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The Domination of Strangers: Time, Emotion and the Making of the Modern State in Colonial India

Historians and anthropologists have recently stressed the decentralised and fragmented nature of the power of the colonial and postcolonial state. Such perspectives, most recently articulated by Akhil Gupta, forget that state power often operates through precisely such a critique of the chaotic nature of government in the present, which it contrasts with the unified, coherent institution it attempts to create in the future. The language of fragmentation is a product of modern governance. This article traces the origins of modern state practices in India to the anxious efforts of colonial officials to govern a society they had little emotional connection with. The estranged relationship of colonial officials with Indian social practices allowed them to produce a "progressive" form of rule that lived in the future, and abandoned any attempt to meaningfully engage with India's present day.


The Domination of Strangers: Time, Emotion and the Making of the Modern State in Colonial India

Jon E Wilson

Historians and anthropologists have recently stressed the decentralised and fragmented nature of the power of the colonial and postcolonial state. Such perspectives, most recently articulated by Akhil Gupta, forget that state power often operates through precisely such a critique of the chaotic nature of government in the present, which it contrasts with the unified, coherent institution it attempts to create in the future. The language of fragmentation is a product of modern governance. This article traces the origins of modern state practices in India to the anxious efforts of colonial officials to govern a society they had little emotional connection with. The estranged relationship of colonial officials with Indian social practices allowed them to produce a “progressive” form of rule that lived in the future, and abandoned any attempt to meaningfully engage with India’s present day.

A version of this paper was presented to the Jawarharlal Nehru University Centre for Historical Studies in February 2010; I would in particular like to thank Neeladri Bhattacharya for his comments.

Jon E Wilson ( teaches South Asian History at King’s College, London, and is a member of the King’s India Institute.


raditionally, the modern state is regarded as a cohesive and coherently-directed actor capable of effectively regulating and sometimes transforming the social relations that exist in society. In many branches of political science and sometimes history, an abstract definition of the state occurs before the empirical analysis of really-existing regimes. Of course real regimes never conform to any particular ideal type, and the difference between the two tends to be emphasised in some places rather than others. The gap between experience and expectation means that the state in India or in the South more generally is often seen as a deficient form, wracked by corruption and with scant ability to enforce its will throughout the territory it rules. Shared by members of the “international community” and actors within the states of the South themselves, the contrast between a cohesive and unitary idea of the state and the reality of local state practice justifies admonishing discourses of reform and, sometimes, where poor performance sinks into outright state failure, outside intervention.1

One challenge to this approach comes from a literature concerned with the anthropology or ethnography of the state. This literature examines the way the state is depicted in the practices and concepts of everyday life. In an important article in this genre, Akhil Gupta is critical of the way the state is reified in both social science and political practice. “Foregrounding the question of representation”, Gupta instead uses evidence from present-day north India to suggest that in reality, the state is “conceptualised in terms far more decentralised and disaggregated” than is often thought.2 “At the local level”, he argues, “it becomes difficult to experience the state as an ontically coherent entity: what one confronts instead is much more discrete and fragmentary – land record officials, village development workers, the Electricity Board, headmen” and so on.

Despite its important critique of a priori assumptions about the unitary character of the state, this ethnographic approach often reintroduces a highly coherent notion of the state through the voice of its interlocutors. For example, Ram Singh, one of Gupta’s subaltern informants, views Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government as a trans-local and multilayered entity constructed in order to help people like him. What strikes me though is that for people like Ram Singh, a coherent notion of the state acts as a normative idea of what the state should be. This notion is used to contrast and criticise the actual local reality of state practice. Government institutions are described as undisciplined, disordered and vulnerable to corruption in a vocabulary that is

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not wholly dissimilar from the vocabulary which global “good governance” experts articulate. Gupta’s informants inhabit a world in which people usually want to be subject to a well- ordered, regular state. Even the canny local manipulator of corrupt officials knows he or she is transcending the norms that should rule what they are supposed to be doing. It is just that such abstract expectations contradict their local practice.

From the ethnography of Gupta and his colleagues, it seems that ordinary Indians experience a distinction between a critical perception of the state as it is and an idea of what the state should be in a way which is not so different from the account offered by policymakers and social scientists. My argument in this paper is that this similarity should not surprise us, because both the subjects and analysts of the state inhabit a common, historical world of modern governance that produces precisely the kind of dichotomy that I am talking about. The chaos and corruption each identifies is not something out there, pre-existing the arrival of good governance. It, as much as the idea of the ordered modern state, is produced by the practice of a particular kind of rule. To suggest that the state is really far more fragmented and messy than people have previously thought is to miss the point. It is modern state-practice which creates and operates between chaos and order, the present and the future, locally-rooted “reality” and trans-local forms of abstraction.

