At the Edges of Empire brings together the impressive range of Rosalind O’Hanlon’s scholarship over the last two and a half decades. Reading and ruminating on the essays is a way of marking the subtle and not so subtle shifts in the methodological and thematic concerns of the history and historiography of modern India. For the volume covers a wide spectrum, from the conceptual problems involved in thematizing the subject of history, to the more specific problems of caste identity in early modern India, to the importance of gender in understanding a diverse swathe of history from imperial governance to cultures of physical fitness. All but one of the essays in the volume has been published before, some in more than one place.
The opening essay, ‘Recovering the Subject’ is all too seemingly familiar for the generation that grew into academic adolescence in the late 1980s and 1990s. Even so one may well touch upon two points: 1) The basic critique, voiced in the essay, that Subaltern Studies was caught in the contradiction of critiquing a certain paradigm (‘western humanism’) that is at the same time ‘readmitted through the back door in the figure of the subaltern himself’ (p. 27). While clearly sympathetic to the issues that Subaltern Studies had brought to the fore, O’Hanlon speaks of the unevenness of ‘skill’ in the contributors in handling this difficulty of critiquing foundational assumptions and yet recovering agency; and the almost inevitable slip into essentialism in the form of an autonomous subject and history that the latter ends in. In this context it is surprising that in this long review O’Hanlon chooses to refer to rather fleetingly—rather than discuss engagingly—Gayatri Spivak’s contribution in volume four, which diagnostically reads precisely some of these issues regarding the subject and the practice of history-writing. 2) The reading that Guha’s studies had as their focus the ‘internal world of the subaltern’ (p. 48) might well be disputed because Elementary Aspects, if anything, detailed the ways in which domination pervaded the everyday so as to at once make such distinctions between internal and external meaningless, and the act of rebellion significant.
The essay ‘Cultures of Rule’ surveys the historiographic debates of its times, trying to navigate between the arguments that asserted the specificity of colonial power and those that spoke of longer term continuities from the precolonial period. While stressing the need to take into account longer term structural continuities, in this essay O’Hanlon clearly points out that caste as a principle of social organization in the colonial period ‘constituted a profound departure from the kind of dynamic and contingent context in which precolonial brahman social theory and political practice had operated, in which scriptural precept, religious practice, and political power stood always in tension’ (p. 88). The ‘depoliticizing framework’—the colonial state that didn’t give the colonized rights in the way the latter developed in the ‘West’—meant that the social became the only ground on which ‘political rivalries’ could be fought. Thus the conflict between the rural Maratha elites who engaged in non-brahman politics so as to gain some amount of control through employment in the lower level colonial bureaucracy; ‘this naturalization of the social domain as the decisive arena for political contest was of course, what produced the drastically limiting emphasis on caste as the basis for non-Brahman political organization, and on Brahmans as the major culprit in the subordination of the bahujan samaj’ (pp. 96-97).
However, in her essay ‘Colonialism and Social Identities in Flux’, 23 years later, little of this nuance—colonial depoliticization that created the social arena in which caste was an organizing principle both literal and symbolic—survives. Rather, leaning on the work of Susan Bayly, among others (colonial) caste is now ‘better understood in the context of Indian [?] engagement with the broader changes in sedantarization’ (p. 186). The ‘older seigniorial groups’ who lost access to military over-lordship and faced the challenges of communities of successful peasant farmers attempted new ways of consolidating their authority over ‘menial rural communities, extending to them an unclean status previously limited to a narrow range of occupational specialists’ (p. 186). Other castes that were the beneficiaries of colonial agrarian policy similarly consolidated themselves into closer knit communities through the assertion of their regional identity and vernacular culture. Caste identity was thus imbricated in arguments about regional identity and thus subject to regional differentiation. ‘In western India as in the south, therefore, the real ground of cultural and political contest lay not in the commanding position of an urban culture pitted against a predominantly Muslim rural one, but in the struggle to define the history and cultural meanings of a predominantly agrarian regional tradition. This struggle lay at the core of non-Brahman political agendas in the region’; unlike in the north where ‘Hindu commercial and agrarian elites competed with an older Muslim gentry’ (p. 194).
