XQs XXVII - A Conversation with Ali Raza

Posted by sepoy on May 20, 2021 · 35 mins read

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 Zaib un Nisa Aziz for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty six XQs.

AR Book Cover

Ali Raza is an Associate Professor of History at the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. He received his DPhil from the University of Oxford and was a research fellow at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. His research and teaching interests include the social and intellectual history of South Asia, comparative colonialisms, decolonization, and post-colonial theory. He also tweets @tareekhdaan. His book, Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India is published by Cambridge University Press (2020) and Folio Books (2021).

Q In the preface of the book, you mention how the research for your project began with a serendipitous encounter in the archives. What drew you to study of history as a discipline and the process through which you landed on these research questions?

I didn’t receive any formal training in history as a student in Pakistan. Unless it was the compulsory subject of ‘Pakistan Studies,’ one only learnt about the past outside of class. In university, our options were fairly limited to management, engineering, medical, and computing related fields. My first disciplinary training was in computer science, which did not go that well at all! That was one reason why I decided to switch fields. It seemed like a mad decision at the time, especially in a country where the humanities had been under systematic assault. But history and the humanities had always offered refuge, solace, and comfort. They were also a reminder of what was never taught. Learning about erasures and elisions, in fact, was the first lesson one learnt about history. And this started from childhood, when one first noticed the fundamental disconnect between the history learnt through school and television (we just had state television then) and the history one learnt from family.

I was lucky to be admitted into an history MA right after college. From there, I decided to pursue a PhD. It was during my PhD research, that I came across an incredible archive on revolutionary movements in colonial India. It was endlessly fascinating and gripping reading. And it spoke of the politics and incredible journeys of itinerant revolutionaries in an era of revolution, internationalism, decolonization, and great power rivalry. The first file I read documented an individual who always seemed to be on the run from (colonial) justice. He is born in India around the turn of the 20th century, leaves for North America to make a living, but soon gets involved in the brewing revolutionary politics of the time, and spends the next two decades traveling across the world in many guises in search of revolution. It was an incredible story that seemed best suited for a novel. I think Yuri Slezkine put it best in his magisterial The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017) when he wrote in his dedication that ‘this is a work of history. Any resemblance to fictional characters, dead or alive, is entirely coincidental.’ I think that pretty much sums up the serendipitous encounter you speak of. And since then, I have been trying to understand these individuals and their journeys. What did they see? What were they driven by? What did they understand by freedom? By liberation, by decolonization? What can their dreams tell us about our disaffected present?

Q The concept of ‘utopia’ is a leitmotif in the book. How do you conceptualize ‘utopia’/ ‘utopian thinking’ and what is the analytical utility of this category for you?

Thank you for highlighting that. The analytical value of ‘utopia’ or ‘utopian thinking’ was a crucial hermeneutic for reading against the colonial archive. This archive of counter insurgency regularly portrayed revolutionaries and anti-colonial activists as fanatical, fantastical, and phantasmal figures who, at the behest of foreign powers, were single mindedly devoted to the destruction of the Empire (Only the last bit was somewhat true). What went predictably missing in this narration, were the dreams, experiences, and motivations that drove individuals to radical, transformative, political action.

This is where ‘utopianism’ provided an insight into understanding political radicalism. I understand utopianism as an indictment of the present and a refusal to accept the given as given. It is a disavowal of foreclosed futures and an insistence on, and an affirmation of, possibilities. It is a recasting of the (seemingly) natural as unnatural, of the (seemingly) viable as unviable, of the (seemingly) tolerable as intolerable. Put differently, utopianisms are not simply ways of imagining perfect societies and perfect futures. Instead, they are, to invoke Michael Gordon, Helen Tilley, and Gyan Prakash here, ‘concrete practices through which historically situated actors seek to reimagine their present and transform it into a plausible future’. There is, in short, a practice of utopia in as much as there is an idea of utopia.

In that respect, the interwar era, which my book is largely concerned with, was astonishing for its sheer variety of anti-colonial futures. I was interested in this open-endedness and in this horizon to expectation (to paraphrase Reinhart Koselleck). These were years of immense possibility, when revolution beckoned and when it seemed that empires would soon be relic of the past. And what made this moment even more powerful for communist revolutionaries was their near unshakeable conviction in the inevitability of progress, historical change, and enlightened futures. The future, for all intents and purposes, had already been made present.

