The Colonial State by Partha Chatterjee — A Summary

Title: The Colonial State
Author: Partha Chatterjee
Publication: Partha Chatterjee (1993) The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories

The Colonial State as a Modern Regime of Power

If the colonial state is understood as a specific form of the modern state, its emergence and flourishing is simply of episodic interest and this colonial form of the modern state becomes incidental to the historical narrative of modernity. This understanding is quite common given the attitude that while the progress of modernity is an ongoing project, colonialism is an artifact of the past.

But the colonial state was also more than just about colonial rule. The vast infrastructural, institutional, military and communication projects undertaken during the colonial presence were to leave a ‘permanent mark’ on India. This is, to adopt a Focauldian reading, the inexorable march of a modern regime of power that produces and facilitates rather than prohibits. Both liberal British and nationalist Indian historians, although the latter are wont to deny any benevolence in the colonial mission which the former asserted, agree on the value of state institutions created by the colonial state. In fact, the post-colonial state has only expanded and strengthened these institutions.

What is surprising, however, is that colonial discourse persistently refused to acknowledge the universality of the principles underlining this modern regime of power.

The Rule of Colonial Difference

The scheme of granting India a measure of responsible government introduced by the Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms in 1919 was contested by the British on the grounds that Indian society was not prepared for impersonal governance, that caste was incompatible with democracy, and that the experiment would be counterproductive for the British. Such a policy, in other words, made no practical or theoretical  sense and therefore could not and should not be applied to India.

Now, if the modern regime of power with its regulating and disciplining, or “normalising”, principles is justified by the argument that it makes power effective, productive, and humane, how can we address the debate about its universality? Is it universally applicable, as the liberal Indian elite asserted? Is it inescapably tied to Western societies, as the preceding paragraph implies? Or is it applicable when a certain cultural and historical education is attained, as Mill would argue?

All three positions are extant today and easily slide into the other by employing a rule of “colonial difference”. The implication is that if these three positions extant today draw upon the “colonial difference”, the colonial state, then, becomes crucial towards understanding the modern state.

Race and Rational Bureaucracy

The Revolt of 1857 forced the colonial state to reveal its true form as a modern regime of power which could never fulfill its “normalising mission” as its power was premised on maintaining the “colonial difference”.

The Revolt was followed by hard conservatism that scoffed at liberal evangelism in Britain and advocated leaving the ‘immoral’ native customs in India alone. This reaction clearly revealed the factor which united the rulers and separated them from the ruled. This was the rule of “colonial difference” whose most visible marker was race.

Racial difference became more entrenched even as the administration was being rationalised. This apparent paradox — the simultaneity of racial discrimination and merit-based rationalisation of the administration — is resolved if the goal of the colonial enterprise is seen as the preservation of the “colonial difference” within the otherwise universal framework of knowledge.

The Ilbert Bill brought the issue of whether bureaucratic rationalisation should be allowed to transgress racial division. On being pointed out that Indian judicial officers with the same qualifications and training as the British counterparts were being denied the same rights — an Indian Magistrate could not try a European — the liberal viceroy, Lord Ripon, introduced the said bill to straighten out the regulations. A veritable storm broke out with nonofficial Europeans rising in ‘almost mutinous opposition’ to denounce the bill. This forced the viceroy to beat a hasty retreat and pass instead a wholly emasculated bill.

The question was not so much the weakness of the viceroy as was the impossibility of establishing the modern state without suspending the idea of “colonial difference” which was so crucial to the colonial enterprise.

Race and Public Opinion

The Ilbert Bill also illuminated the relationship between the state and the civil society. In colonial Calcutta, the civil society was composed only of European residents whose opinions were considered public opinion.

The contours of this curious state–civil society relationship were revealed in interesting ways by the Nil Durpan Affair. The translation of a Bengali play, Nildarpan by Dinabandhu Mitra which spoke of the ‘indigo question’ from the perspective of the natives, through the initiative of the governor, John Peter Grant, and the translation’s subsequent circulation stirred up agitation amongst British indigo planters. The governor was charged with circulating “a foul and malicious libel” against them. The translator, James Long, an Irish missionary, was convicted of libel and sentenced. The governor was reprimanded and Seton-Karr, the secretary to the Government of Bengal who arranged for the translation, was dismissed.

