KCL Event: South Asia Unbound: Changing imaginaries of South Asia

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

Speakers: Stephen Legg (University of Nottingham); Darinee Alagirasamy (National University of Singapore); Lydia Walker (Institute of Historical Research, London)

Chair: Elisabeth Leake (Leeds University)


This week, our speakers complicate studies of South Asia as a political space. Although much work has been done on the intellectual agendas that informed the creation of India and Pakistan, India’s engagement non-alignment, and Pakistan’s engagement with pan-Islamism, this panel seeks alternative international conceptualizations of South Asia (as a region, as well as a collection of states) that shaped politics within the region as well its engagement with the rest of the world. In doing so, we want to question how our geographical imaginaries are constructed.


Stephen Legg (University of Nottingham), “From Dominion to Federation: Re-Imagining India in 1930s London”

Between 1930-32 the Round Table Conference (RTC) took place in London over three sittings. Its recommendations formed the basis for Parliament’s Government of India Act (1935) which laid the basis for eventual all-Indian federation. This was an unexpected outcome. The conference was a result of the decadal (“Simon”) review of the working of the Government of India Act of 1919, which had divided and devolved the centralised powers of the colonial government. But alongside the debate about this system of dyarchy, the 1920s had seen rising calls for India to be awarded “Dominion Status”. This was focused less on internal reorganisation than on international recognition of India’s standing, making it comparable to Canada, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. What degree of internal self-government would allow this recognition was uncertain, as was the “status” of dominion which was being campaigned for. This presentation considers the temporal politics of deferral that orchestrated these spatial foci, which would determine the connections between its internal government and its external recognition. While debates about India’s international status was eclipsed at the conference by debates about the way federation would unite British and Princely India, dominion remained a distant and ultimately realised aspiration.

Darinee Alagirasamy (National University of Singapore), “Passions of Diasporic Pens: Language, Literature and Emotion in the Tamil Diaspora”

This presentation demonstrates that focussing on vernacular literature, language and the emotions contained therein as a historical lens for studying Tamil settlement could yield valuable insights into the negotiation of diasporic consciousness in the British empire. Previous approaches have looked to such aspects of settled experience as the formation of political organisations, the circulation of print publications, or of transnational associations to make sense of articulations of belonging in the Tamil diaspora. These approaches have tended, with few exceptions, to colour the experience of living abroad with a cognitive bias, when the process of negotiating new beginnings in an uncertain milieu - particularly in the early to mid-twentieth century - was a deeply emotional one. If sociopolitical change in India’s Tamil country was locked in a symbiotic relationship with what Sumathi Ramaswamy has termed “passions of the tongue,” language and literature played an even greater role in enabling middle-class Tamils living in Malaya to negotiate emotionally fraught questions of belonging. This presentation brings together two bodies of scholarship, diaspora literature and the history of emotion to propose a new approach to the study of Tamil reform movements: diasporic anger as a key driving force behind transnational Tamil consciousness and mobilisation in empire.

Lydia Walker (Institute of Historical Research, London), “East African Independence and the Invasion of Goa”

In December 1961, Tanganyika, an East African country with a substantial Goan minority, received independence, and India invaded the Portuguese colony of Goa, to the anger of that community. For much of the decolonizing world, India served as a model and symbol of ‘peaceful’ ‘successful’ national liberation and Third World leadership, yet for Goans in East Africa, independence on one side of the Indian Ocean meant simultaneous conquest on the other. Based on research in Goan newspapers located at the East Africana Collections at the University of Dar es Salaam, this presentation will look at the events of 1961 as an intersection of national liberation and postcolonial state-building, and the placement of an uneasy minority sandwiched between the two, while separated by an ocean.


Elisabeth Leake (Leeds University)



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.