This is a proposal and summary of my ongoing research project on Bombay City between the two world wars. 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.
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.
By World War I, a dense ecology of railways, docks, factories and markets wove through Bombay’s streets and neighbourhoods, the scene of increasingly militant labour protest, frequent communal and street violence, and organised mass politics. This widespread discontent was harnessed by aspiring urban leaders and organisations into demands for revolution, statehood and independence.
Nationalist histories treated the decades prior to World War II and Independence through the lens of the intensifying “freedom struggle”, in which cities like Bombay formed a base for pan-India mass mobilisations such as Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India. However the late colonial city was neither simply a physical container nor discursive stage for an emerging nationalism, but a social and state formation whose history has remained overshadowed by the narrative framework of the post-war nation-state.
In the inter-war period, with the collapse of the Russian and Ottoman Empires and the emergence of international communism heralded by the Bolsheviks and pan-Islamism in the name of the Khilafat – transnational movements both opposed to British imperialism – colonial institutions confronted a restive and newly politicised urban population. Bombay witnessed its first general textile mill strike in early 1919 – in which more than a third of the city’s labourers struck work – followed by Gandhi’s campaign against the Rowlatt Acts and the Amritsar massacre.
From the late twenties to mid-thirties, the resumption of nationalist political mobilisation was paralleled by Left-led strikes which crippled the city’s trade and industries, especially after the 1929 global Depression, when Indian businessmen increasingly became involved in nationalist politics and statecraft. The thirties thus witnessed the emergence of a new party politics centered on Bombay City, where the Indian National Congress, Communist Party and Muslim League were all first organised.
Responding to these global crises and local movements, the colonial state reorganised its scales of governance, enfranchising more Indians at local and provincial levels, and finally devolving power into a federalised union in an effort to maintain the “joint enterprise” of Indian collaboration on which British rule had always been based (especially in Bombay and western India).
The election of Congress-led ministries in Bombay and other provinces in 1936 heralded a short period until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, when urban society became a laboratory for national self-government. New policies such as prohibition, trade union recognition and urban property taxation revealed the limits of the new ruling party’s ability to govern and speak for the nation. From its vocal Muslim and Parsi elites to its business leaders, workers and the urban poor, Bombay’s cosmopolitan public sphere offered divided and opposed visions of nationalism and statehood.
Even as politics intensified — first within reformed colonial assemblies and municipalities, and later through nationalist mass agitation, and then limited self-rule — new technologies transformed the urban environment and everyday life of India’s large cities.
The density of social and communication networks in the urban context makes inter-war Bombay a vital site in the study of discursive and state formation in late colonial India. The city occupied a nodal space in regional and global networks of people and ideas. Information was politics and knowledge was power. New technologies through which these ideas were circulated proliferated in the city, exposing the fragility of British rule, and prompting moral panics around anti-colonial activism and ideologies.
The rapid growth of the city’s population, infrastructure and communications networks in the twenties and thirties magnified these threats. Ruling paranoia about Communist, nationalist and Islamist conspiracies against British rule were reflected in the reorganisation of imperial and urban governance. Newly sensitised to the importance of information, provincial regimes established new bureaus of public relations to win the propaganda war.
In Bombay, the proliferation of print and visual media was countered with new regimes of press censorship, postal interception, and extensive recruitment of informants, intermediaries, spies and reporters in both covert and public roles. The Bombay City Criminal Investigation Department (CID) enhanced staff and initiated new methods for the detection and prevention of crime, from registers of finger prints and photography to wireless communications, and new shift and beat routines in city police stations.
Modelled on the London Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard, the CID was formed in 1909 following two years of riots in the city in the wake of Tilak’s arrest, and strikes in the city’s textile mills, police constabularies, and telegraph and post offices. This unrest continued and intensified throughout the inter-war period, as local disturbances took on national and global dimensions. Policing and intelligence-gathering proceeded from earlier colonial stereotypes about “criminal tribes”, itinerant and religious communities, and following World War I with anti-colonial politics.
This discourse was not simply a one-sided construction of “colonial knowledge” of an indigenous “other”, but an unstable assemblage conditioned by the tactics and strategies of revolutionaries, nationalists, and other subversives and criminals. The long and detailed watch reports and history sheets in the police archives – until now rarely used by scholars – are a rich fund of social, political and biographical data on important individuals, groups and organisations in inter-war Bombay. My proposed study foregrounds the spaces of the city as arenas for surveillance, propaganda and publicity in the fluid “information order” of the urban environment.
The efflorescence of social history in recent decades – while affirming the agency of working-class, minority, peasant and and other subaltern groups marginalised by colonial and national historiography – has tended to neglect and obscure the role of state institutions, too often seen as the domain solely of elites. As traditional seats of authority, the history of cities remains intertwined with the machinery of governance, both within the metropolis and across its territories and hinterlands.
The relationship between elites and subalterns, rulers and ruled was mutually constitutive and subject to rapid change in late colonial Bombay. As provincial governments and the imperial centre devolved control over local affairs and politics, city bureaucracies expanded to keep pace with rapid urbanisation, technological change, mass political mobilisation and everyday law and order. Significantly, this municipal constitution remains the basis of governance in urban India into the present day, albeit in more democratised and vernacular forms.
Inter-war Bombay saw the emergence of radio and wireless broadcasting, cinema and the moving image, automobiles, aeroplanes, and electrification of streets, homes, offices and factories. By the mid-1930s Bombay had the longest sewerage network and was the most electrified city in Asia.
Following World War I new state agencies were formed to direct urban development, town planning and the construction of new street and infrastructure networks, led by the Indian-controlled Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). The British-dominated Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) – established in 1896 after the plague epidemic with authoritarian powers to redevelop the urban environment and build sanitary housing – was between 1925 and 1933 transferred to Indian municipal control.
The BMC expanded its sovereignty through development of schools, hospitals, housing and other institutions of urban welfare. In parallel, the popular basis of the BMC expanded, with more elected seats for Indians and voting widened from rate-paying landlords to rent-paying citizens. These changes in politics and governance marked the rise of a new urban state at the local and ward levels, and in new middle-class suburbs north of the old Island City.
By 1938, Indian municipal councillors had voted in favour of full adult franchise in the city. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 postponed these hopes, as the Congress resigned its ministries and elected bodies in protest at Britain’s declaration of India’s participation in the war. My proposed study ends in the months prior to WWII, when rumours and panics of seaborne invasion and aerial bombardment spread amidst renewed nationalist anti-war mobilisation, the internment of “enemy aliens” and suspected Indians, and a regime of black-outs, rationing, censorship and air raid precautions militarised the urban environment and population of late colonial Bombay.
While the “urban turn” in the study of South Asia has renewed debates on colonial urbanisation, municipal politics and urban policing have remained under-studied in new histories of colonial cities. The lack of detailed research of urban institutions in the inter-war decades can be explained by the structure of archives in which historians have conventionally worked. Before and after World War I, existing imperial and state archives either go abruptly thin, or shift radically in focus.
Historical research in modern India has most often concluded in the inter-war era – due either to the limitations of traditional colonial archives, or the dominance of nationalist narrative frameworks. Urban sociology and ethnography has only rarely inquired into the decades before and after Independence, a seed period in the imagination of modernity and state formation in South Asia. Through this proposed study of urban governance in late colonial Bombay, I seek to bridge this gap in the contemporary history of one of India’s largest cities, between the decline of empire and the rise of the nation-state.
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