What could be more utopian than that? That, to me, was key to understanding communist or leftist political radicalism. This departs from usual explanations, as crucial as they are, which situate the emergence of leftist politics in, broadly speaking, oppressive socio-economic conditions. But I think there was more to revolutionary politics than that. Dreams were powerful. They could literally drive individuals to the ends of the world. They could also send them to the gallows. If for no other reason than that, dreams had to be taken seriously. And for those reasons, I also began to think of my book as a history of emotions. Or to put it differently, this is an affective history of communist thought and politics in the Indian subcontinent.

Q This book centers around the ideas and imaginations of ordinary figures as opposed to the intellectual work of political thinkers. Can you reiterate and elaborate on the historiographical stakes and exigence of researching and writing on what you call ‘intermediate histories’?

This was an important question for me. By way of a broad comment, much of the literature on Communism or the Left, more generally, tends to focus on the Party and the intellectuals who dominated it. These are histories of organizations and their leaderships, who were usually formally educated, (relatively) elite men, headquartered in the main urban centers of India. I have in mind the usual suspects: JP Narayan, G Adhikari, PC Joshi, Sajjad Zaheer, and the most famous of them all, M.N Roy. Roy, in particular, attracts exceptional attention because of his stature as a theoretician of note who made some key contributions to the development of Marxist-Leninist and humanist thought. At times, histories of communism in India seem to be revolve around the political and intellectual biography of M.N Roy.

In contrast, I was interested in the ordinary figures who made the movement possible. None of the figures in my book feature prominently in scholarly works on communism or the Left in South Asia. None amongst them was viewed as an ‘intellectual’ worthy of close attention. None contributed to Marxist ‘thought’–if ‘thought’ is restricted to theoretically dense political and philosophical treatises. But through their work, they created a Communist and Marxist tradition that was embedded in the South Asian landscape with all of its regional inflections and variations. This was the much sought after ‘theory from the Global South’ in practice. This was, in short, a communism of the everyday.

This is thus a history from the ground up, instead of a history of the Party or the intellectuals who dominated it. Viewed at this level and through the lives of the ordinary men and women who founded the movement, ‘communism’ appears less rigid, less internally consistent, less orthodox, less party-centered, and more importantly, less foreign.

But to your point about ‘intermediate histories’, I must confess that this wasn’t the best term one could have come up with. My co-authors and I thought of this as a conceptual and framing device in a volume we called The Internationalist Moment: South Asia, Worlds, and World Views 1917–39 (2014). And what we meant by that was the space that opened up once one looked beyond a historiography dominated by elite figures and the ‘autonomous’ subaltern domain identified by Subaltern Studies. The figures who animate my book operate in this intermediate space.

Q Revolutionary Pasts alerts readers to relatively lesser known geographies of thought and highlights the relationship between mobility, migration and political work. How did focusing on networks of capital and labour inform your conceptualization of transnational politics and the role of space in historical thinking?

Thank you for picking up on this! This was a hard (methodological) nut to crack. It’s tempting to reduce the story of anti-colonialism, even in its communist inflections, to a story that’s restricted to the colony and the metropole. This is also a trap laid out by the colonial archive. But if there is one thing that the many excellent studies on transnational anti-colonial politics have shown, is that focusing on networks of exchange (labor, capital, texts etc) can really stretch that geography in multiple directions.

My book accordingly partly focuses on the flow of laborers, migrants, and revolutionaries in a globalized world structured by capital and empire. That gave me a lens through which to think about the question of space. For one, it told a story of how anti-colonialism, especially in its leftist guises, far exceeded its specific geographical and national frontiers. ‘Nationalizing’ anti-colonialism, in short, was to reduce much of what it stood for. The same was true for communism, which was also an internationalist anti-colonial project by definition. The geography of anti-colonialism, then, was much more expansive than the colony and metropole nexus. It was also threaded through with multiple and transitory anti-colonial networks that connected spaces in Europe, North America, South East Asia, East Africa, and the Soviet Union to each other and to the Indian subcontinent of course.

But more than simply thinking of this question as an expanded geography of Indian communism and anti-colonialism, I was also interested in exploring the connection between space and (political) subjectivity. Space, in my reading of the autobiographies I consulted, was linked with political awareness, possibility, and thought itself. This was also why itinerancy was heralded by revolutionaries as a potentially endless journey of personal and political transformation. Instead of merely being transit points or flattened sites where one lived, worked or passed through, spaces worked as pathways to revolutionary thought and action. That was certainly the case with many of the figures I speak about in the book: Dada Amir Haider Khan, Shaukat Usmani, and Naina Singh Dhoot, amongst others. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine their politics without the formative role that itinerancy and certain spaces played in their intellectual and political development.

