Zaib un Nisa Aziz PhD ‘22

Zaib un Nisa Aziz PhD ’22 is Assistant Professor of the History of the Modern British Empire at the University of South Florida. Her dissertation, “Nations Ascendant: The Global Campaign Against Empire and the Making of Our World,” was awarded the John Addison Porter Prize for a written work of scholarship in any field in which it is possible, through original effort, to gather and relate facts and/or principles and to make the product of general human interest and the Arthur and Mary Wright Prize for outstanding dissertation in the field of history outside the United States or Europe. She will hold the Weatherhead Initiative on Global History Postdoctoral Fellowship at Harvard University in 2023-24.

How did you arrive at your research?

I went to college in Lahore, where I studied Political Science and History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences at a time when the American occupation of Iraq had brought the discussions of imperialism to the fore in the academy. As an undergraduate, I was interested in comparative empires, and I was encouraged by my advisors to pursue graduate school. I ended up going to the London School of Economics to do an MSc in Empires, Colonialism and Globalization. That was a fantastic program, and I had a terrific advisor, Taylor Sherman, who encouraged me to not only study the history of South Asia in depth, but to also draw connections and comparisons of this history with that of other parts of the world.

As I was thinking about my master’s thesis, I came across an article by the historian Barry Carr on the formation of the Mexican Communist Party in a class I was taking on Latin American history. One of the article’s footnotes stated that there was a group of Indian anti-colonialists that took refuge in Mexico City during the First World War. This really intrigued me, as I had never come across their stories despite having studied South Asian history for several years. It was fascinating to see these people in Mexico City, of all places, and I wanted to chart their journeys. My master’s thesis, and eventually my first article, was about these Indian anti-colonialists abroad. I looked at anticolonial figures who championed the cause of Indian freedom in London, in New York, and in Mexico City. I became especially interested in a figure named M.N. Roy—a peripatetic socialist revolutionary who traveled across the world, became a key figure in the Communist International, and founded both the Mexican Communist Party and the Communist Party of India.

I loved doing archival work and historical research to tell stories that helped explain the contemporary world. While working on my master’s thesis, I realized that I had only just scratched the surface of a much larger story. I was once again extremely lucky to have the support of teachers who encouraged me to pursue further studies, and so I decided to enroll in a doctoral program. After a little break during which I taught at LUMS, I applied for a PhD.

Yale was my first choice because it was a program that, much like the LSE, really encouraged a breadth of connections. I felt that at Yale, I would be trained not only as a historian of South Asia but equally as a scholar of Global History, so I applied in that track, and I was luckily accepted.

What was your experience at Yale like?

Looking back at my time at Yale, I can confidently say that I could not have wished for a better graduate school experience. There are several things I can highlight. First, I was lucky to have wonderful advisors in Peter C. Perdue and Rohit De, both of whom encouraged me to read broadly, to expand my horizons both spatially and temporally, and to think about the specificity of the twentieth century and the intellectual and historical stakes of the story I was trying to tell.

I was also incredibly lucky to have Odd Arne Westad, Samuel Moyn, and Rosie Bsheer on my dissertation committee. All three were scholars I had admired for a long time (and I continue to do so) and whose work has shaped my thinking and writing. My committee was very supportive of my quite ambitious project, but they also had an extremely high standard for scholarship. That is a very special balance. Now that I’m on the other side, I’m learning how hard it sometimes can be to be encouraging and supportive of your students while also providing them with constructive critique and honest feedback. I was very lucky that my committee did that so well, always supporting and challenging me along the way.

Second, I found that there’s a lot of camaraderie at Yale. I loved the opportunity to engage with other people’s work. I learned so much from my colleagues in the department, who really are at the cutting edge of historical research. Their work was very inspiring for me and really helped me to think more critically about my own research and dig deeper into the imperatives of the story I was telling. As a graduate student at Yale, there are also lots of opportunities to present your work. The infrastructure for critique, criticism, and feedback (like the South Asian Studies Council colloquia) is really so special, and it allowed me to go back to the drawing board again and again. Not every department or university provides that opportunity. And of course, many people commit to living in and around New Haven, which creates a community. People live and work near each other for many years and that creates special bonds—the sort that make the hard times easier and the good times better.

Finally, I’ll say that there is a tremendous amount of financial and logistical support available to graduate students to pursue ambitious research projects. I think this is especially true in the History department. My project required travel to multiple archives in various cities. My research was supported by a number of generous grants, including fellowships and awards from the Macmillan International Dissertation Research Fund, the South Asian Studies Council, and the Yale History Department Research Grant. An award by the Fox International Fellowship allowed me to spend a year at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, for which I am very grateful.

Can you tell me a little bit about your main research project?

