South Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Ritu Birla, Columbia University
Chair and Discussant: Anand A. Yang, University of Utah
This panel considers indigenous groups conventionally understood as complicitous with the aims of British colonial power in order to problematize the category of the "intermediary" or "collaborator." Specifically, the papers address the lower ranks of the police and Hindu money-lending and commercial communities in late 19th-century India. Rather than redeem these groups through an ontology of resistance, the panel explores their engagement with colonial knowledges and practices. South Asian historiography has too often understood indigenous groups who work within a logic of colonial practice as comfortably incorporated into that logic. But the panelists argue that the very instabilities of that "incorporation," even despite a coincidence of interest, are central to the study of colonial power.
Each panelist addresses intermediaries buttressing of colonial projects alongside their negotiation with colonial discourses of order emerging in the late 19th century. Ritu Birlas work on new legislation ordering the marketplace examines the ways in which the complicity of Hindu merchant groups in capitalist development must be read alongside the production of their own illegitimacy. Through her study of the subordinate police in the North-Western Provinces, Clea Finkle rethinks the autonomy of the state by illuminating the slippages within modern colonial bureaucracy. Ruhi Grovers research on indigenous timber trading communities highlights the complexity of interests within and among the colonial state, local powerholders, and commercial interests in forest management.
Clea T. Finkle, University of Washington
This paper examines the activities and organization of the lower ranks of the police following Act V of 1861, in order to reconsider the widely accepted identity between the police and colonial state. Act V emerged alongside a wide variety of legislation that sought to constitute the state a more efficient, consolidated and bounded realm of power. This it did through the "scientific" application of modern bureaucratic principles combined with specifically colonial understandings of Indian society.
Act V has conventionally been interpreted as inaugurating a tightly controlled and predominantly coercive system of policing consistent with the autonomous structure of a modern colonial state. This paper questions the usefulness of unitary conceptions of the state for understanding colonial policing and power more generally. It explores the operation of rational legal bureaucracy in the colonial context where native functionaries were conceived as inherently unruly, inefficient and corrupt. Colonial bureaucracy became an exemplary space for managing natives where the "natural" hierarchies inhering in Indian society were harnessed to the imperative for local intelligence and the supervising of the police hierarchy itself. The paper locates the native police as a central site of difference in colonial knowledge rather than as the dominant in a binary elite/subaltern, power/powerless equation.
Ritu Birla, Columbia University
This paper rethinks the supposedly comfortable relationship of indigenous commerce and British capital through an analysis of late 19th-century legislation enacted to assess and regulate commercial activity and organization in India. Focusing on new commercial and financial laws of the period, the paper examines the dynamics of colonial control as articulated through the making of the boundaries of public and private in economic discourse.
While these statutes seemed to exert direct control over mercantile activity, they also produced an arena of customary "autonomy" for kinship-based Hindu commercial groups in particular. South Asian economic history has argued that these new commercial regulations were ineffectual because of the loophole provided by the legal "autonomy" of the so-called private, customary sphere in late colonial India. The inefficacy of commercial and financial statutes thus outlined has reinforced a picture of convenient collaboration, if not identity, between Hindu merchants and the aims of commercial and industrial capitalism. In contrast, this paper emphasizes the very delineating of the boundaries of public and private exchange as crucial for problematizing this complicity. I outline how the production of "autonomy" from legal regulation in the "private" delegitimized that arena as a space for commercial transactions. Thus, I highlight a new ethical mapping of material exchange as a defining dynamic of late 19th-century economic discourse, colonial sovereignty, and the ascendancy of indigenous capitalist communities.
Ruhi Grover, University of Virginia
Most works on forestry in South Asia, until recently, have focused on state policy and the impact of forest restrictions on local communities. They treat timber as a self-evident category that needs no explanation. In this paper I examine the degree to which the political and economic structure of colonial rule shaped the nature of timber trade in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Punjab, and the extent to which timber interests moved beyond "traditional" roles towards more elaborate functions. My purpose is to avoid essentializing categories of collaborators and resistors, and to reexamine the notion of forests as sites of triangular contest among the state, timber traders, and local communities.
Timber management did not end in forests. Once timber left its bounded forest space, it acquired a mobility that was largely dictated by the seasonal flow of rivers, the availability of labor, and most importantly timber traders, who continuously staked their claim over various sites of timber production, passage, and distribution. This urban and semi-urban commercial community was able to nurture and preserve itself despite a colonial overlay by establishing relations not only with specific state departments, but also by maintaining contacts with local rajas and labor contractors. In the process, timber traders were able to incorporate pre-existing networks of exchange, create new itineraries of trade, and initiate an outward flow of forest products that was indeed unprecedented in nature.