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Gaze and Governmentality

John B. Lourdusamy

By David Arnold
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 298, Rs. 695.00

By Arun Agrawal
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp.325, Rs. 650.00


When the two books reached this reviewer’s desk, at first sight they seemed quite obviously related to each other as both dealt with nature/environment/forests and the colonial approaches to them (though the latter work extends beyond colonial rule) in broad terms. But on closer study each seemed to have a different orientation and to be dwelling on different sets of issues. Yet, on third thoughts, (and with the benefit of a finer look on the ultimate essences of both books) a combined evaluation seemed to be more fruitful.   Arnold’s work is about how the Indian landscape was ideationally constructed by the gaze and narratives of naturalists, travellers and writers through devices that were alien and external to India and how this form of colonial knowledge production had a formative influence on the colonizing process itself in the first half of the 19th century. Agrawal’s work on the other hand starts with the second half of the century when the colonial state was getting more formalized, more institutionalized and more certain of the need for its forms of knowledge to order the space over which it presided as seen in its greater intrusion into the forests. Agrawal examines the violent reactions to this kind of intrusion in the Kumaon regions in the Himalayas and how they led to renegotiation of relationship between the colonial state and the local communities based on the ideals of partnership and decentralization.   The above summations may tempt one to surmise that the first work is more about ideas/imagination and the second more about practical politics. Not exactly so. Arnold lays it straight quite early on that the narratives and texts that are the subject of his study did not just produce an imagined rendition of the alien land in familiar or utopian terms. They very much informed and inspired many practical, scientific, technical and medical interventions. In fact they constituted the mental appropriation of the encountered land in terms that legitimated colonial rule itself.   In this extensively researched work, Arnold summons an array of sources, much of it non-governmental, drawing on the works, communications and accounts of naturalists, missionaries and travellers to buttress the point that this appropriation was as important as the armies, the expeditions and the administrative contrivances of the colonial state in its formative years. He explicates quite elaborately how the idea of India as a tropical ...

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