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What is a People? Some Reflections from Gandhi’s India

Mrinalini Sinha presents her talk titled ""What is a People? Some Lessons from Gandhi's India."

Credit to Colin Hamill.
Apr 30 2019

In April, historian Mrinalini Sinha visited Stanford to deliver the Center for South Asia’s Annual Lecture. Her presentation explored the making of a “democratic people,” with a particular focus on Gandhi’s role in shaping this process in India. While there is plethora of scholarship on Gandhi and mass politics in India, Sinha contended that most scholars view the people as a predetermined sociological entity. Sinha, a professor of history, English language and literature, and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, challenged this perspective. “Only when we understand the people as a political subjectivity – one that is an outcome of a political process – does it become possible to recognize those moments of the assertion of a democratic people or de-mass in colonial India,” she said.  

Later in her talk, Sinha again diverged from popular opinion, asserting that the concept of democratic peoplehood entered into Indian politics long before Gandhi’s mass mobilizations. To demonstrate this point, she turned to the period of time shortly after Gandhi returned to India from South Africa.

She specifically looked at the transcontinental movement for the abolition of indentured labor, the first public campaign Gandhi participated in upon his arrive in India. The Indian indentured labor system started in the 19th century, following the abolition of slavery. Under this system, over 1.3 million Indians worked on plantations in British colonies.

Instead of focusing on the efforts led by elite leaders in India, Sinha analyzed the grassroots protests against indentured labor that Gandhi actively supported but did not lead himself. In particular, she examined the public circulation of affidavits from indentured workers in newspapers and their role in mobilizing local and national attention. In studying the widespread circulation of these affidavits, Sinha illustrates a transformative moment in the history of India through which a new insurgent political subject emerges.

Addressing the recent resurgence of populous nationalism in countries across the globe, Sinha ended her talk by reaffirming her belief in democracy. The constitution of a people “need not rest on a supposition of a unified identity” but instead should emerge from a democratic process, she concluded.


Written by Rishika Mehrishi