Updated: October 14, 2009 14:37 IST

Dynamics of colonial workings

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Words and deeds always seemed to compete with or match each other when colonial empire was crafted, managed, and dismantled. Spokespersons of imperialism, on site or at the desk, would fitfully beat the big-drum of power and benevolence or slide into nuanced apologies. Those at the receiving end would, with equal persistence, show it as a subjugating, exploitative mechanism hooking the colony to world capitalism on unequal terms, creating an illusion of well-being, but in reality ensuring the development of under-development. In the post-colonial world, intellectual and emotional jousts over the legacies of colonialism have continued. Some of them have moved out of the single-track ‘metropolis to periphery’ paradigm, but produced its inversion, while some others have tried to show that colonial subjugation was achieved through the production of colonial knowledge. These have appeared in a whole range of works by Bernard Cohn, Chris Bayly, Nicholas Dirks, Linda Colley, and Ranajit Guha, besides others, using or interrogating the insights of Foucault, Edward Said, and others.


Fringes of Empire takes us to the less known but no less significant or exciting dynamics of colonial workings at its fringes. The volume puts together 10 brilliant essays, with a felicitous ‘Introduction’ by Elizabeth Kolsky, and a fine ‘Foreword’ by Nicholas B. Dirks that situates the project in the context of historiography.

It is divided into two thematic parts: the first “explores the fluid nature of the empire’s temporal and geographical borders and boundaries,” while the second has essays “featuring unfamiliar people and places, insiders and outsiders.” Philip J. Stern interrogates the received notions about the reluctant journey of the East India Company from trade to the wielding of sovereignty, and argues that the Company had, from the beginning, exhibited the attributes of an early modern polity.

Moving on to another unlikely factor in the colonial state formation, Marina Carter shows how pirates were inextricably linked to the political and economic agenda of states, at both individual and institutional levels. Rather than an irritation, piracy is seen as an integrative force in the making of the colony — a perception that does not fit ill with the character of colonialism.


The next three essays deal with the ways in which the Empire’s frontiers were crafted or harnessed. Alex McKay applies Turner’s ‘Frontier Thesis’ to make sense of the imprecise Indo-Tibetan border and its many-layered zones of authority, while Sameetah Agha uses Ruy Mauro Marini’s idea of ‘sub-imperialism’ to explain the events in Waziristan. Mridu Rai’s study of the making of the state of Kashmir in the 19th century and the diligence with which the British gave the Dogra rule a Hindu identity as a counterweight to the Sikh and Muslim regions uncovers the colonial origins of the gangrenous, suppurating Kashmir problem.

Of the essays on the theme, ‘Outsiders and Insiders,’ the one by Satadru Sen analyses a 19th century Urdu autobiography of an Andaman convict, Maulana Thanesari to unfold the transformative space of the penal colony which was autonomous and yet not unrelated to the mainland from which it was separated, defying the colonial design.

Clare Anderson’s study of the banishment of a convict of African descent, George Morgan, brings out the complexities of racial and geographical boundaries of the empire. James H. Mills has interrogated the Foucaultian notion of asylums as expressions of power. He finds that, though implicated in the operations of the state, the hospital is also located in the strategies of the family and community.

Douglas M. Peers shows how a seemingly inconsequential court martial at Mhow in central India had a “butterfly effect” of triggering a hurricane of global impact because it touched several sensitive issues like gender, class, and discipline. Lastly, Lisa Mitchell’s essay deals with the dialectics of the colonial knowledge as produced and imbibed in the context of the Telugu region.

That fringes of empire have a lot to reveal about the working of colonialism has been shown in these brilliant essays. They do not negate the seamy side of the Empire; they merely remind us that it has expressed itself in different, complex ways, sometimes colliding and sometimes colluding with the received notions of the Empire. That makes this volume a rewarding reading.

It takes us to the less known but no less significant or exciting dynamics of colonial workings at its fringes

FRINGES OF EMPIRE: Edited by Sameetah Agha, Elizabeth Kolsky; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 675.

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