09. Colonial and Post-Colonial Knowledge


To continue this general look at ‘post-colonial studies’, I shall move on to review Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (1990) by Nicholas B. Dirks.

In his investigations into the nature and development of ’caste’, Dirks flips between a sociological approach and historical pronouncements. The care and modesty he uses as a sociologist contrasts very starkly with the sureness of the pronouncements he makes when speaking as a historian. So, he can say something as vague as: ‘caste has always been a contingent local phenomenon’ (p. 79), yet talk elsewhere of ’the extraordinary impact of colonial rule’ (p. 314), of how colonialism ‘changed things both more and less than has commonly been thought’ (p. 80), and even to assert that in colonialism lay the origins of capitalism. For, as history, this is a book that reaches out to global horizons, using strong language to do so.

Professor Dirks has a series of fundamental views about India, colonialism and caste that are not empirical, but purely ideological. For instance, he maintains that caste as a concept and a social practice was profoundly changed under British rule. These ‘changes’ he takes as proof for his belief that the colonial government was very powerful. The trouble is, he believed that already, so whether the changes in caste were actually caused by the government is not something he questions. And there is a further problem. To assume that caste wouldn’t change under any circumstances over nearly two hundred years (and that it therefore had to be the British doing it) is an Orientalist position, based on a stereotype of the unchanging East. To believe such a thing would be to support the idea that Indian social institutions are uniquely strong in their traditionalism, timeless, and changeless, that they are sanctioned by irrational religion, conservatism, ignorance and so forth. So the issue of change is not straightforward.

As part of his enquiry Dirks traces older ideas about caste than his own, and dismisses them all as unsatisfactory. His view is that the imported modernity of colonialism changed the ‘registers’ of belief and social reality in India, and that therefore all British observations on the subject were wrong, biased and self-serving. The British liked to think of caste as ancient, and as definitive of India’s entire society. H. H. Risley thought it had an ‘ethnic’ base, and he was wrong. W Crooke thought it related to function and occupation, and he was wrong too. This is fair enough. But Dirks moves to the overall conclusion – his own conclusion – that it was colonial power/knowledge that was responsible for caste, that enforced and reinforced it, perpetuated it, recognised it and ossified it within bureaucratic structures and definitions. All this was part of the colonial package, and was designed to prop it up, to rule India ‘indirectly’ through the institutions of caste (p. 80).

At this point it is sufficient to say that this is sociology driven by political assumptions, not history grounded in documents or events. It is inserting political bias into a historical viewpoint at such an early stage that everything downstream becomes deeply dyed.

There is another pattern that emerges very clearly in Dirks’ work, and it is the patronising arrogance of those who can see the truth clearly where others have been milky-eyed. We are reminded of poor old E Pococke, who simply kicked away the restraints that had held others back from reaching ‘definitive’ conclusions. Dirks, in his own version of Pococke’s method, simply announces that the British were wrong about caste, even while they were inventing its modern form. But he goes further. Even Indians, who invented caste in its historic form, are wrong about it, and it is not a key symbol of Indian social reality (p. 79). That idea was a British sponsored untruth.

Dirks is keen on British untruth. He is convinced that ‘the British underestimated the impact they had, even as they complained about their weakness, ignorance and lack of real power’ (p. 304). In view of this it becomes necessary to ‘interrogate’ the ‘colonial archive’ and not merely to read it. Here post-Marxist critical theory comes into its own, with its insistence that any human artefact or undertaking – written or not – can be read as a ‘text’, and therefore submitted to ’textual’ analysis. This empowers the critic to see or detect deeper, hidden meanings in any ‘text’, broadly defined. The beholder is then sitting firmly in the driving seat, and indeed the judge’s chair. What is selected for assessment is a subjective decision, and the judgement passed on it is subjective too. In this case the initial assumption is that the British were lying, or at least were lacking self-awareness, and that therefore what they said, wrote, and did can be assumed to have other hidden meanings. It is because ‘colonial power has been so good at dissembling’, says Dirks on page 306, that the ‘reading’ he produces is required.

In the end, of course, if you torture the ‘texts’ enough, they will confess.

Is colonialism still going on? Dirks says ‘yes’, and this renders everything much easier. For him, colonialism is undoubtedly the most powerful thing that ever existed. There is no lack of ambition in Dirks. ‘I have sought to go much further than Said’, he offers (p. 304). Perhaps he has. But his conclusions are hopelessly intermingled with his starting assumptions.

