Terror and Territory: Twentieth Century's First Terrorist?

My new project is concerned with the political and intellectual role of one of the most significant, but almost entirely ignored figures of the twentieth century. The work examines, in the first instance, the biography of Har Dayal, (1884-1938) a major intellectual who taught at Stanford and whose interlocutors included H.G. Wells and Kroptkin, but who was also an anti-colonial and trans-national radical. It was his activities and writings that occasioned the twentieth century’s first imperial legislation against ‘terror’ and ‘treason’. His life-traces lie obscured at the edges and in the crevices of the normative histories of Nation and Empire. Because modern history has been effectively strait-jacketed, read and retailed through the narratives of nation and empire, his life-story, while instructive of the twentieth century, remains obscure.

Traversing and creating a counter-geography to the British Empire Har Dayal founded the ‘Ghadar’ (Mutiny) Movement in 1912, with its headquarters in California. Often remembered as the ‘first armed revolution’ against the Empire, at conservative and official estimates the Ghadar movement on the eve of the First World War had at least five thousand full-time members. The Ghadar had a dizzying geography, moving arms and ammunition, and political propaganda that networked discrete locales such as Panama, Honduras, Marseilles, Hong Kong, Manila, Burma, East and South Africa. If this sounds like the fringes of the British Empire, then it is equally striking that the Ghadar’s main ally was the Pan-Islamist movement that had established its own network in Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and Ottoman Turkey. This counter-geography was propelled into the theatre of the First World War. The movement, then, has defied a historical account precisely because of its extra-territorial nature and its indeterminate relationship with ideologies of both nationalism and Communism.

In reconstructing biography, intellectual currents, imperial legislation and an armed movement, my new project will aim to centre and explore the question of the radical potential of violence for political transformation. The work will locate this problem strictly in the context of the twentieth century itself, through the perspective of the century’s own subjective character (Badiou, 2006). In recent articles, I have explored the normative vocabulary of the political as it emerged in the twentieth century revising our understanding of both iconic figures such as Gandhi and also conservative-radicals such as Tilak to challenge liberal and Marxist accounts of the rise of anti-colonial nationalism. These articles explored theoretical perspectives on the nature of the political subject, violence as fratricide, and sacrifice as a form of political duty.

The project will further this line of enquiry by developing historical and theoretical perspectives on the question of terror while relating the foundational role of extra-territoriality as it collided with territorial nationalism. Often viewed as a pathological form of politics, I will argue instead that the targeted economy of violence has been constitutive of the twentieth century world order. The work will explore the nature of the subject (the ‘terrorist’) and the limits of the Human that such an economy of violence is predicated upon. The work will intervene and critiquediscussions on the nature of subjective and objective violence. (Zizek, 2008).


Dr Shruti Kapila (History, Corpus Christi) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Michaelmas 2010.


Tel: +44 1223 766886