Relationship to Time

Perhaps the most important characteristic of this modern world of governance is its relationship to time. The difference between the coherence of the state in the abstract, and the chaotic concrete reality of local government has a temporal dimension. The present real state of things is seen as chaotic, but contrasts with how things once were or how they might be in the future; in the case of Akhil Gupta’s informant, the Congress government has to figure out fully what is really going on at a local level and act as a cohesive entity able to impose its will on all its local functionaries. A normative idea of the state as an entity able to effectively enforce a single bureaucratic will upon society as a whole is projected on to other moments of time, and contrasted with the degenerate present.

The modern state does not seem, then, to live in what Walter Benjamin called a “homogeneous, empty time”, in which the future is always different from the past and present and progress is the inevitable process of improvement which marks the transition from one to the other.3 Instead, following Talal Asad, I would like to emphasise the heterogeneity of the time of modern governance.4 The institutions of modern rule are deeply implicated within the present-day world of disordered social action in which officials interact with their subjects. But the state’s abstract, rulebound techniques of governance deal with those actions from the standpoint of another moment in which it is possible to act as if such seeming disorder has been done away with. So for example, the author of a code of law writes a set of rules about the way they think society should work – as often as not their text is part of a reforming project. But when it is implemented by the courts, the code is treated as a representation of what actually happens in the present, and any infraction an aberrant deviation. The minor functionary working in the land records department whom Akhil Gupta discusses skilfully manipulates complex local power relations, taking bribes from some but not others; but when he fills in a record ledger, or writes to his superiors he acts as a functionary in a rational machine that has abolished such local inequalities.

The modern state lives in more than one moment at once. Modern governance does not just create representations of a more rational, ordered and equitable world that they are to implement in the future; the representations it produces develop a reality of their own. The modern state sets up camp in that world, creating real institutions that act as if the world really is ordered according to the abstract categories and rules it has projected on to the future. Its functionaries know very well that the individuals in the world outside are motivated by complex intentions that cannot be encapsulated in its rules. They know that the purposes which drive an individual to court are very different from those implicit within the code of laws. But the culture of modern governance works hard to blind its officials to that difference, insisting that, at particular moments, they act as if the abstract version of social reality it produces is the only valid way of understanding what went on; as if, for example, the law it had enacted has already transformed social relations so that they conform to an abstract schema.

But of course, it is impossible for the abstract categories of the state to ever be fully materialised in complex life-worlds of everyday social interaction; life is not lived in abstract categories. The failure of real life to live up to the state’s abstract account is a structural component of the world of modern governance. This failure is not a consequence of the weaknesses of particular states; it occurs because the concrete lives which exist outside the state, and the concrete forms of abstraction that govern state practice are two very different kinds of reality that cannot be assimilated into one another. They belong to two entirely different orders of things. The relations between landholders and tenants, or between different generations of property-holders, for example, depend on purposes and assumptions that cannot be articulated in an abstract form; often, someone simply goes about their affairs without thinking what they are doing, and certainly would not provide a particularly insightful analysis if questioned by an official. As Neeladri Bhattacharya puts it, “social practice occurs in a world taken for granted, within a structure of experience characterised by silences and languages of familiarity”. Yet, even when such purposes can be articulated, they only make sense in the form of a story that describes a succession of events from one point of view; and, with its emphasis on the specificity of particular characters and moments, narrative is a genre which the aggregative mentality of governance simply cannot comprehend. As Bhattacharya suggests, even the logic of a state concerned to enumbrate the particularity of local custom cannot help but occupy a different epistemological world from its subjects, simply because custom as lived and custom as the object of governance are two incommensurable things.5 The difference between the practice of non-official life and the practice of modern governance means that the continual attempt by the state to categorise, codify and reform, to make sense of personal, dynamic processes by seeing them as particular instances of general rules, needs to remain a project that is continually

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deferred. The “good” bureaucrat constantly oscillates between the present world of social interaction they are trying to reform, and the future world of abstract categories and rules which assumes that those reforms have already taken place.

So, the language of fragmentation with which the state is often imagined in the present-day is not a sign of the difference or complexity of Indian state practice, but a product of the very nature of modern governance. In particular it is an indication of its inability to understand the world through anything other than abstract categories and general rules. What cannot be represented abstractly is described as antithetical to coherence and order, as officials make sense of real life by bringing it within the orbit of the continually reforming, future-oriented intentions of the state.

Modern governance functions through acts of constructive blindness, in which the vision of officials and their interlocutors are occluded in moments when they find it difficult to characterise the contradictory character of the practices their own conduct relies on. To properly characterise the modern state, one needs an account that moves beyond the forms of representation that this blindness produces (or the institutions that are represented within them) to look instead what I shall call the dispositions which produce it. By dispositions, I mean the practical ways in which individuals orient themselves to the world, the forms of practical engagement they are often barely conscious of or not conscious at all. The term disposition encompasses habits and feelings, instincts and moods as well as formal thought. It calls for an affective, as well as an intellectual, economic, political history of empire.

