KCL Event: South Asia Unbound: Artistic, literary, professional and business entanglements across and beyond South Asia

Conveners: The New International Histories of South Asia (NIHSA) network

Speakers: Ben Siegel (Boston University); Ali Raza (Lahore University Management School); Rohit De (Yale University)

Chair: Bérénice Guyot-Réchard (King's College London)


Diplomatic historians have begun exploring the “middlemen” that shape international relations and politics, including networks of lawyers, artists, technocrats, bureaucrats, businessmen, and diplomats. Likewise, South Asianists have started exploring the impact that different scales of governance have had on the nation and state within South Asia. The week, our speakers explore key mid-level networks that brought international actors into South Asia but also linked them into different global infrastructures, and so made them into central international and transnational actors and activists.


Ben Siegel (Boston University), “From Field to Capsule: Poppies and Power in Twentieth-Century Mandsaur District”

For two centuries, cultivators in the central Indian district of Mandsaur have produced poppy gum for global opium markets. In the nineteenth century, Malwa opium provided raw material for Indian capitalists to subvert the British colonial monopoly. In the middle of the twentieth century, against the backdrop of independence and prohibition, opium from Madhya Pradesh became integrated into the narcotic supply chains of global pharmaceutical companies. But by the 1980s, with the prices paid for legal opium plummeting, Mandsaur's produce was increasingly being funneled into the illicit trade, rendering it a central node in the global heroin trade. These developments have dovetailed with the transformation of India's agrarian economy in the last several decades. In the 1980s, Mandsaur farmers, animated by the political changes of the "New Farmer's Movement," sought to shift from opium to other cash crops like garlic, never fully exiting the more lucrative poppy trade. Widespread economic stagnation has fueled the participation of Mandsaur farmers in national protests, and the global crash of poppy prices owing to the rise of synthetic opioids has fueled a resurgence of black market diversion. This presentation considers the flows of a singular district, wedded to the shifting global demands for a fraught cash crop, and the wider currents of agrarian development in India's twentieth and twenty-first century.

Ali Raza (Lahore University Management School), “Pakistani Writers, Intellectuals, Artists, and Poets in Afro-Asian and Third World solidarity”

If the formal transfer of power in August 1947 was an occasion of profound optimism in India and Pakistan, it was also accompanied by the dissatisfaction of those who felt betrayed by freedom. For the Left in Pakistan, the decades following independence had ushered in civil and military authoritarianism, a clampdown on political activities and civil liberties, and the consolidation of power by elite and landed interests. In the international arena, Pakistan had also firmly allied itself with the Anglo American power bloc. This meant greater repression of progressive politics. Substantive and meaningful freedom, it seemed, lay further along the horizon. It was in this context that leftist Pakistani intellectuals, writers, poets, and activists aligned themselves with the post Bandung era of Afro-Asian solidarity and a renewed sense of internationlism that was situated in the rapidly decolonizing Third World. Afro-Asian conferences and conventions promised continued struggle against neo-imperialisms, soci0-economic transformation of formerly colonized countries, reassertion of political and economic sovereignity, and a rejuvenation of long suppressed national cultures, literatures, and artistic expressions. For Pakistani progressives too, the fortunes of their nascent nation state were intimately tied to this multi-tiered internationalist political programme. The stakes were higher still in Pakistan given its position as a front line state in the ongoing Cold War. Accordingly, the Pakistani literary and political space of the 1950s, 60s and 70s became a hub for diverse cultural and socio-political expressions which derived their vibrancy and strength from their international counterparts. This was a world in which solidarities cut across national borders and statist imperatives. It was also a world in which the ongoing struggle for national liberation and socio-economic transformation in the Third World fed into and from progressive movements in East and West Pakistan. This period, then, demands a reassessment of histories on ‘post-colonial’ South Asia which are mostly national histories. This is especially the case insofar as Pakistan is concerned. Instead, the many scales of internationalist politics in this era show how Pakistan was profoundly tied to the global politics of not just the Cold War (a story that is well rehearsed in the historiography on Pakistan) but also the politics of Afro-Asian and Third World solidarity.

Rohit De (Yale University), “Decolonization, Diasporas and a Global History of Rebellious Lawyering”

The travels of Indian-African lawyers, and the politics and techniques that they carried, shaped the conceptual and strategic world of minority rights in the mid-20th century. Indian migrants moving through British imperial networks in the interwar period have often been framed as sinews of empire themselves, through their labor and capital. When overseas Indians began making a range of claims for minority rights, they initially did so as an imperial minority. As their status had to be recalibrated, through decolonization, their emergence as national minorities in ethno-majoritarian states, and as migrants to former colonial powers, so too did their forms of claims-making. This presentation follows the careers of four Indian-African lawyers across the UK, India, Seychelles, Kenya and Tanzania to show how the Indian legla diaspora, often viewed as “sinews of empire” turned first into a network for decolonization and then incubated claims for integration into ethno-majoritarian states. Using lawyerly lives as an archive, it demonstrates the possibilities of tracing a global history of ideas that is rooted in everyday articulations and assertions. By 1950, India not only possessed the world’s second-largest number of lawyers after the United States, but lawyers of South Asian origin made up a significant proportion of the legal profession in British colonies in East and South Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific and Caribbean islands. Lawyers, particularly in the colonial world, mediate between the state and society. Lawyering is fundamentally an act of representation, and Indian diasporic lawyers framed their strategies through the tensions between their professional, political, and ethnic identities.


Covid19 has forced us to think creatively about how to organise academic events. Each "South Asia Unbound" event will be organised as follows:

  • A week before the event, each panellist will post a short video presentation on this page for the audience to watch and ponder at their leisure;
  • The event itself will take the shape of an extended Q&A session with the audience.

In other words: if you want to attend, make sure not just to register for the panels but also to watch the videos in the week before. You'll receive details on how to attend once you've registered.

For more information, see the main South Asia Unbound Conference Website.

This event series is organised by NIHSA - the New International Histories of South Asia network.