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Race, Colonialism and Indian Society: An Overview

For discussion

1: What is meant, now and in the past, by the term ‘race’? How does the concept of race emerge historically and is it an exclusively (or predominantly) Western concept? Does it have precedents and parallels in Indian society? What is the connection between race and European empires from the 15th century onwards?

2: To what extent can race be understood as both an idea (and ideology) and as a social practice? How does race become a mark of self-identification as well as a way of representing others? How does race differ from other forms of identification, categorization and discrimination (such as gender, age and disability)?


The works listed in section 1 of the bibliography are central to this discussion. Particularly important in thinking about race (and racism) in general are the works by Malik [13] and Stepan [16]: Hudson’s article [9] helps to set the idea of race in a long-term historical perspective. The books by Bolt [3] and Kiernan [11] are decidedly dated but still contain some useful material. There is, of course, a vast literature on race – especially in connection with slavery and the Atlantic world: it is worth consulting this literature but also thinking about how and why colonial India might be different. Edward Said’s pathbreaking and much critiqued book Orientalism [15].

 There are a number of other ways in which the history of race and empire in India (as elsewhere) can be investigated – for instance through works of fiction [e.g., 59, 63, 67, 68] or through paintings and photographs of the period, e.g. Tobin [79] and Bayly [26].