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Last year, the Mittal Institute launched a new India Fellowship, based at our New Delhi Office, to provide research scholars in the region with an opportunity to be mentored by a Harvard faculty and access the University’s vast resources while being based in India. Robert Rahman Raman joins the Mittal Institute as the third cohort of India Fellows. We spoke with Robert to learn more about his research. 

Mittal Institute: Welcome to your fellowship at the Mittal Institute, Robert. Could you elaborate on your research interests?

Robert Rahman Raman: My research interests lie in the field of Labour History, Urban Studies and Popular Politics in colonial India. More specifically my focus is on the popular politics of Bombay (now Mumbai) and its erstwhile mill district (Girangaon). In my research, I explore the history of the city’s socially diverse workforce to illuminate the complex makeup of the changing socio-political landscape of Bombay in the first half of 20th century.

In my research, I question the basic idea of ‘Girangaon’ projected in previous scholarly works and the virtual marginalization of other, non-Maharashtrian strands of its political culture. 

By focusing on the interaction and association of Muslim workers with the variegated and contending socio-political currents, my research attempts to move beyond the apparent homogeneity at the spatial and political levels, to open a window to an alternative understanding of the diversity and richness of Girangaon’s political culture.

News clipping of sweepers' protest in Bombay

Mittal Institute: Could you give us a brief overview of the research topic that you will be pursuing over the course of your fellowship at the Mittal Institute?

Robert Rahman Raman: During this year at the Mittal Institute, I will study the popular mobilizations which swept Bombay during the 1940s, through an exploration of archival and literary texts. The last decade of colonial rule has largely been condensed to communal polarization, partition, and the birth of two nation states. This widely accepted narrative, however, reduces the complexity of this historical conjuncture and ignores the existence of other un-realized alternate possibilities of mass movements which, have been almost forgotten today.

In order to question the hegemonic patterns of Indian historical remembrance, my project would explore the range of popular mobilizations – workers’ strikes, nationalist mobilizations, the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate state, and popular revolts like the Royal Indian Naval revolt. These sharpened in the 1940s, providing the city’s political climate a certain degree of plurality and fluidity, and its history in the last years of colonial rule, remained less inevitable and linear than assumed.

Mittal Institute: Could you describe the work you were involved with prior to this fellowship?

Robert Rahman Raman: I received my doctorate in March 2023 from the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen under Professor Ravi Ahuja. My doctoral research titled, “Decentering the History of Girangaon: Popular Politics and Muslim Workers in Late Colonial Bombay, 1919-1947” is a study of the popular politics and heterogeneous political culture of Bombay’s mill district (Girangaon). For my doctoral project, I was awarded fellowships from the German Research Foundation, (DFG) and German Historical Institute, London. Alongside my doctoral research, from 2018-2021 I was associated with IISH (Amsterdam) -CeMIS (Göttingen) and GHIL (London)/Max-Webber Stiftung affiliated project called Archives of Indian Labour, in New Delhi. After defending my thesis, I worked as a consultant on the Max Webber Stiftung and ICAS-MP’s research project on Post Pandemic Politics and Migrant Workers, where we were collating workers’ experiences during the pandemic. Before joining the Mittal Institute, I was working as a research assistant with the ICAS-MP (Delhi) and CeMIS (Göttingen) affiliated research module “labour as a political category”.

Mittal Institute: How will this fellowship with the Mittal Institute benefit your research?

Robert Rahman Raman: This fellowship provides a unique opportunity to access the vast library resources at Harvard, which are crucial to explore the existence of alternate possibilities of popular mobilization in 1940s Bombay. It would help me integrate my ongoing research in Maharashtra State Archives and the National Archives of India. Furthermore, this fellowship gives me a chance to work closely with my mentor Prof. Sugata Bose, and engage with other scholars at Harvard. This collaboration will definitely enrich my research and I hope to learn and contribute to the emerging research in this field.

This fellowship provides a unique opportunity to access the vast library resources at Harvard, which are crucial to explore the existence of alternate possibilities of popular mobilization in 1940s Bombay.

Mittal Institute: What are you most excited about for your year at LMSAI?

Robert Rahman Raman: I am looking forward to the conversations with my mentor, which would immensely help me to fine tune my research and acquire new perspectives to think about the plurality of historical experiences in 1940s South Asia. I am also looking forward to interacting with my fellow peers, visiting scholars and participating in the talks, conferences, and other initiatives hosted by the Mittal Institute.