Tiraana Bains BA ‘15 MA ‘15 PhD ‘21

Tiraana Bains BA ’15 MA ’15 PhD ’21 is assistant professor of history at Brown University. Her work focuses on Britain, South Asia, and the British Empire. Her first book, Instituting Empire: The Contested Makings of a British Imperial State in South Asia, 1750-1800, is under contract at Yale University Press.

How did you arrive at your research?

Growing up in India, it was hard not to think about the legacies of British colonialism, which was obviously a subject you encountered in the classroom. It was also a topic I became engaged with as an undergraduate at Yale College, where I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to study South Asian history before the 19th century, and to look at South Asia in relation to the wider Persian-speaking world, the Arabic-speaking world, and Europe and its commercial networks. I realized that studying history doesn’t just involve learning dates. It requires finding sources and finding a way to interpret those sources. Ultimately, that was critically exciting to me as an undergraduate—finding new ways to engage with material relevant to questions that I had always found interesting.

I spent the summer before my senior year in Britain, where I did quite a bit of research for my senior thesis at the British Library. That experience seemed a sort of test of whether I would enjoy spending time in the archives, which can be quite difficult at first because there’s so much paperwork and you’re not sure if you’re finding anything interesting. It’s like working in a government office. But I was very lucky that one of my advisors also happened to be doing research at the British Library at the same time, so I felt very supported in the process of wading into that material. That informed my decision to apply for PhD programs.

Having already attended Yale as an undergraduate, why did you choose to return for your PhD?

I thought Yale, more than other programs, was able to help you curate a plan of study that was uniquely your own. What I mean by that is that I felt more comfortable being a global historian, being somebody who didn’t just study South Asia, but who also seriously studied the British Empire and had an interest in questions of labor and slavery in the Atlantic world. I felt that I was able to put together a unique committee of senior scholars who worked on many different parts of the world and who were able to assist me with putting together a project that didn’t necessarily fit neatly into categories such as Indian or South Asian history.

Can you tell me about the book you’re currently working on?

The manuscript is tentatively titled  Instituting Empire: The Contested Makings of a British Imperial State in South Asia, 1750-1800. In it, I make the case that the British empire in South Asia was not just the product of commercial domination or military conquest, but that it involved active political debate on the part of lots of different kinds of Britons, from those in the halls of power in London to those in British colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and South Asia. I argue that the process of making a British state was a participatory process, not in the sense that there was any kind of fundamental equity among these groups—there was not, as hierarchies were dominant and plenty of violence was involved—but in the sense that political debate shaped ideas of what the British state should look like as it functioned across many different parts of the world in a time before the telegraph and the Suez Canal. The state that did emerge in South Asia was increasingly hierarchical and racially exclusionary, but it was also shaped by multi-sited dialog. Governance was difficult because those in the halls of power were constantly having to manage populations that had differing conceptions of how they should be governed. Even when it came to the lowest echelons of colonial hierarchies, say soldiers or menial laborers, withholding labor became a very powerful way of demanding even small changes to the conditions in which they worked. So resistance was constantly interwoven with the work of governance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even if it didn’t necessarily lead to a major policy change at the top.

Our conversations about the beginnings of British imperialism in South Asia tend to suggest that it was an informal phenomenon or that the East India Company was the dominant actor. And it’s very easy, looking at the records of the East India Company, to come away with the idea that it was the only actor playing a role. But if you read those archives alongside what a British Member of Parliament might have been writing, you get a sense of other players. We’ve been aware for a long time of major parliamentary acts that came into play in 1773 and 1784, but we’ve seen them as creeping forms of surveillance rather than as major changes in the working of statecraft. My work tries to show instead that the British state and formal political actors were also deeply involved in British state-making in South Asia; those parliamentary acts, for example, were actually pivotal changes. And Britons thought a lot about India. They thought as much about India as they did about the Thirteen Colonies in North America. So the effort here is twofold: to center how South Asians writing in Persian and vernacular languages thought about British imperialism and the future of South Asia as the Mughal Empire declined; and to place the history of British imperialism in South Asia in conversation with other histories of British imperialism.

What has your writing process for the manuscript looked like?

Writing a book involves imagining a broader audience than you had for your dissertation. You try to think beyond the members of your dissertation committee, toward trying to engage a wider audience that includes the public. In general, my sense is that people, especially in Britain and South Asia, tend to be interested in histories of British imperialism in South Asia, and it is worth trying to engage that audience. Of course, a challenge then is to lose the somewhat dry academic tone that you might have written your dissertation in in favor of a narrative that the general public finds engaging, but which preserves your key insights. I think it’s really important to retain a clear argumentative thrust throughout my chapters. That’s a challenge, and I find it helpful to read well outside my particular sub-field to see how I respond as a reader and outsider to, say, somebody writing about the Soviet Union. Even reading fiction can be helpful as a way to reflect on style. Vikram Seth’s work is helpful in this regard since he has a keen historical sensibility of his own.

You’ve just started a new position as an assistant professor at Brown University. How do you approach your teaching?

I think of teaching as an extension of my research, to some extent, but also as an opportunity to escape the usual things I do when researching. It’s an opportunity to read outside of my own field, and to have a collaborative reading experience with students. And this might be cliché, but in general, you learn so much when you read with other people. When I’m teaching a seminar, I’m very much hoping to create a reading group-like environment, where there’s a shared investment in trying to get at and grasp a major or even a lesser-known text. When it comes to bigger lecture classes, it’s really helpful to try and offer the kinds of questions you are engaging with in your own research in a digestible, narrative form. Students are an excellent first audience for that kind of material.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti

Tiraana Bains