- Reviewed by
That Sukanya Banerjee's intellectual project is a magnificently ambitious one is evident in the very first pages of Becoming Imperial Citizens: Indians in the Late Victorian Empire. Penetrating the far reaches of British colonial influence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the work nimbly excavates an increasingly intimate commerce of peoples, ideas, labors, and services—in, and through which, the Empire gained sway, consolidated itself, was threatened, and finally began to gag and lose its grip. As she explores the thickening density of such mobilities, Banerjee discovers a delicate filigree of gaps—between dependencies like India and self-governing dominions like South Africa, between subjects of the Crown and racialized subjects of the Crown, and between abstractions of equality and the narrative enfiguring of such abstractions. These gaps are important to Banerjee's work because it is from within them that she speaks of her primary concern—that is, constructions of citizenships prior to the genesis of the postcolonial nation-state. As she shows us, faced with discrimination from other subjects of the Crown (in dominions like South Africa, for instance), Indians articulated sometimes hesitant, sometimes strident, formulations of citizenship founded in their equal claims as members of the same imperial family. And it is in this sense that imperial citizenship, paradoxical as the category may sound, is the nub of Banerjee's work. [End Page 786]
Banerjee's analysis loosens the impregnable association between the citizen as an object of study and the machinery or ideology of the nation-state. Instead of studying the citizen as a rights-bearing figure, juridically subsumed by the auspices of an autonomous nation-state, she studies the "partial, incomplete, flawed, and often futile" languages that from the nineteenth century onward called on an imperial family of subjects of the crown rather than an autonomous model of national belonging to further the awareness of formal equality and citizenship (4). Insofar as it advocated a liberal premise of abstract equality, the British Empire itself provided the platform for claims to an inclusive citizenry, even as the pressure of these claims challenged the discriminatory mores of colonial practice. To be sure, the special strength of Banerjee's analysis of these claims to inclusion—emerging as they did from far-flung colonial outposts—rests on her insistence that they be read not in opposition to, but rather alongside an overlapping genealogy of citizenship as it emerged simultaneously in the metropole. In other words, citizenship had not been codified in juridical terms even in the heart of the imperial center, for English Common Law of the time spoke not of citizens, but of subjects, of naturalized subjects, and of denizens, and it was not until the idea of a British Commonwealth of Nations started to gain currency that the category of the "citizen" became important to British Nationality Law. Thus, "when Indians were purportedly denied citizenship, it was not," as Banerjee acutely observes, "a legally defined code of citizenship that they were deprived of, or desired" (5). Rather, pushing to its limits the latent possibilities of their positions as subjects, imperial Indians energized a dynamic discourse of citizenship not just for themselves, but for Britons as well.
Given this emphasis, Becoming Imperial Citizens situates "citizenship not so much in the realm of statutory enactment as in the cultural, imaginative, affective fields that both engender it and are constituted by it" (5). The emphasis on these fields opens the way to the superb literary analyses that, aptly enough, Banerjee does not perform on novels—the favorite child of ideologies of nationalism—but on a loose agglomeration of textual practices that include autobiographies, economic treatises, memoirs, election campaigns, legal documents, and even personalities as they fashioned themselves to negotiate with Empire.
For instance, in a powerful chapter on the work and person of Dadabhai Naoroji, widely regarded as the father of Indian nationalist economics, Banerjee effects an adjacency between the principles of Naoroji's economic treatise and his self-fashioning as an imperial citizen campaigning for an elected seat to the British House...