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Knowledge-Power Relationship in Colonial India

Ranjana Sheel

Edited by Mushirul Hasan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 447, Rs.2950.00


Representations of people and of the past have emerged out of diverse contexts and been put to varied uses and served various ends. Much time has passed since the colonial ethnographers constructed their understanding of people, customs, law, language, religious and caste beliefs for purposes of governance and control. Yet, their knowledge and constructions continue to not only influence our comprehension of modern India but also provide deeper meanings to both tangible and intangible cultural symbols, some being shrouded under the maze of distortions and unsecular characterizations. It is therefore no wonder that such ethnographic writings have continuously generated interest and new fields of enquiry. As administrators, army officers, surveyors, enumerators or recruitment officers, the British established a tradition of writing about local communities, creating ‘a corpus of knowledge’ enabling ‘scholars and generalists to “discover”, “inscribe”, “imagine”, and map India’ (Introduction: p. xi). Most history students are familiar with the history and ethnology of William Crooke, W.W. Hunter, E.S. Thurston, Herbert Hope Risley, Todd and others. This knowledge or colonial anthropology, as is well known, was potent as a tool for exclusion, inclusion as well as institutionalization of governance by the colonial rulers over the ‘natives’. This knowledge-power relationship in the Indian colonial context and its impact on the colonized mind have already been forcefully brought out by scholars such as Arjun Appadurai, Trautman, Ronald Inden and Bernard S. Cohn. The Indian Army as it grew into a strong and centralized body also became a storehouse of information available to the colonial State about the lives and social background of Indians. Writing India: Colonial Ethnography in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Mushirul Hasan encompasses eight such descriptions of communities from the handbooks prepared by military officials between January and April 1894. These handbooks were meant to guide military recruiting policy or to provide information to officers joining for the first time a regiment composed of a particular group. The idea was that those considered loyal, trustworthy and gallant from among the different castes and classes were to be brought close to the imperial machinery. The Indian Army, comprising both British and Indian units, was meant to serve the Empire both in India as well as in Africa and Asia. Hasan succinctly comments, ‘India was a British barrack on the Oriental seas from which Britain could draw any number of troops without paying for them’ (p. xii). Many reforms were ...

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