Of the ideologues of empire in the late nineteenth century, Henry Maine had perhaps the most profound intellectual impact on
contemporaries, ranging from arch-imperialists of the Lugard variety at one extreme to Marx and Engels at the other end of the ideological spectrum. More than anything he influenced the ways in which the remote past of humankind—the ‘ancient’—was understood. By historicizing the evolution of law and society which he saw, as is well known, in terms of a transition from status to contract, Maine initiated a sophisticated scholarly debate on a large number of related issues: Roman jurisprudence; customary law; codification; role of kinship in ‘traditional’ societies; village communities; and land tenures—to mention a few of the questions on which his writings had a significant bearing. This in turn had important implications for the development of social theory and the emergence of sociology and anthropology as modern disciplines. Further, Maine was actually in a position to mould colonial policy in post-1857 India as law member of the Governor-General’s Council for seven long years (1862–69).
In fact, lesser minds such as James Mill in the case of the early nineteenth century and W.W. Hunter in the case of the latter half of the century have received far more attention in standard textbook accounts of the intellectual history of the British Indian empire. Karuna Mantena’s eminently readable Alibis of Empire undertakes a reappraisal of the intellectual legacy of Maine highlighting both the brilliance of his scholarship, of which the first major product was his pioneering Ancient Law (1861), and the limitations imposed on it by his ideological justification of empire in an era of aggressive imperialist expansion and cynical rationalization of colonial exploitation. The currently fashionable arguments, in the post-9/11 era, about the desirability of empire are marked by a similar cynicism with the difference that they are utterly lacking in any of the (residual) spark of fin-de-siecle bourgeois ideology. A historically contextualized understanding of the ideas of Maine is useful, as Mantena notes in the coda of the book, for critiquing the bankrupt arguments that seek to uphold American military occupation of Iraq.
A study of Maine is, of course, vital for explaining the shifts in colonial policy pertaining to India in the period following the suppression of the Great Revolt of 1857, as well as for outlining the trajectory of nineteenth century liberal thought vis-a-vis empire. It may be mentioned that the colonial policy enunciated with regard to India in the second half of the nineteenth century was subsequently replicated in other parts of the empire, especially in British Africa. By the middle of the century ‘liberal imperialism’ was in crisis. Utilitarian ideals, which had supplanted the Orientalist perspective of the late eighteenth century, had lost much of their sheen by the fifties once it became apparent that the project for ‘improving’ native society had had little success—at least of the kind that had been envisaged. The Revolt of 1857, as well as resistance to colonial rule in other parts of the empire, seriously discredited an earlier liberal vision that sought to justify the colonial venture in moral terms. The Revolt came to be regarded as an indication of the failure to grasp the inner workings of indigenous society, leading thereby to a critique of utilitarian tinkering which had assumed that India could be transformed from above and had declared such a transformation to be the great historical (or even divine) mission of British rule in India.
For Maine, the Orientalists and the Utilitarians had both got it wrong. The Orientalists had a romantic notion of India’s past derived largely from textual sources and brahminical native informants. Thus their understanding of contemporary realities was rather inadequate. Moreover, ‘… most colonial officers were based in Presidency towns along coasts which had long histories of contact with the outside world, and thus they mistakenly took the urbanized … natives they encountered as representative of all of India. The ‘interior mass’ was where ‘primitive custom and idea’ were particularly well preserved …’ (p. 155).The Utilitarians for their part saw India as barbaric, steeped in superstition and ignorance, and incapable of making any progress on its own. Hence their strong emphasis on legislative measures and evangelical missionary efforts to civilize the natives. This approach reflected ignorance about ‘traditional’ societies in general and Indian society in particular. The catastrophe of 1857 was the outcome of this lack of knowledge. What Maine set out to do was to critically redefine ‘what in fact Indian custom was and what constituted appropriate knowledge of it’ (p. 154).
