Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire / Edition 1

Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire / Edition 1

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Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire / Edition 1

Specters of Mother India tells the complex story of one episode that became the tipping point for an important historical transformation. The event at the center of the book is the massive international controversy that followed the 1927 publication of Mother India, an exposé written by the American journalist Katherine Mayo. Mother India provided graphic details of a variety of social ills in India, especially those related to the status of women and to the particular plight of the country’s child wives. According to Mayo, the roots of the social problems she chronicled lay in an irredeemable Hindu culture that rendered India unfit for political self-government. Mother India was reprinted many times in the United States, Great Britain, and India; it was translated into more than a dozen languages; and it was reviewed in virtually every major publication on five continents.

Sinha provides a rich historical narrative of the controversy surrounding Mother India, from the book’s publication through the passage in India of the Child Marriage Restraint Act in the closing months of 1929. She traces the unexpected trajectory of the controversy as critics acknowledged many of the book’s facts only to overturn its central premise. Where Mayo located blame for India’s social backwardness within the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, the critics laid it at the feet of the colonial state, which they charged with impeding necessary social reforms. As Sinha shows, the controversy became a catalyst for some far-reaching changes, including a reconfiguration of the relationship between the political and social spheres in colonial India and the coalescence of a collective identity for women.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822337959
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/12/2006
Series: Radical Perspectives
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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SPECTERS OF Mother India

The Global Restructuring of an Empire
By Mrinalini Sinha


Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3782-9

Chapter One

A Transitional Moment The Dynamics of an Interwar Imperial Social Formation

The preface of a 1970 British reprint of Katherine Mayo's famous book Mother India, originally published in 1927, begins by describing the book as a "grimly factual and harrowing picture of India." "For this," as the preface concludes, "is India as it truly was-and as parts of it still are-in all its helplessness, hopelessness and horror." It would seem easy enough, in the wake of the vast body of scholarship that has followed on Edward Said's pathbreaking book Orientalism (1978), to account for the staying power of Mother India simply in terms of a continuous history of colonial knowledge and power: a history that produced, and has since apparently sustained, the "horrors" of India as timeless "facts." I hope to undertake in this book a more challenging, but also more productive, task. Precisely in the face of the supposedly seamless logic of such "facts," I aim to recall that, in the context of the historical conjuncture of the 1920s, the debate over Mother India represented a moment of ideological discontinuity. It marked a sharp and significant break: an episode in, and a catalyst of,the remaking of an empire in the early twentieth century.

The "facts" of Mother India, as conveyed in the overheated prose of a U.S. author and journalist, were widely debated and appropriated within competing imperial and nationalist narratives. However, the rehashing of this imperial-nationalist debate alone does not capture the far-reaching dynamics of the controversy. The ideological mobilization of the book by imperialists and nationalists was necessarily selective, emphasizing only certain elements of its operation in multiple social processes (from U.S. immigration policies to anti-Brahmin political mobilization in India) that included different discursive fields (from law to racial theory). The surface content of the controversy, therefore, does not exhaust the full range of its effects. The recognition of this discrepancy-the gap, that is, between the book's imperialist and nationalist mobilization, on the one hand, and the multiple fields of its operation, on the other-helps to open up the controversy to an analysis of its internal tensions and contradictions.

The network of public spheres in which the struggle over Mother India occurred was from the outset global: a configuration that demands far more in the way of historical understanding than the supposedly seamless logic of imperialism or nationalism. The contours of the controversy, with diverging local appropriations and generic realignments on three separate continents, highlight its significance as a barometer of global instability. The worldwide social processes and the manifold discursive fields of the first half of the twentieth century produced the ideological vulnerability of Mayo's initial intervention to reappropriations whose sheer multiplicity illustrates the working of a global dynamics: there structuring of the interwar imperial social formation. The meaning of Mayo's intervention did not come from the familiar imperialist-nationalist conflict. Rather, and more importantly, its meaning came from the global dynamics of the interwar period that produced a transitional political event.


Scholarly as well as popular interest in Mayo's Mother India is sustained in large part by the sheer passion that the book once generated and, perhaps, still continues to generate by its rival uses in imperialist and nationalist discourses. The initial scholarly engagements with the book, which often felt compelled to take sides on the reliability of Mayo's account, reached their peak in the 1970s with the publication of Manoranjan Jha's pioneering work on the political affiliations of Mayo's project. Jha demonstrated what many of Mayo's contemporaries had long suspected: the extent of Mayo's involvement with British officials responsible for propaganda on behalf of colonial rule in India. Yet questions about the nature of Mayo's project were not put to rest so easily. An influential second-wave feminist scholarship in the United States made its own attempt in the 1970s to rehabilitate Mayo and Mother India. Here Mayo was resurrected as a feminist precursor concerned with women's issues internationally. The colonial amnesia of this move, which tried briefly to provide Mayo with progressive feminist credentials, was itself quickly subject to withering critiques. These critiques coincided with a post-Orientalism scholarship that was alert to the continuing legacy of colonial discourse in First World feminist scholarship. As a result, the imperialist and racist underpinnings of Mayo's argument about India and Indian women are now much harder to escape.