What really was on trial? It was not the play or its author who was not even named in the suit of libel. The target was actually the government which had dared to libel against the public opinion. Long was simply a scapegoat. What was unacceptable to the European community, it turned out, was that ‘native public opinion’ was being considered on par with European opinion. Europeans constituted the civil society and theirs was the public opinion. Freedom of opinion applied only to the Europeans and not the natives.

Language and Freedom of Speech

The question of public opinion flared up in the 1870s when legal means were being devised to curb ‘seditious’ writings in the vernacular press while English papers were kept out of purview. Despite this differentiation between the English and vernacular press being denouned as being ‘at variance with the whole tenour of (British) policy’, the Vernacular Press Act of 1878, with its stringent provisions which gagged the native press, was passed in haste. It would be repealed four years later. In any case, the distinction by language had ceased to be effective as Indians started publishing ‘seditious’ papers in English.

Nationalism and Colonial Difference

Nationalism claimed sovereignty over the inner spiritual domain of language, religion, and civil relations arguing for an essential difference from the coloniser while simultaneously fighting to remove the marks of difference in the outer material domain of the state like administration, state, and law.

The insistence on difference, in rival conceptions of collective identity, has carried over into the postcolonial state especially with regards to the determination of agency in history. This gets implicated in the insistence on similar claims of “autonomous subjectivity”.

 “It Never Happened!”

The revisionist argument of British colonial history challenges the assumption that colonial rule represented a significant break and argues that the colonial regime was a continuation of indigenous regimes and further that Indians themselves were actively involved in this colonial project.

The first part of the argument, put forth by Burton Stein, sees the period between 1750 and 1850 as a ‘period of transition’. The early colonial rule slowly centralised military power just as other predecessors did, marking a distinct continuity. But later, they also imposed a regime based on impersonality which marked a discontinuity not only from the indigenous but also the early colonial period.

Frank Perlin qualifies this argument by introducing the idea that the centralising tendency characterised largely the early colonial stage. It was the acceleration of this process that produced a ‘substantial break’. He adds that early colonial rule largely extinguished intermediary pockets of power that would often spring up during precolonial indigenous attempts at centralisation.

But in insisting on the distinction between the early and the later colonial period, the former as a continuation of precolonial regimes and the latter as a break, it attracts the justified question whether the whole argument is merely about identifying when the decisive break took place. If this indeed is all to it, one might retort simply that the date or period of the decisive break from early to later colonial state notwithstanding, the later colonial state did mark a discontinuity and develop the modern state and that this is all that matters.

The stronger second part of the revisionist argument emphasises the agency of the Indians towards the colonial project. Not only was colonial rule preceded by Indian capitalism and its attendant political and cultural movements but it also saw active resilience from the indigenous propertied groups that frustrated the ‘grandiose economic plans’ of the colonial state. The Indian people are made subjects of this history and a narrative running from the precolonial to the postcolonial period is constructed.

What of colonial rule then? It would appear that it was merely a brief interlude in the longer narrative of history.

David Washbrook argues further that an objective historical method centred on tracing continuities might help extract and restore the Indianness of colonial rule from the narrative of European history. And indeed, this “historical theory” perspective will reveal that economic and social institutions of precolonial India accommodated and encouraged modern capital. The East India Company was merely one of many players already performing much the same functions. Colonialism was thus the logical outcome of India’s own history of capitalist development!

Colonial Difference as Postcolonial Difference

It is magical how “historical theory” makes the violent intrusion and excesses of colonialism appear to be an innate property of indigenous history. But this, like all feats of magic, is also an illusion.

Washbrook asserts the similarity between Indian and European economic arrangements as a means of providing authenticity to Indian history and in doing so is merely restating, though he does not recognise it, the assumption that both histories are situated within the same framework of universal history. The assertion of difference by his predecessors put colonialism at odds with a society incapable of capitalism and modern government thus necessitating colonial intervention and education. But in asserting similarity, Washbrook has erased colonialism out of existence for it becomes, as earlier stated, an interlude, a phase in the historical development. The further implication is that if India is backward today, it is due to the limitations of its own indigenous history.


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I am chronic procrastinator.