Julianne Greco ’12
Last Thursday, senior history major Becca Solnit presented a chapter from her honors thesis project. In her project, Solnit explores what she calls the “forgotten lobby,” the network of individuals pushing for Indian independence during World War II. Solnit tracks the lobby from its earlier days with “just a handful of concerned Indian Americans” to “a network capable of harnessing mass media, attracting high-profile supporters, and utilizing trends of internationalism to advance their cause.” Solnit argues that this India Lobby is near absent but deserves attention in the historiographies of U.S.-India WWII relations and American ethnic lobbies.
I got this more from the presentation than her paper, but Solnit’s study seems to cinch on the question of “how to measure the impact of public opinion on wartime foreign policy.” I think this is certainly a challenge she’s facing, but several of the professors during the Q&A drew attention to this and questioned whether she conflates influence with public opinion, since she what she was describing had more to do with the lobby’s impact on policies. I’m wondering if since she focuses so much on the activism of members of the India League, she should frame things differently. Perhaps factor in public opinion, but don’t make it her big question and focus more on the lobby’s interactions with the policymakers.
She does mention in her paper that “while the lobby’s relationship with the different branches of the U.S. government was key to their mission to affect U.S. policy, it may be legitimate to question whether policy results are to the only measure of an ethnic lobby’s success.” Yes. I think it would be legitimate to find another measure, but isn’t her invocation of public opinion the other measure she is focusing on? I think it’s okay to use both, but maybe prioritize one over the other. If the end goal of the lobby is Indian Independence, then success means a change in U.S. policy towards the Brits in order to apply pressure to declare Indian independence. Maybe this could be more of a dialectic situation: the lobby could be affecting public opinion, then this public opinion could influence policy and at the same time, the lobby could be directly influencing policy. This goes back to my question of how she should frame her paper.
Moreover, I understand that this is the first chapter of the project, but I walked away from her presentation and paper unclear about to what extent this India Lobby impacted the British to grant Indian independence. Other then F.D.R. sending a telegraph to Eden, how precisely did the U.S. affect the eventual outcome of Indian independence? Raffy hit the nail on the head when he asked about the lobby’s interaction with London, since as a colony of the British, London would theoretically be the place where the big decision of Indian independence would have been made.
As for sources, Solnit has obviously done some pretty thorough research based on her webpage. When I first went to Solnit’s webpage for her honors project, I was confused about why the header of the site reads “Why India –Now?” since her topic is for the history department and the chapter she presented has more to do with India struggling for its independence around World War II than now. However, when browsing through her sources, I found the header she used was a part of a display ad for Indian independence. It was interesting to see the kind of work she talks about in her paper like the ads and I’m impressed with the comprehensiveness of both her primary and secondary sources.
Overall, I think Solnit has an interesting topic that I personally have never even thought of. It seems like she has a few variables to isolate and work through to understand all the cause and effect relationships, but if her project can help fill some of the gaps in the scholarship that she mentions—which it sounds like it will—then her project will be sound.