Office Hours: Wednesdays 1:30 - 3:00 pm, and by appointment
Field & Specialties
Modern South Asia
Transnational and Diplomatic History
Intellectual History and History of Ideas
B.A. – St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, 1998
M.A. – Tufts University, 2000
Ph.D. – Tufts University, 2005
I am an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia. I currently teach survey courses on 18th-20th century South Asia as well as upper-level seminar coures and graduate courses on the Partition of the Indian subcontinent and blasphemy politics in South Asia. I am the author of two books, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia (Harvard University Press and HarperCollins India, 2023) and Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard University Press and Permanent Black, 2011, pbk 2016). I have also edited two special issues of Asian Affairs: 'Ghosts from the Past? Assessing Recent Developments in Religious Freedom in South Asia' was published in 2018 and 'Citizenship, Belonging, and the Partition of India' was published in 2022.
I am currently writing a coursebook "India's Partition: Politics, Culture, Memory" that is under contract with Cambridge University Press, and will be submitted to the press in December 2023. I have also begun researching and thinking on the making of the region that is South Asia, from the perspective of capital cities in the alleged margins of the region - Dhaka, Colombo, Islamabad, and Kabul. The working title for this project is "Capitals in the Margins: South Asia Since Partition".
My research has been supported by fellowships from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Taraknath Das Foundation, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was a non-residential Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 2018 to 2020.
Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2023
Ghosts from the Past? Assessing Recent Developments in Religious Freedom in South Asia, ed. with Michael Kugelman, Routledge, 2021
Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2011; Paperback 2016
Reviewed in The American Historical Review, Journal of Asian Studies, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Oral History Review, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Journal of Genocide Research, Indian Historical Review, Canadian Journal of History, H-Net Reviews, Contemporary South Asia, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, The Hindu, India International Centre Quarterly, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), The Book Review (India), Asian Affairs, Social History, Choice, Countercurrents.org, South Asian Review, Refugee Watch Online, among other publications. Extracts are available here
Capitals in the Margins: South Asia Since Partition, in preparation
India's Partition: Politics, Culture, Memory, in progress; under contract with Cambridge University Press
Edited Special Issues
Citizenship, Belonging, and the Partition of India, a special issue of Asian Affairs, 53, 2, 2022
Ghosts from the Past? Assessing Recent Developments in Religious Freedom in South Asia (coedited with Michael Kugelman), a special issue of Asian Affairs, 49:2, 2018
Peer reviewed articles
'Toward Mass Education or an "Aristocracy of Talent": Nonalignment and the Making of a Strong India', in Gyan Prakash, Michael Laffan, and Nikhil Menon eds., The Postcolonial Moment in South and Southeast Asia, London: Bloomsbury, 2018, pp. 183-200
'Indo-Pak Relations: A Window of Opportunity that has Almost Closed', Economic and Political Weekly, December 20, 2014, Vol. 49, No. 51
'Beyond the "communal" 1920s: the problem of intention, legislative pragmatism, and the making of section 295A of the Indian Penal Code', The Indian Economic and Social History Review, July 2013, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp. 317-340.
Reprinted in The Law Weekly 2016-3-LW, Vol. 199, 1 JS - 20 JS and The Law Weekly (Criminal) 2016-1-LW (Crl) 48 JS - 68 JS
Cited in the Law Commission of India report on Hate Speech, March 2017
Cited in the International Commission of Jurists Report On Trial: The Implementation of Pakistan's Blasphemy Laws, November 2015
Articles on 'Hindu Mahasabha’, ‘Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya’, ‘Rangila Rasul’, ‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’, ‘Sanatan Dharm’, ‘Shuddhi’, ‘Swami Shraddhanand’ in Ayesha Jalal ed., The Oxford Companion to Pakistani History, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012
‘“Partition” and “minority rights” in Punjabi Hindu Debates, 1920-1947’, Economic and Political Weekly, Special Articles, December 24, 2011, Vol. 46, No. 52, pp. 61-69
‘Bhagat Singh as “satyagrahi”: the limits to non-violence in late colonial India’, Modern Asian Studies, May 2009, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 649-681
Translated into Hindi by Krishna Chaitanya for Filhaal, September-October 2021, pp. 25-39
My first book Changing Homelands: Hindu Politics and the Partition of India (Harvard and Permanent Black, 2011) traces the politics of Punjabi Hindus in the first half of the twentieth century. A religiously defined minority in undivided Punjab, these Hindus aligned themselves with Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs during various anticolonial national movements even as they simultaneously inched eastward, towards the rest of Hindu-majority India, styling themselves 'communalists' and their politics 'communal'. I study their politics, mark their particular motivations, and account for the suddenness with which Partition and Partition violence struck - both in history and in memory. I also raise and answer the troubling, seemingly eternal question: was Partition inevitable?
My second book, Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging in South Asia, will be published by Harvard University Press and HarperCollins India in March 2023. Through a history of foundational moments such as the Gandhi Murder Trial, the lawsuits against secular forces during the mobilization in Ayodhya, and debates on the meaning of 'Islamic state' and 'secularism' in Pakistan and Bangladesh, I examine the shaping of state ideologies by "hurt sentiments" in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In the process, I ask what it has meant for India to be a secular republic, for Pakistan to be an Islamic republic, and for Bangladesh to be a secular republic that also enshrines Islam as the state religion.
