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The Corporeal Nation, Anthropogenesis and the Science of History in British India in the First Half of the Twentieth Century

Franziska Roy

This project combines a longue durée study of the intellectual underpinnings of notions of progress seen through the lens of specific ideas of human evolution with a concrete case study of its popular practices in British India at the turn of and into the first half of the 20th Century. Concerns about human and societal progress and decline under the conditions of modernity around the fin de siécle were raised on a quasi-global scale in an increasingly interconnected world, and this study proposes to trace the engagement of South Asian politicised circles with these debates, which are here seen as a dynamic field of force growing out of the exigencies of modernity rather than in terms of a metropole/periphery axis or the Empire. The popular political imagination into which such engagements congealed will then be related to the practices of mobilisation and instituting efficiency, that is to the disciplining and physical practices of the proposed main case studies, i.e. the Khaksar Teehrik, the Muslim League’s branch, the Muslim National Guards (MNG) and (the attempt at a) Muslim scout organisation in the orbit of the Muslim League Other rival movements and dynamics will be taken account of where specifically relevant. The contention here is that the disciplinarian, even authoritarian tendencies that are most starkly espoused in many action-oriented, anti-colonial groups but make for a powerful undercurrent of the wider nationalist debate across the political
board are deeply embedded in notions of a stage-ist model of (political and societal) development and in the social optimism of a modernist project itself and need to be related to contemporaneous notions of citizenship.
The project inquires into the specific formation and phenotype of what will be seen here as a Zeitgeisti (in the sense of a widely shared, commonsensical discourse spanning multiple societies and nation-state entities) regarding the interdependence of a supposed human evolutionary or self-willed development and the advancement (in the more dystopian realm: survival) of ‘the nation’ in British India. This question seemed especially urgent for a Muslim minority that had to define its prospective place within the political entity visà- vis the other communities.