Now we can ask: what actual help is this to Indian people reading this kind of book? It tells them that not only were they victims two hundred years ago, but that they still are. Perhaps Dirks is not that concerned. The end section of Caste is a long diatribe against the Cambridge School, attempting to prove that grittier interpretations of Indian history, based on views of Indians as ordinary humans beings, are not valid. There is another lesson to be drawn here, and it is not just that Dirks lives in an ivory tower, or is heavily concerned with picking recherché fights to enhance his academic career. Specifically, Dirks is denying that Indian people have ordinary – i.e. economic – motivations. Anyone who has ever spent time in India will probably struggle with that idea.

One of the main contentions of the Cambridge School is that Indians were importantly involved in the British project to take over and then run India – not as ideological supporters of colonialism, but from a variety of practical and political motives. India thus became a colony partly with the help of ‘Indian agency’, which is not difficult to see when surveying pictures of the sepoy armies employed by the EIC. Dirks goes out of his way to ridicule the idea of native agency. But without some degree of collaboration from local groups and individuals, it is hard to show exactly how the British did take over and rule India, starting with a Company army split into three and numbering less than a thousand in 1740.

One way round this problem is to maintain that the British were strong enough to conquer India without any native help at all. If the British can be shown to be very strong then this eases Indians out of any responsibility for their own subjection, and this can then be used to show how the British created caste, religious communities and whatever else in India, without the consent, collaboration or even awareness of Indians. This picture may be very attractive to utopian or nationalist Indians, or very left-wing non-Indians, but it raises certain problems.

Firstly, it contradicts a central belief that the British held about their own empire. The colonisers themselves constantly complained of their own weakness, lack of money and inability to alter Indian institutions. Dirks disposes of this by damning all British texts to this effect as untruthful. Next, it runs counter to the historic fact that the Indian army and (lower) administration were almost exclusively manned by Indians. We may choose to define ‘collaboration’ in very narrow terms to get round this problem, but to do so would be self-serving. Indians flocked to help out the British in a variety of ways. Rajas made political and military alliances, and though they often came to regret them, they entered into them freely. Where Indians were notably absent was in politics, which hardly existed at all as a normal form of activity under the Raj. Indians therefore could not cooperate in the sphere of executive political office. And if no Indian ever cooperated with the British, then surely this makes nonsense of Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation campaign. This movement, rather centrally, was pledged to withdraw cooperation, which must therefore have existed. In economic terms, local Indian capitalists, such as Omichand and the Jagat Seths, financed British trading and military activities in the initial phase, and other entrepreneurs, from the Tagores down to the Birlas, made money in colonial India. Dirks simply dismisses this argument out of hand, and pooh-poohs the entire corps of such entrepreneurs, with a simple rhetorical flick of the wrist (p. ?).

But the last argument against Dirks’ position that Indians did not collaborate/cooperate/collude with colonial forces, is that it redefines and separates British and Indian humanity. What Dirks is saying in his attack on the Cambridge historians, is that British intruders could be motivated by greed, financial gain, ambition and lust for power, but that Indians were not. Why? If we look at the internal politics of the Marathas states, or the history of the subah of Bengal, these classic universal human motivations are found in abundance. Dirks is expecting us to believe that these universal motivations stopped dead at the borders of colonialism. This is a big claim to make and requires, for a start, that colonialism, at its very inception, had clearly defined borders, either physical or ideological, that Indians were not willing to cross. Such a rigid and contrived idea is clearly nonsensical.

But conviction is the driving force here, not realism. ‘Colonialism’ in Dirks’ hands comes into being as an all-consuming, distinctive entity either the second that the battle of Plassey was won (which is roughly what he maintains in a later book The Scandal of Empire) or some time very shortly afterwards. This is bad history – partly because colonialism was never monolithic – and is also very lazy conceptualisation, because the colonial project grew slowly into a vast and varied affair, incorporating a great many different streams and literally hundreds of thousands of people, European and Indian.

For a final word, the idea that the British could want to make money in India and yet Indians didn’t is, yet again, a highly Orientalist position. Dirks is either making Indians out to be mystics and traditionalists – unconcerned with material things – or he is implying that they were scrupulous proto-nationalists in 1757 (an anachronistic nonsense) or that there is s special morality innate in Indians that makes them run from the allure of power, but only when it is colonial power, which they can distinguish as such, even when the British were just one gang among many in India, and not the only foreign one either. To say any or all these things about Indians is to make a very special case about the special virtues of South Asians, in a way that Dirks would never tolerate were it about special vices. Indians are just the same as anybody else, and those that deny it are usually far to the political right of where Dirks would probably place himself.

