De-Centering Humanitarianism: The Red Cross and India, c. 1877-1939


Adrian Ruprecht

PhD defended at: 

University of Cambridge


This doctoral dissertation traces how the Red Cross Movement was able to gain a foothold on the Indian subcontinent and came to play an important part in colonial civil society and in the nation-building process from the last third of the nineteenth century onwards up until the end of the interwar period. Far from being at the mere receiving end, it suggests that India played a crucial role in shaping and making the Red Cross Movement. It argues that India became an important hub of transnational and international Red Cross humanitarianism in Asia. The developments on the subcontinent had deep regional, international and global repercussions and were crucial in transforming the Red Cross into a global movement.

From the last third of the nineteenth century onwards, Indians started to organise humanitarian missions and institutions to help their co-religionists and co-citizens, but also as an act of claiming citizenship and of stressing their role in the ethical community of humanity. Like the Swiss Red Cross founders, Indian intellectuals too constructed a moral universe couched in universal terms, yet it was rooted in their own moral, geographical and imagined spaces of allegiance and affection. It was based on pan-Asian, pan-Islamic and anti-colonial conceptions of a supranational ethical community. By the end of the interwar period, the different humanitarian initiatives culminated in a distinctively Indian Red Cross and Red Crescent tradition. It recast the Christian mid-nineteenth programme of civilising war into a pan-Asian, anti- colonial, anti-communal and anti-racial internationalist movement that had deep reverberations beyond the Indian locality. It was upon such a humanitarian tradition that Nehru’s non-alignment policy was built.

By reconstructing a distinct Indian Red Cross and Red Crescent tradition this dissertation attempts to de-centre the rigorously Eurocentric and institutional focus of the current body of research on the Red Cross movement and humanitarianism more generally. It enhances our understanding of the relationship between British imperialism, decolonisation, nation-building in Asia and international and transnational humanitarianism.