Abstracts (2017 conference)


Devika Shankar, Princeton University

Shifting Sands and Fluid Frontiers: Cochin State and the Development of British Cochin 1850-1920

In 1920, after decades of inaction, the colonial state finally agreed to embark on an ambitious harbor development project to open up the port of Cochin to modern commerce. While the decision to execute the harbor project has traditionally been attributed to the colonial state’s naval concerns, this paper focuses instead on the role played by the princely states of Malabar in shaping the harbor’s development from the mid 19th century onwards. The port of Cochin was located in a region where both physical and political boundaries were often hard to identify. Not only was the harbor situated in a fluid zone where the sea frequently encroached on land, the harbor itself was an isolated patch of British territory lodged amidst princely states. In the mid 19th century, as Cochin’s commerce grew, the complications generated by the port’s peculiar location at the intersection of three states became more pronounced, forcing the colonial state to integrate the economies of these states by dissolving the fiscal barriers between them. These measures allowed Malabar’s princely states to become intimately involved with British Cochin, making it possible for them to challenge the colonial state’s claims to exclusive sovereignty over the port. By examining how the coast’s blurry physical and political boundaries enabled Malabar’s princely states to play a decisive role in the development of the last major port in British India, this paper seeks to move these states from the margins to the very center of the story of port development in the region.


Madihah Akhter, Stanford University

Sovereignty and Starvation: Zenana Hospitals in princely Bhopal

In 1892, Shah Jahan Begum, the princely ruler of Bhopal, inaugurated the renovated Lady Lansdowne Hospital, one of India’s first zenana hospitals. By the early twentieth century, the zenana hospital was a critical site of sovereign negotiation between princely and imperial states. Princely rulers and imperial bureaucrats alike re-imagined the spatial understanding of zenana, female quarters within the elite Indian home, in the setting of an all-female hospital. This paper explores space, territory, and sovereignty through the Lady Lansdowne Hospital in the central Indian princely state of Bhopal under the rule of Sultan Jahan Begum (r. 1901-1926). Zenana hospitals were spaces described in the gendered language of good governance, specifically of mutual effort to ‘save’ Indian women. Simultaneously, imperial infringement on princely sovereignty took place territorially by building zenana hospitals in princely states through initiatives undertaken by the administrators of a so-called non-governmental organization, the Countess of Dufferin Fund.

I situate Sultan Jahan Begum’s interest in reforming and standardizing both Unani and Western medicine for women against the backdrop of decades of famine and plague, which killed about one third of Bhopal’s population in the years preceding 1901. I argue she was motivated primarily by the need to decrease mother and infant mortality rates. Her efforts to improve the lives of Bhopal’s women through health care was not due to a proclivity towards liberal rule or a natural, philanthropic, even feminist interest, as argued by other scholars. Using class as a major analytical lens, I explore how Sultan Jahan Begum’s elite mindset informed her understanding of what a zenana hospital was intended to do and who should practice medicine within its walls. This model deviated from that espoused through the Dufferin Fund, which sought to staff zenana hospitals with British nurses and transform the medically and morally unhygienic zenana into a modern hospital. Spurning Dufferin Fund resources, Sultan Jahan Begum patronized the hospital with state funds and insisted that registered da’i, Indian midwives, learn and practice British midwifery techniques.

Indian princely states are often framed as the rejected scraps of sovereignty, devoured by a combination of Western imperialism and Indian anti-colonial nationalism, so the emergent Indian nation-state appears to be an inevitability. Far from being forgeries, princely states afford us a glimpse of how sovereignty became sovereignty within a particular global moment. The Hospital was not simply a state institution that uneasily combined tradition and modernity. Instead, it demonstrated the mutual necessity in maintaining populations, especially when disease disrespected territorial sovereignty, created alongside emerging discussions about a woman’s place in society and “good” governance. In the early twentieth century, as sovereignty and gender became further intertwined, the zenana hospital was a conceptual terrain upon which dependencies and contestations took place.


