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.