Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Sarath Pillai

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Sarath Pillai is a historian of modern India, focusing on the history of federalism and Indian princely states. His first monograph, tentatively titled, “Federal Futures: Imagining Federation, Constitution, and World in Late Colonial India” offers one of the first historical accounts of Indian federalism. It examines a whole world of federalist ideas that held sway in colonial India from the 1920s through the 1940s, and what that means for debates for and against federalism in India today. The book’s narrative arc is centered on protagonists who are usually sidelined in the triumphal narratives of the Indian nation-state—such as leaders of the Indian princely states, Muslim minorities, liberals, lawyers, and vernacular intellectuals and politicians. The book draws on multilingual archives in India, the UK, and the US, collected over a period of 19 months, and is based on his PhD dissertation in History, completed with distinction at the University of Chicago.

At CASI, he is one of the coordinators of the seminar series, featuring both in-person and virtual talks on modern India. After coming to Penn, he completed two major public history initiatives at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) as an intern. First, he wrote the first-ever South Asia Subject guide for HSP, giving an overarching view of its South Asia collections from the 17th century to the present. Second, he inventoried the private papers of Harry Adamson, a Philadelphia-based activist who was infected with HIV in 1982 and died in 2021. His papers are an unusual window to the world of gay rights, medical care, and the AIDS pandemic in Philadelphia. In December 2022, he was elected for a two-year term as the first-ever postdoctoral representative to sit on the University Council—the highest and widely deliberative body of the University of Pennsylvania—representing 1400 plus postdocs on campus.

At UChicago, he was a Preceptor in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS) for two years. As a preceptor he taught social theory and methods classes, supervised MA theses, undertook pastoral care, and participated in admissions and recruitment programs. He also served as the Student Ombudsperson at UChicago for two years, acquiring firsthand experience in social justice, fairness, and equity. He has taught in several core sequences in the College at UChicago: for a year in "Self, Culture, Society" (social science core focused on social theory) and for a quarter each in "Colonizations-II" and "Introduction to South Asian Civilizations-II." He has also taught modern South Asian history and European history at Hindu College and Indraprastha College for Women, both under the University of Delhi.

He holds a Ph.D. in History (with distinction) from the University of Chicago, a Master of Studies in Law from Yale Law School, a Master of Arts in history from the University of Delhi, and a Postgraduate Diploma in archives and records management from the National Archives of India, Delhi.

He was a Fellow at the Hurst Institute in Legal History at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2021. His research has been supported by American Historical AssociationCenter for International Social Science Research (CISSR), Social Sciences Research Center (SSRC), Committee on Southern Asian Studies (COSAS), Nicholson Center for British StudiesOscar M. Ruebhausen Fund for Research at Yale Law School, Humboldt-Yale History Network Travel GrantFlorence Tan Moeson Fellowship at the Library of Congress, Harry S Truman Library and Princeton University Library.

Twitter: @i_sarathpillai


In the News:

1. Sarath Pillai is the Winner of the 2022 Sardar Patel Award. This award for the best dissertation on modern India is conferred annually by UCLA.

2. Sarath Pillai speaks about the Influence of Nineteenth Century German Thought on Early Twentieth Century Indian Constitutionalists at the Ideas of India podcast hosted by Shruti Rajagopalan at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University.



2023 "German Lessons: Comparative Constitutionalism, States’ Rights, and Federalist Imaginaries in Interwar India," Comparative Studies in Society and History, (July 2023) 1-27.

2021 “Archiving Federally, Writing Regionally: Archival Practices and Princely State Histories in Postcolonial India,” Archives and Records 42.2 (Oct. 2021): 149-166.

2016 “Fragmenting the Nation: Divisible Sovereignty and Travancore’s Quest for Federal Independence,” Law and History Review 34.3 (Aug. 2016): 743-782.

Book Reviews

2023 “The Politics of Democratic Planning in Postcolonial India,” Review of Planning Democracy: How a Professor, an Institute, and an Idea Shaped India, by Nikhil Menon, Himal Southasian, April 25, 2023

2022 Book Review: A Genealogy of Terrorism: Colonial Law and the Origins of an Idea by Joseph McQuade (Cambridge University Press, 2020) Global Nineteenth-Century Studies, December 2022

2022 “Politics, Law, and ‘Founding Moments’ in Late Colonial India,” review of Norms and Politics: Sir B. N. Rau in the Making of the Indian Constitution, by Arvind Elangovan, The New Rambler, August 24, 2022.

2021 “Whither India? Princely States and the End of Empire,” review of Princestan, by Sandeep Bamzai, The Book Review 45.5 (May 2021): 06-08.

2015 Review of A Political Legacy of the British Empire: Power and the Parliamentary System in Post-colonial India and Sri Lanka, by Harshan Kumarasingham, South Asia Research 35.2 (July 2015): 272-76.

2014 Review of Princely India and the British: Political Development and the Operation of Empire, by Caroline Keen, South Asia Research 34.2 (July 2014): 183-86.

2013 “Princely Modernity: A Mysorean Perspective,” review of Mysore Modern: Rethinking the Region under Princely Rule, by Janaki Nair, Economic and Political Weekly 48.22 (March 23, 2013): 33-36.          

Public Writing 

2023 “Union Against Center: The Political Language of Federalism in India,” India in Transition, Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), University of Pennsylvania, February 27, 2023. (Republished in The Wire, The News Minute, and, and translated into Hindi, Bangla, and Tamil)

2022 “Amar Farooqui: A historian’s indelible legacy and lessons to last a lifetime,”, December 19, 2022.

2022 “How the princely states, used by Britain to consolidate its empire, faded into obscurity,”, November 24, 2022.

2021 “Archival Futures: The Archive as a Place and the Place of the Archive,” Los Angeles Review of Books, July 16, 2021.

2020 “Is this the right time for India to debate swapping its parliamentary system for a presidential one?, Sept. 13, 2020.

2020 “Kashmir and the Forgotten History of India’s Princely States,” The Diplomat, August 4, 2020.

2020 “Of Genealogy and Land Deeds: Some Thoughts on Family Histories in Kerala,” Ala: A Kerala Studies Blog, June 30, 2020.

2013 “Old Archival Laws, New Archives,” Economic and Political Weekly 48. 3 (Jan.19, 2013): 20-22.

2012 “Archives and Archival Consciousness: A Postcolonial Predicament,” Economic and Political Weekly 47.22 (June 2, 2012): 32-34.

2011 “Recovering an Indian,” Hindustan Times, Jan. 4, 2011 (on C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar).

2011 “It’s off the Records,” Hindustan Times, April 18, 2011.

2011 “Destroyed, lost, disorganized,” Indian Express, July 1, 2011.

2011 “Keeping a record of our Past,” Hindustan Times, Sept. 5, 2011.