Talk by Prerna Agarwal, Gerda Henkel fellow; 30 March

Escape, Emancipation and Flight: reflections on ideas and ideals of labour in interwar India

Speaker: Prerna Agarwal, Gerda Henkel fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), Georg August University of Göttingen

Event date and time: 30 March 2023, 4 pm – 6pm

Venue: Durgabai Deshmukh Memorial Lecture Hall, 53 Lodi Estate, New Delhi, Delhi – 110003

This presentation draws its inspiration from Jacques Rancière’s Proletarian Nights. It is an attempt at recovering workers as subjects in and of history. Something that has been lost in measuring workers’ militancy against standards of an ideal working-class consciousness, with no place for contradictions, transgressions and development. It engages with workers as thinkers, rebels and dreamers, as creators of fantasies and of revolutionary new worlds. The protagonist of the narrative is Abdur Rahman Khan, who was born in a peasant family in North West Frontier Province and migrated to Calcutta and Singapore, to work as a seaman and a docker. He was one of the crucial architects of Bengal Labour Party and dockers’ unions, he was also the editor of the party’s Urdu journal Nayā Zamānā. This paper focuses on two rare Urdu speeches found in the records of Special Branch office of the Calcutta Police. The comparison between these oral sources and official party propaganda suggests potent discrepancies and tensions, which are hardly surprising in the interactions of subaltern ideas, feelings and visions with the avant-garde revolutionary theories of twentieth century. In what was a deeply fraught process, ideas and ideals of social transformation did not remain the patrimony of radical Bhadraloks, but were shared, grasped, appropriated and transfigured by workers. This presentation recovers the elements of a subterranean political culture in the labour world of interwar India.

Cite this blog post
mwfdelhi (2023, March 22). Talk by Prerna Agarwal, Gerda Henkel fellow; 30 March. Max Weber Forum for South Asian Studies (MWF Delhi). Retrieved May 26, 2024, from

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