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Histories of Transport Labor, Modes of Circulation, and Mobile Subjects in South Asia

Tarini Bedi

Discussions of the historiography of mobility, circulation, and transport in South Asia, a region that covers the modern nation-states of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan, and Tibet, must begin with an acknowledgment of what has shaped broader historical approaches to this area. I begin by offering a brief overview of the rich, but also dominant area of focus in South Asian transport history, namely, a focus on the history of railways and on the colonial period as a watershed in South Asian transport innovation. This overview provides context to recent shifts in the transport historiography of South Asia. While focus on the history of railways was concerned with technological and economic ramifications of transportation networks and with debates over colonial governance, recent work reviewed here highlights social, cultural, and political implications of transportation within precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial settings. These newer works in cultural, economic, and labor history, literary studies, ethnohistory, global history, and anthropology acknowledge the significance of railways and existing work in transport history.

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