Decolonization and Subaltern Sovereignty: India and the Tokyo Trial

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This chapter relates Indian involvement with the Tokyo Trial to the complex intellectual and political attitudes towards concepts and regimes of sovereignty demonstrated by select Indian political actors. I draw on the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel as well as on Subaltern Studies and postcolonial scholarship to conceptualize the paradigm of ‘subaltern sovereignty’. I argue that the Indian judge in the trial, Radhabinod Pal, as well as various Indian actors associated with the Government of India and with the trial, demonstrated ambiguities towards ideas of state and supra-state sovereignty. On the one hand, from a location of racial and colonial subalternity, they critiqued regimes of sovereignty for being complicit with various instantiations of imperialism and violence; on the other hand, they felt that extra-European societies needed to adopt modern-Western structures of sovereignty if they wished to gain political autonomy within the modern international system. Such complexities account for Pal’s simultaneous denunciation of sovereignty and apologia for Japanese sovereignty (and, arguably, sovereign violence) as well as for the attitudes of Indian actors – including of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – as they vacillated between denouncing Japan and trying to protect the Japanese leadership. The chapter further locates Indian association with the Tokyo Trial within broader transnational settings (and globally-oriented intellection), including in terms of the relation between India and the British Government, as well as in relation to the politics of decolonization and neo-colonialism across East and South-East Asia. The essay’s main contribution thus lies in using the Indian participation in Tokyo to challenge certain dominant narratives about decolonization which conceptualize the latter in terms of a translation of sovereignty from empire to postcolony. Instead, the chapter argues that decolonization opened up ineradicably contradictory ways of conceptualizing sovereignty, and it is within these fecund contradictions and radical intellectual apertures that the politics and intellectual innovativeness of the Tokyo Trial needs to be situated.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWar Crimes Trials in the Wake of Decolonization and Cold War in Asia, 1945-1956: Justice in Time of Turmoil
EditorsKerstin von Lingen
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-42987-8
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-42986-1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Nov 2016

Publication series

NameWorld Histories of Crime, Culture and Violence
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan


  • Intellectual history
  • Legal History
  • Global history
  • Colonialism
  • Decolonization
  • Postcolonial Studies
  • international law
  • International criminal law
  • India
  • East Asia
  • Asia
  • Japan
  • Second World War
  • Sovereignty


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