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Self-Rule and the Problem of Peoplehood in Colonial India



This article theorizes the colonial problem of peoplehood that Indian anticolonial thinkers grappled with in their attempts to conceptualize self-rule, or swaraj. British colonial rule drew its legitimacy from a developmentalist conception of the colonized people as backward and disunited. The discourse of “underdeveloped” colonial peoplehood rendered the Indian people “unfit” for self-government, suspending their sovereignty to an indefinite future. The concept of swaraj would be born with the rejection of deferred colonial self-government. Yet the persistence of the developmentalist figuration of the people generated a crisis of sovereign authorization. The pre-Gandhian swaraj theorists would be faced with the not-yet claimable figure of the people at the very moment of disavowing the British claim to rule. Recovering this underappreciated pre-Gandhian history of the concept of swaraj and reinterpreting its Gandhian moment, this article offers a new reading of Gandhi's theory of moral self-rule. In so doing, it demonstrates how the history of swaraj helps trace the colonial career of popular sovereignty.


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*Nazmul S. Sultan, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of Chicago,


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I wish to thank the following for their feedback on earlier drafts of the essay: Sugata Bose, Nusrat Chowdhury, Dennis Dalton, Aniket De, Leonard Feldman, Yuna Blajer de la Garza, Adom Getachew, Shefali Jha, Alex Haskins, Sina Kramer, Sankar Muthu, Thomas Newbold, Tejas Parasher, Sanjukta Poddar, Madeline Smith, James Tully, and, especially, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Patchen Markell, Jennifer Pitts, and Linda Zerilli. I would also like to thank three anonymous reviewers and, in particular, Leigh Jenco for their valuable comments and suggestions.



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Self-Rule and the Problem of Peoplehood in Colonial India



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