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A passage from India
The Indian businessman, educator and co-founder of the Congress Party of India, Dadabhai Naoroji, was elected as Liberal member of parliament for Finsbury Central in 1892.
He is only one of the many examples of people from South Asia who participated in British public and literary life in the late 19th and early 20th century, and who are the focus of an interdisciplinary research project jointly led by Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English.
Working with Professor Susheila Nasta at the Open University and Dr Ruvani Ranasinha at King’s College London, and with funding from the AHRC, Professor Boehmer is setting out to show that people from South Asia were engaged with Britain much earlier than is generally recognised, and asking what those contacts imply for a sense of British identity. ‘As a citizen of the Empire, Naoroji was entitled to stand as an MP’, she says. ‘What did this mean to the white voters of Finsbury, and how could they see him as their representative?’
Professor Boehmer and her research assistant Dr Sumita Mukherjee are tracing through literature and archives many other examples of early interaction, for instance in literary circles such as the Bloomsbury group. Mulk Raj Anand was a close friend of E M Forster, for example, who was instrumental in helping him to get his first novel published. Not all Indians in Britain at this time belonged to educated elites: Dr Mukherjee is documenting the way British social reformers responded to the plight of Indian ayahs who were abandoned in England by their employers, and of the lascars who came ashore from merchant ships in the London docks.
‘Unravelling these histories is a way of challenging labels such as “insider” and “outsider”’, says Professor Boehmer. ‘Our work suggests that the South Asian diaspora was much more embedded than previously thought.’