Often subsumed within narratives of political “transfer of power” from colonial empires to postcolonial nation-states, decolonization was a longue durée sociocultural process that traversed the long 20th century. Its trails were global and intertwined with parallel metapolitical processes like the Cold War, and it cast long shadows that revealed the afterlives of political decolonization beyond the events that marked the arrivals of independence. South Asia is a particularly fertile ground for studying such expanded temporalities, sociocultural structures, and shadows of decolonization. While the late 1940s saw the retreat of the British Empire from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka after 1972), as well as the climactic partition of India and creation of Pakistan, decolonization itself remained an unfolding process. It manifested in continuing struggles around cultural sovereignty and the liberation war of 1971 that birthed Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, and continued in unresolved ethnic conflicts and regional struggles for autonomy and social democracy. The cultural field offers a unique lens for reading the more quotidian and less spectacular sites where such longue durée trails of decolonization were experienced, negotiated, and imagined via artistic forms. Aesthetics of decolonization can be read as the sensorial, imaginational, and ethical negotiations of postcolonial freedom, as well as the micropolitical and contradictory dynamics that lay therein. It can loosen the metaframe of the nation-state and the nation-form to reveal both locational and subnational differences, as well as the multiple ways in which the global itself was filtered, invoked, or negotiated from below. Aesthetics of decolonization, in other words, is the imagination of a new historiographical modality for thinking through how freedom was visualized in the postcolonies, how such visions produced new cultural modernities unique to such transitional polities, and how such modernities can be read in their transnational trails in the long 20th century.
Steffen F. Johannessen
Located in the central Indian Ocean, the Chagos Archipelago was uninhabited until the late 18th century. Midway between India and Mauritius, the clusters of coral atolls were sighted and named by Portuguese pilots in 1512. From the mid-1700s, during the wars between France and Britain, the islands started gaining strategic importance as potential naval bases or supply stations on the India route. Claimed by France, and managed from the French colony of Mauritius, Franco-Mauritian colonizers imported enslaved laborers from Africa and Madagascar to produce copra and coconut oil for a favorable wartime market in Mauritius. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, sovereignty had shifted to British hands. After slavery was abolished, the coconut industries were supplied by Indian indentured laborers. Small societies developed around the island industries, which would continue to produce until the second half of the 20th century. To make way for a joint UK–US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, British authorities separated the Chagos Archipelago from the rest of their Mauritian colony and established the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965. To accommodate the US Pentagon’s base strategies, British authorities evicted the entire local population to Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1965 and 1973. By the mid-1980s the military base was fully operational. As a forward operations facility strategically located between East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Indonesia, Diego Garcia became one of the United States’ most important overseas military bases. From its airstrip, bomber aircrafts attacking targets in Afghanistan and Iraq have lifted and returned. Located along central Indian Ocean shipping lines, the strategic value of the base also connects to the growing export economy of China and that of India, and these major regional states’ dependence on energy imports. The joint UK–US base is, however, highly controversial. International bodies have repeatedly called for full decolonization and the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. Objections to the Indian Ocean militarization it represents have a long history, and exiled members of the Chagossian community have continuously fought for their right to repatriation. In other words, the history of the military base, now substantiated by disclosed files revealing how British and American authorities conspired and lied to create it—has become one of the most central threats to this central geopolitical establishment in the Indian Ocean.
Contemporary Vietnam is the product of many factors, but several moments in particular stand out. Nam tiến, meaning “Southern Advance,” refers to the migration of people from the Red River Delta, the traditional heartland of Vietnamese civilization, to what are now the central and southern parts of the country. As a result of this process, which unfolded over hundreds of years, two regional polities emerged: Đàng Ngoài (literally “Outer,” meaning northern) and Đàng Trong (literally “Inner,” meaning southern). During the Lê Dynasty (1428–1788), members of two clans began to wield executive power: the Trịnh family in Đàng Ngoài and the Nguyễn family in Đàng Trong. Throughout this period, new social, cultural, and economic patterns also appeared. In the late 18th century Tây Sơn rebels subdued the Trịnh and Nguyễn lords (chúa) and caused the Lê Dynasty to collapse. Instituting the pattern of north–south political unity, the Tây Sơn established the template for monarchs of the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945) and for communist revolutionaries in the 20th century. During the French colonial occupation (1862–1954), colonists thoroughly refashioned the natural and built environments and created new economic realities. By dividing the country into three administrative units—the protectorate of Tonkin (northern Vietnam), the protectorate of Annam (central Vietnam), and the colony of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam)—the colonists further amplified regional identities. The French occupation also directly led to the First Indochina War and clearly contributed to the Second. After Northern Vietnamese (and their allies) defeated Southern Vietnamese (and their allies), a new united national polity emerged: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with the Vietnamese Communist Party in command. At the conclusion of both Indochina Wars significant numbers of Vietnamese fled the country. To a striking degree, the ideological differences that divided Vietnamese in earlier decades are still evident in contemporary times.
Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried. Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.
A. R. Venkatachalapathy
E. V. Ramasamy “Naicker” (1879–1973), better known as “Periyar” (literally “the big man”; figuratively “the revered one”), is an iconic figure in the history of Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu all governments of the state since 1967 have been formed by two parties—Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)—both of which split from Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) and claim his legacy. Periyar is primarily known as a social reformer, anti-caste crusader, champion of non-Brahmin political and social interests, advocate of women’s rights, and atheist and rationalist. At an all-India level his reputation is that of an “anti-national” who demanded secession from the Indian Union, an atheist who rejected god, religion, and rituals. In 1990, in the context of the Indian government’s move to introduce reservation (affirmative action) for backward castes in education and employment, and the upper-caste protest against it, Periyar’s role in empowering backward castes has received attention. Further, with the renewed rise of Hindu fundamentalism from the 1990s, Periyar’s critique of religion, especially Hinduism, has been recognized politically and intellectually. The dominance of intermediary castes in south India, and Dalit political and cultural assertion since the 1990s, has triggered a re-evaluation of Periyar’s ideas on caste and their impact on the empowerment of backward castes. The renewed political interest in Periyar’s ideas and a longstanding academic interest in the history of the non-Brahmin movement have come together in recent times. This has resulted in the proliferation of new compilations, editions, and reprints of Periyar’s writings. Analytical studies of his life and politics is a growing field. Though undertheorized by scholars, Periyar’s ideas on caste, religion, women’s rights, and language provide a window into understanding and conceptualizing non-mainstream ideological trends in modern Asian history.
The Progressive Writers Association (PWA) was founded in the mid-1930s by a group of South Asian leftist intellectuals who moved between metropolitan and colonial contexts. Announcing itself with a manifesto written in London in 1934 and reaching its peak of influence as a movement and an organization inside India in the 1940s, the PWA was a significant component of the South Asian cultural left. Its interlinked political and literary aims (founded upon the principle that the political and the literary must be interlinked) addressed anticolonialism and radical social change at home, while simultaneously positioning itself as part of the international popular front against fascism. As the Progressive writers moved into the post-independence decolonizing period, they identified closely with communist movements in India and Pakistan, while simultaneously positioning themselves at the forefront of Afro-Asian or Third World liberation solidarity formations during the Cold War. Thus these writers occupied a dual position, as simultaneously the cultural wing of the South Asian left and the South Asian manifestation of an international anti-imperialist movement that in both periods viewed art, literature, and ideology as crucial components of building socialism and decolonization.