This interest in Mother India has helped to expose Mayo's project, but it has not helped to explain the full ramifications of the controversy that erupted with such intensity l'entre deux guerres. The popular and scholarly engagements with Mother India have tended to present the opposition between imperialism and nationalism as seamless and unchanging. This underestimates the turbulence of the decade that produced the Mayo controversy. Several critics also point to the continued popularity of Mother India, especially in the United States, where fascination with Mayo's "facts" about India has enjoyed a long history, as evidence for the lasting hold of colonial knowledge and power. However, this emphasis on continuity comes at the cost of eliding crucial transformations of imperialism in the twentieth century. Surely the abiding popularity of Mayo's Mother India in the United States is no coincidence. In the 1950s, as Harold Isaacs observes, Mother India was second only to the works of Rudyard Kipling in the United States as the most popular source of information about India. India thus ranked at the very bottom in a survey of American perceptions of foreign countries conducted in the 1950s. Other scholars have offered anecdotal evidence to suggest that up until the 1970s Mother India was being recommended to Peace Corps volunteers as a source for information about India. During the Cold War, Mayo's Mother India served as an important backdrop for the formation of U.S. foreign policy toward India. The appropriation of Mayo's pro-British argument within a distinctly U.S. context has served the ideological purpose of suturing over the twentieth-century shifts in the global dynamics of imperialism of which Mother India itself was an earlier manifestation. Hence accounts of Mother India as evidence of the continued popularity of colonial knowledge and power disguise the extent of the ideological work necessary before Mayo's defense of British colonial rule in Mother India is made to serve a revised imperial agenda of the United States. The focus on the interwar context of the controversy over Mother India draws attention precisely to the gaps and asymmetries in the reconsolidation of twentieth-century imperialism.

The implications of the particular post-First World War context of the controversy over Mother India have been buried differently in its subsequent nationalist renderings. The ghost of Mayo's Mother India has arguably never entirely been laid to rest in the national imagination in India. The hugely popular nationalist film with the same name from the 1950s reveals the dominant contours of the subsequent nationalist retelling of Mayo's contentious perspective on India and on Indian women. Although Mehboob Khan's film Mother India (1957) itself makes no direct reference to Mayo's book, the film's reappropriation of the book's title and its use of female sexuality in the film's central character of a strong and chaste Indian woman resonates, as Rosie Thomas suggests, as a nationalist rebuttal of its infamous namesake. There is a certain sense in reading the film's iconic invocation of the figure of the Indian woman qua Indian nation as a nationalist retrieval not only of Mayo's Mother India but also of the contours of the controversy over Mother India. This particular nationalist disposition of Mother India, via a return to the figure of the Indian woman as the metaphor of the nation, reinscribes a dominant nationalist consensus by papering over its own more discontinuous history: the alternative construction of women in the transition from a cultural to a political nationalism of the citizen-subject and the nation-state. These are the particularities that become visible in an expanded framework of the controversy over Mother India as a threshold event in the global restructuring of the interwar British Empire.

Two shifts of scale are needed to bring this more unsettling and disruptive dimension of the Mayo controversy into focus. At the level of macropolitics, the horizon needs to be expanded to foreground the constitutive operation of empire as a global and international system. At the micropolitical level, the recognition of discourses as social phenomena that transform and change within social practices draws attention to the process of rhetorical invention: the construction of new meanings and categories where by one discursive frame is substituted by another. While discursive patterns manifest considerable inertia, they are not impervious to creative turns and breaks. My chosen lens of the imperial social formation, therefore, is meant to provide a multiply scaled context for the Mayo controversy beyond the overt terms of its ideological constitution in imperialist and nationalist discourse. I do not deny a generative role to the discursive articulation of the controversy. My point is to acknowledge the constitutive effects of the competing and contradictory force fields in which the controversy simultaneously operated, and with which it was itself coextensive, to disclose its more unruly history in the interwar period.

The expanded horizons of the imperial social formation also discloses another dimension of this profoundly malleable ideological event: its discontinuity as a transitional moment in the interwar period. Many different possibilities emerged, including some that were subsequently foreclosed, amid the historical contingencies that shaped the Mother India controversy. The serendipitous convergence of empire-wide social forces in the controversy over Mother India gives it meaning as a profoundly destabilizing political event.


