[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the decorated initial “T” for Vanity FairKatherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial T he Queen's Proclamation of 1858, issued in the immediate wake of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, was a brief document with two important symbolic effects: first, it formalized British rule in India, effectively dissolving the East India Company and transferring the administration of its territories to the Crown. Second, by asserting that Indians were subjects of the Crown entitled to "the equal and impartial protection of the Law," it established the basis for British Indians to assert their rights as subjects and, as this important new book argues, citizens of the British Empire. Ironically, the same document that made Victoria an Empress laid the groundwork for her colonized subjects' demands for individual and, eventually, national self-determination. The irony is lost neither on Banerjee nor on the figures she studies: Indians on the subcontinent, in settler colonies such as South Africa and Australia, and in the colonial metropole itself, who attempted to claim the rights of the citizen within, rather than against, the framework of empire.

In part, Banerjee aims to counter what she terms "triumphalist" narratives of Indian nationalism, which figure the independent nation-state as the inevitable and providential end of empire and measure the political agency of colonized subjects by their commitment to national autonomy. By focusing on the demands of pro-British reformers and "moderate" nationalists, such as (respectively) the women's advocate Cornelia Sorabji and the early Indian National Congress leader Surendrenath Banerjea, Banerjee presents Indians as stakeholders in the empire rather than its opponents. In so doing, she offers both a theoretical corrective to the erasures and elisions of nationalist histories and a thicker account of Indian civil society, in all its global reach and complexity, in the waning years of empire.

A key term in this study is citizens. While the particular histories of Indian subjects of British rule provide the immediate object of Banerjee's analysis, her broader target is the understanding of citizenship that emerged from the Enlightenment and the revolutions that followed it. Building on critiques by Immanuel Wallerstein, Joan Scott, and others, Banerjee argues that the formal equality supposedly ensured by modern citizenship implies a universality that was compromised from the beginning. The rights of citizenship were bestowed unevenly, particularly on those whom the bestowers thought racially and culturally "other," and in Banerjee's view, these inequalities suggest the "exclusionary nature" and "necessary unevenness" of citizenship itself (11). In the post-Enlightenment model of citizenship, which posits an "abstract" or "formal" equality by theoretically making "each individual [...] equivalent to every other, irrespective of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, etc.," Banerjee sees a ruse (if at times an unwitting one) that enabled the British state to keep the bar of citizenship always just beyond the reach of its Indian subjects. Indians were always "becoming," never "being," imperial citizens.

Because the discourse of liberal citizenship operates through universalizing abstractions, absorbing and erasing "material realities and historical particularities" (12), efforts to restore these lost particularities through narrative occupy an important if somewhat ambivalent position in Banerjee's account. On the one hand, narrative—whether history, autobiography, the novel, or less generically stable modes—serves a reparative function, offering both subjects and subject populations a way to represent the specificity of their experience and to establish their fitness for citizenship; on the other hand, narrative hides cracks in the wall of history. Especially though not exclusively in accounts of anticolonial struggle and national becoming, it papers over the exclusions and inconsistencies that are—in Banerjee's view—endemic to the concept of citizenship.

Banerjee's study highlights four leading figures. After a substantial introductory chapter meticulously (perhaps a little too much so for readers not already invested in the debates in question) lays out the theoretical and methodological stakes of the project, each of the four remaining chapters focuses on a prominent leader from late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British India, closely analyzing one of his or her major narrative works and carefully sifting the archive of primary texts, published and unpublished.

The first chapter follows the career of Dadabhai Naoroji, academic, nationalist economist, founding member of the Indian National Congress (he served as its President in 1886), and the first Indian elected to a seat in the British Parliament. Banerjee juxtaposes readings of Naoroji's pioneering economic treatise, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India (1901), with close analyses of Naoroji's two Parliamentary campaigns—the first, unsuccessful, in 1886; the second, successful, on an Irish Home Rule ticket in 1892. Banerjee approaches Naoroji's much-debated theory of the Indian "drain"—the idea that India's economy was lowered by Britain's annual appropriation of hundreds of millions of pounds in Indian revenues—through the lens of Patrick Brantlinger's influential formulation of the genre of the "imperial gothic" in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988). With the aid of Brantlinger, Banerjee deftly shows how Naoroji deployed Gothic figurations of the body within the discourse of that least embodied discipline, political economy. Then, turning to his earlier parliamentary campaigns, Banerjee argues that Naoroji's body became the site of competing representational pressures. On the one hand, and in part because he was labeled a "black man" by the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, Naoroji's claim to the rights of citizenship (and to represent the interests of his constituents) could never be fully disassociated from his racialized body; on the other hand, the universalizing premise of citizenship (illustrated by the many indignant comments Salisbury's remark provoked) made Naoroji just one subject among others, the "equal" of any Briton.