Abhilash Medhi, Brown University

Infrastructural Contingencies and Contingent Sovereignties on the Indo-Afghan Frontier

Conceived in 1857 and suspended soon after due to an uncertain political climate, the Khyber Pass Railway undertook its inaugural ride from the western outskirts of Peshawar to the Afghan frontier in November 1925. But despite its exorbitant cost, the route never saw heavy traffic. This paper traces the history of the Khyber Pass Railway to demonstrate that though the project may have failed to fulfill its main objective, it had another, quite unforeseen outcome. Negotiations carried out between the British government of India and tribes inhabiting the Khyber to facilitate the project reproduced and rearranged lines of authority within local tribes, often portrayed as unchanging or insular in the historiography on the Indo-Afghan frontier, in manifest ways. These negotiations often took on a wholly performative quality, wherein each side was aware of the other’s lack of sincerity, but also cognizant of the benefits to be claimed from the negotiations themselves. Colonial engagement on the subject of the Khyber Pass Railway also had the effect of embedding officials of the British government in tribal hierarchies. Contracts signed between British engineers and tribal contractors existed in a legal vacuum and relied almost entirely on personal trust. By weaving the issue of customary rights into a retelling of a history of infrastructure expansion, this paper draws attention to the adversarial and non-adversarial strategies—false promises, veiled threats, and semantic inversions—that underlay a renegotiation of the terms of sovereignty between the colonizer and not-yet-colonized on the Indo-Afghan frontier.


Shayan Rajani, Tufts University

Of Approbation and Imprecation: The Growing Stakes of Regional Affiliation in Eighteenth Century South Asia

This paper examines the growing salience of regional affiliation as a marker of difference and as a location from which individuals participated in a transregional community of culture and learning in the context of a politically-decentralized eighteenth-century South Asia and Iran. Madhnama-i Sind or Encomium for Sindh is a brief but acerbic text penned by Muhammad Hashim of Thatta around 1733 vigorously defending Sindh against a polemic by an Afghan visitor. Hashim defends against a slew of stereotypes (the people of Sindh have the intelligence of a camel) by not only hurling insults back (Afghans are no smarter than donkeys), but also by claiming distinction for Sindh within a set of shared values valorized across regions. The paper situates this acrimonious debate within the context of the waning power of imperial centers of Hindustan and Iran. It argues that the reduction of opportunities for individuals to gain recognition through imperial service increased the import of regional identity within a transregional community of learning, which was without a final arbiter of merit.


Neelam Khoja, Harvard University

Reconsidering the “Invading Other”: Afghans in 18th Century Punjab

18th century India/Hindustan has been popularly described as a century of Mughal decline/decentralization and as a century of the rise of European—especially Britiish—power. This paper explores how Ahmad Shah Durrani (the Abdali Afghan who took over much of Nadir Shah’s territories after his assassination in 1748) attempted to gain and legitimize political power in 18th century Punjab. I analyze contemporary Persian sources, such as the Tarikh-i Ahmad Shahi, Tarikh-i Hussain Shahi, and Waqai Shah Shuja, to demonstrate how genealogy, ethnicity, and existing commercial, religious, and social networks were negotiated and leveraged for claims of authority. I problematize the overwhelming characterization of his attempts to rule over Punjab in secondary scholarship and popular writing as “invasions,” which connotes ideas of being foreign and violent. I do not deny that important cities, like Lahore and Delhi, were looted and people killed. And yet, to describe these as only “invasions” limits our understanding as to how and to what effect Abdali Afghans sought to govern the region. This is especially fruitful when we consider scholarship on Bengal in this period that maps out how British capitalist endeavors eventually led to an imperial and colonial project. Words like “invasion” are rarely used, thus implicitly describing British colonial rule as primarily an economic endeavor, less violent, and ironically less “foreign”. This paper, therefore, provides a reconsideration of Afghans and their failed, albeit real, attempt to govern over Punjab in the eighteenth century.


