Asianist Projects in India 1917-37


A review of Orienting India: Interwar Internationalism in an Asian Inflection, 1917-1937, by Carolien Stolte.

Carolien Stolte’s dissertation explores a variety of expressions of Asianism emanating from the Indian subcontinent during the interwar years. Much has been written recently about the necessity to think beyond national frames and explore the transnational and international dimensions of history. This is especially true in the field of South Asian history. In the wake of seminal works like Sugata Bose’s A Hundred Horizons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), a series of promising essays and a few monographs are contributing to a new body of scholarship on modern South Asian connections with the wider world. Stolte’s richly researched dissertation sheds considerable light on the benefits offered by such international and transnational histories of Asia and India in particular.

The dissertation delivers a careful study of India’s Asianist projects between 1917 and 1937. Stolte characterizes this period as an “internationalist moment,” after the Great War, Bolshevik Revolution, and advent of the League of Nations, when impetus for international associations, mobilizations, and networks reached an unprecedented height beginning in the 1920s and gradually declining in the later 1930s. Her particular interest remains India’s Asianist enthusiasm as a regional inflection of interwar internationalism. Stolte advances several arguments over the course of her five chapters. First, she displaces the primacy of the state in the history of Asianism. As her dissertation attests, many Asianist projects were not confined to the borders of colonial or national states; rather, invocations of Asia were regional and translocal expressions of affinity. A related point addresses the lacuna of studies on South Asia within Pan-Asian historiography. Much of the existing literature either neglects South Asia or casts its Asianist projects as derivatives of East Asian origins. Stolte restores an important and forgotten history of India’s Asiansim as one with its own “proponents, centres, agendas and worldviews” (p. 199). Finally, Stolte argues that “Asia” was by no means a region with fixed boundaries, but rather a “metageography” of “spatial structures that ordered knowledge, justified movements, and visualized the potential shape and role of Asia in a decolonized world” (p. 2). Indeed, the metageography of Asia had multiple mappings, meanings, and trajectories for the many Indian actors under investigation.

The first chapter demonstrates the diversity of Asian geographies by examining four Indian perspectives. The first, by Mahendra Pratap, whose appearance later in the dissertation is more detailed, offered an eclectic mapping of Asia as a unified province of “Buddha” within a world federation. The core of his regional map was Central Asia, which radiated outward to Southern and Eastern Asia. In this view, Western Asia, and by extension Islam, is absent. Alternatively, Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, imagined an Indo-centric Asia connected by the religious networks of Islam. Stolte suggests that this Asianist mapping was distinct from Pan-Islamic orientations toward Mecca and or the Caliphate, and India remained the central and pivotal node in an Islamic Asia stretching from Aden to Peking. Still other mappings of Asia privileged Hindu-Buddhist connections across Asia, and V.D. Savarkar, who among other things first advocated “Hindutva” for India, best represented this cartography. Its nodal points were South, Southeast, and East Asia. Unsurprisingly Central and Western Asia, as well as Islam, had no place. Not all geographies were religiously inspired, however, and Stolte’s example by Rameshwari Nehru, a close relative of the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, provides an example of a social reformer’s Asia. It was the most inclusive Asia, stretching from Western Asia to Central, South, Southeast, and East Asia, and it reflected the networks and contacts Nehru acquired through her work in international womens’ organizations during the interwar period. Her secular conception had fewer boundaries and exclusions. Overall, Stolte brings into relief these multiple mappings to demonstrate the diverse and at times contentious meanings of Asia from an Indian perspective.