I have recently edited a special issue of Asian Affairs on Citizenship, Belonging and the Partition of India which is based on a symposium that was held, via zoom, at the University of Virginia's Institute of the Humanities and Global Culture and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs.
I am now working on two book projects. The first, titled India's Partition: Politics, Culture, Memory has been commissioned by Cambridge University Press. This is based on courses on Partition that I have regularly taught at the University of Virginia. The second book Capitals in the Margins: South Asia Since Partition will be a transnational history of India's foreign policy within the South Asian neighborhood.
My other interests lie in the fields of education policy, memory studies, and oral history.
Awards & Honors
Mellon Humanities Fellow, Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures, University of Virginia, 2020-21
Harry Frank Guggenheim Distinguished Scholar, 2019
Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C., 2018-20
Fellow, Public Voices, The OpEd Project, fall 2019
Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, summer 2019
Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2017-18
Frederick Burkhardt Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies, John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress, 2016-17
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Fellowship, 2016
University of Virginia Sesquicentennial Fellowship, spring 2016, 2009-10
American Institute of Indian Studies Senior Short-Term Fellowship, 2014
University of Virginia Faculty Stipend for Summer Research, 2020, 2012, 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007
University of Virginia research support in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, 2020-21, 2016, 2015, 2010, 2008
Mellon - MIT Inter-University Program on International Migrations, 2002-03
Columbia University, Taraknath Das Foundation, Southern Asian Institute, 2002
Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, 2002
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Summer Language Training Fellowship, 2001
Tufts University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Student Award for Outstanding Academic Performance, 2001
Interview with Lauren Frayer, 'India's Supreme Court steps in after Hindu leaders call for violence against Muslims', NPR, January 21, 2022
MIT Center for International Studies, Democracies on the Crossroads?, Starr Forum, October 23, 2020
Interview with G. S. Mudur, 'CAA-NRC a road to Hindu Rashtra', The Telegraph, December 18, 2019
Interview with G. S. Mudur, 'Ayodhya case verdict: Secularism not easy to crush', The Telegraph, November 10, 2019
Writers Read, March 25, 2011
The Page 99 Test, March 22, 2011
Interview with Rukun Advani, 'Event, Metamorphosis, Memory: Opening the Curtain on a Minority View of Partition', Permanent Black Blogspot, January 5, 2011
Internet and Popular Press Publications
'1971 and the case for secularism in Bangladesh and India', The Daily Star, September 12, 2022. Published in The Print, Sept 13, 2022; The Print Hindi, Sept 14, 2022; Ananda Bazar Patrika, Sept 16, 2022
'What might Gandhi have done today', The Hindu, May 2, 2022
'The will to secular practice', The Indian Express, December 30, 2021
'A Historian's Fears', The Indian Express, June 12, 2021
'For Congress, A History Lesson', The Indian Express, August 29, 2020
'Haksar's advice to Indira Gandhi can help Sonia steer Congress in the right direction', The Print, March 13, 2020. Published in The Print Hindi here.
'Missing Rahul in Delhi', The Indian Express, March 3, 2020
'For the first time, India is seeing secularism go from a top-down decree to a street slogan', The Print, January 3, 2020. Published in The Print Hindi and in Ananda Bazar Patrika, January 4, 2020.
'An Emergency Today', Review of Emergency Chronicles: Indira Gandhi and Democracy's Turning Point by Gyan Prakash, The New Rambler: An Online Review of Books, September 11, 2019
'Modi's Kashmir move is biggest test for Indian democracy - and for the silent liberals', The Print, August 5, 2019. Published in Hindi in The Print, August 6, 2019
'Under Narendra Modi, the once-close circle of Godse acolytes has only grown larger', The Print, May 19, 2019. Published in Bengali in Ananda Bazar Patrika, May 19, 2019
‘Old Laws for New Reasons: The Limits to Free Speech in India’, Berkley Forum, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University, August 23, 2018
‘Secularism and India’s Electoral Democracy’, Asia Dispatches, Wilson Center Blog, June 19, 2018
Perspective: 'Rising Religious Intolerance in South Asia,' Current History, April 2018
‘In many significant ways, Nehru’s vision for India seems passé’, The Print, November 14, 2017
'What did Gandhi Stand For, And How Is His Legacy Faring in Today's India', Huffington Post India, 10 October 2017
‘What does Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification mean for democracy in Pakistan and its politics’, The Print, July 28, 2017
‘Heroes of Hindu Nationalism’, Op-ed, India Today, January 12, 2015
'Freedom and Faith in India', Review of Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right edited by Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum in Current History, April 2015, pp. 157-59 [pdf]
Book Reviews in the American Historical Review, Current History, Social History, Journal of Islamic Studies, Journal of British Studies, Journal of Asian Studies, Contemporary South Asia, The Tribune, The Print, The New Rambler, and Seminar. For details, see virginia.academia.edu/NeetiNair