Research Seminar Review: Dr Harshan Kumarasingham’s ‘An Indian Augsleich?: The Austro-Hungarian Analogy and the Decolonisation of India’

Written by Carissa Chew

On 19 October 2017, the Global and Transnational History Research Group – one of the many groups within the University of Edinburgh’s History, Classics and Archaeology department which organises regular research seminars and workshops that are welcome to all – met to hear Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham present on his latest paper: ‘An Indian Augsleich?: The Austro-Hungarian Analogy and the Decolonisation of India’. Dr. Harshan Kumarasingham is a lecturer in British Politics at the University of Edinburgh, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, and an Affiliated Scholar at the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. The paper, which brings together two imperial formations that are rarely considered within the same analytical or scholarly framework, is part of Kumarasingham’s wider ongoing research project with Natasha Wheatley of Princeton University on ‘Multidirectional Traffic in Imperial Legal Analogy between the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires’.

As Kumarasingham demonstrated through the example of Queen Victoria’s demand in 1873 that she be styled ‘Queen Empress’ like Maria Theresa in Vienna, analogies about the structure of imperial sovereignty were frequently made between the British and Habsburg empires. It is well-established that these analogies worked both ways. Whereas late nineteenth-century feudal lords in Hungary had looked toward the English constitution as a potential means of preserving Hungarian independence, the Habsburg concept of a ‘sovereign of sovereigns’ was adopted by the British in India, where the monarchs of the Princely States were brought into a subsidiary alliance with the British monarchy that allowed Britain to retain significant influence over the regions, especially in external affairs. These imperial analogies were invoked on both sides to further juridical-political agendas and to gain analytical purchase on domestic circumstances. The comparison between Britain and Austria-Hungary is perhaps unsurprising, given that both domains similarly experimented with divided and pooled sovereignty; dealt with issues concerning the incorporation of ethnic, political and historical differences into law; and explored different versions of federalism. The imperial analogy was also drawn upon in the imagining of alternative futures, and it is this particular function of the Austro-Hungarian analogy for the British Empire that Kumarasingham’s paper focuses on.

‘An Indian Augsleich?’ concerns the last years of the British Raj and examines the extent to which Austro-Hungarian models of federalism influenced the debate over India’s post-imperial future. As the end of the British Raj became increasingly foreseeable, Kumarasingham explained, competing visions for India’s future emerged. What would unite the Congress Party who wanted a united India with strong central governance, the Muslim League who wanted to protect the interests of India’s minority Muslims and who had begun to campaign for an independent Pakistan, and the Princely States that had been under indirect rule and wanted to maintain their relationship with The Crown? For some, a solution could be found in the Austro-Hungarian analogy, in which India could be the Austria, Pakistan the Hungary, and India’s Princely states the Croatia. Together, they could form a delegation of subjects under one British sovereign. Kumarasingham elucidated the popularity of such an analogy: the last two Viceroys of India, four of Britain’s Secretaries of State to India, and two native Indian civil servants had seriously explored this Austro-Hungarian model for India’s future, particularly in regard to the increasingly likely prospect of an independent Muslim state. Kumarasingham also importantly remarked that within this debate over India’s future governance, the failures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was dissolved in 1918, were largely ignored.

Kumarasingham proceeded with an overview of the various instances in which the Habsburg model can be seen to have informed a vision of Indian independence. It was not just British officials who advocated the Habsburg analogy; it formed a serious part of the discussion among Indian elites too. Government minister in Churchill’s War Cabinet, Sir Stafford Cripps, had suggested that there should be a loose union between the Indian and Pakistani nationalities, in which the territories would only be united in the person of the sovereign and by common institutions of war and finance. A model of two delegations – one Indian and one Pakistani – was similarly discussed by the British delegation of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946. For some, this Augsleich structure was seen as a potential transitional model that would enable the division of assets and a more gradual transition to independence for India. Within India, Aga Khan III, who served as head of the League of Nations from 1937 to 1938, had shared in the Austro-Hungarian vision and saw India as the Bavaria in the analogy, whilst Indian civil servant and learned judge Sir Benegal Narsing Rau had travelled to different parts of Europe, including Vienna, to examine the way that these countries had historically managed (and were contemporarily managing) their many polities. Moreover, many minority groups, such as the Princely States that did not see themselves as part of British India, were attracted to the idea of keeping The Crown’s guarantor function. Kumarasingham concluded his argument with the example of the Earl of Listowell, the Secretary of State for India and Burma from August 1947 to January 1948, who as late as May 1947, just three months before independence, was still seriously considering the Austro-Hungarian solution.

In his concise presentation, Kumarasingham revealed the major role that the Austro-Hungarian analogy played in both British and Indian ideas about the future of a post-imperial South Asian subcontinent. ‘An Indian Augsleich?’ contributes to wider discussions on Indian Independence by constituting a challenge to the perceived inevitability of Partition and revealing the 1940s as a time of possibilities. Moreover, Kumarasingham’s research contributes to the recovery of the British and Habsburg culture of comparison and cross-imperial legal reasoning that has until recently been largely overlooked by historians.

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