The second chapter underscores the importance of Asian internationalism to the historical evolution of the Indian labor movement and especially the All-Indian Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Stolte argues that the history of AITUC cannot be understood without considering the importance its leaders attached to their relations with other Asian labor movements during the interwar years. From its earliest meetings in 1920, AITUC aspired to become a representative body for Indian labour that could articulate an Asian agenda within the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. Divisions within AITUC quickly emerged in the 1920s between “reformists” seeking greater representation and equality within the existing international order and especially the ILO, and “revolutionaries” aiming to overthrow the existing order and conform to a more radical project aligned to international communism and Third International in Moscow. In either camp, Indian labor leaders articulated their aspirations in terms of Asian internationalism. Within the ILO, labor leaders worked closely with the Japanese to articulate an Asian agenda, while the more radical AITUC leaders sought Asian solidarities within in the League against Imperialism and the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Congress. Nevertheless, a consensus among reformers and revolutionaries over whether to affiliate formally with any of these international organizations proved at first to be elusive and later the breaking point for AITUC unity. In 1929, AITUC split into rival trade union federations over the question of international affiliations. The narrative of AITUC demonstrates both the significance of Asian internationalism to the development of Indian labor, but also a central point Stolte makes about the 1920s as a time of ideological flexibility when both camps worked collaboratively, and the hardening of ideological boundaries in the 1930s reflective of AITUC’s fragmentation.

The third chapter turns the orientalist critique of colonial discourse on its head by arguing that the construction of Asia as Europe’s spiritual other had “ceased to be the purview of European authors” (p. 76). Instead, Indian intellectuals and activists used Asian spiritualism as the binary opposite of Western materialism to construct a regional identity that “drew on European thought,” although it was “not driven by it” (p. 115). Much of the chapter considers the well-known history of Bengali Nobel Prize laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Some of Tagore’s Pan-Asianism is now familiar terrain for historians, but Stolte offers some fresh insights. First, she disagrees with common interpretations of Tagore’s Asianism as exclusionary of Islam and Western Asia by highlighting his texts about and travels to Persia and Iraq. Second, she digs deeper into the archives to unearth important gems from colonial intelligence files that tell us more about Tagore’s school, Viśva Bharti University, founded in 1921. The university served as a counterpoint to the colonial schools in India by advocating for an Asianist curriculum, which highlighted Asian arts and history. More importantly, as Stolte traces through the intelligence files, a steady stream of Asian students, scholars, activists, and funds moved in and out of Tagore’s university. In this way, India became a significant hub of Asianist activities throughout the interwar years.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the third chapter is the study of the Greater India Society established in Calcutta in 1926. Influenced by French orientalists like Sylvain Lévi, the principle intellectuals of the Greater India Society, Kalidas Nag and P.C. Bagchi, argued that India had been historically a civilizing force in Asia and “fertilized” Southeast Asia and other regions with India culture and spiritualism (p. 94). The Greater India Society became an organization promoting and publicizing the study of India’s influence over the rest of Asia. Stolte concludes that this “jingoistic approach to past Indian achievements” was appealing for its promotion of India’s “reclamation of a glorious past as the basis for a future renaissance” (p. 120). Interestingly, the appeal of Greater India extended beyond the subcontinent and to unlikely places like Italy. The final section of the chapter draws upon sources from the Italian archive on the ways Greater India advocates connected with ideologues within Italy’s fascist regime. Both articulated the “notion that Italy and India shared a historical identity as ancient civilizations that had wielded far-reaching influence over their regional environments” (p. 104). This connection was institutionalized under the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East, or IsMEO), an organization seeking greater contacts between Rome and Asia by providing scholarships for students to study in Italy. IsMEO was a blend of cultural initiatives and diplomacy, and it fell under the purview of the Italian Ministry of External Affairs. The hallmark event of IsMEO was the Asiatic Students Congress (1933) where Indian and Chinese students made up nearly half of the 585 students attending. Much to the audience’s surprise, Mussolini appeared on the second day and delivered a passionate argument about the necessity of greater connections between Italy and Asia. Despite this enthusiasm for solidarity in the early 1930s, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1936 made sympathies for the fascist regime untenable for most Indians.

