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Departing from the ‘culturalist’ orientation of most recent studies of the Indian diaspora, I choose a ‘labourist’ approach that privileges the labour market in India and globally as the main explanatory mechanism of human circulations both from and towards India. I cover the emigration of indentured labour to the sugar-producing colonies of the British Empire, as do most narratives of Indian migrations, but I give as much attention to other forms of circulation such as the slave trade, the export of convict labour, and kangani and maistry migrations to Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. I illustrate a trend of ‘globalisation’ of Indian labour migrations beyond the limits of the British Empire, and also pay attention to migrations into India of Europeans, Middle Easterners, Chinese and others. I cover often overlooked post-indenture labour migrations, as well as the circulation of commercial personnel through extended merchant networks. Finally, I look at the new mass migrations towards First World and Gulf countries. The migration of highly educated professionals is an entirely new phenomenon, with repercussions in India at the economic and political levels.
I focus on three fields of cultural activity – literature, the visual arts and cinema – to uncover how Indian cultural producers situated themselves within a global picture. In literature, there was a contrast between the fascination exercised by ancient Indian cultural productions, epitomised by the extraordinary success of Kalidas’s Sakuntala, and the relative indifference of the outside world towards more recent productions. An exception was the amazing popularity for a decade or two of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. The next Indian writer to obtain worldwide success was Salman Rushdie, who inaugurated a boom period for Indian diaspora authors writing in English. I focus on novelists and poets writing in the vernaculars who sought to define a specific Indian idiom. In the visual arts, the tribulations of Indian painters trying to define an authentic Indian art vocabulary are juxtaposed with the difficulty Indian architects had in defining a modernist style adapted to the country. Finally, I look at cinema, the most successful of Indian cultural industries, trying to find reasons for Indian films’ popularity abroad.
The introduction opens with a methodological discussion. I explain my preference for the method of connected history over other approaches to global history. There follows a look at the changing meaning of ‘India’, from the fuzzy notion of an entity without clear territorial boundaries c.1750 to a nation-state with well-defined borders by 2000. I propose to chart the transition between these two moments in time, not through a close chronological account that would involve embarking upon a narrative of world history but through a thematic approach. I take a retrospective look at some of the main features of India’s global history prior to 1750, which brings out the fact that it was involved in a variety of connections that made it an important participant in the world economy and in the world political system, connections that were, however, not always recognised by the Indian elites as significant, a paradox that is a recurring theme in the book. The introduction ends with an outline of the book’s chapters.
I look at India’s role as a hub of circulation of military personnel. During the second half of the eighteenth century, India was a battlefield between the British, the French and Indian powers, in which soldiers of various provenance were mobilised, but most important was the rise of the sepoy armies of the East India Company. Apart from contributing to the establishment of British preponderance in India, the sepoys were also used in expeditions abroad, starting with their participation in an assault against Spanish Manila in 1762. Eschewing an exclusive focus on the military aspect, I scrutinise the archive of sepoy deployments outside India for information about how ‘ordinary’ Indians dealt with foreign lands and foreign people. I pay particular attention to the role of Indian soldiers in the two world wars. I present a case study based on the censored mail of the Indian expeditionary force soldiers sent to France in 1914–15, a rich trove of observations sometimes bordering on ethnographic reportage. After independence, India’s armies continued to play a global role as the largest manpower contributor to UN peacekeeping. I also look at India’s contribution to world peace.
I look at Indians as guests in foreign lands and as hosts at home and the people they have met abroad or at home. The sources are mostly travel and sojourn narratives by Indians and their guests or hosts. They reveal a pattern often marked by a degree of misunderstanding that sometimes resulted in open hostility. I present a record of the main episodes of anti-Indian violence in the twentieth century, but I also focus on instances of cultural fusion and rapprochement. I contrast the capacity of most Indians for linguistic adaptation, and their propensity to jettison their own languages, with their fierce attachment to their religions and their strong reticence vis-à-vis métissage with other non-Europeans, an intriguing pattern that often resulted in a degree of alienation from other populations. As to relations with Europeans in India, I show them to be also marked by a degree of mutual hostility, easily explicable by the racist attitudes deployed by most of those Europeans. Indian xenophobia remained nevertheless on a limited scale, as hostility among different groups of India’s population was a much more massive phenomenon.