Emergence of Modern Dispositions of Governance

This emphasis on the affects and dispositions of modern governance requires, I would suggest, an historical investigation of the character of modern forms of rule that looks beyond both established patterns of institutional practice and the structures of discourse. In the case of India, it suggests an interrogation of the emergence of modern dispositions of governance in the colonial past. With their estranged relationship to the population they ruled, suspicion about local interests intruding into the trans-local concerns of state, continual concern to define the boundaries between different spheres of activity and (this is the point I will emphasise in the pages which follow) their anxiety about their ability to understand social practice unless they could map it on to abstract regularities and written rules, the colonial civil servant was the archetypal bureaucrat. Whether they were merely one example of a general form that emerged in different places in the early 19th century; or whether the genealogy of at least the Anglophone bureaucrat needs to be traced through the colonial Indian civil servant is not a question I can engage with here. Despite the transformation of India’s political environment with independence, the continuities between the culture of the colonial bureaucracy in India and the culture of the postcolonial state do not need to be laboured here.6

The rest of this paper charts a genealogy of the attitudes to the state I have described so far by tracing one particular line of its descent within the governance of early colonial India by the British

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imperial regime, focusing in particular on that much debated event, the permanent settlement of Bengal. Colonialism is still treated by scholars as the origin point for India’s political modernity, and for good reason. Despite recent work on the “modern” character of late Mughal, precolonial forms of economy, social practice and knowledge-production, it seems undeniable that a dramatic break in forms of governance occurred in India during the first 50 years of colonial rule, roughly the last quarter of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th century. The paradox of early modern India is the occurrence of highly sophisticated forms of commerce, commodification, banking and production without the existence of a recognisably modern state. The reverse is also true; the modern state emerged without creating the conditions for substantial economic growth, for reasons which are implicit within what I have to say below.

But my first aim in delving into the colonial past is to challenge the notion that the modern state which developed in Asia was a derivative form of the kind of state which existed in early modern Europe, something which was transported to India by colonial rule in a pre-packaged state and then unpacked in order to influence the practice of governance in the Indian subcontinent. An emphasis on the transportation of the modern state from Europe to Asia forces many scholars into an incipient idealism.7 The only way complex institutions could conceivably be transported overseas was if their real essence was reducible to some portable form, most obviously to a set representations contained in the books, manuscripts and minds of travelling imperialists which could then be “unpacked” in the practice of colonial officials. So, one finds excellent and otherwise thoroughly materialist scholars of south Asia making precisely this leap, tracing the origins of modern colonial governance to the representations of the state found in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Turgot or Bentham. The problem here is exactly the same as the problem with Akhil Gupta’s very different approach; focusing purely on ideas or representations prevents one from identifying the dispositions that allow those representations to have a particular significance at a particular point in time, specifically those which lead the official to be blind to other ways of seeing the world. The colonial regime in India may have been described by its rulers in language remarkably reminiscent of that used by Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan; but what Hobbes and the colonial bureaucrat each had to ignore in order for those representations to make sense to those who articulated them were very different in each case.

One cannot simply characterise the modern state in colonial south Asia as the practical realisation of any particular set of ideas or even discourses. Yet one can link its emergence to something that British colonial officials were doing. Here one needs to think about the colonial state as the product of something less conceptual than political thought, and locate its origins in the emergence of the particular set of dispositions held by colonial administrators. In particular I would like to emphasise the importance of a specific form of anxiety felt by British colonial officials in constituting the world of colonial government. That anxiety was rooted in the fear of officials about their inability to make practical sense of the world around them; an anxiety that emerged from but continually reinforced the position the British had defined for themselves as strangers to the Indian subcontinent, and which resulted in their development of a very peculiar relation with time.

In an essay entitled “Not at Home in Empire” published in 1997, Ranajit Guha notes that the academic discussion of colonial India has tended to ignore the pervasive mood of colonial anxiety experienced and articulated by imperial officers. Instead, he suggests that scholars have presented colonial officials as men enthusiastically committed to an ideologically coherent imperial project. Colonial historiography “creates an image of empire as a sort of machine operated by a crew who knew only how to decide but not to doubt, who know only action but no circumspection, and in the event of a breakdown, only fear and no anxiety”.8 Instead, Guha discusses the way European colonial officials articulated their inability to be “at home” in the subcontinent, using the term “anxiety” to describe their unsettled state of mind. Drawing on the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger, Guha defines anxiety as a general, inchoate sense of disconnection from the world. The colonial situation gave colonial officials in India a perception of “the immensity of things in a world whose limits are not known”. For British officials, colonial India had, to quote Heidegger, become a “world [that] has the character of completely lacking in significance”.9

