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Homelands and Foreign Lands: Afghanistan in the Indian Imagination

February 27 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

The cover of the first edition of Syed Mujtaba Ali's "Deshe Bideshe" by Binayak Masoji - showing the Khyber Pass. 
The cover of the first edition of Syed Mujtaba Ali’s “Deshe Bideshe” by Binayak Masoji – showing the Khyber Pass. Photo courtesy of Mou Banerjee.

Mou Banerjee

Resident Fellow (2022-2023)

Assistant Professor, Department of History, UW–Madison


Afghanistan is rarely seen as a part of South Asia, either historically or geographically. However, Herat and Kabul have been, for at least half a millenium, a shared cosmopolitan space of Indo-Islamic heritage and history, enlivened and enriched by vibrant trade along the Silk Route. These cities have also been constantly threatened by invasions as they were considered the gateway to India. This sense of Afghanistan as the originary center of the Indian subcontinent was destabilized only as late as the 18th century, with the emergence of the British control of India and the centering of Bengal, on the eastern frontier, as the locus of British power.

For Indian travelers in the 20th century, however, Afghanistan was not a wild frontier or a foreign land. This talk, by centering the work of Bengali author and polymath Syed Mujtaba Ali, shows that Indians found in Kabul a common locus of engagement, through the intimacies encompassing historical, cultural, political, and linguistic connections. Kabul was a space, ironically enough, where Indians could forge wider global anti-colonial solidarities. To use historian Ranajit Guha’s formulation, the limit to British imperial control in Afghanistan made it possible for figures like Mujtaba Ali to imagine an existence beyond the paradigms of colonization. For him and others like him, Afghanistan signified not merely the limits, physical or mental, to the constrictive existence and experiences of colonized Indians. Rather, it provided an alternative vision of the places and of people who were ungovernable by the rules of colonialism and functioned as exemplars to model self-determination.


Dr. Mou Banerjee received her Ph.D. from the Dept. of History at Harvard in 2018 and is Assistant Professor of modern South Asia at UW-Madison. Her first book, “The Disinherited: Christianity and Conversion in Colonial India, 1813-1907” is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. Banerjee’s research analyses the relationship between religion, politics and the evolving discourse on the othering of minority communities of faith in India. She also has a contract with Juggernaut Press, India, to write a popular biography of the life and times of the pioneering Indian social reformer Raja Rammohan Roy. Her research has been funded by the SSRC-IDRF dissertation research fellowship, and the UW–Madison WARF Fellowships. Her essays have appeared in H-Diplo, the journal of South Asian Studies, the journal of South Asian History and Culture and in Political Theology. Prior to her appointment at UW–Madison, she was College Fellow at the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard in 2018 and Assistant Professor of History at Clemson University in 2018-19. Banerjee is one of the IRH Resident Faculty Fellows at UW–Madison, in Spring 2023, where she is doing research for her project on the frontiers, homelands and foreign lands, with focus on the changing relationship between India, Afghanistan and Burma.

*Events currently open only to 2022-23 fellows due to space concerns; please contact IRH at info@irh.wisc.edu to be added to a cancellation list for in-person events.*


February 27
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States
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