Absolutely. My dissertation “Nations Ascendant: The Global Struggle Against Empire and The Making of Our World” tells a new story about the emergence of global anticolonialism and the rise of universal self-determination in the twentieth century. At the start of the 20th century, the empires of the world were in peril. As the largest empire in the world, the British Empire was particularly in difficulty. It faced challenges across its empire, including and especially from the proverbial jewel in its crown, India. After the First World War that was even more true, because three of the world’s biggest empires had fallen. There was this sense of an ontological challenge to the existence of the empires of the world. During this time there were a whole host of ideas about what a post-imperial state could look like: pan-Islamism, pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism, federal alternatives, and even political alternatives within empires. The nation-state was one of many alternatives. But by the time the Second World War ended, these other options increasingly withered away. The post-colonial imagination expressed itself in the terms of the nation-state. Why is it that so many people turned to the nation state? In particular, why was it that the left internationalists and communists, who were supposed to be wary of the nation-state, who were supposed to critique the nation-state—and did so intensely, especially when it came to European nation-states—why is it that so many of them ended up supporting national self-determination?

The question of why the nation-state was seen as an emancipatory project not just by nationalists, but by internationalists in the early twentieth century, pushed me to read the writings of revolutionary anti-colonialists. As I started reading the writings of socialists from the colonial world, I realized how many of them were inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution and particularly by Lenin. Over and over again (and this goes back to the fact that Yale’s program gives you more time to read comparatively)—I saw that the Bolshevik Revolution impacted political actors from across the world, from Central Asia to the Middle East and Latin America, and of course to South Asia. And yet this is not something that has been extensively discussed. This is because the Bolshevik Revolution has largely featured in one of two ways in historiography: either as part of Russia’s history and the history of Europe; or as the prologue to the global Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States in the second half of the twentieth century.

But for the people of the era, who neither knew there would be a Cold War nor saw the revolution as the beginning of the totalitarian state the Soviet Union eventually became, Bolshevik success represented the fall of the mighty Tsarist Empire. Crucially, this Tsarist Empire was defeated not at the hands of another empire but through a popular people’s revolution. This was a paradigm-shifting moment for anti-colonialists across the world. The ideas of the revolution were neither entirely new nor strange—but they were a realization of an anti-imperialist global vision which many had been searching for.

The second reason the Revolution was very important was because the Bolsheviks did something that other revolutionary nationalists hadn’t done: they made a universal call against imperial rule and, indeed announced that that all empires were going to fall in the throes of the future revolution. This is something that hadn’t happened, for example, during the Age of Revolutions in the eighteenth century. During the American Revolution, George Washington never thought or claimed that Haiti should also get independence from France or that India should be liberated from the British rule. But under Lenin, the Bolsheviks called not just for the workers of the world to unite, but for all the oppressed of the world to unite—which included the colonized. This stance resonated with a young generation of workers, students, leftists, intellectuals, and radical anti-colonialists who not only saw the young Soviet state as an ally but also realized their own national independence wasn’t enough—that self-determination had to be a universal goal rather than a particular one.

Thirdly, the Bolsheviks linked the end of empire to the end of social hierarchies. And in some ways, this idea is particular to anti-imperialism in the twentieth century, whereby empires were not just associated with foreign rule, but also with the inequality generated by capitalism. The figures I study were increasingly critiquing not just colonial governments but also national parties and the indigenous colonial elite. For example, in India’s case, socialists argued that true liberation did not only require getting rid of British rule but challenging the power of Indian industrialists and the landowners. And while communists in colonial spaces were rather few in number, I show that their influence on mainstream politics was quite significant. This is an interesting phenomenon which we see happen today as well, where a relatively fringe group can have an outsized influence on political discourse over time (for example, how the relatively small Tea Party group eventually transformed the Republican Party). During the interwar years, I show how a cadre of young people—and this includes people like young Jawaharlal Nehru—took a more radical position against empire and redefined decolonization as a project of social revolution.

What is your second book project?

My next book project broadly examines the movement of workers and the question of forced and immigrant labor in the British Empire from the late 19th to the late 20th century. During my dissertation research, I came across many figures who were writing extensively about the violations of labor rights under colonial governments. In particular, the use of indentured and forced labor became a humanitarian issue and challenge to the legitimacy of empire because it directly contradicted the imperial government’s claim of providing civilization, legality, and order. Instead, labor, and later immigrant rights, activists showed that the imperial wealth relied on regimes of illegal labor. I’m interested in investigating what happens to the international labor question as the empire collapses and the age of the nation-state takes hold. I am particularly interested in thinking about workers who fell somewhere between empires and nations.

What advice would you give to those just starting off as scholars?

First of all, I would congratulate anyone who wants to pursue a career as a scholar and assure them that while it is challenging, it can also be a very rewarding experience. But if you are an undergraduate, my advice would be to take it really slow. Graduate school and a subsequent career in the academy is a very long and arduous commitment, so it is best not to jump into it. If you have the opportunity to do a master’s or take time off to learn a foreign language or see what interests you, you should take it before making any long-term decisions. I will also say that graduate school does not only require cerebral prowess and skill but also a lot of emotional resilience. It is important to have a community of scholars and friends, to be a good citizen in the academy, and to invest in other people’s scholarship and success. I don’t think that a doctoral degree is an individual pursuit—it’s very much a communal act and a team sport.

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti

Tiraana Bains