Decentering the Decolonization Debate
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 4
Like colonialism, decolonization has lived on beyond its expiry date. The official withdrawal of western imperial powers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East did not ring the death knell for decolonization. In recent years, scholars have greatly expanded how they approach the study of decolonization (Shepard 2012). While some have studied the process (Singh 1984), others have tried to locate the factors that drove decolonization. (Darwin 1988; Hyam 2006). In investigating the reasons, scholars have traversed the national as well as the transnational domains (Featherstone 2012; Nogues 2011). Some have looked at movements and networks, others at individuals (Flint 1999). On arriving at these new frontiers, one must reexamine the very meaning of decolonization, and its relationship with the nation-state and liberation. This panel brings together a wide array of papers covering India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mozambique, Iran and Egypt to take the conversation on decolonization to new directions and also offer new centers of engagement.
The papers on this panel define and approach decolonization from different angles. Dharitri Bhattacharjee’s paper challenges nation-centric accounts of decolonization because the grant of provincial autonomy in 1935 ensured that the decolonization project commenced in the provinces like Bengal. Moving away from the process itself, Lior Sternfeld explores the question of agency in decolonization of Iran and Egypt and explains how grassroots movements drove decolonization, especially in how they forced their governments to respond differently to imperial powers. While still focusing on agency, Joseph Parrott examines Frelimo’s role in Mozambique’s liberation movement and their efforts as non-state actors who sold the revolution abroad by demonstrating concrete visions of the new independent state. Mark Reeves develops the theme of internationalism further in his paper on Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria by analyzing not just his nationalist visions, as decolonization literature tends to do, but his pan-Africanist, Commonwealth, and liberal internationalist visions as well. In the last paper, Maia Ramnath uses the career of poet/activist Faiz Ahmad Faiz to highlight the Indian and Pakistani attitudes to Israel and Palestine in the context of Afro Asian solidarity discourse during the era of the Cold War decolonization and Third World non-alignment.
In all these papers, the presenters discuss the need to de-center existing debates in decolonization studies. Bhattacharjee’s paper shows that a provincial perspective is required to explain India’s decolonization. In a decolonization historiography that sees South Asia as the center of Third Worldism, both Ramnath's and Sternfeld’s papers make a case for placing Middle East within the debate. By focusing on Frelimo’s transnational and international links that made decolonization non-negotiable, Parrott emphasizes the necessity of examining trans-local ideas of anti-imperialism as a category of analysis. Reeves goes a step ahead in making a case for de-centering the nation in the decolonization debate, in Nigeria, as well as Africa. Moving to a kind of assessment where ‘centers’ become irrelevant, Ramnath expands on South Asian decolonization impulses beyond the geographical limit of the subcontinent and the temporal limit of 1947 in the process.