Notes on Colonial-Imperial knowledge formation

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from gt-nana’s stamp album, hand-dated 1919

A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.

One important scholar of the second school of thought is Eugene Irschick, of University of California Berkeley. In his 1994 work Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895, Irschick presents an argument that the British and south Indians mutually constructed narratives about the past (including a Tamil ‘golden age’) in order to construct socio-political regimes, including the sedentary village-based tax system.

Irschick summarises his underlying argument that ‘structures of meaning and institutions are cultural products negotiated by a large number of persons from every level of society in a given place and time…a single individual cannot produce meaning, a cultural development, or an institution by herself or himself’ (Preface, p ix).

Irschick argues, contra Edward Said, that the response of Indian locals to the British administration, including the information or knowledge they provided about local property and tax relations, was integral to the property regime that emerged under British rule. Moreover, south Indian rulers often exercised a considerable degree of independence from the British power. Hence, British rule was not hegemonic in the sense that the governance regimes instituted were the result of an imposed and totalizing discourse of the imperial power. Nor were they institutionally dominant. Rather they were the product of complex interactions between British administrators and indigenes and involved ‘heteroglot’ features or multiple voices and the contest between different interest groups. In summary, the construction of knowledge or meaning in the imperial settings of south India was a ‘dialogic’ process. (pp 8-9) Irschick expostulates:

Moreover, the segmentary organization of local polity enabled the population to develop significant arenas of juridical power not subject to formal British authority for many years. In the nineteenth century, after the British evolved their bureaucratic structure and a system of living in specific spatial areas set apart from the local population, there were hundreds of domains on the subcontinent where British authority was altogether lacking or uncertain. The shakiness of British dominance enabled these regions to serve throughout the period as critical sites for productive epistemological projects….

In the long term, therefore, scientific [or bureaucratic, utilitarian] discourse and the institutions that represent it create a negotiated, heteroglot construction shaped by both the weak and the strong, the colonized and the colonizer, from the present and the past. Thus, it is not possible to find a single, definite origin to these meanings and institutions. They are neither ‘European’ or ‘indigenous’. We must not essentialize any of the positions held by those involved in the dialogue. Equally important, we must recognise that the voices speaking at any given moment are tied to that specific historic instant. (pp 9-10).

In other words, knowledge about the present and the past of south Indian society was the product of a number of interacting sources and interests, making the institutions produced by this dialogic process a new creation, neither native nor exotic. At the same time, the participants were responding to the real-world contexts – economic, political, ideological – of their interactions, making their institutional creations potentially quite local and particular. As Irshick articulates, ‘discourse develops to deal with new historical requirements’. (p 11)

Sir Christopher Bayly’s work on Indian information orders and the British administration of India (Empire and Information, 1996) built in part on Irschick’s analysis, seeking to describe how a new Indian ecumene or public sphere was created through information and knowledge exchange and the creation of new print cultures from the 1830s especially. Bayly’s more recent work on Indian intellectual history (Recovering Liberties, 2012) can be compared with this earlier work. Bayly’s idea of Indians responding to western or British liberal ideas from within their indigenous worldviews and contexts, in an ‘upward hermeneutic’, takes Indian intellectual and political contexts seriously, while detailing the engagement of sectors of the Indian elite with new constitutional and governmental ideas from Britain, including ideas about representative government and independent courts.

Irschick’s Dialogue and History also draws connections between the newly constructed information and agricultural orders of South India and conceptions of citizenship in a ‘modern’ state. Irschick argues that:

the privileging of sedentarization resulted from an attempt on the part of both British and Indians to define citizenship strictly in terms of a society whose members possessed given places of residence, who were embedded, and who did not move about. The focus on sedentary society emerged as part of a general development in which the British and local agricultural groups interacted to create a high place for agriculture as the basis of the state.

In essence, European and local groups shared a conception about the quintessential mark of citizenship in a modern unitary state. Agriculture and the transferability of land, then, became the basic form of economic life in India and elsewhere. (p 191)

Irschick captures this construction of a ‘normative village’ as making people residents or citizens, as ‘giv[ing] them an address’. (p 192)

In the islands of New Zealand, British missionary knowledge and culture, followed by state culture, also intersected with indigenous (Maori) knowledge and contexts to create new knowledge and ideas about politics and society. The very conceptions of ‘Maori’ and ‘New Zealand’ are arguably two of these. Such connections and processes of historical change have not been adequately considered in New Zealand historiography.

Reading… C A Bayly

So I’m reading Christopher Bayly at the moment. When he passed away last year he was one of the leading historians of British India, the British empire generally, and also of a new global history. Richard Drayton gave a nice write-up of Bayly’s work in his obituary in the Guardian.

I’ve been reading his 1998 work Origins of nationality in South Asia: patriotism and ethical government in the making of modern India. In it he argues that 20th century Indian nationalism had older roots in pre-colonial India, in the form of various communal and political attachments to place and institutions.

He uses comparative method to trace patterns in the development of Indian nationalism that are seen in European/British contexts, including a ‘traditional patriotism’ that involved ‘attachment to the territory, custom, political and religious institutions which had developed in parts of the western world before the rise of plebiscitary nationalism, the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the modern state’ (p 4).

Was ‘India’ a mere ‘geographical expression’ or an area that expressed strong regional loyalities? 19th century British contemporaries thought that different states did express a strong ‘nationalism’, although others were more like ‘states of plunder’. By the 1820s, one British officer thought Bharatpur had become ‘the very Palladium of native pride and independence’ (p 51).

In the Epilogue, Bayly gives an insightful account of his own biography and historiographical journey. In a poke at post-modernist/-colonial approaches, he believes the abandonment by Indian historians over the previous 20 years of political and economic history, in favour of histories of cultural and ‘discourse’, was ‘retrogressive’ and representing ‘a syndrome of traumatized denial’ by historians of the ongoing significance of global capitalism and an ideological Indian politics of the present day. (pp 317-318)

Bayly argues that continuity or ‘distorted continuity’ in Indian politics/society under British rule was more significant than in other places, such as Latin America or Africa: ‘… Indians recruited from pre-colonial service and commercial communities continued to control the bulk of mercantile capital and title to land and to populate the lower ranks of the army, judiciary and police…’ (p 319)

He rather provocatively notes how Ronald Inden and Bernard Cohn considered the Subaltern Studies volumes of the 1980s and 1990s as inaugurating a true indigenous and post-colonial historiography. ‘The trajectory of Subaltern Studies from class and resistance to a concern with discourse and colonial knowledge really represented the replacement of E.P. Thomson with an Americanized version of Michael Foucault. This is  what Sumit Sarkar has deplored in Writing Social History, his polemic against the  “disapperance of the subaltern” from Subaltern Studies, and the tendency of young Indian historians to try to be “with it” by hitching their colours to the mast of post-modernism. Actually, if a true “indigenous, post-colonial historiography” is coming into existence (and this is probably impossible), it is  perhaps in the regional universities and sometimes in regional languages and has little to do with the conferences, academic exchanges and refereed journals of the international elite.’ (p 321).

Food for thought, Sir Christopher.