Useful inventions by the Raj

Mind, Body and Society - The New Cambridge History of India
April 18, 1997

Anyone who compares the the 1929 editions of the Cambridge History of India with this new series cannot fail to be struck by the paradigm shift in history writing that has occurred. Earlier chronicles of empire or Marxian political/economic critiques of imperialism have yielded to an interrogation of the underlying rationale of the colonial enterprise.

The two books reviewed here app-roach the colonial encounter from opposing ends. Thomas Metcalf's Ideologies of the Raj tells the story of the colonisers, and seeks to lay bare the ideas that sustained British imperialism and provided its strategy of governance. Metcalf makes an outstanding contribution to postcolonial studies, synthesising a mass of writing on the subject.

The second book, Mind Body and Society: Life and Mentality in Colonial Bengal, edited with an excellent introduction by Rajat Kanta Ray, is a valuable addition to the history of colonial India, a pioneering work in Indian intellectual history which probes how the colonised felt and thought about subjugation by the British Raj.

One of the intractable problems the British faced was the contradiction between their belief in democracy at home and arbitrary rule in India, denying the national aspirations of another people, while cherishing it themselves "as modern and civilised people". Hence their need to justifyimperialism. As Metcalf points out, two competing visions - the similarity and the difference between the British and the Indian - created an acute tension in the ideology of the Raj. Notions of similarity were inspired by the radical universalism of the Enlightenment. Confidence in the perfectibility of human nature encouraged James Mill, Macaulay and the liberals to introduce British law, education and other institutions to the subcontinent, in the hope of producing cultural "clones" of Englishmen. However, especially after the mutiny and rebellion of 1857, it was the difference of race and culture that overtook the earlier optimistic faith in westernisation. The power to transform India and move towards democracy became suspect. The "only hope for India was the long continuance of the benevolent but strong government of Englishmen". As the self-appointed guardian of traditional Indian society, the Raj set about "inventing" Indian princely pageantry, self-contained village republics and ageless tribes in an effort to thwart middle-class political aspirations. Such notions of difference were assisted by the science of anthropology and the technology of photography, which turned India into a veritable ethnographic museum. The political implication of all this was to legitimise religious communities and castes in India as the only reality in Indian politics; nationhood was to be seen a febrile delusion of the Congress party.

Yet, in the final analysis, these ideas were seldom spelt out; rather, they were collective representations of the Indian character, owing something to the orientalist mapping of the Indian past, which in turn relied on indigenous prescriptive texts for the con- struction of an essentialist India.

The absence of "history" in India was presented as the main difference compared with Britain's own triumphant progress. But however neatly devised, such an ideology of difference was riddled with internal fissures. The rulers suffered from colonial guilt and a perennial fear of loss of control, a possibility imaginatively explored in Kipling's stories. Contradictions between the "civilising mission ... and maintaining an India of enduring difference" were never satisfactorily resolved.

The second book takes up the story from the Bengali perspective, the first people in India to respond to colonial culture. A wide-ranging series of papers, covering various groups in Bengal, examines the impact of the new and what remained of the old. Metcalf argues that the English language, the means of cultural control, was a double-edged weapon. Those, such as westernised Bengalis, who learned the language only too well, threatened to overturn the "difference" sustaining British superiority. Behind the condescension towards Bengali baboos were fears of loss of control.

Tapan Raychaudhuri's paper in Mind, Body and Society, which considers the other side of the coin, brings to life the genuine excitement in Bengal about western rationalism and humanism, from Rammohun Roy onwards. India had already possessed a rationalist tradition, but unlike western science, it had no practical application. Western science offered a new impetus to Indians, producing an outstanding scientist like Jagadish Chandra Bose. Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill inspired the first radical student group in India, known as Young Bengal, which was followed by a generation raised on Comtean positivism. If Bengali heads were full of Comte, their hearts were captivated by Shakespeare, the English Romantic poets and other icons of the English literary canon.

Global transformation, pushed by rapid industrialisation, began in the 19th century. In India, this break with the past was due to British intervention. The implicit question raised by this book is whether Indian society would have moved towards a global culture even without the British presence. The uncomfortable fact is that the new learning hardly touched the majority in Bengal. Enlightenment ideas of equality only scraped the thick crust of caste hierarchy and women's subordination. The unevenness of the rupture is addressed by a number of papers on gender and marginal groups.

But neither was social criticism an entirely colonial phenomenon. As several authors make clear, among marginal religious movements, such as the Bauls, Fakirs and Sahajiyas, there were non-conformist elements that owed little to the West. And even the present fundamentalism can be traced back to a time before colonialism. On the other hand, an untouchable sect like the Matua was able to use social changes under the Raj to improve its status in the caste hierarchy.

Victorian values of individualism and especially the necessity of romantic love in conjugal life - notions disseminated in literature - did shake gender relations to the core in a Bengal where polygamy and child brides were common. Men started reassigning women's roles, accommodating the ideals of the nuclear family within the Hindu joint-family system. This often put a severe strain on women then caught between the two worlds without necessarily making substantive gains. As Sonia Nishat Amin's paper shows, Muslim women faced a similar dilemma reconciling "modern" emancipation with Koranic teaching.

What makes the book unusual is the space given to the human dimension. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was among the most famous living individuals in the West in the interwar years. His painful response to the colonial yoke in his early years makes poignant reading. Yet, as Lakshmi Subramanian argues, Tagore overcame petty slights from British expatriates, to accept that many in Britain greatly admired his genius. He later rejected Hindu chauvinism, denouncing aggressive nationalism in both the East and the West. The entire colonial encounter may have been an acute mess, but it is well to re-member that it produced individuals as remarkable as Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Satyajit Ray.

Partha Mitter is reader in art history, Sussex University.

Mind, Body and Society: Life and Mentality in Colonial Bengal

Editor - Rajat Kanta Ray
ISBN - 019 563757 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 486

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