It is factually wrong to say that no Indian ever joined up with the colonial project in any way, and it is undeniably exceptionalist, or Orientalist, to water down such a denial by claiming that any who did, did so for strange, non-standard motivations

‘Orientalist’ concerns simply go round and round in an unhelpful, politically inspired tail-chase. No truth can be told to Indians by the West, because (any but very left-wing) Westerners are patronising, and their knowledge is incomplete and inaccurate. But what comes out of the alternative quarter? Nothing but the depressing news that Indians are wrong about themselves, and their society, and that they are still battling against an economic system of injustice, but cannot combat it with economic means, because economic motivations are not felt in the East. For all its left-wing pretensions, this kind of writing is simply a long note to the Indian public telling them that they must suffer. This kind of history is nothing but a way to show Indians a grim past and a dim future.

Ordinary Indians themselves for the most part will get little out of these kinds of post-colonial studies, particularly from the Subaltern group, except some possible enjoyment of the Brit-bashing. But they may well not easily understand much of it, written as it is in highly technical English that can tax any native speaker to the limits and beyond, with its scholastic love of contested meanings and intersecting discourses, all drawn out to political and literary vanishing points.

The whole project is a strange hybrid of left-wing theory about the common people combined with a cultural patriotism alien to most classical left-wing thinking. Subaltern writers refuse to have western concepts foisted on Indians as explanatory tools, yet they insist that somehow Indians are different enough not to feel individualism or bourgeois rationality. Again, this is not a historical observation but the result of a pre-prepared position on the relationship between states and nations, and between nationalism, mass movements and popular culture. This leads them to mistrust Western, ‘statist’ interpretations of national movements. All we learn is that Indian motivations are somehow ‘different’ and further research will reveal just how. Meanwhile this whole approach is, one might argue, negative, obscurantist and patronising.

Within post-colonial intellectual endeavour everything is contested, interrogated and reconstructed as necessary, including all standard terms and categories, such as ‘caste’, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’. And yet the one term that is accepted without question or quibble is ‘colonialism’. It appears page after page without qualification. To think of colonialism as one undifferentiated thing is to do multiple disservices to the truth. The attitude of the British was different in different eras. Levels of security, and degrees of clarity of purpose were not the same in 1770, 1820 and 1870. There were always internal disputes within British circles about the conduct, purposes and policies that colonialism required; to rule directly or not, to interfere, reform, convert, settle, educate or invest – or not. Nicholas Dirks has no excuse for lumping all this colonialism together; he refers to the disagreements surrounding early empire in India, including the vicious disputes between Burke and Hastings, as well as a number of other sub-arguments. Philip Francis and Lord Cornwallis wanted to back large landowners, as in the Bengal Settlement of 1793. Sir Thomas Munro, in Madras, wanted to back the peasants. This was a very long-running dispute, and was exactly mirrored in the fierce arguments between John Lawrence and his brother Henry in the 1850s in the Punjab. On another tack, Curzon (Viceroy 1898-1905) was a centraliser who wished to exclude Indians from all political office; Morley, Secretary for India less than a year after Curzon’s departure, was a gradualist liberal who wanted to introduce limited representation and participation. To centralise or to devolve was another constant debate from the 1870s onwards, as was the question of whether to censor the press (1878), or to liberalise it (1882) – the list goes on and on. The political and cultural elements of colonialism – the very elements that Dirks constantly latches onto – were not fixed. How could they be? Intellectually, economically, culturally and politically Britain was in flux throughout the colonial period, as was the wider world. Does not the way that British colonialist ‘experts’ could not decide upon the nature, history and ‘meaning’ of ‘the Indian village’ indicate precisely this?

The subject matter of the actual writings of British India’s mandarins and satraps is not generally about cultural superiority and how to subtly enforce it; it is full of expressions of doubt. Colonialism was not a centred, definite, confident, definable thing. Subaltern rhetoric assumes that it was. And without providing any specific ’agency’ on the part of colonialism, Subaltern historians simply personify colonialism without apparent use of any specific ‘persons’. They then conceptualise it and give it a life of its own. The ‘latent’ damage inflicted by colonialism is the counterpart of the ‘latent’ Orientalism carried within Western literary and scholarly undertakings. Latency is the key concept, something that can only be detected by the skilful eye. This is not history, but extended expert criticism of a body of facts and outcomes so vast as to be able to carry any meaning the onlooker wishes to give it.

