XQs XVI – A Conversation with Aniruddha Bose

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Tania Bhattacharyya for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV]

Aniruddha Bose is Associate Professor of History at Saint Francis University, Loretto (PA). His research interests lie in Modern and Early Modern South Asia, in the area of labor history. He is the author of Class Conflict and Modernization: The Raj and the Calcutta Waterfront (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). He is currently writing a book on the role of railwaymen in the making of free India.

Q. Modernization is popularly narrated as a feat of technological advancement, political will, and capitalist philanthropy, with workers usually not featuring in the story. Your book in contrast, right from the title, places technological modernization in the same conversation as class formation. What are the stakes of studying class and labor history in India today? What in your view is the problem-space, to borrow David Scott’s term, that makes the historical questions of this book salient questions of our time?

There are two answers to this question. The historiography on class labor in India was previously concerned with questions around how and why Indian laborers seemed unable to develop class-consciousness on the lines predicted by Marx. Fortunately, some thirty years ago, historians began to shift their gaze away from what Indian labor did not do to what Indian labor actually did. Unfortunately, this created a new problem. Without a central historical question/problem, the field subsequently fragmented. Recent literature consists of discrete studies of class conflict and labor history in distinct industries, geographical locations, and times. This book tries to overcome this fragmentation by connecting the history of one discrete set of workers (the dockworkers of Calcutta) with a larger framework (modernization).

The fragmentation of the academic field mirrors the fragmentation and weakening of organized labor in Indian society. There is however, considerable evidence to suggest that technological and other kinds of changes in the Indian economy are creating opportunities for the emergence of new forms of labor organization. The rather striking agricultural labor marches of the last year, organized using both old-fashioned labor organization as well as WhatsApp, indicates changes in class conflict in India today. In this book, I demonstrate how the forces of class conflict informed modernization in British India. This is, however, a pertinent question for 21st century India as well. What will the effect of India’s farmers using social media to organize do to our policing of Indian cyberspace, for instance?

Q. With a view to introducing readers to the basic conceptual pivots of your book: what is the relationship between class conflict and class formation and how is it expressed in your research?

The research demonstrates that class conflict heightened class formation and vice versa. This book looks at the impact of the shift from sail to steam, in the second half of the nineteenth century, on the dockworkers of Calcutta. Historical records are fairly clear and consistent. As steam ships became more ubiquitous, class conflict worsened. This had much to do with the economics of steam power, which required a much quicker turnaround time at ports than sailing ships did. Shippers and port authorities increasingly demanded more from their dockworkers, which the dockworkers resisted. The resistance was more effective when it was organized, creating an incentive for the dockworkers to conceptualize of themselves as constituting a distinct entity or class. The process worked in reverse as well. Port authorities and shippers responded to resistance with greater policing and a management that was more intensive. Thinking of the port dockworkers as a distinct class with their own interests that ran contrary to the interests of the state and capital helped port authorities justify and devise new methods of policing and management. Over time, the process became self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, such that by the end of the nineteenth century, class conflict had become endemic and class formation almost complete.

Aniruddha Bose, Class Conflict and Modernization in India

Q. What is modernization? You underline interestingly that an important element of modernization was labor management. How do all of these parts – technological innovation, mechanization, infrastructural overhauls, new administrative structures and labor management – relate to one another and why do you call it modernization?

Modernization is a highly contested term. From the 1950s to the 1970s, developmental economists peddled it as a magic formula from American universities. It referred largely to physical infrastructure that poor countries needed in order to turn into rich ones – roads, schools, hospitals. Economists discarded it in the 1970s under an avalanche of criticism that noted how the theory did not address critical issues like inequities in the global trading order, access to global capital, etc. I use the term cautiously, including changing physical infrastructure as well as labor management, two connected processes evident in my own research. Few historians use the term because of its negative connotations. However, I feel it is appropriate to use as long as there is nothing prescriptive or teleological about it. I used it because the term best captured the changes in the patterns of work that I was trying to describe.

Q. Related to the question of both labor management and class conflict is that of policing. Can you explain the role of the police and medical surveillance in the formation of a laboring class in colonial Calcutta, and by extension in the formation of the modern state?

The police played a very important role in class formation at the Calcutta port. The Calcutta port authorities turned to the police to enforce discipline as they began transforming work processes at the port in late nineteenth century. The police became the instrument of punishment for both the state and capital, and increasingly became their representatives in the eyes of the port workforce. Much labor organization emerged against the police and their zuloom. Medical surveillance began in the 1880s in response to growing international concern with the spread of cholera from the Indian Subcontinent. Much of it was confined to surveys and sanitation in the port area. Policing and medical surveillance merged in the policing of sanitary practices, and later peaked during the plague epidemics at the turn of the century. During these epidemics, medical policing reached unprecedented levels with the establishment of segregation camps, the forcible removal of the sick and their families, the destruction of their property and homes, and forced inoculations. At its peak in the early twentieth century, this extended to the destruction of entire neighborhoods because they were deemed insanitary. Laborers responded to policing of this kind by fighting and running away. The latter approach significantly strengthened the hands of those who remained. Since the port’s labor force was mobile, many left, and the few that remained emerged stronger. By 1907, the Calcutta press had begun referring to dockworkers as “The Best Paid Men in the City.”