Q The cosmopolitanism of activists like Dada Amir Haider Khan and Sohan Singh Bakhna owes to the increasing interconnectivity of an imperial world. Yet, the accounts in the book also show that the subject of their ‘utopian project’ remained colonial India and the ultimate object of their political work was always the revolution in the subcontinent. How do you navigate this tension between the transnational nature of their lived experience and the national or regional framing of their political thinking?

I don’t necessarily view this as a tension in as much as I view it as a mutually generative relationship. My reading of their recollections suggest that it was their cosmopolitanism that gave them a deeper insight into the political conditions of the subcontinent. That was key to the way they thought about national or regional questions. And I think it also gave them a way of linking regional politics to global developments. In that sense, networks of laborers, migrants, and revolutionaries, were instrumental in connecting the two. To give an example, I am still astonished at the regularity with which international developments (from the communist insurgency in China to the liberation struggle in Ireland) were discussed in communist publications and in peasant conferences across rural North India. One could ask, for example, how the demand for Irish liberation was linked to a demand for the reduction of abiana (water tax). While these demands were not strictly connected, the principle that linked them on one platform after another was fairly clear: that the struggle in this, or any context, was inseparably linked to a larger, and indeed, global struggle against Empire and Capital. That’s at least the tone and tenor of the many autobiographies and party publications (newspapers, pamphlets, treaties) I stumbled across.

Q One of the key themes of the book pertains to colonial surveillance of dissidents. Could you expand on why you think the colonial state had so much anxiety about these relatively marginal figures? In other words, why does the archival index of the activities of many dissident figures far out strip their actual political influence?

I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it, thank you. That was one of the biggest questions for me in writing this book. What explained this obsessive focus on what was otherwise a relatively small revolutionary movement? The archive on revolution is as, if not more, voluminous than the archive on other mainstream political movements. Often times, one is taken aback by the sheer amount of documentation that is seemingly produced for no pressing reason. To give an example, I am still left utterly astounded when I think of the fact that even in the summer of 1947, a full one third of police reporting on the Punjab (of all places!) was dedicated to covering labor and communist agitation. I don’t know how imminent the threat of a communist revolution was in the midst of an unprecedented communal civil war, but it really showed the larger-than-life image of the Left in colonial imagination. The same, of course, was true for its ‘post’-colonial successor.

I think one key to solving this riddle is to remind ourselves that what seems fantastical to us in hindsight was viewed as an imminent possibility in a world reeling from the impact of the October Revolution. What was true for communist revolutionaries also seemed true for colonial policing and intelligence services. They, too, were on the lookout of an imminent revolution, except that there were obviously apprehensive about it. That explains in part the painstaking detail through which reports on scattered revolutionaries and equally scattered networks and organizations were dutifully compiled. Revolution came from the unseen, the unexpected, and it seemed that anything could happen in a post-revolutionary and conflict-ridden world (or so one would think going by colonial reporting). Small wonder, then, that the Empire invested in a global network of espionage that kept close track of itinerant revolutionaries and their organizations in the diaspora and in India itself.

Some scholars have characterized this careful and obsessive scrutiny as ‘paranoia’, but I think that might be misleading. There is no doubt that there were institutional blind spots (especially in the intelligence services), but that would be to underestimate the drawing power of the Revolution, which was global in ambition, reach, and scope. It’s striking, for example, how often the discussion on the communist movement in India was linked to communist insurgencies and movements in China, Persia, Afghanistan, Burma, French Indo China, Siam, Dutch East Indies and so on. What is more, the Indian communist movement was never, correctly so, viewed as an ‘Indian’ movement. It was always linked to Moscow. To that end, it was viewed as a mere extension of a hostile Soviet Union that was even more implacably opposed to the British Empire than its Tsarist predecessor.

For all those reasons, and more, communist, revolutionary, and ‘terrorist’ movements in India generated a voluminous archive that far outstripped their political strength. I say ‘strength’, because I want to distinguish it from ‘influence’. For in terms of influence, there is no doubt that the Left was significantly more influential in the political arena than its numbers would seem to suggest. Thus, ideas normatively associated with the communism or the Left, more generally, were also part and parcel of other political visions, including those of the Congress and the Muslim League. This influence was another reason why the colonial state (unsuccessfully) sought to stamp out communism not merely as a political movement but as an idea. For all intents and purposes then, the movement was much larger than it seemed.