Elizabeth Thelen, University of California, Berkeley

Where Will the Water Buffalo Drink? The Limits of Shared Space in Eighteenth-Century Marwar

Disputes around rights to shared water tanks erupted regularly in the desert kingdom of Marwar because of the limited availability of water and the centrality of water to many industries and livelihoods. Through the lens of a series of quarrels between artisans and animal herders in Nagaur, this paper explores the social agreements and everyday negotiations that regulated shared spaces in early modern towns. These conflicts shaped the social and physical mobility of certain groups as routine negotiations around shared resources reinforced hierarchies and segregation. I contend that such everyday quarrels and their resolution forestalled large-scale violent conflict between diverse caste and religious groups, while reinforcing state authority in the locality.

Local conflicts integrated state authority over shared resources and social structures. Kings, emperors, and religious institutions such as temples and Sufi shrines sponsored the construction and renovation of water tanks as acts of charity and devotion. Water was therefore both a common good and a symbol of authority. After Marwar annexed Nagaur in the early 1750s, resolving disputes was one way sovereignty was established and intensified in the territory. The disputes over water rights in Nagaur were typically inter-caste, and were adjudicated by the court of the Marwar Maharaja in Jodhpur. The disputing parties relied on the Maharaja, rather than local caste panchayats, to resolve these quarrels. This invited the Maharaja and his representatives to interfere directly with the use of space in the town and the balance of social groups.


Nethra Samarawickrema, Stanford University

Ties Across the Ocean: Trust and Secrecy in the Transnational Trade of Sri Lankan Gems

While nationalistic imaginaries envision nation states to be the primary repositories of belonging and identification, whose physical boundaries also demarcate social markers of affinity and difference, for some citizens of South Asia, notions of self and belonging have long been mapped along different cartographies. This paper presents an account of such divergent cartographies, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with two gem trading communities from coastal towns located on two sides of the Palk Straight, one  in Beruwela Sri Lanka, and the other in Kayalpatnam, South India. Tracing their movements and trading relations across six generations, this paper will examine their claims that their ties were forged prior to establishment of the two nation states and continued in ways that defied the demarcations of national boundaries and notions of belonging. It will analyze their relations with each other, and with changing regimes of regulation and restrictions on the movement of gems, capital, and people in the Indian Ocean region in two ways. Firstly, it will consider how Muslim traders from Beruwela and Kayalpatnam map their notions of belonging in ways that straddle geographic boundaries, and describe their relationships through discourses about trust and affinities based on shared linguistic and religious practices. It will then examine how these narratives of trust are complicated by unequal trading relations and by practices of secrecy critical to the trade. Secondly, it will consider how traders on both sides of the Palk Straight have negotiated regulations imposed by the Sri Lankan and Indian States that restrict their movements and exchanges, sometimes facing commercial ruin and at other times adapting in ways that have expand their networks to markets in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore.


Misha Mintz-Roth, Johns Hopkins University

Accounting for Inequality: Business partnerships and Religious Community among Indian Merchants in Interwar Nairobi, 1920-38

During the interwar period, an increasing number of itinerant businessmen from Western India settled in colonial Kenya. As white settlers developed a colonial agricultural economy, merchants from Bombay, Jamnagar, and Karachi redirected capital and kin toward operations in the East African interior and toward Nairobi in particular. This presentation examines this process in the history of two large-scale and two small-scale family firms in Nairobi: Rahimtullah and Jeevanjee (large) and Bhalji and Parimal (small). The legal archive of the colonial Kenyan advocacy firm of Daly & Figgis is my primary source. By examining bankruptcy files, mortgage deeds, and tenant agreements, my presentation demonstrates the transformation in scale and scope of these family firms’ revenues and credit portfolios. It explains the extent to which access to communal resources such as institutional mechanisms of enforcement, market information, and housing helped the former expand into joint partnerships managing multiple properties and production plants and lack of the same access restricted the latter to single-commodity trades. Through this study of migrant South Asian businessmen in a communal context, I argue that Nairobi became a city for capital investment from the Asian subcontinent, yet one that, despite the existence of commercial courts and laws meant to regulate and level business competition, was deeply influenced and stratified by religious and cultural spheres beyond the colonial state. In turn, Nairobi invited economic migration and also set the stage for intensified communalization in the East African Indian diaspora during the first half of the twentieth century.


