Focus on Research: Neilesh Bose

Neilesh Bose (History)
Neilesh Bose (History)

As the Tier II Canada Research Chair in global and comparative history here at the University of Victoria, Neilesh Bose is always on the move.

When he isn’t traveling for research, writing or outreach throughout South Asia, the UK, southern Africa, Europe or North America, Bose can be found on campus, organizing initiatives such as the Global South Colloquium, which is a seminar series about the histories, politics and aesthetics connected to the Global South.  

His most recent research has focused on Taraknath Das (1884–1954), an Indian revolutionary figure who is little-known here in Canada, despite having lived and organized in and around the Pacific Northwest region, including Victoria.

With a book-length biography on Das in the works, Bose has just completed an edited volume on the history of globalization, which includes his own writing on the movements of this 20th-century activist, scholar and publisher as he organized his fellow Asian Indian immigrants to support the Indian independence movement.

Due out in December from Bloomsbury Press, South Asian Migrations in Global History: Labor, Law and Wayward Lives features original research about South Asian migrations to various regions in North America, Africa and other areas along the Pacific, in the context of 19th- and 20th- century globalization.

We sat down with Bose to learn more about his current research.


Taraknath Das is not a major historical figure; nor, as you have noted in your research, is he a ‘heroic’ figure. What is it about him that you find so compelling?

I think there is a detailed and compelling story to be told about migrants in North America who don’t easily fit into any established narrative of history. He is not quite only a part of the history of Indian nationalism, though he is a part of that history. He is not quite only a part of the history of North American immigration law, though he is a part of that history. He is not quite only a part of the history of inter-racial relationships and legal debates about citizenship, though he fits into those histories as well. Rather than learning from his story a model to emulate (because I don’t think he presents such a model), I think he can teach us a great deal about the globalized nature of the early 20th century.

That century held the promise of so much change and betterment, yet it did not necessarily deliver on those promises for many people. Tracking the lives of people like Das tells us a bit more about a common but less-known side of the globalizations of the 20th as well as our current century. Such globalizations are not about larger-than-life, powerful leaders or activists with a vast following, nor subaltern and less visible populations unknown to the world outside of their homes. What Das helps us understand is the experience of many who committed to causes bigger than themselves and ended up living lives they never expected, affecting areas they never imagined. It is these lives and these traces of lives outside the big or little histories that resonate, I think, with a large swath of today’s world.


Why do you think Das is not better known in Canadian history?

I think it’s because of the historiography of spaces in North America tends to look at a highly localized approach to the past, such as how the Canadian state came to be in the contemporary world, how Indigenous groups relate to the Canadian state, or how the region of B.C. was shaped as a province. Even though Das spent a lot of time here that was very significant for him and for broader political movements, he doesn’t usually fit into those localized histories. He doesn't have much to offer them, and so he is ignored by them even though he remains an important figure for the history of Indian anti-colonialism and for the history of immigration. I think an important part of the mission of historical work lies in bringing attention to voices and actions of those who made a key difference in the past, but remain outside the standard narratives of a particular place or period.


Do you think that Das’ life story poses a challenge to the standard narratives of Canadian history?

I think his history complicates established histories of B.C. and Canada, yes. It may also expand the horizons of Canadian history by viewing the history of a place like B.C. through relatively unknown perspectives. Das was politically active in both B.C. and Washington state, ran a newspaper in Vancouver publicizing Indian nationalists, and connected the small but growing South Asian community in Canada to that of the U.S. His story shows that a cross-border network of Indian migrants of various religions, regional identities and language groups existed emerged here; that B.C., Canada, was a key region for that network.

Although the 20th century is known for empires as the dominant form of politics, today we see some of the same politics as Das’ informing citizenship claims, border protections and securities, and immigrant politics in both the U.S. and Canada. Though they are not exactly the same processes, there are traces of the anxieties and politics of Das’ time reflected in the present day. We can benefit from learning about how political figures and activists like Das, as well as everyday people who stayed out of the limelight, dealt with politics and power in the past.


You’ve noted before that Das ‘connected the struggles of South Asians in B.C. to the larger struggle of Indian nationalists throughout the world.’ Why is that significant?

It is significant because every place has a multiplicity of histories embedded within it. Histories of Indian nationalism are not only about people who live and work in territorial India. They are about a much larger history that includes the space that we know of: British Columbia and Canada, the United States, and, of course, places like Great Britain and South Africa and many others. This is one part of the history of B.C. and Canada, as much as all of the other histories are a part of this place. It is both about being rooted somewhere and about learning how histories of nationalism are not located only in one space.


South Asian struggles in the 20th century are less discussed in public discourse today than, say, Indigenous or Black histories. In the context of today's anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter, are there lessons from the past that we could learn from for today?

There are always lessons from the past that can help those of us who care about the past, present and future. Every generation finds themselves amidst certain dominant conversations. Some of those that you mentioned around struggles between Indigenous peoples and various sovereign empires and sites of dispossession, or struggles around Black Lives Matter and the history of African migration, slavery, dispossession and migration, are, I think, the dominant conversations of our time right now.

I don't mean to suggest that we should therefore detract from those issues; but what history does at its best is constantly remind those of us in the present that there are always other spaces that get pushed out of view by other, more dominant forms. For example, approximately 100 years ago, the major issue confronting states like Canada, South Africa or Australia was the regulation and elimination from entry of migrants from India. They were often seen as one of the biggest problems that could take hold in those spaces –whether related to disease, whether related to the spreading of radical politics, whether related to the taking of jobs away from European settlers. These issues informed the policies of all the so-called ‘dominions of the British Empire.’ They were front page news back then; yet today such issues often are completely forgotten.


Upcoming events at the Global South Colloquium include:

[Oct 15] Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination - Adom Getachew (U. Chicago)

[Nov 5] Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad - Manu Karuka (Barnard College, NY)

For more information, please visit