Wilson Center Experts

Sunil Khilnani

Fellow

Affiliation:
Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Jawaharlal Nehru: A Life and its Legacies"
Term:
Sep 01, 2001
-
May 01, 2002

I was born in New Delhi in 1960, and grew up in Kenya, Romania, Senegal, India, and Scotland. I was educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where I took a First in Social and Political Sciences, and at King's College, Cambridge, I completed a Ph.D. in Modern French Political Thought, based on research conducted in Paris. I was elected to a Fellowship at Christ's College, Cambridge in 1987, and in 1989 I took up a teaching appointment at Birkbeck College, University of London. I have taught there ever since, and was elected to a chair in politics at the University of London in 2001. My research interests include the historical character of political thought (an interest pursued in my book, Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France), the problem of how one creates a political theory of and for the non-Western world (this was the motivation of the collaborative project which has resulted in the edited volume on Civil Society: History and Possibilities and it is also one of the primary purposes of my 1999 book, The Idea of India), and the always complex and changing relations between political ideas and the historical circumstances of political practice (an interest developed during my work on French intellectuals, and now being more fully explored in my research on Jawaharlal Nehru.) The focus of my current research, Indian politics and history, derives from an interest in how, in the 20th century, the core political theories and ideas of the Western and European traditions-ideas such as the state, nationalism, revolution, racial purity, democracy, development, and many more-have cut loose from their moorings in Western history and have traveled to very different locations across the world. These ideas have re-made not only their own homelands: they have also-with an intensity greater than ever before-re-made the condition of human life across the planet. And in turn, these ideas and theories have been translated, reworked, and revised in new ways by those who have taken them up outside the West. Seen from this point of view, the case of India is of outstanding interest and richness. For example, it is possible to see here how the idea of democracy has been taken up and practiced in ways which were entirely unpredictable (both in terms of the history of democracy, as well as India's own history), yet in ways which have infused new meanings into the terms and its practices. Political theory as it is standardly practiced has been neglectful of such processes of translation and redefinition. Likewise, the example of Nehru is extraordinarily interesting when seen from this perspective: an intellectual who was also a practical politician, and as one who worked at the seam connecting European and Indian ideas and practices, Nehru stands at the intersection of the central axes of my research interests.


Expertise

Indian politics and history; intellectual history; French political thought; political theory

Project Summary

The aim of my research is to produce a full-scale biography of one of the decisive figures of the 20th century, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964). The deep historical impress of Nehru's life makes him a continuing presence in contemporary India, both institutionally and ideologically; yet his legacy is being vigorously questioned today. Few have sought to re-examine his life and era in the light of new material and interpretations. Based on an extensive range of primary sources, and with a range of theoretical issues in mind, my study aims both to establish the historical record and to illuminate urgent matters of current policy.

Major Publications

  • The Idea of India. 2nd edition, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

  • Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France. Newhaven and London: Yale University Press, 1993.

  • Civil Society: History and Possibilities (with Sudipta Kaviraj). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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