Shatam Ray, Emory University

Laboring the Frontier: Opium Cultivation and the Limits to Border-Control in Nineteenth Century Malwa

This paper explores British attitudes towards cultivation of opium-poppy and the anxiety around its impact on undermining the borders they shared with the Princely States of Malwa in the nineteenth century. Working from colonial archives and native records, this paper analyses the ways in which the expansion of opium cultivation conscripted the labors and ‘productive’ ecologies of all the Native States in the region. The growth of this commercial agrarian landscape forced the absorption of many traditionally, non-farming communities (such as Mogheeas and Bhils) into the emerging Maratha successor states, most notably Gwalior and Indore. The inclusion of these groups as state subjects, who otherwise subsisted on the frontiers of the state- both territorially and economically- became crucial to the claims and counter-claims in the drawing up of boundaries between different states. The paper discusses British attempts to control the overproduction of opium and the resultant transgression of boundaries between Malwa and the Rajputana by going after the communities involved in cultivating opium. Such an approach departs crucially from the primacy given to the Queen’s Proclamation (1858) in settling questions of territorial extent, subjecthood and jurisdiction in colonial South Asia. Instead by concentrating on the frontiers of the British Empire as a site of production, this paper illustrates the fluid manner in which individuals and commodities could move (or be moved) between British and Native controlled spaces, demonstrating the limits to the British capacity to control and monitor state-formations, both spatially and ideologically.


Sukhalata Sen, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The Sovereignty of the Rupee: Spaces of Circulation or Contestation

This paper will analyse the making of the British sovereignty in colonial India through its emblematic silver rupee started in 1835. It will be suggested that the establishment of the Company rupee as the legal tender, from a multiplicity of currencies, was always an unsettled practice. It takes the Princely states as a site wherein the tensions of multiple sovereignties may be assessed, in the forging of the Company rupee as the sovereign currency. It will locate how there was a practice to isolate the space of princely states as a backward area, an area of dubious counterfeiters. This was to make a sharp contrast with the commercial hub of the Presidencies where the rupee circulated. Here it will show how the movement of laws in the second half of nineteenth century was aimed to configure this new conception of space. The Indian Penal Code in 1860, for instance, was drafted with this express purpose not only to unify the laws against counterfeiting of the rupee but also to popularize the rupee against ‘Native’ coinage. This will be studied along with shifts in the laws of minting and definitions of the offence of ‘counterfeiting’ to delineate the fine boundaries between the ‘legal’ and the ‘illegal’ economy.


Samreen Mushtaq, Jamia Milia University

Home as the Front-line: Everyday Realities and Gendered Constructs of Militarized Violence in Indian held Kashmir

In conflict zones, the home-outside binary is often washed away as violence enters people’s lives and personal spaces, diluting any distinction between combatants and non-combatants, even as International Humanitarian Law and Geneva Conventions highlight the distinction. In Kashmir, a popular armed rebellion against Indian State since 1989 has had the latter respond with brutal suppression. Making use of militarized masculinity to inflict violence on bodies and psyches of the people seen to be the ‘other’ has been a norm of State’s repressive measures. The frontier is no longer the border where skirmishes occasionally break out between Indian and Pakistani troops; it is not just the place where gunfights between militants and the Indian forces occur. The frontline is the home where women are subjected to harassment, physical and/or sexual violence; it is the check-post where they have to show their identity proofs; it is also the space and span of time when women gather to protest. The paper attempts to use the case of Kashmir conflict to highlight how women’s bodies have been turned into ‘ceremonial battlefields’ under militarized state control, which makes violence in everyday lives so normalized, especially the presence of male militaristic gaze in a place where seven lakh troops are stationed. In extending the understanding of frontline to homes, actions, bodies, and the everyday reality of life in conflict, the paper seeks to problematize the victimhood narrative by placing women as front-liners as they witness, survive, and resist.


