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Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

The Wider World of Imperial and Global Networks

The mainly liberal, middle-class, spiritually cosmopolitan women and men who feature in this book were also connected in various ways with the much broader world of cross-cultural interchange and movement connecting different parts of the world over the 1860-1950 period. As we stated in Chapter 1, the people we bring to the forefront in this volume were neither particularly famous nor subaltern. In this sense, we are recovering a middle ground between the elite who often dominated the formal sphere of Internationalism in this era, and the many millions who, through the disruptions thrust upon them by imperial globalisation, found cosmopolitan solidarities beyond their village, town or kin networks. In addition, we have focussed here on connections between white Westerners and Indians formed largely within the geopolitical framework of the British Empire. There is further work to be done on how these networks intermeshed with, operated alongside, and came into tension with developing Pan-Asian and Pan-African networks extending beyond the British imperial and broader Anglophone world, and the transnational solidarities forged between African-American activists and Indian nationalists.3 The existence of an even more complex web of cross-cutting networks is hinted at by John Maynard’s recovery of the influence of the African-American liberation movement led by Marcus Garvey on the beginnings of organised Aboriginal activism in Australia in the 1920s.4

In the case of our actors, a reaching out beyond empire-based networks came mainly through the faith-lines of liberal Christianity. The international contacts that S. K. Datta forged through his leading role in the YMCA in India, for example, opened up an opportunity to attend the IPR conference in Japan in 1929, and he was able to devise a route to his destination that took him through Southeast Asian ports, where he made contact with other anti-colonial liberals. His wife, Rena Datta, also forged close working relations through progressive Christian networks with African Americans and others working in South Africa for African civil rights.5 In 1930, as Administrative Secretary at the World’s Student Christian Federation, Geneva, she subscribed to ‘Crisis’, W.E.B. Du Bois’ journal.6

As Antoinette Burton has warned with reference to the history of relationships between Indian and African nationalists, we must avoid the temptation to sentimentalise the history of attempts to create solidarity and constructive collaboration between activists variously racialised as brown, black or white.7 In each of our case studies, we have tried to tease out the limits of the alternative cosmopolitanisms we depict. In Chapter 4, the reasons for Collet’s apparently uncritical acceptance of British imperial rule are discussed. In Chapter 3, Gandhi and Polak are shown to have both been slow to extend solidarity and cosmopolitan equity to Africans, who suffered even harsher restrictions on citizenship and more dehumanising treatment humanity than Indian bonded labour. Chapter 5 reveals the difficulties encountered by different cosmopolitan actors in de-linking modernity from Westernisation, presaging contestations over the global rubric of International Development discourse that began in the late 1940s and continue to this day.

In 1944, Lady B. (Dhanvanthi) Rama Rau, the head of the Calcutta- based Society for Promotion of Education and Culture, and an influential campaigner for Indian women’s rights,8 expressed the Society’s concerns in the face of the imminent likelihood of Indian independence. She stated that ‘only when the youth of India becomes “World-conscious” and is enriched and stimulated by the cross-current of world thought, will its mind develop the full colour of its own personality’.9 Amplified here is the thread found in so much of this book - the belief in the necessity of a cosmopolitan worldview to guard against the narrow parochialisms that nationalisms can foster. The Society’s hope was that freedom and national independence, once achieved, would provide a conduit for interpersonal, international and global exchange and bring the ‘best in Western and Eastern Civilization’.

Rama Rau’s fears over Indian independence point to the larger questions that have been raised throughout this book about precisely what cosmopolitanisms, whether European presumptions of a singular universal, ‘colored cosmopolitanisms’, vernacular, alternative or aspirational actually mean. Tensions between the universal and the particular, the national and the transnational, and sameness and difference were inescapable features of the predominantly liberal cosmopolitan lives we have discussed in this book. In these circumstances, cosmopolitanism was indeed both aspirational and affective, expressed in the desire to engage with one’s own inner hopes and dreams while also engaging with those of others. In acting on these desires, the individuals and networks studied here brought inner and outer worlds of possibility into greater alignment, acting as agents for change at both the local and the global level. Engaging with knowledge and culture from around the globe at the same time as mediating its impacts through the spiritual and ethical consciousness that emerged out of everyday life was both a practical and a utopian pursuit. It was undertaken, as we have argued, in ways that were not straightforwardly derivative of Europe but which called into question the west’s claims to provide a universal template of rights and conditions that was beneficial and applicable to the world as a whole.

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