Government as an Uncertain Enterprise

British officials in early colonial India saw government as an uncertain enterprise, marked by exactly the kind of mood which Guha describes. Needless to say, the sense of disorder and meaninglessness which officials felt was not of course a reflection of what India was really like, although it played a powerful role in producing a particular kind of Indian “reality”. It was instead a result of the aloof, estranged posture British officials adopted towards the environment they inhabited. Until the mid-19th century at least, “the East” was not a career for the British: it was usually the route members of the gentry whose sense of status was greater than their incomes used to accumulate the cash to buy a country estate or start a parliamentary career. “Home” was always therefore the longed for county seat, or the idealised family unit that they projected on to the future moment of their return to Britain. Unwilling therefore to engage with India in a “homely” fashion, officials locked themselves in their courts, kachcharis and cantonments during their working hours, or in English and Latin poetry and prose during leisure time. Governance occurred through the exchange of texts that purported to produce a stable form of knowledge about Indian society but emphasised the distance of interlocutors from one another. Materially located on south Asian soil, the British were having a kind of out of body experience in India, producing texts that evoked other places and other times.

Of course, this style of rule violated Mughal norms, which emphasised the importance of physical proximity. As the historian Ghulam Hussein Khan noted, Mughal norms were based on the need for the good ruler to develop the dispositions and form of comportment to properly gauge “the habits and tempers of men”. Normatively at least, Mughal rule valued face-to-face interaction and personal familiarity. By contrast Ghulam Hussein described how officials engaged with the population of Bengal as if they were “pictures on a wall”.10 British officials encountered their subjects as static objects of scrutiny, whose lives were governed by stable patterns and structures that could be represented objectively, like a picture, from a distant perspective. The problem, Ghulam Hussein suggested, was that British officers rarely perceived themselves as active participants in the everyday lives of those they governed. Ghulam Hussein believed the strange relationship Britons had towards Indian society had something to do with the way they used writing. It was, he said, “a standing rule with them”,

that whatever anything remarkable they heard from any man versed in business, or even from any other individual, was immediately set in writing in a kind of book consisting of a few blank leaves, which most of them carry about, and which they put together afterwards, and bind like a book for future use.

The Company’s officers were constantly “endeavouring to engage [Indians] in conversation, especially upon the politics of the country”. But those conversations did not consist of a proper dialogue. Ghulam Hussein continued:

as soon as an Englishman could pick up anything relative to the laws or business of this land, he would immediately set it down in writing, and lay it up in store for the use of another Englishmen.

“The Books and Memorandum composed by the English” Ghulam Hussein went on “have come to be trusted as so many vouchers; whereas they are only some faint idea of the exterior and bark, but not the pith or real reason of these institutions”.11 Through their use of writing, the British officers Ghulam Hussein was describing had a tendency to explain and govern Indian social relations by mapping them on to general written categories and concepts.

Here, we have an early description of the sensibility of modern colonial governance (and the modern colonial state) at work. Governors were driven by their anxiety about the impossibility of interpreting social actions by engaging with the language of social actors themselves; they were sceptical about the impossibility of what one might call a hermeneutic form of knowledge production which would have allowed the voice of the interrogated to have reshaped the discourse of the interrogator and through dialogue produced a stable point of view. As a result, their instinct was to reach out to relate those relations to distant abstractions that, inevitably, needed to be sanctioned by an authority distant from the particular local environment they are being used to understand.

The kind of textual practices that Ghulam Hussein observed were an example of precisely the kind of blindness I described earlier; they were a way of closing off access to the way in which their Indian interlocutors understood their own experiences, refocusing the colonial vision on to abstract forms of knowledge instead. But I am getting ahead of myself here; in the institutionally fluid world of 1784, when Ghulam Hussein made his acute observation, this blindness emerged merely as the result of the individual dispositions held by British observers. Those dispositions had not (yet) contributed to creating the complex matrix of bodies, courts, government departments, record offices and so on, which would instantiate this blindness in an institutional

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form. Most importantly, officials had not begun to see the gap between Indian conduct and their textual process of knowledgeproduction as a gap between present and future, which could be filled by the authority of the colonial state.

To think about how the anxious disposition of the colonial officer produced those institutions (and the gap that I am talking about) I would like to examine some of the changing ways in which land was governed in late 18th and early 19th century Bengal. Let me begin by showing how perhaps the most famous moment in the history of agrarian relations in south Asia, the permanent settlement of Bengal in 1793, fits into my argument.

Traditionally, the permanent settlement has been seen as the product of a constellation of ideas brought by its “author” Charles, Earl of Cornwallis, to India. Ranajit Guha attributed it to the radical physiocratic concerns of Philip Francis; others suggest that it encapsulated the more conservative but whiggish intellectual orientations of Cornwallis and his class of administrators.12 In either case, Cornwallis’ permanent settlement is seen as introducing the principle of private property rights to India, and with it the notion that property rights were forfeit if revenue was not paid to the sovereign, in this case the East India Company. As a result, the permanent settlement is seen as a key moment in the transformation of disparate strata of little kings, local landholders and village headmen into rentier capitalists.

