Subaltern historiography is a comparatively recent discipline in India. With mainstream history appropriating the centre stage for long, the extended historical course traversed by the many subaltern and minority groups in the country on their way to becoming conscious of a distinct identity, remained unexplored until very recently. Yet, the growth and maturation of such groups and movements offers an interesting and intriguing study and has of late been engaging the attention of several Indian and foreign historians of repute. Through their sustained and diligent research and discerning approach to this long-neglected aspect of South Asian historiography, Ranajit Guha, Sumit Sarkar and some of their contemporaries have helped immensely in plugging the many chronological gaps in our understanding of the gradual evolution and fruition of subaltern and minority identities as well as the various struggles that such groups had to wage to reclaim the primeval dignity and autonomy of their lives and living spaces, under recurrent threat from the forces of development and progress, both in colonial and postcolonial India.
Understandably, this required the employment of enormous resources and hard work to uncover many previously unidentified episodes of insurgencies and insurrections in the peripheral regions and cultures and the calibrated response of the colonial Indian state to contain such threats to their regime. Such responses often varied in nature from the blatantly brutal to the studiedly ingenious. It is well known that the colonial state did not always adopt explicitly atrocious and confrontational measures, often relying upon subterfuge and cultural manoeuvres instead, to bring the rebellious tribes and communities to heel. The book under review not only further validates such assumptions, generally and specifically, but also greatly enhances our understanding of the deeper connotations of the mechanics of colonial dominance in a subject nation, which, unlike other lands in the African and American continents that the British sought to colonize, was in many ways a fairly well-administered and well-developed region In addition to carrying the story of subaltern historiography forward in a clinical sort of way, it also deals expressly with the counter-insurgency policies and strategies initiated and fine-tuned by successive colonial rulers in the mid-nine- teenth century India, still under East India Company rule, to consolidate their power and authority in the face of stray episodes of defiance by local populations in some parts of the country, peaking in the great sepoy mutiny of 1857.
This remarkable book, in fact, attempts something far more complex than a mere analysis of the nature of British colonial policies, aimed at confronting and neutralizing the diverse insurgencies surfacing in the regions, not yet fully integrated with British provinces. The author underscores the basic thrust of his work in a rather incisive introduction to the book. In his own words, he seeks to ‘demonstrate that during the late 1840s and early 1850s, Sherwell became the embodiment of the colonial power in the Damin-i-Koh. In this capacity, he dominated the elite and non-elite subjects of the contested territory through his commitment to the discipline of panopticism. He also mediated the policies of the East India Company to his colonial-capitalist colleagues and to the metropolitan public. Through the creativity and industry of the engravers and printers of the Illustrated London News, his authority was disseminated to bourgeois readers around Britain’. Further, he analyses ‘these mediations in order to emphasize the ideological interrelations between liberal and coercive visions, as well as the workings of dominance with hegemony in the metropolis in times of resistance and suppression in colonized territories’. In other words, the author attempts, fairly effectively as would appear, ‘an examination of colonial observation, state coercion, and metropolitan visual discourses’. These are also the key pointers to the principal thrust that the argument in the book assumes right from the outset.
Visual imagery, pictorialization and narrativization of events in colonial India being disseminated to the metropolitan audience through the leading print media are major mediatory tools employed by colonial bureaucracy, represented in the book by Captain Walter Sherwell, a revenue surveyor and economic geologist, working for the East India Company, to reinforce colonial ascendancy in areas still to be brought under regular administrative regime, of which Damin-I-Koh and other areas in the then Bengal presidency, before Bihar was constituted as a separate province, were a part. Sherwell, it will be seen, acquired considerable importance in the bureaucratic hierarchy in colonial India as much for his assiduous campaigns to subdue the tribal populace in the hilly areas of what is present-day Jharkhand as for establishing a substantial presence in the metropolitan press through the high-quality graphic representations of the events in the territories he was charged to administer and which he managed to introduce in the metropolitan print media, especially the Illustrated London News. Such mediatory devices went a long way in informing and influencing the metropolitan elite and to gain their support and acceptance for the often suppressive and inequitable policies and practices being followed by the colonial functionaries, which otherwise might have been considered objectionable by the liberal segment in the mother country. At another level, these exercises also bolstered the confidence of the investors and shareholders of the East India Company in its operative policies and financial health, which would keep the Company coffers well-stocked.
The detailed descriptions, supplemented by visual imagery, of the progress of the construction of the railway line connecting Bengal to Delhi, for example, served to highlight the great trade and business possibilities that the work offered on its completion. Much the same purpose was served by representing the development activities in the Company’s territories as a means for fuelling the growth and development of British industry and business. It was necessary, therefore, to also highlight the great lengths to which the colonial administration went to enforce the Queen’s peace in her Indian empire.
Visuality, thus became a most effective device in the hands of colonial administrators like Sherwell to both reinforce the policy benchmarks that they set for themselves as well as to gain the support and acceptance of the powers-that-be back home in the parliament and high society, relying on what appeared in the metropolitan press. Rycroft illustrates this phenomenon by alluding to the specific cases of the Ceylon insurrection and the Santhal insurgency in the early 1850s. ‘By combining his textual narratives and visual images of counter-insurgency, the Illustrated London News allowed Sherwell’s observations of colonial coercion to enter into the cultural imaginary of the British bourgeois reader and confirm the colonial administrator’s perceptions of Santhals-as-criminals’, as he states in the introduction. Colonial journals such as the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Calcutta Review further contributed to the effect by helping to create and consolidate the racial and class divisions between the colonizers and the colonized as well as within colonial institutions, as observed by David Arnold, another of the pioneers in this field of study. The author achieves the objective that he set out for himself in the introduction remarkably well through a process of analysis and historicization of ‘the ways in which the subjectivity of Santhals, subaltern elites, and colonial officials were constructed in hierarchical and visual schemes’. Thus, Sidhoo Manjhi and other Santhal chiefs become symbols of a class of Indians to be either co-opted for furthering the ends of colonialism or subjugated through appropriation or other such means to expound his theory of colonial dominance with or without coercion, the author chiefly builds his argument, as acknowledged by him, around the approach adopted by Michel Foucault in conceptualizing the ways in which construction of subjectivity or the formation of human subjects took place in terms of western philosophy and science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Michel Foucault ‘Panopticism’ in Rainbow, ed.1984).
By any reckoning, Representing Rebellion is decidedly one of the best works on the subject to be published in recent years, indicative of profound scholarship and wide reading that must have gone into it.
Kirpal Dhillon is a former director general of police Punjab, vice chancellor, Barkatullah University Bhopal and a Fellow of the Indian institute of advanced study, Shimla. His book on the Sikh militancy in India has recently been published by Penguin Books (India).