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Moving Idea: Methodological Challenges of Chasing Post-National Histories
A Symposium with Professor Benjamin Zachariah
Faculty of Arts and Humanities
University of NSW
13th February 2015

Last week a symposium entitled ‘Moving ideas: Methodological Challenges of Chasing Post-National Histories’ was held in the Faulty of Arts and Social Sciences in the University of New South Wales to honour the work of historian Benjamin Zachariah. The symposium featured a keynote from Professor Zachariah (University of Heidelberg) as well as papers from Dr Samia Khatun (University of Melbourne) Associate Professor Kama Maclean (University of New South Wales) and Dr Roanna Gonsales (University of New South Wales).
The aim of the symposium was to “reflect on the moving of ideas, and of the methodological and practical difficulties a historian has in tracking them.” Moving on from “the blandishments and glossy catalogues of ‘transnational’, ‘global’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ ones,” papers at the symposium sought out alternative methodologies for the movement of ideas beyond “regional blocks of thinking.” Papers were presented on the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2004, the spread of Fascism and Aryan ideologies in Northern India in the 1930s, the mobility of Islamic texts and storytelling in the nineteenth century Indian Ocean World and the spread of theosophy and internationalism in India and Australia in the interwar period. Each speaker engaged with the twin concerns uniting the diverse topics of the symposium: the challenge of writing a South Asian history of mobility across diverse linguistic and cultural divides when much academic work continues to be divided into area studies and splintered fields of regional specialisation.
The workshop was the brain-child of Associate Professor Kama Mclean, whose current Australian Research Council funded Discovery project, 'Imagining India in White Australia: Inter-colonial Relations and the Empire', explores the extent and impact of social and political relationships between Indians and Australians in the early twentieth century through “sites of meaningful cosmopolitan exchange” such as the League against Imperialism and the left-leaning Theosophists society both of which espoused internationalist sentiments of universal brotherhood. Associate Professor Maclean spoke of the project as an exploration of the degree to which membership of the empire constrained but also enabled a certain imagination of India in Australia from federation to the 1950s.
Prof Zachariah opened the symposium by reflecting on one of the dominant methodological debates of the past decade; the trend in ‘marking border crossing’ in history and the legitimacy of transnationalism as an effective category of historical analysis. Noting that the term has been accused of lacking ‘descriptive bite’ Zachariah said that “transnational methodologies can seem to re-inscribed and underline the very national borders they seek to transcend.” Building on arguments made by David Harvey in ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Banality of Geographical Evils,’ and Paul A Cohen in ‘Re-discovering Discovering History,’ Zachariah laid out an alternative methodology for tracing the movement of ideas which he called “an intermediate history of ideas.” Posing the question, “What happens when simplistic polarities are not available?” he argued that historians of internationalism have been more successfully than transnational historians in “tracing and tracking the movement of ideas.”
Calling “internationalism” a neglected candidate in the field of South Asian history, Zachariah posited the following definition of international history:
It has come to mean something relates to states’ relations with one another, whereas it was once invoked for solidarities that disregarded the interests of states and strove for unity and solidarity of a different kind. The proletarian internationalism of the pre-First World War world was paradigmatic in this regard, although it was more aspirational than real.
He then proceeded to examine the spread of both internationalist and fascist ideas amongst northern Indian elites in the interwar period noting the plasticity of fascist ideas in the early 1930s. This detailed intellectual history was presented as a corrective to global histories of fascism which are overly weighted towards the Holocaust “the ideas we call fascist have been over determined by the end product – that is Auschwitz and Hitler’s final solution.” Zachariah sought a more complex reading of the spread of Fascism in India which took into account the religious beliefs of Indian fascists who translated Fascist terminology into the Northern Indian context. He argued that historians interested in tracing the influence of ideas “at least at a rarefied level” needed to take into account the following “inventory of variables”: language, context and ‘terms versus ideas’ (the Begriffsgeschichte approach).
The next paper was presented by Dr Samia Khatun on “Reading a Begali Puthi in Broken Hill: In translation from British India to the Australian Interior.” In her paper Khatun explored the movement of ideas from British India to the Australian colonies in the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. As a case study, she traced the movement of one book of poetry printed in Calcutta in 1894 CE to a mosque in Broken Hill, constructing a methodology of reading texts and writing history that illuminates the social networks that sustained the movement of ideas from British India to Australia. Cutting across the metropole/periphery circuits of motion that haunt the field of intellectual history, her paper explored the possibilities of drawing upon historiographical traditions beyond the Anglo sphere to write histories of ideas in motion between British settler and franchise colonies. Ultimately, Khatun’s paper mapped out entire knowledge systems in which her mobile text sat – knowledge systems which, she argued, existed outside of the categories of Empire, Colony and Rule.
Associate Professor Kama Maclean’s paper followed an Australian Communist, Jake Ryan, who in 1928 travelled to India funded by the Pan Pacific Secretariat to take part in the All India Trade Union Congress. His mission, to urge the later to affiliate with the former, was ultimately unsuccessful, but his visit to India demonstrates the fluidity of ideas, including failed ones. As Mclean demonstrated - Ryan travelled at a time when ideas about what constituted communism were not yet fixed, and the Comintern was transitioning into its third period, which would emphasise moving away from collaboration with bourgeois nationalists and political parties. These forces would pitch nationalism against internationalism, and Jack Ryan against the Communist party.
This was an innovative workshop which playfully challenged the lexicon of the global history of ideas. And by highlighting new and exciting work from South Asian scholars, the workshop took established debates over mobility and transnational history and imagined them afresh.

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