On April 20, we gathered for the fourth Tiny Desk Conference. This time we discussed a draft paper by Milinda Banerjee on “The Partition of India, Bengali ‘New Jews’, and Refugee Democracy: Situating Refugee Political Thought in Global Intellectual History.”
Christoph Rass opened the conference and introduced Milinda Banerjee. Milinda holds a Ph.D. from Heidelberg University and has been a lecturer in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews since 2019, where he is also Programme Director for the MLitt in Global Social and Political Thought. His research focuses on the History of Modern Political Thought and Political Theory, post-1700. In particular, he has specialized in the intersections of Indian/South Asian and global intellectual history and global political theory, as well as in political and economic theology.
In his article, Milinda argues that ‘refugee political thought’ should be understood as an autonomous category which needs to be centre-staged in global intellectual history. He concretizes this by studying Bengali Hindu refugees who migrated from Muslim-majority eastern Bengal – after the Partition of British India in 1947, part of Pakistan, and, after 1971, the sovereign state of Bangladesh – to the Hindu-majority Indian state of West Bengal, and occasionally their descendants as well. By studying the transnational horizons of Bengali refugees, from the late 1940s to today, Milinda posits them as part of modern global intellectual history.
After a short introduction by Milinda to his work, Albert Manke took over the moderation of the discussion. Starting from Milinda’s article, we also discussed broader issues, especially intellectual history. It was noted that subaltern studies have so far not looked sufficiently through an intersectional lens; Milinda’s essay, meanwhile, manages to connect “social history experiences” with intellectual history. The question arose which sources are actually “allowed” in intellectual history and how to make sources that are usually used by social history useful for intellectual history. Milinda’s essay shows very vividly how productive this extended understanding of sources can be.
Furthermore, we discussed the perspective on the refugee as a historical figure, which allows bringing decolonizing and postcolonial perspectives into a dialogue. The question was asked how Milinda’s particular approach could be situated (or situates itself) within the general field of ‘intellectual history’ as a discipline and field of research. Is the social and cultural history perspective widening the boundaries of intellectual history? Related to this, we discussed the “refugee thinker” as a historical subject form. But who actually counts as a refugee? Does this also apply to the immediate descendants and the following generations? And what about female intellectuals? Using the example of Bengali refugees and their descendants, who connected their experiences with those of refugees elsewhere in the world, for example as “new Jews”, the connection of belief structure/spirituality and political thought was debated.
With regard to intellectual history, the question was raised how the field is actually defined, which parameters are decisive, and to what extent institutionalization differs in comparison to other fields of history. The focus so far is still strongly on Europe and the US (or their tradition). Why isn’t there actually more migrant intellectual history and especially globally? Exemplary for this demand it was pointed out that the founder of the Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM), Manabendra Nath Roy, a global intellectual in the literal sense, was Bengali.
We have deliberated different methodological approaches to intellectual history as well as the lines of tradition, especially in the second half of the 20th century, the significance of certain concepts, their translations, and the possibilities of global intellectual history. A special role for intellectual history was played by the classification of texts as political or religious and how these categories differ with respect to political thought in Europe or Asia and especially India. There have been a number of works that have done de facto intellectual history in India, for example, but have not been understood as such by the West. While in Europe the tradition of political thought has long focused very much on the state (as in the classics, from Machiavelli, Hobbes, etc.), there are calls to write intellectual history more from the perspective of the oppressed, not only the subaltern but also those thinkers that Western scholars have so far overlooked. And for this, the “refugee thinker” is a very fitting and fruitful category. Milinda has not only laid a very important foundation for this new approach to intellectual history but with his essay has presented a model that other historians can follow.
P.S. Milinda’s article has been accepted for publication by Itinario: Milinda Banerjee, “The Partition of India, Bengali ‘New Jews’, and Refugee Democracy: Indian Refugee Political Discourse in Global Intellectual History”, in a special issue, edited by Kerstin von Lingen and Milinda Banerjee, “Forced Migration and Refugee Resettlement in the Long 1940s: A Connected and Global History”, forthcoming in Itinerario, 46:2 (2022).