'Shared History' of Imperialism: Negotiating Entangled Identities in British-Indian Post-Imperial Relations – University of Copenhagen

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'Shared History' of Imperialism: Negotiating Entangled Identities in British-Indian Post-Imperial Relations

PhD Fellow Kalathmika Natarajan

My interest in the construction of postcolonial Indian identity and the negotiation of the experience of Empire and Partition has been shaped by my postgraduate study in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and subsequent work with think tanks in New Delhi, including the Centre for Policy Research, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, United Service Institution of India and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

For my PhD, I seek to write a ‘new diplomatic history’ of British-Indian relations after 1947 as a post-imperial negotiation of entangled identities, culture, and memory shaped by the colonial experience. I am concerned with unraveling the meanings of the phrase ‘shared history’—oft-used by politicians and diplomats while describing British-Indian interactions—that functions as a euphemism for the complex legacies of colonialism that have shaped the identity of the colonizer as much as those who were colonized.

To understand the negotiation of identities after Empire, I will explore the post-imperial afterlives of the narrative of exceptionalism that pervaded the colonial relationship between the British Raj and its ‘jewel in the crown’. The British imperial imagination perceived the loss of India as leading to the loss of Empire itself; this view intertwines India, ostensibly the ‘other’, with the idea of the British imperial ‘self’. For India, the rhetoric of exceptionalism strengthened its self-perception of civilizational importance within and after Empire, and helped position itself as the inheritor of the Raj legacy as the predominant power of the subcontinent.

Through a critical reading of British-Indian diplomatic relations in the Nehruvian period (1947-64)—a timeframe coinciding with processes of decolonisation in most British colonies—I will examine the impact of the colonial experience in mutually-constituting British and Indian post-imperial identity and informing perceptions of their global role that are still prevalent. I intend to focus particularly on British-Indian interactions during the 1956 Suez crisis, the British-Indian stand-off in 1961 regarding the removal of South Africa from the Commonwealth due to its apartheid policy and India’s 1961 annexation/liberation of Goa.

My PhD thesis will utilize material from British and Indian archives, including recently-declassified Indian Ministry of External Affairs documents, and draws on the insights of Postcolonial studies and International Relations to provide an interdisciplinary understanding of the afterlives of the colonial experience and the meanings of its ‘shared history’ in Britain and India.