Bombay Between the Wars: Politics, Information & Institutions in Late Colonial India

This is a proposal and summary of my ongoing research project on Bombay City between the two world wars, a future sequel to my current book manuscript on colonial Bombay, called Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay.

Bombay Between the Wars is a social history of urban politics, information and institutions in late colonial Bombay City, from the years before World War I until the outbreak of World War II. Through this study, I seek to understand the transformation of colonial rule and urban governance in the inter-war period, using the city as a window into networks of people, ideas and power in South Asia in the final decades of British rule.

In this period, India’s commercial capital witnessed rapid social and technological change, with the rise of mass politics, state formation and the development of civic and local institutions which have remained under-investigated. My specific focus in the proposed study will be on two city agencies – the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) – whose records and archives were until very recently inaccessible to scholars and especially historians.

New scholarship on the cities of modern India has challenged the premises of earlier studies of colonial nationalism and urbanism, demonstrating that British power was often most insecure in its urban seats of command and control in its port cities and capitals. By the turn of the twentieth century, the expansion of trade, transportation and communications networks, the growth of factory industry, and large-scale inward migration rendered porous the boundaries between cantonments and native towns, factories and neighbourhoods. Urban society and politics were the contested outcome of the interplay between colonial power, subaltern resistance, and an emerging mass politics of nationalism.

In stages between 1919 and 1935, administrative reforms and political devolution transferred control of urban governance in cities like Bombay to local institutions run by Indians, while an anxious colonial state reoriented its priorities to security and surveillance of nationalists and anti-colonial revolutionaries. These parallel developments – of localisation of provincial and urban administration and centralisation of imperial security and defence – define the field of my proposed study into the urban and local history of late colonial Bombay between the wars.

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