I do not address state formation explicitly in my book, but the emergence of a substantial police force and a bureaucracy are recognizable signs of state formation. The Calcutta Port Trust, an administrative body, created by the Bengal provincial government, administered the Calcutta port modernization process. The Calcutta Port Trust was primarily responsible for increasing policing and medical surveillance of the port workforce. All of this constitutes state formation.

Q. What did the entry of large labor contracting firms mean for the process of class formation? In a market already mediated by many levels of mediators, how were these new participants different?

Labor contracting firms entered the Calcutta port in the 1880s, and became dominant over the following decade. These firms, and particularly one firm, Bird & Co., came to represent the dominant managerial and employer class for many of the port workforce. In the absence of records from these firms, it is tricky to identify how these firms were different. My own research indicates that the firms made life harder for labor in some ways. Bird & Co. used its substantial resources (it may have been the largest private corporation operating in late colonial India) to bring in labor from considerable distances, in northern and central India. These workers lacked the ability to return on their own or to form alliances with fellow workers in the city. The laborers were also entirely dependent on their employers for housing. Their ability to switch jobs independently were limited. On the other hand, laborers did benefit from competition between labor contractors. I came across evidence, for instance, that Bird & Co. recruited workers from a rival firm by offering higher wages.

As a side note, I found evidence indicating much murky behavior surrounding these labor contracting firms and the Calcutta Port Trust. Differences in ownership (Irish vs. English, etc.) seemed to matter much in determining who won contracts. There is even some indication of bribery and corruption at the highest levels. I didn’t elaborate on this because it was not central to the focus of my research, but it made me grateful for the relatively vigorous and free press we enjoy in India today.

Q. You describe how laborers were recruited by these firms from various rural hinterlands. How does the mobility of laborers affect the formation of a laboring class at the ports?

The dockworkers did not leave behind any written records. Nevertheless, my research indicates that laborers recruited from farther away were at a disadvantage when it came to flight. The costs of running away for laborers from Bengal and Orissa were much less than for workers from the forests of Central India or the regions around Delhi and Haryana. However, I should note that these workers did leave during extreme situations. Similarly, these workers must have been at a disadvantage when it came to forming links with the working poor of Calcutta. Language and other barriers may have limited their ability to forge connections with criminal elements for instance (thievery was rampant at the port, and got worse as the nineteenth century progressed). On the other hand, isolated communities that formed ethno-linguistic minorities must have enjoyed strong bonds amongst themselves. That could only have helped class formation amongst these workers.

Q. Methodologically speaking, a comparative history of ports, modernization and port labor is central to your book. You conclude every chapter with such a comparative conclusion, in fact. What are the historical questions that you would say such comparison allows you to answer or answer better?

I was primarily interested in establishing whether the Calcutta Port was an outlier or whether the patterns of change I saw in Calcutta replicated patterns evident elsewhere. My research indicated that developments in Calcutta mirrored developments in other ports in India, such as Madras and Bombay, other colonial ports like Singapore, and even ports as far flung as New York, and London. In some ways, this is understandable. The same ships visit ports around the world requiring the same services. This became particularly true after the opening of the Suez Canal that made steam travel between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans financially sustainable. On the other hand, I noticed subtle differences as well. For instance, conflict between Indian and Chinese labor, as well as Indian and Chinese capital informed class formation in Singapore. There is much room for further research here. While Atlantic ports are well studied, Indian Ocean ports remain unexamined for the colonial period. Comparative studies of such ports will be fascinating.

Q. What does the study of port cities tell us about the urban history of South Asia more broadly? In what ways are the histories of labor and modernization in inland cities across South Asia comparable to that of Calcutta, Bombay or Madras’?

Port cities through their connection with other port cities constitute a vanguard when it comes to urban development. This is particularly true of their ports and port labor. Inland cities, by virtue of their connection with port cities follow the urbanization trends of port cities. In the late nineteenth century, these trends, in all likelihood, accelerated with the railways. This is very likely true of class formation in particular. There is documented evidence of Atlantic port labor supporting and influencing each other. Similar connection must surely have also existed in the Indian Ocean region. It is more than likely that news of events in other port cities reached laborers in Indian port cities who carried this information back to cities in India’s hinterland. On the other hand, class formation is not a teleological process. It tends to be contingent on the convergence of multiple factors. All Indian cities have their own story to tell.

