Empire, Nation, Federation: South Asia’s Freedom in Global Perspective

October 15, 2022

This conference is open to the public.

When South Asia won freedom from British colonial rule seventy-five years ago, some of the finest and most far-sighted ideas in the realm of anticolonial thought lost out in the struggle for power at the helm of postcolonial states. Those political and economic ideas have acquired renewed global salience in the twenty-first century at the vortex of the complex and symbiotic relationship between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism. This conference engages in a creative process of historical retrieval of visions for substantive democracy and federal union during the struggle for freedom that remained unrealized during the postcolonial transition. Can a reengagement with those ideas enable us to better face the challenges of authoritarianism in the present and provide the basis for a more equitable and democratic global order? 

This conference examines the historical trajectory of South Asia in its full complexity. It raises questions that are fundamental to our understanding of modern South Asia and its place in the world. We examine if a rigid Partition along lines of religious identity was predetermined in the making of modern South Asia, as well as the other anticolonial political imaginations at play in India, especially in dialogue with anticolonial movements in Africa and Southeast Asia. At the same time, we assess the apparent post-1947 divergent trajectories of India and Pakistan, one emerging as a flawed yet persistent democracy, the other succumbing to military dominance, in a comparative and historical perspective. Moreover, India’s message of freedom on the world stage—and its self-fashioning as the world’s largest democracy—needs to be reconciled with its increasing authoritarianism and deployment of centralized state power against its own regional peoples. 

Cosponsored by the Asia Center, Harvard University.

See also: Conferences, 2022

Convener