What is missing from this story is the fact that the government had already proclaimed the sanctity of private property in Bengal in one of the few moments where British politics intruded into the East India Company’s administration of India. The relevant moment was William Pitt the younger’s second India bill of 1784. In the early 1780s, the near bankruptcy of the East India Company intersected with the broader imperial crisis created by the defeat in the American War of Independence to increase political concern about British management of its Indian territories. This concern culminated with the impeachment of Warren Hastings in 1786; but it manifested itself in the emergence of the property rights of Indian landholders as a topic of (short-lived) interest and debate. In order to shore up its reputation as the guarantor of landed property rights wherever they might occur, Pitt’s regime enacted a piece of legislation which noted that

complaints have prevailed, that divers Rajahs, Zemindars, Polygars, Talookdars and other native landholders within the British territories in India, have been unjustly deprived of, or compelled to abandon and relinquish their respective lands, jurisdictions, rights and privileges.

The Act mandated the Court of Directors to inquire and redress “all injuries and wrongs” according to “the laws and customs of the country”, and to establish “according to the laws and constitution of India permanent rules for the collection of revenue”.13 News of the British government’s emphasis on the importance of zamindari property quickly seeped its way into the networks of landholding opinion in Bengal. Warren Hastings critically noted the “high ideas” of Bengali property held in London before he knew the India Act had been passed.14 By 1789, John Shore, an official generally in favour of the property rights of zamindars, could

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complain that “[t]he avowal of their hereditary rights, and the great regard paid to them by the British government, has inspired the zamindars with an idea that these rights are indefeasible”.15

The permanent settlement did not itself mark the Company’s attempt to declare the landholders of Bengal as holders of inviolable private property rights; that happened in the letter from the Court of Directors sent in February 1785 which explained the implications of Pitt’s Act. Instead, Cornwallis’ settlement was an administrative measure whose purpose was the construction of a governmental apparatus to administer those rights.

Gap between Ideologies and Inclinations

My reason for emphasising this process is that it nicely illustrates the important gap emerging between the ideologies and inclinations of the British government, and the way officials put them into practice in the very different context of colonial administration in Bengal. With its emphasis on the complexity and diversity of the “lands, jurisdictions, rights and privileges” possessed by India’s “divers Rajahs, zamindars” and so on, Pitt’s act spoke the language of the English common law; here one can particularly detect Edmund Burke’s emphasis on the prescriptive character of private property rights and the importance of property not just for the economic life of a country but the affective ties which he believed held different social groups together. But when it moved from the debating chambers of Westminster to the more anxious councils of Calcutta, the emphasis on restoring existing property rights was articulated in profoundly unBurkean language, and had distinctly unBurkean effects. Officials from Cornwallis onward were willing to acknowledge the property rights of “native landholders” only insofar as they were consistent with the ability of the East India Company to administer and collect revenue. But more importantly, rather than being a category rooted in the affective experience of the British, property became an abstract “principle” that was distant from the affective attachments of Indian life. The ideas of British politicians cannot explain the peculiar way in which Westminster’s rhetoric of property penetrated the official mind in Calcutta.

What determined the highly abstract form in which the emphasis on property took place in Calcutta were the colonial dispositions I have been discussing: in particular the anxiety of officials about how to effectively understand the complexity of Indian social relations. Rather than relying on the precedents of precolonial administration, Cornwallis’ answer was simply to define how property was going to be governed in a few pithy rules, and let district officials work out how to collect revenue and decide property disputes in practice for themselves. The settlement had been preceded by numerous investigations into previous ways in which landholding had been governed. As Robert Travers argues, those enquiries dominated the period of the Governor-Generalship of Warren Hastings, and were marked by the attempt to uncover an authentic Mughal “ancient constitution” that might provide the basis for the reconstruction of the colonial state; attempts that showed the difficulty officials found in abandoning the historicist culture of British governance in Bengal.16 By the mid-1780s, these efforts had come to be increasingly framed by anxiety and doubt. John Shore, one of two officials who played the greatest role in framing Cornwallis’ revenue regulations, articulated this anxiety most clearly; like most colonial documents decrying the inability of the British to “know the country” and discern properly “the real state of things”, Shore’s texts attributed equal blame to the fragmented and disorder character of the British state, and the intrinsically chaotic nature of Indian society. Shore’s minute of June 1789 began with a complaint about the absence of useful knowledge amongst British officers, despite the accumulation of experience and information. He argued that the members composing “the British government of India” fluctuated so rapidly that experience could not be “reduced to practice”. Shore suggested that opinions altered rapidly as “the information of one year has been rendered dubious by the experience of another”: but “in all cases decision is necessary”. Shore went on, “true information is also procured with difficulty, because it is too often derived from mere practice, instead of being deduced from fixed principles”. Elsewhere Shore echoed long-standing European clichés about the despotic nature of power in India. “A property in the soil” he suggested

must not be understood to convey the same rights in India, as in Britain; the difference is as great as between a free constitution and arbitrary power. Nor are we to expect under a despotic government fixed principles, or clear definitions of the rights of the subject.17

The problem that Shore identified was not an absence of information, but the impossibility of usefully interpreting it, a situation that was a product of the aloof standpoint he initially adopted towards Indian society.