Q. Can you recommend five recent works that ought to be read in conversation with yours?

No research on dockworkers should begin without consulting Sam Davies et. al., Dockworkers: International Experiences in Comparative Labor History, 1790-1970 (2000). This two-volume book introduces readers to important questions, debates, and methodologies in researching ports and port labor. David Arnold’s Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (2015) is also an excellent book. It introduces readers to thinking about science and technology in British India, especially on the question of reception. My own research though is more interested in how Indians helped determine the introduction of technologies in the first place.

Workers, Unions, and Global CapitalismI also found Rohini Hensman’s Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India (2011) very helpful in thinking about Indian labor in global contexts. While her research covers a later period, networks of global capitalism incorporated much of India’s economy in the period I studied as well. Another book I much enjoyed is Sumanta Banerjee’s Crime and Urbanization: Calcutta in the Nineteenth Century (2006). It gave a street-level perspective into colonial Calcutta. I have recently been reading Benjamin Kingsbury’s wonderful new book An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 (2018). It provides an invaluable glimpse into life in rural Bengal.

Q. What, in your experience, does it take to turn a dissertation into a book? Can you describe the process, both intellectual and practical (how did you choose a publisher, for example) that goes into this?

Publishers typically want books that will appeal to a maximum number of readers. Specialization in a narrow topic, while useful for a dissertation, is unhelpful when trying to reach a wider audience. Turning a dissertation into a book then, has much to do with broadening the project’s focus. In my case, this entailed including all the comparative sections with global ports from a similar time (Bombay, Madras, Singapore, London, and New York). It also entailed broadening my argument to include discussions on what made Calcutta unique amongst India’s and the world’s ports, as well as discussions on what aspects of its transformation conformed to global trends.

When it comes to choosing a publisher, much depends on what kind of a book you want to write. I wanted my first book to be academic, of interest to historians and students who study colonial India, urban and labor history in particular. I also wanted to reach historians who wanted to make comparisons between Atlantic and Indian Ocean ports. This made Routledge an ideal publishing house.

Many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Routledge reached out to me when I presented my research at the Association for Asian Studies. It is therefore very important to make your work visible. It is also very important to have friends and colleagues supporting you. My dissertation advisor, Prasannan Parthasarathi, and my current chair, Denise Damico, were both supportive. My wife Frances Bose, an academic herself, and my parents, all provided invaluable support and advice.


Tania Bhattacharyya is a doctoral candidate in South Asian and Indian Ocean history at Columbia University. She researches the social history of nineteenth and early twentieth century Bombay as a port-city of Indian Ocean itinerants.

8th Annual UM Pakistan Conference: Movement, Migration, and Borders

With this post, we welcome Tapsi Mathur, qainchi, to CM. Mathur is a recent PhD from University of Michigan, and currently enjoying a postdoc as the Global Perspectives on Society Teaching Fellow at NYU Shanghai. Thank you for your volunteer work, and welcome to CM!– sepoy.

[The 8th Annual Pakistan Conference was organized by the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. You can find the conference schedule and speaker bios on the conference website.]

The theme of University of Michigan’s Annual Pakistan Conference, held on April 6, 2018, was “Movement, Migration, and Borders.” Conference convener Matthew Hull reminded us in his opening remarks of the focus of this conference, now in its eighth year, on fostering a political and academic discourse on Pakistan that moves beyond the paradigm of security studies. Conference organizers Salman Adil Hussain and Brittany Puller put together a lineup that examined the mobile realities of Pakistan and its people, covering the histories and trajectories of Pakistani diasporas in Aboriginal Australia, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe.

Several of the presenters interrogated the capaciousness of the lens of transnational for theorizing migration and displacement. Ali Nobil Ahmad, in a paper examining human smuggling from Pakistani Punjab to Europe, placed his work in conversation with theories of migration and environmental history. He spoke of that aspect of travel and migration seldom talked of – regret – contrasting it to transnational literature, structured as it is around the myth of arrival, where travel is largely optimistic. Attiya Ahmad’s paper examined the gendered nature of the transnational work sector, taking as her subject South Asian migrant domestic workers and how they are produced as a “temporary population” in Kuwait. In this, she also added a temporal dimension to the spatial sense in which transnational is invoked in the literature on displacement and migration between the Gulf and South Asia.

