Becoming Imperial Citizens

Indians in the Late-Victorian Empire

Becoming Imperial Citizens

Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: Published: June 2010

Asian Studies > South Asia, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In this remarkable account of imperial citizenship, Sukanya Banerjee investigates the ways that Indians formulated notions of citizenship in the British Empire from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth. Tracing the affective, thematic, and imaginative tropes that underwrote Indian claims to formal equality prior to decolonization, she emphasizes the extralegal life of citizenship: the modes of self-representation it generates even before it is codified and the political claims it triggers because it is deferred. Banerjee theorizes modes of citizenship decoupled from the rights-conferring nation-state; in so doing, she provides a new frame for understanding the colonial subject, who is usually excluded from critical discussions of citizenship.

Interpreting autobiography, fiction, election speeches, economic analyses, parliamentary documents, and government correspondence, Banerjee foregrounds the narrative logic sustaining the unprecedented claims to citizenship advanced by racialized colonial subjects. She focuses on the writings of figures such as Dadabhai Naoroji, known as the first Asian to be elected to the British Parliament; Surendranath Banerjea, among the earliest Indians admitted into the Indian Civil Service; Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to study law in Oxford and the first woman lawyer in India; and Mohandas K. Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for nearly twenty-one years prior to his involvement in Indian nationalist politics. In her analysis of the unexpected registers through which they carved out a language of formal equality, Banerjee draws extensively from discussions in both late-colonial India and Victorian Britain on political economy, indentured labor, female professionalism, and bureaucratic modernity. Signaling the centrality of these discussions to the formulations of citizenship, Becoming Imperial Citizens discloses a vibrant transnational space of political action and subjecthood, and it sheds new light on the complex mutations of the category of citizenship.


Becoming Imperial Citizens is a great resource for anybody studying the British Colonial Regime’s legal, social, or political history. The struggle for equal status in daily living is not specific to India, but experienced by all former British colonies. When taking action against the government, it took inspirational actions to gradually tear down racial, class, and gender obstacles to citizenship for all.” — Nicolette Westfall, Elevate Difference

Becoming Imperial Subjects is history from a literary studies perspective, and it is through this lens that Banerjee provides new insights.” — Daniel Gorman, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“At a time when many scholars and politicians discussing issues of citizenship and identity instinctively frame debates in the national context, Becoming Imperial Citizens encourages a more generous approach which acknowledges the importance of reciprocity founded outside the nation. The lessons of empire are only tentatively being embraced and this book should be read by all those who seek to understand the transnational origins of citizenship in the UK, India and other parts of the former British Empire.” — Andrew Mycock, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History

“Sukanya Banerjee’s excellent research monograph Becoming Imperial Citizens examines the ways in which British Indians formulated notions of citizenship across the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, before the birth of the nation-state in South Asia... the prodigious scholarship of [this text] cannot be ignored.” — Shompa Lahiri, Victorian Studies

“[Banerjee] 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. . . . 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.” — Zak Sitter, Review 19

“Banerjee’s study narrows the gap between canonical accounts of anticolonial struggle, on the one hand, and nationalist history, on the other. . . . [T]his book is indispensible reading for those who want to understand the timing of nationalisms sponsored by colonial modernity. For by far the most far-reaching of Banerjee’s provocations is her suggestion that the ideas about ‘Indian’ citizenship that ended up being enshrined in the 1950 constitution were in train well before the founding of the nation itself—a state of anticipation conditioned, if not fully determined, by empire and entangled irrevocably in its postcolonial histories.” — Antoinette Burton, Journal of British Studies

“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.” — Manisha Basu, Modern Fiction Studies

This is an elegantly-written and well-constructed book. . . . Banerjee’s book, forming part of the Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies series, will appeal to readers interested in gaining an insight into the interconnected, shifting, and at times conflicting, social, cultural, political and economic trends and ideological debates that marked the trajectory of late-Victorian imperialism.” — Troy Downs, South Asia

Becoming Imperial Citizens is a virtuoso performance. It is written with verve, confidence, and elegance, and it is based on immense scholarship. Sukanya Banerjee’s exploration of an elite native Indian politics that preceded the anticolonial nationalist movement shows how citizenship can be (and has been) located outside the frame of the (free) nation. This compelling and important argument is bound to affect thinking in many fields, including political theory, colonial history, and postcolonial and feminist studies.” — Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, author of The Scandal of the State: Women, Law, and Citizenship in Postcolonial India

“There is no refusing Sukanya Banerjee’s very persuasive argument about the importance of studying the complexities of citizenship prior to the arrival of nationhood. Where previous scholarship has seen only the obsequious colonial subject, Banerjee discloses an early-twentieth-century, transnationally constituted, and carefully honed political, professional, and personal identity: that of the imperial citizen. This is an outstanding, extremely well-written book, with a prodigious amount of new archival research and a clear line of argument from start to finish.” — Rosemary M. George, author of The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction

“What is most valuable about Becoming Imperial Citizens is Sukanya Banerjee’s attention to formulations of citizenship other than that of the normative, rights-bearing citizen of the nation-state. Banerjee examines how differently positioned subjects of the colonial state conceived of themselves as citizens of the British Empire, and the kinds of belonging they enacted despite being denied the benefits of official, full citizenship. She also makes the valuable and vital linkages between imperial citizenship and diasporic belongings, thereby bringing colonial and postcolonial histories into conversations with questions of globalization.” — Inderpal Grewal, author of Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sukanya Banerjee is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: Imperial Citizenship 1

1. Of the Indian Economy and the English Polls 36

2. South Africa, Indentured Labor, and the Question of Credit 75

3. The Professional Citizen in/and the Zenana 116

4. Bureaucratic Modernity, the Indian Civil Service, and Grammars of Nationalism 150

Afterword 191

Notes 197

Bibliography 235

Index 265
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Sonya Rudikoff Prize for a First Book, presented by the Northeast Victorian Studies Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4608-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4590-9
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