I discuss two episodes in India’s history that attracted significant attention worldwide. The first is the Great Revolt of 1857. I show possible links to contemporaneous events such as the European revolutions of 1848–9 and the Tai-ping rebellion in China to be largely speculative. Repercussions in the Islamic world are attested, but would need further research. The impact of the Revolt on the British Empire is well documented, although its consequences are uncertain, and was greatest at the level of representations as it inspired ‘sepoy ballads’ in Irish Fenian circles and a flurry of popular novels in different languages. The Partition of British India in 1947 attracted less attention worldwide at the time, but it became a staple of later analyses of partition by political scientists as a way of solving problems of territoriality and ethnicity. I explore the links of India’s Partition to the earlier Partition of Ireland and the contemporaneous Partition of Palestine through a survey of the literature, and end with an interrogation of the possible influence of India’s Partition on later episodes of decolonisation in the British Empire.
I start by considering recent political developments in India, specifically the BJP’s victory at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which seems to suggest the durable entrenchment of the Hindu nationalists in power. I relate it to the global history of India as presented in the book and stress that it reveals a degree of continuity with the trends outlined there but also signals a profound break. The continuity is in the ‘global’ aspect of the rise of the Hindu nationalists, which can be related in many ways to the worldwide rise of right-wing populism. A specific manifestation of this right-wing globalism is the closeness between American President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the rise of Hindu nationalism also has another side to it, as it puts forward a vision of India as a Hindu country, tending to erase in particular the Islamic side of India’s history that is so germane to India’s global history. Besides, it promotes a view of India’s history as totally sui generis, ignoring the contributions to India’s historical trajectory of the multiple connections that are at the centre of the book.
I focus on the traffic in ideas between India and the rest of the world, covering religion, science and political ideas. India’s contribution to the global religious field was significant. While attempts at making Hinduism a ‘world religion’ were not uniformly successful, the circulation of the Hindu scriptures did impact the intellectual history of Europe and North America, contributing to a critique of the Enlightenment. Indian Islam was a major contributor to Islamic reformism, modernist as well as fundamentalist, and some major transnational Islamic movements had their origins in India. Indian Christianity recently acquired a significant global dimension, while India again became part of the world of Buddhism. I evoke India’s contribution to science through the scientists of world stature it produced. I also deal with how global ideologies such as liberalism, communism and fascism were appropriated in India in ways that were often profoundly original. I draw attention to the long-term success of the Indian version of fascism represented by the RSS and the BJP and present a study of Gandhi’s global impact. Finally, I look at the globally influential Subaltern Studies collective.
Starting with India’s role c.1750 as the ‘workshop of the world’ because of its dominance over global textile production, I chart India’s subsequent transformation into a raw materials producer for Britain and other industrial countries. I take a critical view of the standard Indian nationalist narrative of decline, emphasising the complexity of the process, particularly how important India’s indirect contribution was to the industrial revolution in Britain. I then look at the ‘imperial globalisation’ of the High Imperial Era when India contributed decisively to Britain’s global balance of payments, under the ‘gold standard’. The ‘deglobalisation’ that occurred during the inter-war period opened the way to the post-independence attempt at building a ‘national economy’, which benefited for a while from the Cold War helping to attract investment from East and West to finance costly infrastructures but faced a crisis that led from 1991 to an opening of the economy in the new context of the post-Cold War world. I look at India’s environmental history, too, emphasising its recent entry into the anthropocene era through growing fossil fuel use, and the nature of Indian capitalism.