Shore knew Persian and engaged in a dialogue of sorts with Indian intellectuals. But like other officials, his frame of reference belonged to other places and other times. Arriving in India with common British assumptions about the “despotism” of India, Shore revealed his lack of sympathy with Indian society in a range of texts. He suggested that it was strange, for example, that Indians “have not that opinion that every Englishman glories in, and encourages such enthusiasm, of the essentiality of liberty to happiness”. Throughout his official career, Shore appealed to something transcendent for meaning: he found solace in the idea of an abstract God who could provide a stable point of reference and affection in an uncertain world. Conversations with Indians provided no basis for stable thought. On its own terms, the Indian world he inhabited made no sense, but “[u]pon this [religious] system, all is consistent and reconcilable, even to our imperfect understandings”.

Looking for Abstract Principles

Like the official whom Ghulam Hussein observed, Shore responded to this estranged and distant relationship to Indian social practice by looking for abstract principles for governing rural social relations and attempting to transcribe these in a textual form; unsurprisingly, he found those general principles impossible to find. With its decision to recognise the property rights of landholders in the abstract, and to fix forever the amount of revenue they paid the Company, the permanent settlement represented an anxious cadre of officials’ flight from the complexity of Indian social reality into the realm of abstraction. Shore’s anxious disposition made him sceptical about defining anything permanently; arguing that the settlement should initially be fixed for only 10 years, he suggested that further experience might some day provide a more stable interpretative basis for governing the property relations of Bengal.

Cornwallis, however, felt that the absence of certain knowledge meant that this flight to abstraction needed to be made irrevocable. His anxious yet more resolute disposition led the Governor-General to act as if a colonial fantasy about the ordered character of property rights actually described the way social relations really worked in the present. Cornwallis’ regulations consisted of a radical break with the practice of previous administration, and abandonment of any reference to Mughal preference. This break was not framed by a confident belief in a particular, “physiocratic” or “whiggish” ideological conception of how property would work. Instead, it was rooted in his perception of the impossibility of proving that any logical system or ideology could be proven by engaging with the empirical reality of Indian society. Cornwallis noted that district collectors had already submitted detailed reports on local conditions. He went on: “at what point, and from whom”, cornwallis asked, “are we to procure more perfect materials”? “[N]o further lights are to be expected from” the Company’s collectors on the details of local affairs. Shore himself “had furnished the most satisfactory arguments, to prove the incompetency of government officers to enter into this detail.” Rather than “leave the revenue affairs of this country, in the singular state of confusion in which they are represented to be by Mr Shore”, it was better to act decisively, and create a permanent rupture in the constitutional politics of British India based on the limited knowledge they had now.


As I have suggested, the flight to abstraction which occurred in the run-up to 1793 was a leap into the future; it marked the starting point for the emergence of a set of institutions which operated as if the kind of ordered and rule-bound social relations they tried to understand India with had already come into existence. Cornwallis articulated this aspect of early colonial discourse when, defending the decision to abolish the office of district qanungu (roughly speaking, the district record-keeper), he suggested that Bengal’s agrarian relations were governed by contracts which had “been reduced to writing”. However useful it might have been in former times, the purported legibility of Bengali society made the position of local record-keeper redundant. Yet the fantastical and contradictory character of colonial thought was evident in the second reason Cornwallis gave for abolishing the post in the same minute: qanungus were a corrupt and nefarious class of men, whose writings, and thus by implication all local records, were not to be trusted. The abolition of the office of qanungu was only possible because of a moment of doublethink, in which officials could imagine they had transported themselves into a future in which governance occurred through clearly legible rules, whilst criticising their own present moment for the chaotic, corrupt and illegible character of its social reality.18

The permanent settlement was only the starting point for the emergence of the contradictory, split state I am talking about here. All it did was to establish the gap between abstraction and reality, future and present, in Reinhard Koselleck’s words, between

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the “space of experience” and “the horizon of expectation”, as the most pressing problem for the process of colonial governance.19 In practice, Cornwallis had not established rules to determine who should be taxed how much, how the inheritance of land was to be governed and property disputes were to be determined. The detail of governing property was left up to district courts, and an anxious and lonely class of British officers who frequently complained to Calcutta that they had “no rules to guide [them]”. In the first years of the 19th century, the British were primarily concerned with raising revenue to pay troops who allowed them to fight the wars that expanded the sweep of Company territory across north India. The permanent settlement was remarkably ineffective in achieving this aim. With no serious ability to engage with the languages and ethical and economic practices with which the inhabitants of rural Bengal managed their social relations and no clear rules or procedure for adjudicating property disputes which might have filled their place, litigants were able to claim that property rights were valid or invalid for any number of incompatible reasons, and have a random chance of success; when, that is, after lengthy inquiries and delays, a dispute was heard. In the 15 years or so after 1793, the Company’s judicial and revenue-collection machinery was jammed up by arrears and litigation. The permanent settlement’s significance, though, was ideological. It projected a false image of stable governance to British and Indian investors that allowed the East India Company to survive into the 1830s by massively expanding its debt.