Q The book illustrates the varied impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on many South Asian activists and it shows that these internationalists had a complicated relationship with national movements. Many offered critiques of the Gandhian non-violence and of the Indian National Congress. Yet they continued to rely and support movements for self-determination including the one led by the All-India Muslim League. You argue in the book that in CPI’s political positions were often borne out of the limitations of circumstance and were products of ‘complicated entanglements’. Could you reflect on this complex dynamic between the universalism of the leftist project and the question of national self-determination and the partition?

This is a key story that I try to trace in my book. Broadly speaking, communists were a key part of the struggle for national liberation, but that idea of liberation was incomplete and unfulfilled without its internationalist expression. Put simply, there was no contradiction between nationalism and internationalism. Both were linked together for many revolutionaries. What is more, communists could not afford to be disconnected from the Indian National Congress, and not least since the Communist Party was banned for much of its existence in colonial India. Often, these were the only platforms where communists could work openly. In that respect, communists, and leftists in general, worked as a crucial pressure group on the margins of the nationalist movement. And that pressure mattered, especially given the rapid inroads made by the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organizations in the Congress. Thus, whilst the Congress was the target of merciless critique, it was also indispensable as an organization and as an idea.

But you are correct, of course, in that it was difficult to balance internationalist sympathies and projects with the seemingly more pressing task of national liberation. That became increasingly difficult, and then impossible, in the years leading up to Partition. Then, the question of Muslim self-determination in the shape of the Muslim League became a key concern. And so, the very same CPI that had earlier dismissed the Muslim League as a reactionary, feudalist, and communal force in the 1930s was forced to contend with its rapid increase in popularity in the 1940s. To that end, the CPI decided to support the League’s demand of self-determination, which was consistent with its principle, as the CPI’s theoretician-in-chief G. Adhikari saw it, on the ‘national question’. In doing so, the CPI also supported the right of self-determination for other minorities. This was why it also supported Khalistan as a Sikh homeland, especially once it saw that its support for Pakistan had spectacularly backfired. And it had backfired not just with Sikh organizations which feared a partitioned Punjab, it also backfired with the Indian National Congress which expelled communists from its ranks. This was nothing but an egregious betrayal as far as the Congress was concerned.

Ironically enough, one very crucial reason for the CPI’s support to the League was the forlorn hope that an acceptance of the League’s demands would miraculously lay the basis for a Congress-League united front that was indispensable for defending India and international communism in the Second World War. I mention this because we often forget how crucial the war was in political calculations all across the subcontinent. For communists, Nazi Fascism posed an existential threat to Communist Internationalism. This was the most important cause at the time because the fate of the world seemingly hinged on the fate of the Soviet Union. And to that end they sought to usher in a united front, but only to their detriment. The communists paid a heavy political price for trying to play this balancing act. But what that political price conveyed most of all was that it wasn’t always possible to balance internationalism with nationalism. The CPI was faced with an impossible choice, and that choice also reflected the course of communist internationalism across the interwar period. From starting off as a global project where there was seemingly little to separate the national and the international question, the impossibly constrained choices in the run-up to Partition drove a deep and unbridgeable wedge between the two. And a steep price for that was paid by communist movements in both Pakistan and India immediately after Partition.

Q Revolutionary Pasts is your first book and is based on your doctoral work at the University of Oxford. How would you describe the process of converting the dissertation into a monograph? In what ways did the process of writing a book contrast with that of finishing a dissertation?

It was a completely different project. I set out by starting to rework my dissertation into a book, but I quickly realized that it was far better to start anew. I haven’t borrowed a single word from my dissertation. ‘Start on a fresh page’, a wise friend and colleague advised me. He couldn’t have been more right. Not only had I come a long in my thinking since my dissertation, but I had also come across new archives. I was also interested in different questions. And finally, I found that trying to rework my dissertation was considerably more taxing, time consuming, and limiting than writing from scratch. Writing anew was also more liberating for me. I could experiment with different writing voices and narrative modes. For those reasons, I think this would have been a very different book had it been a reworked dissertation.