Mahendran Thiruvaragan, City University of New York

Postcolonial Cosmopolitics: Re-thinking Sovereignty in the North and East of Sri Lanka

Proponents of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka claim that the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern regions of the island form a distinct nation with its own sovereignty. A careful analysis of the history of the region and its materiality indicates that its political identity cannot be based solely on the experiences of a single ethnic community. The eviction of the Muslims from the North by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1990 demonstrated that political narratives that exclusively frame the North-East as the sovereign territory of the Tamils could lead to systemic violence against minorities in the region. Due to state-sponsored agrarian colonization schemes, the region’s Sinhala population has risen substantially since Independence posing a challenge to the sovereign claims made by the Tamils and Muslims over the territory. Keeping these developments in mind, this paper argues that sovereignty and self-determination in the North-East needs to be re-imagined through a cosmopolitan rather than ethno-nationalist lens. Drawing upon Martin Heidegger’s notion of Dasien and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reflections on ‘critical regionalism,’ I argue that the processes of re-framing sovereignty in the North-East should recognize that different ethno-religious communities share land, water resources and nature in the region. In making these arguments, this paper draws upon various literary and human rights narratives, policy documents and reports including the Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms released in January 2017 that reveal the lived experiences of the different communities cohabiting the region.  


Aditya Kakati, Graduate Institute of Geneva

Of Guns, Gifts and Guerrillas: Objects, Knowledge and State-making in Imperial Frontiers During the Second World War on the India-Burma Borderlands

In this paper, I pursue the intimate relationship between objects and imperial knowledge and the naturalization of the discursive fields that circulate around them. I argue that objects like guns and arms are sites of historical discourse, but at the same time operated as tangible bodies that bore witness to contested historical encounters. They provided a discursive terrain where empires negotiated their competing claims to power in response to exigencies of the Second World War in the China-Burma-India theatre. Guns are historically charged objects in colonial frontiers, loaded with significant material and symbolic meanings. But during the War, they began to signify novel variations to the political universe they belonged to.


Swati Chawla, University of Virginia

Tibetan Buddhist Monastics and the Problem of Itinerancy in Indian Citizenship Laws, 1940s-1960s

My paper analyzes cases of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns applying for Indian citizenship to emphasize bureaucratic suspicion of borderland populations who were customarily on the move in the decades immediately after Independence. Records of the Indian Home Ministry’s Citizenship Section from the 1940s to the 1960s show a profound mistrust and incomprehension of the routineness of itinerancy within the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition. The vows of ordination among monastics typically required the erasure of all natal identities, but these monks and nuns were forced to identify themselves in terms of “original nationality,” even if it was only to renounce it according to the newly drafted citizenship laws. For many such applicants, it became important to prove their “Buddhist leanings and opposition to Communism.” “Buddhist” came to encompass everything from an espoused faith in Buddhism, to a proclivity for Indian classical music, and an interest in learning Sanskrit. “Communist,” on the other hand, became a catchall for “suspicious activities” ranging from alleged spying, to prostitution, and frequent movement. The paper approaches Tibetan migration to India in the second half of the twentieth century through the longer history of lay and monastic movement in the region to ask new questions of nationalism and bureaucratic regimes of citizenship in South Asia and how they interacted with itinerant populations such as monastics, beggars, and performers (Indrani Chatterjee, Niraja Gopal Jayal, Wim van Spengen, Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar).


Sahana Ghosh, Yale University

Changing Residence, Changing Residents: Aligning Place, Identity, and Citizenship Across the India-East Pakistan/Bangladesh Border

The creation, recognition, and administration of a stable citizen-subject out of Partition’s mass displacements of people — and of alignments between location and “belonging” — was a protracted process through the 1950s and 1960s. In this paper I use “residence” as an analytic to reenter these discussions about the relation between place, identity, and citizenship as states and individuals attempt, unsuccessfully, to fix each other in their respective constructions.

