“All India” Politics, 1940-1956


A review of Unity, Democracy, and the All India Phenomenon, 1940-1956, by Emily Rook-Koepsel.

Emily Rook-Koepsel’s dissertation provides a fresh approach to the genealogy of Indian nationalism by showing the centrality of the “All India” naming strategy and “All India” politics to late colonial debates on Indian unity. The dissertation consists of four case studies of prominent organizations that adopted the All India moniker and, in the process, extensively considered the meaning of Indian identity from progressive political standpoints. The Introduction first makes a strong case that “the All India concept is significantly less straightforward than it gets credit for…” (p. 25). Then, through a semantic analysis of the term and an empirical investigation of its use, the author shows how “All India” could encompass both exclusive and inclusive politics.  The Introduction is followed by the four case studies, each further reinforcing the author’s position that a centralizing All India vision trumped a more radical politics that allowed for difference, even as colonial control was giving way to republicanism.  The internal struggles that produced this outcome have since become more difficult to see because of the victory of a homogenizing all India ideal. Here, the author has compellingly reconstructed and analyzed these debates in evocative prose.

Chapter 1 recounts the conflicts between “local and national valences” at All India Radio, starting with its 1936 name change from Indian State Broadcasting System. Under its first Indian director, A.S. Bokhari (1898-1958), AIR granted ample space for local and regional voices. Bokhari believed diversity of cultural expression was at the heart of All Indianess.  After Independence, when B.V. Keskar became Minister of Information and Broadcasting in 1950, AIR preferred content produced in Delhi over that from regional stations. It banned film music in favor of classical music and introduced a heavily Sanskritized form of Hindi that was difficult for listeners to accept. If Bokhari saw “Indian unity as a moving target,” Keskar attempted to “draw the entire nation together by making it sound the same” (p. 79, p. 81). We cannot say if Bokhari’s policies would have succeeded, but languishing listenership indicated the limits of Keskar’s consolidative course.

Chapter 2 finds that the All India Newspaper Editors Conference (AINEC) struggled to balance the colonial requirement of “sole spokesmanship” (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) with the political reality of its members’ diverse opinions. A group of newspaper editors founded the organization in 1940 to fight wartime press restrictions aimed at the nationalist press. Although committed to freedom of expression, AINEC’s “unity in unanimity” policy required members’ unanimous support for its policies. This helped the AINEC successfully negotiate greater press freedoms with the Government. However, the leadership’s insistence on unity left it open to charges of secrecy and high-handedness from members. Even worse, some editors feared “…that the newspaper industry had traded government fetters for self-policing policies” (p. 107). In the early 1950s, AINEC failed to unanimously oppose the first Constitutional amendment, which permitted greater limits on freedom of expression. Coupled with the foundation of a competing organization by working journalists, AINEC found its already fragile claim to unity and representativeness further undermined.

In an attempt to promote local women’s self-identified concerns as national, the Women’s Conference on Educational Reform in India changed its name to the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) in 1929. Chapter 3 shows that this change and the AIWC’s federated structure of local constituent groups at first contributed to rather than detracted from the AIWC’s All India character. In the 1940s, as it lobbied for Hindu law reform, the AIWC streamlined its organization and insisted on local groups’ adherence to the national agenda. It even gained a not wholly-deserved reputation as the sole spokeswoman of Hindu women. In some ways a victim of its own success, the AIWC’s shift towards a national “legislative mode” recast the Indian woman: no longer the original active citizen tapped into local needs, she was now an object of state reform efforts.

Of the four organizations, the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA), founded in the mid-1930s, maintained the most strident critique of Indian nationalism’s hegemonic tendencies. In the politics and ethics of three key authors, Premchand (1880-1931), Krishan Chander (1914-1977), and Ahmed Ali (1910-1994), the oppressed were at the center of the nation and the primary mode of national belonging was through critique. Authors shared a “politics of recognition” (p. 199) of the most marginalized, variously aiming their pens at state, society, or the nation. Though some thought the AIPWA anti-national because of its criticism and its international and Communist ties, this chapter shows that the AIPWA was thoroughly national in its commitment to the least in Indian society.

The Conclusion points out that an All India process emphasizing dissent and the local gave way in favor of a more totalizing and static definition after Independence. Nevertheless, the groups’ sustained engagement with Indian unity produced some successes, indicated by press freedoms granted due to AINEC advocacy, the reform of Hindu law for the AIWC, and the pride of place given to Progressive Writers in the Indian canon.  In post-colonial India, as “support for concepts like democracy and nationalism came to mean support for the Indian state and its politics” (pp. 244-245), these four formerly vibrant groups lost their relevance.

Historians of South Asia, especially those interested in the transition to Independence, and scholars of contemporary Indian politics will find much to consider in this dissertation. The history of each organization is considerably enriched by the broader backdrop of the other organizations presented here. The work will also appeal to those engaged in empirical studies of key concepts like nationalism, citizenship, federalism, and democracy. The author directs our attention toward nationalism’s inclusive and exclusive possibilities and finds that for historical and ideological reasons, the exclusive edged out the inclusive. This convincing analysis now requires us to think about the All India claim and its internal tensions as seriously as members of these organizations themselves did.

Rebecca Grapevine
Department of History
University of Michigan

Primary Sources

National Archives of India
Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, All India Women’s Conference Archive and Periodical Archive
All India PEN Private Archive, Bombay

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2010. 263 pp. Primary Advisor: Ajay Skaria.


Image: The Kolkata home of All India Radio. Completed in 1958. Designed by the firm of Ballardie, Thompson, and Matthews. Photograph by John Meckley, Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Keskar did not ban film music but reduced it to minimum in early 50s. If one consults the Loksabha proceedings of the 1950s, it will be clear.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like