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Updated: December 25, 2012 03:52 IST

Definitions and divisions

Murali Sivaramakrishnan
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Define and Rule. Native as Political and Identity; Mahmood Mamdani; Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts
Define and Rule. Native as Political and Identity; Mahmood Mamdani; Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts

Almost two thirds of the world’s population have experienced colonial rule in one form or another, and the strong imprints of Europe’s imperial stamp can be deciphered with little effort on the countenance of many Afro-Asian people even now. However, colonial supremacy has not always been effected through the enforcement of direct authoritarian power as in the case of the Roman Empire expanding through Italy and beyond. While imperial Rome aggrandised itself through tax-taking and legislation, the latter-day British colonial forces surreptitiously focused on indirect rule and the institutionalisation of difference in both polity and society. The shift from the homogenising impulse to a preoccupation with defining and managing difference is evidenced most in the transition from direct to indirect rule.

In our own times the management of difference occupies the central position in politics and the state while issues of identity in terms of class, caste and tribe have also emerged as equally central to the understanding of any present day community. In Define and Rule, Mahmood Mamdani explores these issues of the native in terms of both colonial historiography and legislative administration. The three-part essay that focuses on the theory of nativism, its practice, and the theory of decolonisation, forms the W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures delivered by Mamdani.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed a crisis of empire at both its ends — India and Jamaica, starting with the 1857 uprising and closing with the Morant Bay in Jamaica in 1865. In the ideological reflection that followed the crisis, the entire colonial mission was redefined — from civilisation to conservation and from progress to order.

Crisis of empire

According to Mamdani, as a political identity the native was the creation of the intellectuals of the empire in crisis. The key figure he identifies as Sir Henry Maine, who reflected on the post-1857 crisis of the British Empire in India. There were also others such as Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, whose object of reflection was the Dutch East Indies. Interpellated in the ideology of colonial governance, the native (as Mamdani reads in Maine’s Early History) was a creation of the colonial state: “colonized, the native is pinned down, localized , thrown out of civilization as an outcast, confined to custom, and then defined as its product.” Mamdani goes on to expose how lines were demarcated between settler and native as distinct political identities, and between natives according to tribe.

The first chapter discusses the mode of indirect rule, both as an intellectual reflection on the mid-19th century crisis of empire as evidenced in its seminal theoretician, Sir Henry Maine, and as a set of colonial reforms designated to ameliorate this crisis in India, the British colony of Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Maine’s reading included binaries: the west as civilised and progressive opposed to the east as traditional and static. If the social became the privileged theoretical arena for understanding the nature and dynamics of society in the west, that privilege was given to the domain of culture in the non-West. In the east aristocracies became religious, while in the west they were civil or political.

Customary law in India for Maine tended to be rooted in the ground as the peasant and his crops, while the civil law of the west could travel globally. Mamdani continues to lead these binary modes toward the formulation of the idea of history and law in terms of the past and the future possibilities: If the production of the past is the stuff of history writing, the securing of a future is the domain of law-making. In the context of colonial Africa the anthropological demarcation between race and tribe supplies one with an idea of colonial definitions and governance. Similarly divide and rule as a policy came to be replaced by the idea of define and rule.

Mamdani concludes his first chapter pointing out that, as with the British in post-1857 India, the Dutch had advanced imperial strategy a step beyond the famed Roman practice of divide and rule. With the colonies of 20th century Africa, the theorists of indirect rule — Henry Maine and Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje — aimed at renegotiating everything — boundary, authority and subjectivity.

While the focus of the second chapter is on elaboration of indirect rule in the African colonies, particularly colonial Sudan in the aftermath of another major crisis of the empire, the Mahdiyya, the final chapter turns to the antithesis of this process — the movement for decolonisation, in both intellectual and political dimensions.

Intellectual antidote

The writings of the Nigerian historian Yusuf Bala Usman, a towering figure among postcolonial intellectuals, on history and historiography are discussed thoroughly in these pages. For Usman all sources for history writing are subject to the subjectivity of the historian, and “distance, detachment and objectivity,” are fundamental issues in the process.

The way out of the problem is to be utterly self-reflexive. Mamdani quotes: “Once you are aware of your own historicity, then you will realize the historicity of the concepts that you use, and you do not sit down and accept them as if these have come down to you from heaven.” For Mamdani, Usman formulates the intellectual antidote to colonial historiographies, much like the statecraft of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzanian state-builder whose pioneering reforms not only effectively decolonised the indirect rule state, but in so doing, provide us with a non-violent alternative to a Leninist vision of “smashing” the state.

Nyerere through his policies and practice taught otherwise: first that the backbone of the colonial state and its legacy was not the army and the police, but its legal and administrative apparatus, and it called for political reason not violence to smash these!

The creation of a substantive law from multiple sources — pre-colonial life, colonial modern form of the state, and anticolonial resistance — and the establishment of a single and unified law-enforcing machinery, meant that every citizen in mainland Tanzania was governed on the basis of the same set of rules enforced by a single court system — all these Mamdani highlights as Nyerere’s seminal achievements toward the creation of an inclusive citizenship and building a nation state.

Colonial privilege we must recall, took two forms: the racial and the tribal. If settler cosmopolitanism claimed to be a product of race difference, native particularism was said to reflect the authority of the tribe.

Mamdani’s book raises critical queries of colonial intervention in the lives of the colonised and how they are articulated in their theories to look upon themselves, and to take on their political and historical nativist subjectivities.

Couched in the simple idiom of an astute political analyst the academic-cum-theoretician has produced a thesis of nativism and counter theory that is bound to lead on to new intellectual grounds and initiate newer debates.

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