legitimacy in European as well as non-European political life. I demonstrate in the dissertation that these two seemingly separate historical developments combined to establish a novel defense of colonial rule in the nineteenth century. The post-French Revolution ideals of peoplehood—one, undivided, and “fit” for political participation—would be deployed by British thinkers and administrators to construct a discourse of absent colonial peoplehood. As I argue through new readings of G.W.F Hegel and J.S. Mill, the legitimation of colonial rule in the nineteenth century was grounded in the supposedly democratic promise to transform the colonial “masses” into the people. The imperial denial of Indian self-rule on the ground of its developmental 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 striving 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. Anticolonial political thinkers would thus question the validity of theorizing the people as a “collective will” or as a “one-and-undivided” entity, experimenting instead with pluralist and diffused visions of peoplehood. Building on this interpretation, I argue that the anticolonial reworking of the ideal of peoplehood offers a valuable resource for overcoming democratic theory’s vacillation between populism and institutionalism.


Peer-Reviewed Publications: 

“Self-Rule and the Problem of Peoplehood in Colonial India” (forthcoming in the American Political Science Review)


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.