The horizons of the imperial social formation bring to bear the impact of systemic dynamics-the remaking of the postbellum British Empire-on the contours of the Mayo controversy. The interwar period, which produced Mayo's contribution, was a moment of far-reaching historical changes both in the structure of the British Empire and in the sphere of imperial politics. The so-called Second British Empire (the empire after the loss of Britain's thirteen North American colonies) emerged transformed after the First World War. Certainly this empire was never a single entity; its component parts were governed differently, and their formal relationship to Britain varied enormously. While the colonies of settlement had considerable local autonomy and evolved gradually into self-governing colonies, the dependent empire and India were ruled by means of a heavy hand from Britain with a mixture of coercion and collaboration. Outside the formal empire, moreover, there were vast areas of the world from Latin America to China that formed part of Britain's so-called informal empire. The conglomerate of vastly differing regions that made up Britain's formal empire, what was counted as the true empire, had been buffeted since the nineteenth century by two opposing trends. The heyday of Britain's era of free trade had set in motion devolutionary tendencies, which were most pronounced in the self-governing colonies. At the same time, the hopes for greater imperial cohesion and unity, as in the attempts to promote a system of imperial trade preferences and create an imperial federation, were periodically articulated from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. By the eve of the First World War, the dreams of binding the different components of the empire closer to Britain through some formal constitutional arrangement, especially with the self-governing colonies, were finally evaporating. Hitherto the continuing dependence of Britain's self-governing colonies on Britain for the exercise of foreign policy had served as a reassuring reminder that the empire was in no danger of disintegration through devolution. The impact of the First World War on the process of political devolution, however, stretched to its limits the disparate and loosely structured entity that constituted the Second British Empire.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the once-familiar structures of the Second British Empire were gradually dismantled to make way for what some scholars have referred to as a "Third British Empire." The territorial reach of the British Empire had been extended after the war with the addition of territories to be administered by the British as mandates of the League of Nations. More importantly, however, Britain's reliance on its empire for forces and resources to subsidize its war effort, together with the Allied powers' acceptance of president Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war aims, brought the question of constitutional devolution within the empire to a head. By the end of the war, not only had the process of constitutional devolution proceeded much further in the self-governing colonies of the empire, but its application was accepted at least as an ideal-however restrictive its interpretation, and however long it was deferred-even for some of the dependent territories of the empire. The postwar years saw important changes in the structure of the empire: the self-governing colonies, or the "white Dominions," as they have been called, acquired a new formal constitutional status as virtually "independent" units within the empire; the union with Ireland was dissolved and an Irish Dominion set up in southern Ireland; the protectorate of Egypt, although Britain retained a strong controlling position, was declared "independent"; Arab territories in the Middle East were added to the empire; important decisions were made about the political future of the African colonies in West, East, and Central Africa; and the administrative framework of British rule in India was reorganized. The result, for all the diffuseness and multiplicity of the arrangements that existed in the different component parts of the empire, was an empire-wide restructuring of imperial relations.

For a variety of reasons, the status of British rule in India was at the hub of the forces unleashed by the postwar restructuring of the British Empire. British India came to occupy a uniquely anomalous status within the empire. Its roots went back to wartime arrangements. The Imperial War Conference of 1917 and the Imperial War Cabinet, convened by British prime minister David Lloyd George in recognition of the importance of the empire's contribution to the British war effort, included representatives from the Dominions and, surprisingly, also from India. India, alongside the Dominions that now claimed an "adequate voice in foreign policy," was also represented separately in the peace conferences after the war. When India, along with the Dominions, was even granted membership in the newly established League of Nations, its status as a non-self-governing member of the league emerged as a conspicuous contradiction. The implications of constitutional devolution in India, indeed, raised important questions about the unresolved tensions in the postwar restructuring of the British Empire.

The turning point for the status of British rule in India had come at a time when British officials were less sanguine that the initial expression of wartime loyalty in India was adequate to counter the negative effects of the continuing agitations for self-rule. The Irish example had inspired Home Rule Leagues in various parts of India, and the two major political parties, the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League, had come together in the Lucknow Pact of 1916 for a joint Hindu-Muslim front against colonial rule. On August 20, 1917, E. S. Montagu, the new Liberal secretary of state for India, responded with a declaration in the House of Commons favoring "the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the British Empire." Whereas the nationalist movement in India had in the past won modest constitutional concessions from Britain, this was the first official declaration of the direction of British policy toward India. It was translated into the political reforms of the Government of India Act of 1919. Despite the initial alarm of diehard British Conservatives and the raised expectations of Indian nationalists, the carefully chosen phrase "responsible government" was elastic enough to be open to different interpretations. The real conflict over the precise meaning and timetable for responsible government was to come in the decades following the war. The fits and starts in the unfolding of the postwar policy of political devolution in India created the opening for Mayo's various interventions against progressive self-government in India.


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Table of Contents

About the Series ix

Acknowledgements xi

Note on Nomenclature and Transliteration xv

Introduction: The Anatomy of an Event 1

1. A Transitional Moment: The Dynamics of an Interwar Imperial Social Formation 23

2. Unpredictable Outcome: The Trajectory of a Transatlantic Intervention 66

3. Ironic Reversal: The Rhetoric of “Facts” in the Controversy over Mother India 109

4. Refashioning Mother India: The Sarda Act and Women’s Collective Agency 152

5. Ambiguous Aftermath: Political Consolidation on the Eve of the Second World War 197

Epilogue: History, Memory, Event 248

Notes 255

Bibliography 336

Index 361

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