As far as process is concerned, I felt that writing a book continually pushed me to ask bigger questions. It’s easy to lose the wood for the trees in the course of writing a dissertation. One is more tied up in the nuances of historiographical and scholarly debates. At least, that was the case with me. Writing a book forced me to think about the larger story, why it mattered, and how I could do justice to it. I don’t know if have succeeded in doing so, but that was certainly a key impetus in writing a book. In one important respect, however, the process of writing a book and dissertation was one and the same. Both were equally painful! But I guess that’s the nature of writing itself. Few things are as humbling as writing.

Q Over the past two decades, we have witnessed the field of transnational history grow substantially. We also see a rising interest in new histories of internationalism and anti-colonialism. Which of these do you consider most important and what five scholarly works have influenced you the most?

I like to think of my work as a South Asian inflection of a global story of decolonization and communist internationalism. Part of what made this interesting, methodologically and conceptually speaking, was how the distinction between the ‘transnational’ and the ‘local’ became blurred. I learnt to think about these overlapping scales and historiographies through some key contributions that have come out in the past few years.

Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America is a stunning history of South Asian life-making in the United States. And since I have begun with it, it would be remiss of me not to speak of Samia Khatun’s Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia. Both books were important to me for their methodological ingenuity and their utterly superb and beautiful storytelling. Closer to the question of revolutionary politics, my work builds on the many excellent works that have come out on the subject in the past few years. To mention just two here, I am thinking of Maia Ramnath’s Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire and Kama Maclean’s A Revolutionary History of Interwar India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text. Both books belong to a larger corpus of exciting new works on anti-colonial and revolutionary movements in India and beyond. Finally, I can’t help but mention Michel Rolph Trouillot’s magnificent Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. It is difficult for me to overstate how transformative his work was in changing the way I thought about doing history.

Q We are having this conversation at a time when the center once again no longer holds, and we are confronting new visions–both utopic as well as dystopic–for our future. In Pakistan as well as in India, workers, farmers, university students, journalists and activists continue to incur the ire of a state which remains deeply suspicious of any political activity. How does your research help you think about the present moment and the continued challenge of the postcolonial experience?

Thank you for ending with this and thank you for your wonderful questions.

At one level, I think the struggles of our present are a reminder that the manifold dreams associated with independence, decolonization, and freedom are yet to be fulfilled. ‘Yeh azadi jhooti hay’ (this freedom is a lie) was the slogan of the Left in the bloody aftermath of Partition, and I think movements of all stripes, from the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement to the recent farmers protests in India, have been asking variations of that question in their daily struggles. The question of freedom, rights, and emancipation, then, is not a foreclosed one. It is open-ended and limitless, if only for the simple reason that the present is not enough. The present can never be enough.

These movements and the futures they claim remind us that the utopian has not outlived its purpose. What those utopianisms can and ought to look like in our moment is another question altogether, and it is one that will be answered in the course of political struggle itself. But it is an unavoidable question, and one that it is increasingly timely and urgent for our collective survival, especially in the face of entrenched nationalisms, disease, poverty, and impending climate catastrophe. And yet, this ‘positing of alternate futures’ – to invoke Fredric Jameson here – would hardly be possible without a historical examination of alternate imaginations and possibilities. All across an increasingly divided South Asia today, there is a rich inheritance of anti-colonial struggle and anti-colonial dreamscapes that remind us of what remains an unfinished task; a task that demands more of freedom, that rethinks what freedom can be, and what freedom ought to be.

Fortunately, the rekindling of those long suppressed memories is not reliant on professional historians alone. These stories have passed down in ways that continue to animate and reanimate political struggles that seek to chart a more inclusionary and liberatory future. I was reminded of this as I watched the hundreds of thousands of kisans encamped outside Delhi for weeks on end. They had set up entire encampments and muhallahs in their protest sites, muhallahs that were named after Bhagat Singh, Chandreshekar Azad, and Kartar Singh Sorabha, amongst others. For me, this was a timely reminder of how the struggle over politics and alternative futures in our present was also, always, a struggle over memory. I would like to think that Revolutionary Pasts is a small contribution towards that task. It may well be a misplaced hope, but it remains a hope nonetheless. Such, I suppose, is the nature of hope.

Zaib un Nisa Aziz is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Yale University. She is a historian of global and imperial history with a focus on Modern South Asia and British Imperial History and has a particular interest in histories of decolonization, labour and internationalism. Her dissertation “Nations Ascendant: The Global Struggle Against Empire and the Making of Our World” is a global intellectual history charting the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on anti-imperial thought and practice in colonial world during the interwar years.