Boundary Crossings: Circulating Ideas and Lives in South Asia, 1800–2000

AHA Session 122
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 7
Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 7 (New Orleans Marriott)
Anand A. Yang, University of Washington Seattle

Session Abstract

This panel engages with two bodies of literature—on labor and migration—and considers them in the light of boundary crossing. Historical work on migration and circulation in South Asia has begun to reveal the prevalence and variety of flows of people, goods and ideas within and beyond South Asia, disrupting models of India’s static past. Studies of the nineteenth century have often used indentured migration as the paradigmatic example, with a major concern the distinction between freedom and coercion. But there are many types of constraints and incentives, and institutions and governing bodies that attempt to control the movements of people across their boundaries.

Indeed, work on more recent movements has often posited mobility as leading to new social and cultural possibilities, even in cases of less certain economic mobility. Studies of migration to urban, industrial settings in the late colonial period, for example, indicate that movements were typically circular and migrants tended to reconstitute their own boundaries of caste, kinship, and gender. The supposed failure of urban migrants to become individual rights-bearing subjects composing a working class has produced complex arguments. While the circularity of movements has been demonstrated, modernist assumptions about the linearity of social and cultural change involved in such movements have been more difficult to set aside. A view of history as progress is often implicit in the claim that globalization weakens borders, or leads to more fluid identities as a matter of choice. This view contrasts uneasily with studies of territorial border-making in South Asia, often centered on Partition in 1947 or colonial frontiers in the nineteenth century. In these cases, boundaries and their transgressions were simultaneously constructed, albeit by different interests.

By considering different types of mobility—physical, social, and cultural—as well as the circulation of ideas and people across several centuries, we question implicit narratives suggesting a progressive movement as always towards freedom, or its opposite, always producing a decline from a golden age of the past. Instead, this panel considers how boundaries were formed contingently within particular imperial settings, and how movements across them affected social practices and cultural meanings. Fisher’s paper examines how Brahmanic sanctions against overseas travel affected the lives of Indians, particularly high-born Hindus, as they ventured to Britain from the early colonial period. Such religious sanctions affected laborers and elites in distinct ways. Paik investigates the everyday lives of tamasgirs to uncover the intimate relations between Dalit women artists’ deviant sexuality, labor, struggles for survival and the community’s social, cultural, and political battles. Warner discusses the ways in which British India and Nepal solidified the idea of a border between them by negotiating movements of labor even as neither state could effectively control such movements. Shaikh studies how the village and work within it figured in the imagination of Mumbai’s migrant workers and the political rhetoric of their leaders.  Economic and affective ties enabled them to imagine a political formation at times that traversed the boundaries between the rural and the urban.

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