South Asians and the creation of international legal order, c. 1850-c. 1920 : global political thought and imperial legal politics

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2020-05-06

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Killen, Sean Patrick

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This dissertation argues that South Asians used international legal discourse both for ideological disputation and to mount political challenges to the domination and subjugation that accompanied British imperial rule between roughly 1850 and 1920. South Asians instigated political and legal disputes in India and Britain, throughout the empire, and overseas, and gained promises and partial concessions to Indian opinions and demands that limited British options in imperial and international relations. In so doing, they compelled the British state to alter the ideology, the policies, and the practices of the state, in India and in its relations with other states both within and outside the empire. Britain’s power, ultimately, meant that South Asians’ argumentation and actions shaped the contours of global order after the First World War.

The traditional international-legal framework of treaties, treatises, and states provides little insight into South Asians’ contributions to global order and law between roughly 1850 and 1920. This situation exists, partly, because of the perceived and purported normalcy of the nation-state as the fundamental category of international life. Traditional histories of international law argue that international law originated in Europe and regulated European states’ relations until colonized states were granted international legal recognition at the time of decolonization. Recent revisionist scholarship argues that the existence and experience of empire and colonial rule shaped the development of international law and global order throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This dissertation approaches empire in a way that emphasizes the global exchange of ideas and the active connections between colonizers and the colonized. Elite, English-speaking South Asians acted as cultural translators or intermediaries. They engaged in debates as public intellectuals, and they carved out spaces for themselves in the social and political communities that created public opinion. Consequently, South Asians' ideas about relations among different peoples and between states and South Asians' mobilization of these ideas throughout the empire and overseas to make political claims about the obligations of the imperial state and the rights of imperial subjects shaped ideas about global order and the structure of international legal relations.

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