From Naoroji's politically charged movement between colony and metropole, the second chapter moves to the vexed question of Indians' status in the settler colonies of the British empire. Banerjee first examines the archive of documents concerning two somewhat disparate populations of Indians in the Natal Province of South Africa: indentured laborers (or "coolies") and so-called "passenger Indians," a largely merchant class who had paid their own passage to South Africa. The coolie system quickly became integral to the colonial economy, and ironically it was this largely invisible class of laborers that was most easily assimilated within the stratified but putatively equal society of Natal; on the other hand, the "passenger Indians," along with formerly indentured laborers labeled "free Indians," were perceived by white settlers as a threat to their economic and political interests (81). It was into this tense context that the young Mohandas Gandhi stepped in 1892, fresh from his legal training in London, and the second half of the chapter deals with Gandhi's canny use of the rhetoric of citizenship to advocate for the enfranchisement of (propertied) Indian settlers. Through "the logic of the balance sheet and the rhetoric of creditworthiness," Banerjee argues, Gandhi made a case for Indians as imperial citizens in ways that both depended upon and rendered oddly invisible the indentured laborers of Natal (114). Gandhi's South African career is well-traveled ground, mostly recently in Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India (2011), but by framing his activism through the concept of imperial citizenship, Banerjee illuminates both his continuity with the coalitions of Indian merchants that predated his arrival and the genesis of his later, more oppositional stance toward the empire: a stance molded through the successes and failures of this period.

In the third and fourth chapters, Banerjee examines intersections between gender and the increasingly important rhetoric of professionalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "In privileging expertise rather than the individual," Banerjee argues, "professionalism in fact approximates the formless equality of liberal citizenship in ways that fashion colonial claims to entitlement" (119). The subject of chapter 3, Cornelia Sorabji, was the first female Indian lawyer and the first woman admitted to study law at Oxford; she subsequently became the chief legal advocate for the purdahnashins (Indian women restricted to the zenana and thus barred from contact with male lawyers). Sorabji, Banerjee argues, adopted the impersonal, abstracting narrative of professionalization (particularly in her 1925 autobiography, India Calling) in order to "claim the status of a citizen and negotiate with an imperial body politic as well as the citizenry of an emergent nationalist India, both of which defined themselves through a gendered logic" (120).

In the final chapter, the discourse of citizenship is called upon to negotiate masculinity via the supposedly effeminate figure of the "competition-wallah"—an Anglo-Indian pejorative for Indian Civil Service employees who had won their places through the competitive exam system rather than through the earlier patronage system favoring "gentlemanly" Oxbridge graduates versed in "manly" pursuits. Through brief but engaging readings of Anglo-Indian novels such as G. O. Trevelyan's The Competition Wallah (1864-65) and H. S. Cunningham's Chronicles of Dustypore (1875), Banerjee establishes the cultural baggage attached to this transitional figure even before the ICS exam was made available to Indians. Arguing that "admission into the ICS formed the basis of an emergent political consciousness, modeling a rhetoric of equality that allowed Indians to stage themselves as citizens" (150), Banerjee illustrates the ICS's central role through the life and writings of Surendrenath Banerjea, who was one of the first Indians admitted to the ICS in the 1870s and who subsequently became an important journalist and "moderate" nationalist leader.

Becoming Imperial Citizens makes valuable contributions to the fields of postcolonial historiography, social and political theory, and the literary and cultural history of South Asia. Scholars of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britain and the empire more generally will also find much here to extend and complicate existing research in their fields. Nevertheless, Banerjee's study is not without flaws. To start with a minor quibble, her subtitle "Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire" is somewhat misleading, for most of the key texts and many of the key events examined here date from the early twentieth century. Semantically, the difference may be trivial, but the slippage does raise evidentiary questions about the relationship between autobiographies written in the 1920s and 30s and the earlier events they narrate. A second, related, problem is the undertheorized category of "narrative, " which Banerjee defines in a frustratingly circular way. When she calls it "the guiding structure of and for representation" and—quoting Hayden White—"that which renders 'human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning'" (12),—she conflates the specificity of narrative with a more generalized notion of representation.

Finally, and this is less a flaw than an acknowledgment of the necessary limitations on the scope of Banerjee's study, she might have done more to contextualize the particular position of Indians in the late-Victorian empire relative to other subjects of British rule, both colonizers and (especially) colonized populations. How specific to India and Indians were the rhetorical and narrative positions taken by Naoroji, Gandhi, Sorabji, Banerjea, and their compatriots? To what extent were these positions available to other imperial subjects? But these lingering questions do not so much mark an absence in Banerjee's fine book as suggest the potency and reach of her analysis, and point to some of the new terrain she has opened up for future scholarship.


Sukanya Banerjee Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire. Duke, 2010. ix + 272 pp.

Last modified 9 July 2014