This paper focuses ethnographic attention to micro-histories of migration and settlement in both directions across the Bengal border at two political-historical conjunctures: the migration of Muslims to East Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s as “refugees” and the migration of Hindus from Bangladesh to India after 1971, illegally but as what I term “speculative citizens”. A focus on the narrative construction of changing residence within the borderlands of India and East Pakistan/Bangladesh illuminates the misalignments between place, identity, and citizenship at different scales in these processes of b/ordering. I suggest that “residence” allows us to move beyond laws and bureaucratic complexities, to examine how being a citizen is conceived, enacted, challenged and defended at particular moments, under the pressures of discrete state regimes. Such an analysis of the subjective experiences of migration and the relations migrants forge between space, place, and identity in the borderlands of anxious nation-states suggests key continuities between these micro-histories. The paper argues that “refugee”, “illegal migrant” and “citizen” are better understood not as oppositions but categories with porous borders that require the production of continuous and multi-scalar alignments between space and sovereign authority, place and identity.


Carola Lorea, International Institute for Asian Studies

Migrating Repertoires in the Middle of the Ocean – Oral Traditions of East Bengal Refugees Resettled in the Andaman Islands

As an outcome of Partition, about five millions of dispossessed refugees from East Bengal left their homes. Crossing the Indian border, the refugees entered an unprepared, inhospitable and already overpopulated West Bengal. The State found an improbable solution for the rehabilitation of the numerous refugees and created a Colonization Scheme to relocate them on the far away Andaman Islands.
What happened to the hundreds of Bengali families that were sent from 1949 until the 1960s on these remote lands in the Indian Ocean is unclear: extremely few academic studies on the refugee resettlement on the Andamans and their oral histories have appeared so far. However, what clearly appears from the demographic surveys of the last decades is that the marginalized, low-caste refugee population of Bengali settlers became the major community of inhabitants of the Andaman islands, where Bengali is at present the most spoken language.
The migration of East Bengali refugees transported a rich baggage of oral literature and performative traditions, a traveling archive of resettled folklore that provides strong links with the past, the homeland and a shared cultural background. What is the role of the transmission and performance of oral literature in reinforcing cultural identity in the new environment of the Andaman islands? How is it strengthening a displaced community’s sense of belonging to a lost territory and how is it, on the other hand, fragmenting and hybridizing?
This paper aims to offer some answers to these questions through historical as well as anthropological research, literary sources and original field-work material.


Samina Sirajudowla, City University of New York

Sedition, Equality, and Love: Anticolonialism in the Literary Corpus of Kazi Nazrul Islam 1900-1930

In the former East Pakistan, the government sanctified Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) as a Muslim poet to promote a shared cultural identity for Bengalis under the banner of Islam. After the liberation war of 1971, the emergence of a new nation-state, Bangladesh, venerated him as a national poet to enhance its political legitimacy. By contrast in India, the pro-Hindu political group, Bharatiya Janata Party in its turn crowned him an apostle of secularism to garner electoral support through Dalit and Muslim communities. These recurring tensions and the impact of state imaginations make his prolific, and contested legacies fall prey to nationalist appropriations, more so, because Kazi Nazrul Islam is an understudied figure bypassed by historians of South Asia.

In this paper, I explore the ideas of this anti-clerical and nonsectarian literary figure through his preparation and development as an anti-colonial political thinker of late colonial Bengal. As the first Bengali of Muslim faith to declare puran swadhitnatha (complete independence) in a literary periodical, why did Kazi Nazrul Islam’s militant commitment during the height of anticolonial fervor (in the early 1920s) radically shift to writing romantic poetry by the late 1920s? In attempting to answer this question, I suggest we reread his love lyrics on courtly love within the context of revolutionary nationalism and sedition. In doing so, we begin to uncover the historical transformations of anti-colonial political thought and the ways vernacular literature reconciled with the national question.


