Anirban Karak, New York University
Sekhar Bandyopadhyay. Decolonization in South Asia: Meanings of Freedom in Post-Independence West Bengal, 1947-‘52. London & New York: Routledge, 2009.
Once India achieved political independence from British rule in 1947, foreign domination could no longer serve as the stabilizing antithesis against which a unified “freedom struggle” could be posited and defined. In such a postcolonial context, how did different groups experience and perceive the freedom that had arrived, and how did they articulate their dissatisfactions? Sekhar Bandyopadhyay’s detailed study remains the only historical monograph on this question for the newly created Indian province of West Bengal. The book traces how jubilation soon turned to discontent as the promise of freedom remained unfulfilled in a context of food shortages, inflation, corruption, epidemics, the arrival of massive waves of refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and repressive state actions that seemed like a continuation of the Indian state’s colonial forbear. Disillusionment eventually gave way to worker and peasant unrest, communal riots, and deepening middle-class anxieties in the run-up to the first General Election of 1952. Although the Indian National Congress – which had been at the forefront of the nationalist movement – won a comfortable majority in the province, it won only 38% of the popular vote and was eventually dethroned in 1967 by a unified Leftist coalition. Bandyopadhyay gives us a thorough account of these trends, but the question of how dissatisfactions can be explained and more satisfactory freedom attained remains wide open.
Rohit De, A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018.
Unlike many other erstwhile British colonies, the Indian constitution was written by Indians, and it remains the longest-surviving constitution in the post-colonial world. Histories of this remarkable document have tended to be written in one of two ways: either a triumphalist narrative penned by scholars and practitioners of jurisprudence, or a skeptical account written by critics of constitutional liberalism who believe that the promises of the constitution have necessarily proved to be illusory. Rohit De offers a refreshingly different perspective, showing that the Indian constitution mattered to a wide range of actors who picked up on the promises of the document to defend their rights in unexpected ways. Through detailed analyses of four cases heard and decided by the Supreme Court of India in the 1950s and ‘60s, De shows that even though the constitution was written by a handful of literate people behind closed doors, the language of rights and freedoms enshrined in the text was not as alien to marginalized citizens as is often assumed. Whether it was Muslim butchers who sought to reverse blanket prohibitions on cow slaughter by appealing to the right to a livelihood, or a young prostitute who sought to get sex work legally recognized as a “trade,” the constitution offered citizens in independent India a means of redressal that they lacked under colonial rule. Whether constitutionalism as a political strategy can continue to ward off undemocratic tendencies in the future remains to be seen.
Matilde Cazzola, Max Planck Institute for Legal History and Legal Theory
Benjamin Barson, Jason Chang, Alexis Dudden, and Kim Inthavong, The Cargo Rebellion: Those Who Chose Freedom, Binghamton: PM Press, 2023
This beautifully written and powerfully illustrated graphic novel tells the true story of the major mutiny which took place aboard the ship Robert Bowne in 1852, when hundreds of Chinese indentured labourers revolted against and overthrew the ship’s captain. Becoming aware that the captain’s purported destination in the United States was an attempt to deceive them and transport them to Peru, the labourers mutinied en masse and tried to sail back to China. This event occurred in the context of the so-called ‘coolie trade’, the nineteenth-century trafficking of thousands of indentured Asian workers by the European colonial powers, with the purpose of providing the European colonies in the Americas with cheap labour force. By focusing on a mutiny against exploitation and enslavement that broke out in the Pacific, the book will make a wider public acquainted with a lesser known but mighty episode in the global history of resistance against imperialism and capitalism.
‘Colpa della povertà’, Jacobin Italia, no. 18, Spring 2023
The latest issue of the Italian edition of Jacobin is an effectively assembled collection of contributions which interrogate the problem of poverty from a perspective which is at once interdisciplinary and of great interest to historians. Most articles, in fact, investigate how perceptions of poverty changed over the centuries, and how the group of ‘the poor’ alternatively comprised either the working classes or those altogether excluded from the dynamics of production – or both. They also examine how the impoverished and dispossessed thought about themselves, and how these self-representations were the precondition for their resistance and collective action. By showing how deeply intertwined with economic and industrial developments, and therefore contextually determined, representations of poverty were, this issue demonstrates that, as much as there is nothing natural and unavoidable about the existence of poverty, likewise its representations were – and still are – ‘artificially’ reformulated in the wake of the transformations of capitalism.
Marcus M. Payk and Kim Christian Priemel (eds.), Crafting the International Order: Practitioners and Practices of International Law since c. 1800, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021
The collection of essays in this new volume for the History and Theory of International Law OUP series jointly advance a compelling claim: that, between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, a most relevant contribution to international law came from those actors who got their hands dirty with the realities of politics – not only lawyers and judges but also diplomats, arbitrators, and advisors. To study international law through the lives and careers of actors means understanding it no longer as the product of states but rather shifting the focus towards individuals, families, and professional networks. Moreover, it means providing evidence of the only seemingly obvious fact that the law is a human construct, which must always be formulated and applied by someone. If the scholarship on international law struggles to disentangle itself from its Western, Christian, and white origins, the growing interest in its history helps reveal its most enduring fallacy, namely, its self-narrative as a set of supra-historical principles.