PhD candidate Anjali Anand investigates the role of merchants in pre-colonial state building in South Asia

By Allison Leon

Anjali Anand, a PhD candidate in Comparative Politics, found her interest in politics as a policy debater in high school.

“In ninth and tenth grades, I was a policy debater. That left the impression that there is this world of arguments and ideas, and you can argue about politics in a rigorous fashion. I’ve always liked history and thinking about how and why societies change over time, and I was always really interested in current affairs, and I think that came out of being a policy debater.”

For her undergraduate studies, Anand attended Amherst College, double majoring in economics and political science.

“Economics answers questions through a defined theoretical structure. What I like about political science is that it interrogates what the assumptions behind those theories are. For example, economists assume markets work competitively and then examine issues that arise when markets don’t work competitively. But determining the origins of that lack of competitiveness means you often have to look at politics.”

Her honors thesis focused on studying terrorist groups in South Asia. She considered the possibility that globalization was disrupting local markets, creating displacements that fueled recruitment into terrorist groups.

“I had originally been interested in understanding spaces in South Asia that seemed to be at the periphery of state politics, especially places like Kashmir or Khyber Pakhtunkwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP.) They often acted as safe havens for terrorist groups because they were inaccessible to the state.”

Anand decided to continue her studies through a Ph.D. program. In choosing a graduate school, she considered academic merit, proximity to family, and scholarship and support resources. The University of Chicago met all of those criteria. Anand was also able to use resources at UChicago like the South Asian Languages and Civilizations and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations as well as in various mentors who works across subfields and disciplines.

“UChicago is very good at giving you this interdisciplinary playing field. You have all these different resources in all these fields, and it’s up to you as a student to go find them and use them.”

She intended to continue her studies in international relations, but found an variety of interests through her early coursework, which introduced her to new questions and research ideas. This ultimately led to her deciding to focus on comparative politics as her primary subfield.

Anand’s dissertation grew out of her fascination with historical state building as well as her interest in making a contribution to the study of pre-colonial state building in South Asia, a relatively unexplored topic in comparison to the larger historical state building literatures on Europe and China. This led her to examine how corporations or merchants governed India, as part of the ‘Great Divergence’ -- the decline of Asia as a global economic powerhouse.

“Indian historians agree that what happened in the 18th century is that Indian financiers started working with the British, thus abandoning local rulers. That’s a really good pivot to understand this giant, macro process which is often called the ‘Great Divergence.’ There is this bigger puzzle there that needs to be explained, which fits really well into all these different literatures from state formation to economic history to the emergence of secure property rights and modern states.”

When studying eighteenth century India, how to approach colonial archives are a methodological concern and studying indigenous archives becomes difficult. Anand, like other scholars on South Asia, relies on British records to examine interactions between the East India Company and local Indian rulers, despite having reservations about how to use such documents.

“One thing that colonial empires had to do that the British did particularly well is they gathered all this local knowledge and trained people to read and write and speak in Indian languages so they could communicate with the populations they were governing. They had to have a deep sense of the things that mattered to them like tax revenue, land revenue, property rights - how all of these things functioned in the Indian context. Because the British came to India from their own system, they looked for parallels to that system in India. Sometimes they didn’t find it so there would be debates between officials, and as a researcher you have to go sift through all of that. You have to be careful that the state that is doing the conquering or the governing is not the authoritative voice in your project.”

Anand has traveled to India as an Academic Year Language Fellow in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India through the American Institute for Indian Studies. After this eight month program, Anand traveled to Hyderabad to do preliminary archival work at the Telangana State Archives. She looked for land title documents in order to understand what sorts of institutions were implicitly or explicitly mentioned in contracts. Continuing her research, Anand traveled to London this summer to work with documents in the India Office Records, the repository of the East India Company.

“I aim to find records of financial transactions between the East India Company and local merchants, as well as legal proceedings between merchants that brought their disputes to the East India Company courts. I have to see if the East India Company was aware of merchant relationships to itself relative to other rulers. The East India Company in Bombay was competing with other local rulers for the same financing from the same merchants.”

In the coming academic year, Anand will be teaching a Grodzins Prize Lectureship course in Spring 2019 called "Homelands, Borderlands, and No Man's Land" which looks at how states use territory for political ends. She will also be working as a BA preceptor, guiding fourth years through the process of writing their honors theses.

Outside of her research, Anand has also worked on campus in a non-academic capacity. She first worked at the University of Chicago Press, gaining insight as to how books are contracted and published. After her time in India, she began working for the Division of Social Sciences as a Higher Education intern with the communications team. Anand found writing outside academia rewarding.

“I think academic writing is different from the type of writing I do as an intern, because you're writing for a very different audience with a different purpose in mind. Being a Higher Ed Intern has taught me how to write about scholarly work for a general audience, which is an incredibly important skill for being able to connect with non-academics about what kind of work is being done in the academy and why it might be relevant to them.”