The question of mobility and how it shapes both home and borders shifted the conversation back to the particularity of Pakistani state and society within the transnational. The screening of the film Zinda Bhaag (2013) zoomed into the category of the neighborhood. Shot on location in the house of one of the three young men featured in the film, each of whom was searching for a way out to the West, the neighborhood of Samanabad in Lahore is the site from which they plot their escape. Farjad Nabi talked the audience through, amongst other things (see the Q&A below), the aesthetics of the film that he co-directed along with Meenu Gaur. He pointed to the bright colors of the working-class neighborhood of Samanabad, contrasted with the fawn and beige-toned elite neighborhoods separated out from it, all making up the shades of Lahore they were trying to capture. Ammara Maqsood’s paper stepped from the neighborhood in to the home,  talking of the ways in which migration has shaped a middle-class population in Pakistan. Covering both migration in the 1980s and 90s to the United States as well as more recent migration to the Gulf, she elaborated on new ideas for religious learning and changing joint family structures and domestic life at home enabled by this movement.  Sanaa Alimia took the conversation to the border and technologies of exclusion, in her study of Afghan refugees negotiating the Afghanistan-Pakistan border through the material means of the ID card. She showed how that border, celebrated by both the colonial and post-colonial state as historically fluid, was performed in to being since the 2000s, under the “Global War of Terror.” Continue reading “8th Annual UM Pakistan Conference: Movement, Migration, and Borders”

99 Nights in Logar — A Conversation with Jamil Jan Kochai

Jamil Jan Kochai (JK) was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, but he originally hails from Logar, Afghanistan. He was a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his novel, 99 Nights in Logar, is forthcoming with Viking Books in the US and Bloomsbury in the UK. His fiction has been published in Ploughshares, A Public Space, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, and The Sewanee Review.  We are happy to carry a conversation between  Kochai and Muneeza Rizvi (MR). Muneeza Rizvi is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Davis. Her dissertation examines the impact of the Syrian War on Islamic moral criticism in Britain.

MR: For the benefit of those who have not yet read 99 Nights in Logar, could you briefly explain what the novel is about and what you sought to achieve by writing it?

JK: On a basic level, 99 Nights in Logar is an adventure tale. Budabash, the ferocious guard dog, escapes out onto the trails of Logar, and it is up to twelve-year-old Marwand, and his small gang of little uncles and cousins to go out and find him. Through Marwand’s narration, I sought to explore the multifaceted dimensions of a small village in Logar, Afghanistan (its history, its landscape, its people, its violence, its magic) in the early years of the US occupation.

MR: To what extent does the novel center the American occupation of Afghanistan? In this sense, how does 99 Nights in Logar draw or depart from similar post-9/11 coming-of-age novels that underemphasize the War on Terror (with the stated goal of demonstrating the “complexity” of quotidian life in Muslim-majority countries)?

JK: In the beginning of the story, as the boys start off on their search for Budabash, I wanted the boys’ adventure to be sort of haunted by the presence of the war—not yet dominated by it. My intention, I suppose, was to sort of ease the reader into their experience of the occupation. But as the novel progresses it was also very important for me to demonstrate the ways in which the American occupation (even with its more subdued forms of violence) can be an unrelenting, all encompassing, and deeply formative phenomenon. Most depictions of the war in Afghanistan primarily center upon explicitly destructive forms of violence (bombings and shootings and such), whereas I was also interested in exploring the ways in which the violence of the occupation can seep into the language, the daily habits, the routines, the jokes, the stories, and the psychological development of Afghans (especially young Afghans). The violence of the American occupation has become so perpetual, so unceasing, so horrific that even within the “normality” of a quotidian life, it seems to be inescapable. To underemphasize the overwhelmingly horrific effects of the occupation of Afghanistan would be, for me, incredibly dishonest.  Continue reading “99 Nights in Logar — A Conversation with Jamil Jan Kochai”

Postcards from the Archives: Goodbye 2018

The highpoint of the year for CM was the publication of Lapata’s The Woman’s Courtyard, a translation of Khadija Mastur’s Aangan that’s been getting rave reviews (here, here, here, here). CM published an extract from the book’s Afterword that you can read here.

We published a roundtable–our third!– on Kim Wagner’s The Skull of Alum Bheg: The Life and Death of a Rebel of 1857 (2017) with Sepoy’s intro and insightful reviews by Zoya Sameen, Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst, Sonia Qadir, and Gaura Narayan, along with the author’s response.

2018 was a great year for our XQs series. We published 6 new interviews on recent(ish) first monographs from South Asian Studies: Anand Vivek Taneja, Jinnealogy; Mitra Sharafi, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947Harleen Singh, The Rani of JhansiIlyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst,  Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 RebellionAmmara Maqsood, The New Pakistani Middle ClassDebjani Bhattacharya, Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta: The Making of Calcutta. (We could use some help keeping the XQs and roundtables going. See Sepoy’s call.)

Sepoy wrote about anti-Ahmadi proselytization and the magazine Chatan. Mariam Durrani wrote a guest essay on AAS’ Pakistan scholar problem, titled AAS and the “Problem” of Muslims in India. I published a report on a teach-in on the Indigenous Peoples Day at U of M, and Miranda Garcia wrote a report on a WoC poetry event.

Here at CM, we bid farewell to Asma Jahangir, and our friend, Annie.

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