Subaltern history was designed to recover lost voices, and to see history and elite ‘collaborationist’ politics from the bottom up. The way it set out to do this was to reconstruct fractured and submerged narratives, to imagine the quotidian experiences of the little people, to re-erect larger structures from ‘fragments’ that survived. In principle this was a good idea long called for, because poorer people leave little mark on history. But in the end enforced reliance on fragmentary glimpses does not produce solid structures, it only encourages extrapolations; those extrapolations then became more and more cerebral and politically guided. In the end the attempt to recover ‘lost voices’ lapses into an elaborate form of ventriloquism.

The project became, in some ways, like engineering a convenient retreat into the conditions of ancient history, which are so trackless and barren that they can only easily be navigated or rendered comprehensible using a strong religious (or other) belief. This is what the Subaltern School managed to do by focusing on peasant India, effectively transforming modern history into the equivalent of ancient history, importing the privileges conferred by slim evidence, replacing hard findings with hard commitment dressed up as interpretation; transubstantiating emptiness into holy certainly, transmuting base substance to valuable knowledge-power. But eventually the Subalterns’ chosen working methods and their recourse to new, if sparse, evidence did not liberate them; these things combined to drag them down. Their books never relied on narrative, they always preferred analysis. And because what they were analysing was itself a form of analysis then the authors were flirting with a potential chain reaction of concept generation. And indeed that is mostly what we find in the works.

In the end we are not given history, in the sense that we are not getting an account of actual events. We are getting ‘critical’ history, meaning that we are getting a generalised, highly subjective interpretation of social interactions and mass culture, tilted by the personal disposition of the narrator/analyst. As an audience we do not experience a willing suspension of disbelief, as we might at a drama; instead we suffer an irresistible imposition of belief. Marxist philosophy delivered the insight that we all have a point of view, that none of us stands apart – whether we accept it or not. We all have inescapable bias. Even while trying to escape these biases, ‘post-colonial’ writing has amply proved that they do indeed exist.

Such writers love to quote the Italian communist-philosopher Gramsci, but they use only some of his oeuvre, while ignoring others. They take him at the big, sonorous level, about the ‘spirit of the epoch’ but ignore another of his insights – that movements and nations are made of individuals. Dirks completely overlooks this, and never considers colonialism in any other than a gross, unitary form, as a moronic monolith. He also ignores British officials as individuals, and this is a huge hole in the view of someone trained in anthropology.

What is really interesting about colonialism is how and why the British behaved so differently at home and aboard, and, to put it bluntly, why people who considered themselves as ‘good’ men ended up doing things in India that they could not conceive of as bad, although they were things they never would have done at home. British India was not run by capitalists, it was primarily run, at its zenith, by middle class Britons who did not get particularly rich in the process. The characterisation of colonialism favoured by Dirks and his colleagues never ever gets near this particular issue, which I confess was the prime element in sparking my personal interest in Indian history.

Again if colonialism was so powerful, why did it not go further around the world? Why did China stay relatively un-colonised? Why did Nepal, never colonised, exhibit caste? Why did colonialism ever fall? (Dirks, with his taste for extremes, says both that it has, and that it hasn’t.) There are answers to these questions, but they all work against the idea that colonialism was always one thing, and was the most powerful force ever known. In fact there is a good case to be made that empires actively created nationalism, and this idea is compatible with what Dirks and co believe about religious communities and caste in the East – that they too were made by empire. And is it not ironic that the same critics who applaud nationalism in the East would hesitate to applaud it on the sunset side of Suez?

This inconsistency suggests that there is another side to this whole debate, which is that this particular academic left wing crew can all be accused of Occidentalism, that is, of imputing a spurious unity to the West and western ideas when there was little – of ‘constructing’ an artificial picture of the West, and of doing this as part of a ‘latent’ form of authority, but in this case a moral authority. This Occidentalist project takes the form of personally demonising many thousands of colonial minions and administrators – sanitary engineers, forestry officers, clerks, educators, and the many middle ranking ICS officers who spent years in isolation in the Indian mofussil – who genuinely believed that they were ruling the country more dispassionately than had been the norm in previous centuries. These subaltern people were not generally vicious capitalists, and not all were deluded in their belief that their motives were well intentioned. Their stories are scarcely considered in the endless assertions of the economic basis of imperial rule, which was real enough, but was not all of the ‘imperial’ conception. Curzon hardly ever mentioned money in his speeches on Empire. Those speeches may seem ludicrous to us now but they were not considered funny at the time, and to understand colonialism we need to ask why. Men of Curzon’s generation, to which Churchill was a throwback, genuinely believed in the work they were doing. As modern people we can characterise them as mistaken, but it is surely unhistorical to turn these men into debased or vitiated souls.