The fourth chapter offers an important reminder that Asian engagements and imaginings during the interwar years did not necessitate European involvement, ideas, or contact zones. Rather, Indian exiles and laborers found inspiration and comrades in Asian nodal points like Kabul, Tashkent, Baku, Kashgar, Tokyo, and Peking. Stolte’s examples include the more familiar travels and networks of M.N. Roy and Mohamed Barkatullah, but also some more eccentric figures like Mahendra Pratap. Stolte demonstrates in each case the remarkable ideological flexibility of Asianist projects, which synthesized religious notions of Asia – Islamic or Buddhist – with Soviet-inspired anti-imperialism. This was especially the case for Central Asian sites, where Muslim muhajirs, or Indian Khilafat migrants originally destined for Turkey and diverted to Baku or Tashkent, met with Communist revolutionaries and constructed a unique amalgam of Islamic and Bolshevik visions for Asia. Most Central Asian networks ultimately led exiles and revolutionaries to Moscow and the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. Stolte’s treatment of travelers also extended to those carried by sea. She offers a brief discussion of the potential for lascars to connect Asian ports through carrying propaganda and even funds across the sea, and ends with a discussion of Indians in Japan. While most historians know about the existence of Indian revolutionaries in Tokyo and Kobe during the interwar years, Stolte sheds new light on this murky past through a careful reading of the scarce sources. As she demonstrates through her study of Anand Mohan Sahay and Rashbehari Bose, Indian Asianism from Japan offered greater possibilities for engagement with East Asia, although such projects were fraught with complications in the context of Japan’s imperialist expansion in the region. Such connections were nearly impossible after 1937 with the Japanese invasion of China.

The final chapter brings the story of interwar Asianism to a climax with the Asian Relations Conference (ARC) in Delhi (1946). Stolte argues that the ARC “plucked the fruit of more than two decades of Asian cooperation” (p. 184). Continuities with interwar Asianism abound in the rhetoric and content of the conference, as well as the inclusivity of the invitation list, which invited the Central Asian Soviet Republics and Western Asia. Yet, as Stolte’s study attests, the ARC would be a moment of closure, and Asian solidarities after 1946 were beset with two issues. First, the Cold War crosscut Asian solidarities by dividing many leaders into rival camps. The importance of the Cold War also forced the Soviet Republics in Central Asia to disappear altogether from the Asianist platforms of the later 1940s and 1950s. In other words, Central Asia became Communist rather than Asian. Second, cooperation between state governments proved more challenging than the non-governmental solidarities forged in the interwar years and at the ARC. State interests brought Asian leaders into contention rather than solidarity. Such tensions marked the later Bandung Conference (1955) as a battleground between Asian states over issues of national interest and the Cold War. Ultimately, Stolte debunks the myth that Bandung was the beginning of postwar solidarities across Asia by pointing to its importance as an endpoint to the rather unique moment of “interwar internationalism” with an “Asian inflection.”

Stolte’s dissertation is meticulously researched and reveals a more complete and complex picture of South Asian engagements with Asia and the wider world. Her reexamination of well-known actors like Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and others, alongside a study of more obscure figures like Mahendra Pratap, offers a refreshing way of thinking about interwar histories of colonial India from a wider scale of Asian regionalism and internationalism. To capture this international story is no easy task, and Stolte mined many more archives than those listed below and in places like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, the Hage, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Princeton, and Washington D.C. The product is a groundbreaking dissertation that warrants serious consideration by readers who want to know more about India, Asia, and internationalism during the interwar and early Cold War years.

Michele L. Louro
Department of History
Salem State University

Primary Sources

Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi
West Bengal State Archives, Kolkata
Archivo Storico Diplomatico, Rome
British Library, India Office Records, London
International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

Dissertation Information 

University of Leiden. 2013. 229 pp. Primary Advisor: Wim van den Doel.

Image: Mahatma Gandhi with Pt. Nehru and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, April 1947. University of Hawaii at Manoa, UH Manoa Library, Asia Collection.

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