It is evident that the above reading of social identities and the making of regional cultures is self consciously heavily dependent on what O’Hanlon calls ‘sedentarization’. The latter is also what she almost interchangeably calls ‘demilitarization’ or the making of an agrarian order i.e., early Company policy could be understood as that which would ‘bring into being peaceable communities of settled and productive cultivators who would be easy to police and easy to tax’ (p. 181). The nature of such bringing into being of peaceable communities—that were presumably not so peaceable in earlier times—appears to scarcely acknowledge, let alone engage with the violence involved at the political level (conquest) and dislocation at social and economic levels.
One point of entry into the actual practice of revenue collection, taking a clue from Marx, might be the Madras Commission Report on Torture (1855) that spoke of the widespread use of torture in revenue collection. But there is much more on the nature and results of the revenue policies of the Company in the detailed economic histories, from B.B. Chaudhuri to Asiya Siddiqi. However, the only economic study that is to be found to influence O’Hanlon, and which is repeatedly referred to, is Tomlinson’s text-book like study, The Economy of Modern India 1860-1970. If the argument of sedentarization and demilitarization has no time for detailed economic history, it is surprising that the argument about social and religious identity has not taken into account Nandini Bhattacharaya’s recent, Appropriation and Invention to Tradition, which demonstrates convincingly that Hastings’s codification of so called Hindu law was in fact the self-conscious imperious rewriting of law to suit the commercial interests of the Company; having little to do with law as it was either theorized or practised in earlier times. Bhattacharaya’s detailed work with the Sanskrit sources sets it apart from what seemed like the never ending debates on continuity and change.
‘Gods in the Courtroom’, published in this collection for the first time, explores what it sees as a ‘long historical trajectory conceptions that emerged so powerfully in late-twentieth-century Ayodhya’ (p. 276). For an essay that begins on such a note it is surprising that when discussing the 2010 High Court Judgement, O’ Hanlon speaks of ‘one of the judges (having) pointed out that the place under the central dome of the demolished Mosque was the birthplace of Rama as per the faith and belief of the Hindus’ (p. 277); no citation or reference is given. From here notions of worship and endowments—entangled as they were with questions of (ritual) right and revenue—from the 13th century is undertaken. O’ Hanlon speaks of the beneficiary of the endowment being a deity or resident deities, in the Hindu world- view, with all too cursory references to ‘Vedic conceptions’, Shankara and Mimamsa, whole fields that have been the subject of intense and immense controversy and commentary over centuries. She argues, largely depending on select secondary material, that while the deities were considered the ‘owners’, those who managed the complex were the material beneficiaries; paralleling the Mutwali in the Islamic world. Deities thus were to have become the cyphers by way of which communities and rulers competed for symbolic and material power. O’Hanlon cites Ritu Birla and Richard Davis, on colonial law and deities, especially the 1887 judgement of the Bombay High Court that read the Hindu idol as a ‘juridical subject’, ‘capable of holding property in the same way as a natural person’ (p. 295). However, she fails to mention that both Birla and Davis argue that the rendering of the deity as a legal person in the colonial period inaugurated a fundamental shift in conceptualizing the deity as an ‘idol’ (‘juristic person’); the reasoning for which was defended by the legal principle of mortmain (dead hand) which had a long history in Britain going back to Roman law. Thus while O’Hanlon all too quickly moves from ‘precolonial practice’ to colonial courts, Birla and Davis underline the change inaugurated by the reading of the ‘deity’ as a juristic person, which was a Roman law concept, that saw the deity as an ideal person personifying the intention of the gift-giver and not the owner of property as previously conceived. In fact this Roman law notion that the idol has ownership in perpetuity, against prescription was in line of reasoning adopted in the Ayodhya judgement of 2010. The other interesting material excavated by O’Hanlon on the disputes over ritual identity and history of groups such as the White Yajurvedis in the Maratha court, is seen to pass over seamlessly to colonial inquiries on caste in the courts and census reports. The politico-economic transformations and the shifting terrain, on which these questions were decided, alluded to in O’Hanlon’s earlier work, are nowhere to be found.