The study of Roman antiquity in Ancient Law had already laid the groundwork for such a redefinition by delineating the specific features of traditional society, within the framework of a traditional/modern binary opposition. Traditional society was distinct from modern society in that it was based upon status; had no conception of the individual (in Maine’s words, ‘Ancient Law knows next to nothing of individuals’); was ordered by means of kinship ties; and was an aggregation of (extended) families. Nevertheless, it was rational and functioned according to its own logic and rules.At the same time it was fundamentally different from modern society, which was based on contract and was a collection of individuals. Non-western societies would have to be viewed exclusively in their terms and had nothing in common with modern societies of the West. It followed from this line of reasoning that traditional societies in the colonies could never really aspire to modernity. Apparently the manner in which Roman law and jurisprudence had developed, and the historical juncture at which this development had taken place (in the case of Greece codification had come too early; in the case of India too late), had made possible those changes that were to make it the unique destiny of the West to be modern.
The purpose of colonial policy could not then be to change Indian society (=traditional society), an objective which it was historically impossible to achieve, but to preserve it. Preservation required sufficient knowledge of what had to be preserved, and such knowledge could only be acquired through an appropriate understanding of the internal logic of indigenous society. This is what gave rise, in the latter half of the century, to what Nicholas Dirks has called the ‘ethnographic state’. Here Mantena broadly adheres to Dirks’s thesis. The village community, organized on the principle of caste (jati), was the key to understanding Indian society.
The village community, which had survived virtually intact down to the period of British rule, gave to India its museum-like quality. In his later writings Maine examined the village community in great detail, incorporating recent researches on Russia, Ireland, and the German Mark. The Indian village community held a special fascination for him not only since it figured prominently in his prescription for stabilizing colonial rule, but also (perhaps more importantly) because it supposedly came closest to what European society had been like in the past.
Several contemporary ideas converged at this point: a common Indo-European heritage; a shared past; and linguistic and racial affinity linked to Aryan descent. Caste endogamy in India was supposed to have ensured continuity of the social structure as well as racial purity (of certain castes). Although, as Mantena points out, race was not the foundation on which Maine built his edifice, and played no significant part in his argument, yet it was very much a part of the pool of ideas which in this period shaped the colonial discourse about non-western societies. The presumably changeless Indian village community was typically an Aryan (or Aryanized) village community—which is what linked it to the institutions of the European past. The connection is subtle but is there for all that. It may be worth recalling that in the last quarter of the nineteenth century military ideologues (of whom Frederick Roberts was the foremost spokesperson in this period) were articulating the concept of ‘martial races’, combining colonial constructions of caste and race to argue for the enlistment of ‘pure’ Aryans who shared characteristics (though at an inferior level) of the Anglo-Saxons. Obviously the eternal village community and its enduring structure, based upon caste, guaranteed the purity of the ‘martial races’ ever since the Aryan migrations several millennia ago.Maine was certainly not so naive as to assume that the village community was to be found in its pristine form in the late nineteenth century.
The advent of British rule had brought about changes which were ‘the structural effect of imperial rule’ (p. 144), not the product of wrong policies. Nor was he trying to suggest that the original village community be restored. Rather, he advocated a policy that would allow for controlled change through limited intervention and indirect rule. It is not entirely clear from Mantena’s account as to what indirect rule refers to in terms of colonial practice. We do know that after 1857-58 the colonial state eagerly sought the support of the landed elite and the feudal aristocracy to consolidate imperial rule. These classes supplied the ‘natural leaders’ of Indian society and their collaboration was essential for stability. This did not necessarily imply indirect rule. In any case, ‘indirect rule’ has a very specific connotation in the context of the British Indian empire, referring to the mode of governing princely states. Be that as it may, the concept of indirect rule, as Hira Singh has observed, denies agency to the colonized, and one is not entirely certain that it is appropriate for understanding the strategies of the colonial state in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Henry Maine was indeed a towering intellectual. But he was on the wrong side of the ideological divide. This is precisely what Marx had in mind while commenting on an aspect of Maine’s association with India: ‘When reading the histories of primitive communities written by bourgeois writers it is necessary to be on one’s guard. They do not even shrink from falsehoods. Sir Henry Maine, for example, who was a keen collaborator of the British Government in carrying out the violent destruction of the Indian communes, hypocritically assures us that all the government’s noble efforts to support the communes were thwarted by the spontaneous forces of economic laws!’ (draft of letter to Vera Zasulich, 1881).