Negotiating Borders and Shifting Loyalties in Modern Asia

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 12:00 PM
Boulevard A (Hilton Chicago)
Aniket De, Harvard University
It is well known that colonial practices of border-making were later adopted by post-colonial states, giving rise to the rigid territoriality of national borders we see today, especially in India and China. But how have peoples of Asia grappled with the imposition of modern borders over spaces overlain with layers of their own meanings? How did they conceive of an Asia beyond imagined national boundaries, and were there alternative ways of ascribing loyalties and imagining territorialities which did not simply reaffirm the colonial projects of border making? In this presentation, I explore travel narratives of a variety of Indians who travelled to different corners of Asia in the high noon of Empire (1880-1914), as pilgrims, sailors, or recruits of the British army. While this was the era when colonial borders were imposed most firmly in South Asia, these were also years in which imperial maritime connections enabled mobility in a variety of ways. Ideas of national and cultural belonging and international exchange were never restricted to borders drawn by a foreign state. While such visions of boundaries ultimately had little impact on the formation of new nation states in the 1940s, unrealized possibilities of the past still have much to teach us in the present. A social history of negotiating borders in modern Asia is a rich site for interrogating the dialectic between the political economy of statecraft and creative accommodations of cultural difference. Their visions of China, Japan, Southeast Asia and the Himalayan kingdom reflect a negotiation of colonial boundaries. Being attentive to such imaginaries of the past can teach us much about respecting yet transcending contemporary political and cultural boundaries, a much-needed lesson in the era of the Doklam crisis.
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