Writing India: Colonial Ethnography in the Nineteenth Century

Hasan, Mushirul (ed.)
0198074069 (hb)

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Cover of book The present volume brings into print a selection of archival documents from later nineteenth century: a series of handbooks that are listed as file nos 1130-58 (Part 8: July 1895) of the military department in the National Archives of India, New Delhi. It presents ethnographic notes written mostly by British military officers on a variety of communities like Brahmans, Rajputs, Sikhs, Garhwalis, Muhammadens, and Dogras. These notes and memoranda, termed as colonial ethnography by the editor, record multifaceted dimensions of these communities including their everyday lives. They contain data on their geographical distribution, physical and linguistic attributes, myths and genealogies, customs and traditions, religious and social observances and livelihood patterns. These ethnographies have been brought together under one cover given the wide range of information they encompass: 'law, language, land rights, social and ritual forms of the local communities, and their art of living and dying as expressions of human or superhuman agency' (p. xi).

Besides Introduction and the biographical details of authors, there are ten substantive chapters: W.J. Newell on Brahmans, Rajputs and Hindu religion, R.T. Crowther on Sikhs, A. Hamilton on Punjabi Muhammadans, F.G.R. Ostrehan on Hindustani Muhammadans, J.T. Evatt on Garhwalis, K.P. Burne on Dogra, Newell on Rajputs, and W. Prior on Rajputana Rajputs. These documents have been edited and annotated by the historian Mushirul Hasan who is currently the Director General of the National Archives of India, New Delhi. His introduction locates these communities in the larger context of imperial ideologies and ethnographic debates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century India. He rightly asserts that these ethnographic descriptions constitute a corpus of knowledge that has enabled scholars and generalists, alike, to 'discover', 'inscribe', 'imagine' and map India. Moreover, he points out that the colonial discourse was not a seamless whole, and it had its own inherent tensions. For instance, whereas British scholar-administrators often portrayed Hindus and Muslims as two essentialized and warring communities, some of them equally emphasize that majority of Sunni Muslims followed a Hinduised form of Islam. The notes collected in the volume particularly codify the martial theory for the different classes to guide military recruiting policy that continued until the beginning of the Second World War. They shed light on different classes of Indian soldiers: who among the different castes and classes were fit to join the incessant military campaigns that the British were engaged in.

Hasan is aware of the 'false trails' that some of these writings set into motion in the world of historical and social science scholarship. More often than not they are intimately tied up with the imperial projects and reveal aspects of colonial mentality. In fact, the notes are suffused with such key words as blood, race, heredity, and selection. Evidently, these compilations reveal the baggage of the nineteenth century European preconceptions. At the same time, they depict the emerging template for interactions between different forms of knowledge colonial and Indian. Arguably, war, commerce, and subsequently, the reasons of the colonial state initiated these projects of mapping and ethnographic surveys. They, in their comprehensiveness, created an intellectual resource for the administrators, military men, traders and merchants. Viewed thus, one gets insights into information gathering processes that accompanied colonialism.

Notwithstanding the limitations of the colonial 'ethnographers', it is hard not to draw on the resources provided by them or to ignore their writings on caste, jatis, and the question of Aryanism and religion. However, the issue at stake is not merely of reliability of the information offered. There are larger epistemological concerns that scholars like Susan Bayly, Bernard Cohn, Nicholas Dirks, and Ronald Inden have brought to our attention. They have collectively probed colonial forms of knowledge and colonial investigative modalities that have had serious implications for ways of seeing and understanding Indian society. Unfortunately, Hasan's Introduction to the volume fails to bring out the complexities of knowledge production in a colonial setting. True, it does gesture towards the larger political context in which contending epistemologies emerged and took shape. Yet, the introductory text is superficial and highly incoherent. Apart from underlining the value of colonial ethnography as an inescapable minefield of information for generations of South Asian scholarship, it achieves precious little by way of providing us with an historical anthropology of the colonial knowledge formation.

A hurriedly written Introduction exemplifies the case of a missed opportunity, and is disappointing to readers who would otherwise expect from the title a thorough historical treatment of the contemporary debate concerning 'colonialism and its forms of knowledge'. It just manages to save the students of history and sociology from the need to visit the archives by giving them this book in their hands. But then, the modern-day publishing has its own marketing logic!

Noticeably, the book has a multi-media approach as it contains a CD in the back cover which contains six charts displaying family trees for six clans of the Rajputs. This information is very much supplementary to some of the chapters in the book, and it does not add much value to the book as such.

Manish K. Thakur
Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India