South Asian Humanitarianism in armed conflicts, 1899-1949 (Habilitationsprojekt)

The research project examines South Asian humanitarian relief work in armed conflicts between the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Influenced by the changing nature of warfare, notions of benevolence and compassion, and religious and strategic agendas, different humanitarian initiatives to help wounded soldiers and civilian victims of warfare and civil strife were founded in the second half of the 19th century. The broader context of these measures was a growth of international organizations and institutions. Such organizations contributed to developing a humanitarian global community which both operated within and transcended the institutional, territorial and ideological boundaries created on national and imperial bases. Within this international and transnational frame, the project focuses on humanitarian help originating from British India. In the first half of the 20th century, a variety of organizations became prominent in providing relief for victims in international crises and domestic conflicts.

Therefore, the project studies two interrelated developments: One, an institutional and social history of local and national political and religious-cultural associations, including women’s groups, that were either non-sectarian or belonged to the Hindu tradition; some of them were the Indian National Congress (INC), the Hindu nationalist volunteer organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Social Service League, the Servants of India Society, the All-India Women Conference and the Arya Samaj. Two, the project analyzes the discourses and practices of the South Asian branches of international civil society organizations, which had a more or less Protestant Christian background. The prominent amongst them were the Indian Red Cross, the Indian St John Ambulance, the Salvation Army and the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A).

While discourses of ‘nationalism’ constituted a common thread amongst these organizations, changing points of reference to provide humanitarian relief – from the perspective of empire to the concurrent developments of internationalism and communalism – are conspicuously visible. In order to link the global and the local, the project analyzes the transfer of ‘western’ discourses and practices to Indian contexts and their appropriation by Indian actors. At the same time, it is imperative to critique and ultimately overcome any simplistic model of ‘diffusion’ of ideas from the West and treating India just as a passive receiving society. By closely following the ways of encounters of travelling ‘global’ ideas and models and the ways they interacted with the local traditions and practices the project tries to deconstruct such common views.