‘Narratives of Penance and Purification in Western India’ is a rewarding essay in this collection. Sketched here in challenging complexity is the nature of adjudication that often indexed the distribution of political and economic power. Using the rich archival material on dosapatras (letters of petitioners stating their transgressions and asking for ritual purification/punishment), the essay focuses on the Dharmasabhas—‘local community institutions’ (p. 241)—of the Maharashtra region in the 17th and 18th centuries and their changing status in relation to other institutions such as the gota (at times a caste council and at times an assembly of local holders of a particular vatan or right), the newly emerging maths, scribal rivals such as the Kayastha Prabhus, and the centralizing tendencies of the Peshwa state. The subjects for discussion included socializing with those considered inferior castes, disputes over rights to perform certain rituals as well as even conversion to Islam. While O’Hanlon succeeds very well in mapping out the friction and complexities in adjudication as well as the long term decline of the Dharmasabhas in favour of (Peshwa), State supported local bodies such as the panchayats, she is less successful in giving us an insight into either the ‘tradition of moral reflection’ or the ‘interior lives’ of her subjects. This is because there is little by way of exploring what indeed something like dosa would have meant and a beginning could have been made by an acknow-ledgement—if not exploration—of the philosophical literature that constituted the dharmasastras in which specialized and sophisticated protocols existed for the definition and disputation of words and terms. It is this diffidence towards an examination of the way in which the corpus of texts reflected on itself or represented itself, that also mars the otherwise very interesting studies of the normative literature around imperial governance in Mughal India in the 17th and 18th centuries. For instance, almost the whole of the first half of ‘Issues of Masculinity in North India’, discusses writers from Ashis Nandy to Mrinalini Singha and John Richards, while the rest is largely a summary of the arguments of an article written by William Irvine, in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1878-89), and while one would like to be convinced, by a note in the essay that Irvine’s work ‘[is] closely based on contemporary Persian and Urdu sources’ (p. 370), no effort towards such persuasion is made in the reading, either of the text or the sources.
Perhaps best known for her study on Tarabhai Shinde, O’Hanlon has greatly expanded the scope of her work on gender to include normative models of masculinity in precolonial India. This collection includes an essay that specifically investigates the importance of gender for understanding imperial governance under the Mughal court that combined ‘Persian courtly skills with the warrior traditions of the Central Asian steppe’ (p. 358). Models of behaviour thus allow an access of actions that otherwise might seem at a remove from questions of gender be they in diplomacy or court. Tracing a change in the meanings of manliness in the late 17th and 18th centuries, O’Hanlon exploits the Mirzanama as a genre to argue for a move away from the ‘Mughal values of devoted personal service’ (p. 409) to notions of ‘gentlemanliness’ that included, ‘the dignified independence of a cultivated gentleman’, reflected in friends, sensibility and a ‘connoisseurship of fine things and places’ (p. 410). While new ground is broken in terms of the issues addressed, the magnitude of the argument and the treatment of the archival material would no doubt provoke debate and discussion amongst specialists.
In conclusion one might revisit the earlier critique of Subaltern Studies, and its inverted pervasion of the volume, where O’Hanlon had written, ‘the idea of “identity” is itself a highly problematic one, always implying the duplication of an original whose locus and manner of existence remains elusive’ (my emphasis, p. 47). How is one to square this with arguments for, and assumptions about, an identifiable subject much grander in scale —used with little reflexivity—such as ‘India’ or ‘Indian’? For the latter propels much of the analytical focus across themes in O’Hanlon’s later work; all too evident in formulations that echo and punctuate the volume, such as, ‘Salutary emphases, which take account both of the longer-term structural continuities and of the agencies of Indians themselves in these historical processes’ (p. 87). Or, ‘in the sphere of religion as in others, a modernity not derived solely from Western models, but with its own independent dynamism and trajectories’ (p. 298). None of this detracts at all from the wealth of material, argument and intellectual provocation that the volume offers.
Rahul Govind is with the Department of History, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Delhi, Delhi.