In these decades, practical rules for the government of agrarian India did begin to be created by institutions that attempted to penetrate more closely to the ground of local society. Those institutions produced new texts that attempted to define in written form the rules that were supposed to govern Indian social life. In the attempt to construct those texts, one can identify the origin of the major ideological differences amongst British officials about how to rule rural India. Custom, contract and ancient law vied with one another for supremacy throughout the 19th century as possible sources of law, each predominating in some areas at some points in time. Each involved a different set of assumptions about the relationship between Indian society and its colonial governors, and allowed different views of India’s social structure to develop.20 But, what all of them shared was a common attempt to abstract Indian social relations into texts that could be legible in court, and the reduction of complex stories about landholding into a series of pithy rules that could be applied generally across an expanse of territory.

What these rival efforts to manage Indian social relations also shared was their final appeal to the sanction of the imperial state for authority. Unable to connect to existing ways of understanding and adjudicating Indian social life, officials feared their new categories would collapse into chaos and disorder unless they were supported by an external authority of some kind. Perhaps as importantly, different parts of the colonial state feared being pulled apart as their Indian interlocutors and “collaborators” pulled them this way and that. The different languages which officials formulated to govern rural India all claimed to have their basis in Indian social relations themselves. Custom, contract, and ancient law all purported to offer representations of

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“the real state of things” beyond colonial intentions and institutions. Yet, officials knew full well that the relationship between the forms of knowledge they produced and the social relations they claimed to represent was a fragile one; in the correspondence between Calcutta and district collectors and judges, for example, one finds frequent reference to the explicit colonial construction of “customary” categories, or the need to clarify and redefine the injunctions of supposedly ancient Hindu law. Underpinning such anxious exchanges was an arrogant belief both in the malleable and unknowable character of Indian society; but alongside this there was a real concern about the limited power of colonial institutions to govern Indian society effectively. Although much of their practical conduct was rooted in the kind of blindness to the complexity of Indian society, colonial governors always had in the corner of their eye a sense of the failure of their administration to achieve the objectives it had set itself.

‘Absolute Authority’

The kind of sovereign “absolute authority” that had come into existence in India by the 1830s, and found its official articulation in the 1833 Act that renewed the East India Company’s charter emerged as a result of those failures.21 At the centre of the act was the principle that we now take for granted as the cornerstone of modern governance: that the state is an authority with ultimate power and authority to make laws which are articulated as abstract rules apply generally across a particular territory, and which force individuals to alter their behaviour. Of course, the colonial state was usually reticent in using this authority; the 1833 Act gave the colonial regime the power to enact new codes of law, but it took a generation for it to start actually doing so. Nonetheless, the state wanted to be project an image of itself as the ultimate authoritative sanction for the rules that governed social life, not because of any initial desire to transform Indian society, or because officials were adherents of any particular ideology. Its status as the “absolute authority” emerged because the anxious and estranged culture of colonial rule found it impossible to find an authoritative source of abstract rules elsewhere. Instead, the authority for colonial practice in the chaotic present was continually deferred on to the absolute, unitary futureoriented legislative power of the colonial state.


As I noted at the opening of this paper, it is easy to imagine that the modern state in south Asia was a product of European ideas of governance transported, unpacked and materialised in a derivative form in India. Here, I have suggested instead that one needs to take seriously the complex twists and turns that constituted the process of modern state formation in the early colonial subcontinent. This was a process that, to a certain degree, Europeans were the authors of, but authors in the strange colonial space they carved out for themselves in the subcontinent and in a way which always far exceeded the particular plans of a project of any given moment. The process of colonial state formation was not smooth and continuous; it was marked by disjuncture and leaps. It was, above all, characterised by continual crises and moments of failure, when systems of knowledge that collapsed under the weight of the contradictions they had tried to resolve were replaced by new sets of ideas and practices. It began, as I have argued, not with a coherent idea of state authority at the start, but with the failure of British officials to develop stable forms of knowledge to sustain their colonial institutions through the interpretation of Indian social practice. The modern colonial state seems to me to have been the product, not the producer, of the gap that increasingly opened up between the life-worlds of Indian social actors and the forms of textual knowledge and abstraction colonial officials used to understand it. It was itself produced by, but then continually reproduced, the anxious disposition that created such a gap.

