KCL Event: South Asia Unbound: Intimate spaces of internationalism in South Asia

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

Speakers: Joanna Simonow (University of Vienna); Carolien Stolte (University of Leiden); Amna Qayyum (Princeton University)

Chair: Farhana Ibrahim (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi)


Colonialism was shaped and enacted through personal interactions, material objects, and on individual human bodies. These insights from scholarship on empire and colonial South Asia have only recently have begun extending into histories of internationalism. How did South Asian internationalism play out in the smallest spaces and scales. How does the intimate could inform the global and the political? The week, our speakers highlight South Asia’s empirical potential to form the basis for a conceptualisation of the linkage between the intimate, the political and the global.


Joanna Simonow (University of Vienna), "The Secret Lives of Eva and Luise Geissler & the Intimate Spaces of Indian Anticolonialism in Europe, c. 1914–1955"

A conspicuous silence on the presence, roles and political engagement of white women characterises the literature on Indian anticolonialism which flourished in the new radical political spaces that emerged outside of South Asia in the interwar period. The neglect of personal and intimate spaces of Indian anticolonialism, gendered labour divisions and the stigmatisation of interracial sexual relationships obscured the historical agency of wives, lovers and friends of Indian anticolonialists. In this paper, Joanna Simonow draws on biographical research on Wilhelmine Frieda ‘Eva’ Geissler (1900–91) and her sister Luise Geissler (1899–1973) who formed personal and professional relationships to M.N. Roy, A.C.N. Nambiar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in the interwar period. Foregrounding the sisters’ experiences and voices, Joanna sheds new light on the complex nature of the women’s personal/political encounter of Indian anticolonialism. In doing so, She builds on feminist scholarship that has long problematized dichotomies of the private/public and personal/political to spotlight the role of intimate spaces as arenas of political activism. The presentation demonstrates that women’s biographies and voices can provide a new angle on Indian anticolonialism on the one hand, and on the relevance of personal and intimate relationships in the process of decolonization on the other.

Carolien Stolte (University of Leiden), “Fellow Travellers: Radical Sociability and the Indian Peace Movement, 1950s-70s”

In December 1960, an international community of peace activists met at Gandhigram in South India under auspices of the War Resisters’ International (WRI). At this conference, the idea of a World Peace Brigade emerged – a ‘Shanti Sena’ that was to act as a necessary break on the Cold War arms race. Supported by peace workers like Jayaprakash Narayan, Devi Prasad, and Vinoba Bhave, the nucleus of the World Peace Brigade was strongly influenced by an international circle of Gandhians that predated the Gandhigram conference, which included several prominent WRI members with Quaker backgrounds with longstanding connections to India. This presentation is concerned with that international circle. By asking how this “affective community,” held together primarily by letter-writing, expanded its reach in an effort to become a globally representative organization, it examines the role written correspondence played in the making of the World Peace Brigade. What was, quite literally, the “language of peace” in this chapter of the Cold War?

Amna Qayyum (Princeton University), “From the Clinic to Bazaar: Women’s Welfare and the Genesis of Pakistan’s Family Planning Program”

The Family Planning Association of Pakistan (FPA) was founded in the early 1950s by women’s welfare activists. This presentation traces the local and global networks that these activists drew upon to establish a network of clinics across urban centers in Pakistan. Focusing in particular on Saida Waheed, FPA’s first President, it examines her pre-partition connections with women’s welfare activists across South Asia. It traces how, over the course of the mid-to-late 1950s, these networks were increasingly globalized through Cold War currents. Amna Qayyum argues that, during the earlier period, concepts of maternal health were crucial in fashioning a family planning program, which was run primarily by voluntary social welfare organizations. However, with Ayub Khan’s rise to power these ideas were increasingly overshadowed by state anxieties over the imbalance between economic and population growth, leading to the introduction of an expansive state-led program of population control. By analyzing this shift from the clinic to the bazar for family planning services, this presentation then reflects upon the changing relationships between both local and global institutions and citizens reproductive practices and the state which accompanied the transition to authoritarianism.



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.