Chris Moffat, Queen Mary University of London

Archaeological Space and the Politics of Heritage in Contemporary Pakistan

This paper builds on recent critiques of ‘horizontalism’ in the study of space to consider how ideas of sovereignty in Pakistan have been articulated against or informed by challenges on a vertical axis. Vertical variations in the exercise of authority in Pakistan will be obvious to those familiar with the continuing controversy over US-directed drone warfare in the North West of the country – its ambiguous relationship to territorial sovereignty and indeed to the Pakistan army’s own muscular Zarb-e-Azb offensives in Waziristan and elsewhere. But rather than address this problematic of politics and verticality from the air, I am interested to delve underground, into the archaeological record, to understand the manner in which ideas of history and heritage condition claims to power and legitimacy in Pakistan. The paper will explore, first, the significance of archaeological spaces for intellectuals and political thinkers in the early post-colonial state as they grappled with Pakistan’s uncertain inheritance – the question of what, exactly, ‘the past’ should mean for Pakistan, a state born of rupture in 1947 and then partitioned again, in 1971. Second, it will consider how archaeological spaces have propelled critical interventions in Pakistani politics and society, focusing on the relationship between built heritage and new architectural responses to problems of precarity, insecurity and fragmentation in the country. The paper will draw on research with non-state heritage initiatives in Lahore while also interrogating the work and thought of Karachi-based architect Yasmeen Lari and her ‘Heritage Foundation of Pakistan’.


Michelle Grise, Yale University

Science, State, and Secrecy: The Development of Nuclear Weapons and the Transformation of Scientific Culture in Pakistan

Scholars have debated at length the external consequences of Pakistan’s decision to embark on a program of nuclear weapons development in shifting the balance of power in South Asia. However, this debate has not adequately addressed the internal effects of nuclear weapons development in Pakistan. Using government records, the private papers of Pakistani nuclear scientists and officials, and interviews with nuclear scientists in Pakistan, this paper examines the impact of the decision to build the bomb on the scientific culture of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Focusing on the way in which Pakistani scientists experienced their leaders’ desire to obtain nuclear weapons, this paper reveals far-reaching changes in the nuclear program’s approach to scientific inquiry and research after the Multan meeting in January of 1972. In particular, an increasingly pervasive culture of secrecy led to the abandonment of rigorous adherence to the scientific method in favor of quick results and a “just get to the bomb” approach. Over the next two and a half decades, this shift inspired feelings of discontentment, rumblings of dissent, and outright departure from Pakistan in the nuclear program’s scientists. I argue that the changed scientific culture of the nuclear program had a spillover effect, bringing about equally consequential changes within the broader scientific culture of Pakistan.  


Brandon Williams, University of California, Berkeley

The International Labor Organization’s Webs of Labor and Sovereignty Development in Postcolonial India and South Asia

A confluence of events in the late 1940s set postcolonial South Asia and the International Labor Organization (ILO) on an intersecting development path that reshaped the patterns of everyday work. Or at least that was the dream of both parties. Although the ILO was steeped in a corporatist tradition, the organization jettisoned its ideology to meet the needs of South Asia’s rapid development programs. My paper looks at the history of cooperation between the ILO and governments in South Asia to argue that the ILO’s technical assistance was a vehicle for the aspirations of India and Pakistan to create a specific form of industrial sovereignty. Much of the literature on the ILO and modernization theory neglects perspectives and evidence from the primary sites of development in the twentieth century.

The paper I propose seeks a materialist solution to the following question: how does a postcolonial state achieve sovereignty? My approach looks at the fundamentals of creating an industrial economy via technical assistance to build a compliant labor force. The result would generate a type of sovereignty that, I contend, can be expanded to other postcolonial states. It also decenters the Cold War to appreciate the local realities of decolonization. The paper will be based off of evidence collected at the ILO archive in Geneva and various archives in New Delhi. I am a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, writing an international history dissertation on the intersection of development agendas by the ILO and newly formed nation-states in South and Southeast Asia.