It’s perfectly acceptable and entirely morally laudable to decry exploitative colonial economics, or unaccountable imperial government. However, a historian has a general obligation to tell something like the truth, and to turn colonial rule in India into the all-powerful, omnipresent and universally destructive force that it would have needed to be to effect all the changes that are attributed to it, is surely misleading. To talk of Robert Clive as a ‘coloniser’ is simply wrong – anachronistic and manipulative. He was an adventurer, very like his contemporary Hyder Ali in Mysore, and not dissimilar to Alivardi Khan in Bengal. Colonial rule did not arrive fully formed at the battle of Plassey. Clive, Hastings and even Richard Wellesley would have been very surprised to be told that.

So we can all agree that the imperial British were the bad guys, but surely we must listen to what they said. To ignore the entire surface meaning of all British colonial documents is a massively arrogant undertaking. To assume that all ‘colonial knowledge’ was driven by a desire to crush and destroy the culture of India in all its aspects is a huge leap to make. And the arrogance does not stop there. If India’s people have opinions, they too are deprived of their ownership of them, because they are all assumed to have been brainwashed by the evil colonial masters. This, surely, is not tenable. There were thousands of independently-minded Indians who were pumping out all sorts of anti-colonial, anti-British sentiments virtually throughout the whole era of British rule. The debate about allowing a free press in 1810-20 would make no sense if there were no contrary opinions to be published, although at the time many of these did come from within the British community. However, while Ram Mohan Roy was seeing merit in British attitudes and science, the opposite view was adopted and widely disseminated by Radhakant Deb. Certainly from the late nineteenth century, when surely the colonialist machine should have been at its strongest, there were literally dozens of independently based views about Indian politics. Dayananda Saraswati, Tilak, Gandhi and M N Roy all had entirely different approaches to Indian politics. All spent their developing years under colonial rule and yet their brains survived the experience.

The British divided and ruled. They also unified and misruled. They cheated frequently and they wrote a good deal of very bad, biased history. But they cannot be accused of ‘creating’ the Muslim community. At most they can be accused of somehow moulding the creation of the Hindu community. That makes rather more sense – that they artificially pulled together a number of threads of Indian tradition. But they did not create caste, beyond the bureaucratic obsession they showed for charting and recording it. Caste existed right enough. Hindu nationalists can willingly accept this; it is western or western-influenced historians who will not. Early Christian missionaries were constantly exasperated by the fact that new converts from different castes would not mix as a congregation, especially in South India. The missionaries’ success was confined for the most part to the lower castes and Untouchables, and this was a constant problem in trying to attract higher castes to the new faith. How on earth could the British have created this predisposition?

There is an alternative way to look at all these things. It is certainly true that the Muslim community was a very diverse entity; the Nizam of Hyderabad, a Bengali labourer and a Pathan tribesman had little enough in common, in terms of locality, language and economic interests. What unified these people, in as far as unity was achieved, was not the power of colonialism about which we have just read so much. What welded these people together was democracy, a concession made by colonialists in their weakness. What followed has a certain inevitability about it. When large numbers count, politically, it is imperative for people to club together in order to create power within a system in which power is determined by majorities. The Muslims did this by hanging together where they could and by standing apart within the wider headcount, which the colonial power was content to let them do. Gyanendra Pandey puts forward a similar argument, but he dresses it up rather differently in the language of ‘statism’.

There was no great reason to create a national Muslim community before the arrival of electoral politics, and the British certainly would not have done this at any time. The Muslims did it themselves, with a few twists and turns, all the time combating regionalism within the wider community. Muslim faith is better glue than Hindu in this sense, and there were plenty of ways in which the Muslim community could identify itself, without any promptings from the British. The communal alignments of the 1920s were in this way perhaps a by-product of democracy rather than of colonial machinations.

Ultimately the whole post-colonialist historical enterprise must be accounted a disappointment. No real light has been shed, while everything has been challenged and contested, except the meaning and nature of colonialism itself. Colonialism remains the single largest fact in Indian history. The Subaltern School thus aligns with the Hindutva view and its belief in Indian victimhood. Subaltern historians call for better research as the way forward, at least for academics. The Hindutvavadins call for the expulsion of the Muslims as the way ahead for India. Neither is much of a future to look forward to. Both are much smaller than the views they claim to oppose and supplant.

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