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Abstract

In the course of the expansion of European imperialism and anticolonial resistance through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, democracy emerged as the undisputed normative ideal on a global scale. The ideal of democracy had been the professed goal of the anticolonial project since the late nineteenth century, while the developmental discourses of imperial legitimation also relied on the language of democracy. Against this backdrop, anticolonial political thinkers took it upon themselves to not just reclaim the sovereignty denied to the colonized but also to address the theoretical assumptions that rendered democracy compatible with empire. Focusing on colonial India, this dissertation offers a new interpretation of the anticolonial democratic project. In so doing, it also asks: what exactly happened to the idea of democracy when it went global? The dissertation contends that the discourse of popular sovereignty is central to understanding the global career of democracy. The political articulation of the developmental turn in nineteenth-century European thought crucially hinged on the figure of the people. The dissertation demonstrates that the two seemingly separate historical developments—the rise of popular sovereignty in Europe and imperial rule in Asia and Africa— combined to establish a novel defense of colonialism in the nineteenth century. The ideals of sovereign peoplehood—one, undivided, and “fit” for political participation—came to facilitate a “democratic” justification of colonialism. The imperial denial of Indian self-rule on the ground of its popular backwardness led anticolonial thinkers to repeatedly ask: what narratives of historical development are built into modern theories of democracy and what role do they play in practices of self-rule? I trace how a number of anticolonial thinkers pluralized (B.N. Seal, R.K. Mukerjee), rejected (M.K. Gandhi), and critically appropriated (Dadabhai Naoroji, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar) the developmental narratives constitutive of modern democracy. The effort to disentangle modern democracy from its deep-seated developmental and progressive assumptions, I argue, defined the anticolonial democratic project. Yet it also placed anticolonial thinkers in a privileged position to rethink the modern ideal of popular sovereignty and its implication for democratic rule. Anticolonial political thinkers thus questioned the validity of theorizing the people as a “collective will” or as a sovereign entity detached from the enterprise of government. The dissertation ultimately argues that the critical tradition of Indian anticolonial thought was driven by the insight that the enactment of democracy in the colonial world requires not just the overcoming of empire but also the political ideals imprisoned in the developmental picture of the globe.

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