I began by noting that scholars recently have emphasised the fragmented and fractured nature of colonial knowledge and colonial techniques of rule. The imperial state, once imagined as having been a monolithic entity able to effectively enforce its will (I am not sure who ever really thought this) is now seen by scholars as having been constantly compromised, shot-through with tensions, reliant on Indian “agency” which pulled it in contradictory directions at once. This recent emphasis has an important kernel of truth about it, but it needs to be stood on its head. The “fragmented” state is an important constitutive moment within the process of state formation. As I have shown here, concern about the chaotic nature of judicial decision-making, or the ease with which government actions could be sucked into the very different purposes and actions of its interlocutors occurred before an ideology of centralised state authority emerged. Of course, the state is always a fragmented “thing”; but what is more interesting and important are the ceaseless, but never realised futureoriented projects it inaugurates in order to overcome its chaotic and disordered character in the present.

I have suggested here that studying the genesis of the early colonial regime (this paper has specifically focused on Bengal)


1 One highly influential version of this story is told by Robert Cooper (2003), The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Atlantic Press).

2 Akhil Gupta (1995), “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State”, American Ethnologist 22, 2, p 392. See also Akhil Gupta (1998): Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press); Gupta and Aradhana Sharma’s introductory chapter in Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (2006), The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (Oxford University Press), pp 1-42; C J Fuller and Veronique Bénéï, ed. (2001), The Everyday State and Society in Modern India (London: Hurst and Company); and Veena Das and Deborah Poole (2004), Anthropology in the Margins of the State (New Delhi: Oxford University Press) for this general approach.

3 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Walter Benjamin (1969), Reflections (New York, NY: Shoken Books), p 261.

4 Talal Asad (2003), Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p 169.

5 Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Remaking Custom: The Discourse and Practice of Colonial Codification” in R Champalakshmi and Sarvepalli Gopal (ed.),

offers a genealogy of important aspects of the postcolonial regime in India and elsewhere in the subcontinent. I do not want to suggest that there is nothing but continuity. The regime that emerged in colonial India by the 1830s and the practice of modern governance today are variants of the same species, although there are important differences between the two. In India today, the gap between a sense of the disordered character of local reality and the abstract logic of governance seems as wide as it has ever been: and is the site on which state projects, which bring in their wake myriad new unintended forms of chaos and disorder, as well as new forms of order insert themselves. But as Akhil Gupta shows, the fissures within discourses of the state I have described no longer merely concern a class of administrators, but are more widely shared within India’s public culture. The postcolonial Nehruvian state seems to have been remarkably successful at enlisting large swathes of the population into its future-oriented attempts to overcome the gap between present reality and future order. But the complexities and contradictions of that project in the world of neo-liberal “good governance” and global capital mobility seems to me to have opened up the gap between the institutionalised expectations of abstract and rational governmental order the state relies on to function and the reality of fragmented experiences which justifies its project of reform. After all, the Indian state is about to abstractly define the identity of every Indian with the unique identifier scheme; it has embarked on the project of finally making land rights legible with the computerisation of land records; both projects are justified in the belief they will make social relations more legible. In order to understand the character of Indian governance today, it seems as important to study the dispositions lying behind these grand efforts at codification as it does to trace the disordered way in which observers perceive the state. The concerns of this paper have, I think, become relevant once again.

(1996), Tradition, Dissent and Ideology: Essays in Honour of Romila Thapar (Delhi: Oxford University Press), p 34.

6 David C Potter (1986): India’s Political Administrators, 1919-1983 (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

7 For an important recent critique see Andrew Sartori (2008), Bengal in Global Concept History (Chicago: Chicago University Press).

8 Ranajit Guha (1997), “Not at Home in Empire”, Critical Inquiry 23, 3, p 488.

9 Martin Heidegger (1962), Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell), p 231 quoted in Guha, “Not at Home in Empire”, p 487.

10 Heidegger, Being and Time, III, 191.

11 Ibid, III, 25-29.

12 Ranajit Guha (1963), A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (Paris: Mouton); Eric Stokes (1959), The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

13 24 Geo III, c.25, s.39.

14 Letter from Court, 20 August 1784 and Letter to Court, 28 February 1785, National Archives of India, Fort William-India House Correspondence (New Delhi: Government of India, 1958), Vol IX, Public Series 1782-5, pp 166, 550.

15 John Shore, Minute, 18 June 1789, Parliamentary Papers 1812 (377), Appendix, p 187.

16 Robert Travers (2007), Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth Century India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp 100-40.

17 John Shore, Minute, 14 June 1789, Parliamentary Papers 1812 (377), Appendix, p 205.

18 Jon E Wilson (2008), The Domination of Strangers: Modern Governance in Eastern India, c 17851835 (Basingstoke: Palgrave), p 71.

19 Reinhard Koselleck (2004), Future’s Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York, NY: Columbia University Press), p 261.

20 For these debates see Wilson, The Domination of Strangers, chapters 4-5.

21 Wilson, The Domination of Strangers, Chapter 6.

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