Page 1 of 2 BOOK REVIEW How colonial Britain divided to rule Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity by Mahmood Mamdani
Reviewed by Piyush Mathur
In Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity, Mahmood Mamdani carries forward his pioneering, hefty contributions to (what I would call) an historical epistemology of world politics: this time by discussing (the European colonization of) not only Africa - his usual focus - but also India, the Malay States, and the Dutch East Indies.
Mamdani argues that the British-colonial turn to indirect rule as a response to India's Great Revolt of 1857 hinged on producing a set of codependent, dichotomous identities involving native and
settler, to which the modern preoccupation with defining and managing difference is traceable. He concludes that "native does not designate a condition that is original and authentic" but was created in specific forms by "the colonial state" using specific tactics (p2).
Unlike previous European imperial governments, "including Roman and British 'direct' rule before mid-nineteenth century" and the French policy of "'assimilation'" as well as its early-20th-century counterpart of 'association'", indirect rule shifted the focus from civilizing and assimilating "colonized elites" to defining mass subjectivity in differentia from the elite imperial minority (p1, p43). However, indirect rule's institutionalization of both political and social differences distinguishes it from "the modern state" as well, which "ensures" political equality "while acknowledging" civil differences (p2).
The core of British indirect rule's ostensibly protectionist differentiation was replicated elsewhereSo, after "the law enforced, the census recorded and history memorialized ... caste, religion, and tribe" among Indians, the Malay
States saw their population defined as "civilized" versus "aboriginal"; residents of the Dutch East Indies found themselves defined as Europeans, foreign Orientals, or natives; and, after the Berlin Conference (November 15,1884 - February 26, 1885), the census generally classified Africans into "races" and "tribes" (p46, p35).
Indirect rule: intellectual and administrative
Mamdani discusses "the mode of indirect rule ... both as an intellectual reflection on the mid-nineteenth-century crisis of empire" - comprising the Great Revolt of 1857 and Morant Bay in Jamaica in 1865 - "and as a set of colonial reforms designed to ameliorate" it (p4).
He frames Sir Henry James Sumner Maine's (1822-1888) tremendously influential formulations on the British-Indian crisis as a template for the institutionalization of the native-settler dichotomy through subsequent Euro-imperial crises elsewhere. Regarding the latter, he discusses the writings of Frank Swettenham (1850-1946) in the Malay States, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) in the Dutch East Indies, and key colonial and nationalistic historians of Africa (especially on the Sudanic belt).
As for the colonial reforms themselves, he focuses on the British-Indian administrative initiatives following Queen Victoria's Proclamation of 1858; Swettenham's divisively protectionist measures in British Malaya following the 1874 Treaty of Pangkor; Cornelius Van Vollenhoven's (1874-1933) implementation of Snouck Hurgronje's formulations in the Dutch East Indies after the Aceh War (1873-1914); and the British tribalization of Darfur (where the Indian lessons were first applied within Africa) after the Battles of Omdurman (1898) and Umm Diwaykarat (1899).
Before getting to the details about the above, let me mention that the book's last section focuses on Africa's intellectual and administrative antidotes to the indirect rule's legacy. Here, Mamdani introduces and recommends the contributions of Nigerian historians - Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Abudullahi Smith, Yusuf Bala Usman, and Mahmud Tukur - crediting them for finding ways out of colonial as well as nationalistic historical accounts and historiographies.
While Dike's Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1835 (1956) had detailed the comingling of different groups of people throughout the middle of the 19th century as they moved into the Delta States (thereby exposing tribalism as a later, colonial manufacture), Smith had challenged the so-called Hamitic Hypothesis regarding African history.
Usman, partly developing upon the foregoing historians' work, had introduced a theory of historiography (via an innovatively rigorous history of Katsina) whose key contribution was to advise the historian to remain critically "conscious" of the "specific categories, conceptions and assumptions" (s)he aims to employ to write a history (instead of focusing predominantly on pursuing sources) - as these tools themselves (as much as the historian) are historical products (p92). Tukur's work on the history of Zaria, Nigeria had shown how different peoples comingled there prior to the British restriction of their movements and residence after the railways began to operate.
On the administrative side, Mamdani discusses and credits Mwalimu Kambarage Julius Nyerere's (1922-1999) exemplary "statecraft", which decolonized "the indirect rule state" without succumbing to violent Leninism - except that it ended up prioritizing "nation-building" over "democracy and social justice" (p5).
Post-1857 British India
Maine had blamed the failure of the "civilizing mission" of the liberal Utilitarians and Evangelicals on their lack of understanding of "native ... religions and social belief" (p9). Toward generating that understanding, he had shifted the attention to "observing daily life" of Indians (whom he had presumed were primitive) from the erstwhile Eurocentric Orientalist study of Sanskrit texts. He was driven by, and also contributed to, dubious theories of history that implied that one could understand the past of a presumed progressive or modern civilization (the West) by observing presumed primitive contemporary civilizations (the non-West).
On the whole, Maine's approach - Mamdani shows - was only superficially empirical, selective, racialized, analytically misleading, and logically flawed. He believed in a real India whose "'extreme geographical isolation'" had left it unadulterated by external influences and ended up manufacturing it while trying to articulate where to find it. He opined that the Indians were ancient offshoots of the so-called Aryan race - except that they had failed to progress from kinship-based "'natural groups'" to individuals and from "customary to civil law" because, like the Irish, they had failed to benefit from the Roman Empire (p16, p19).
Being custom-bound (as ensured by its religion - "'Brahminism'"), India - in Maine's framework - was also status-driven, cultural, and contextual. For having an abstract civil law, the West, on the contrary, was contract-based and free from culture as well as context. While India's civilization had been arrested by its customs (which he dubiously singularized as customary law), Western civilization had led to its civil, progressive, abstract, modern law (p6, p16, p20).
These ideas, Mamdani illustrates, retained "a theory of nativism" that rendered "the settler" as "modern", historically progressive, and belonging to a legislated or political society - and the "native" as traditional, defined by geography, naturally stagnated, insulated, and religio-cultural (p44, p6, p14). For Indians, unlike for the Europeans, Maine therefore recommended "local ... decentralized ... and customary" governance (p26).
Administratively, this discriminatorily protectionist stance came inscribed in "the doctrine of noninterference in the private domain, especially in religion" via Queen Victoria's Proclamation of 1858 (p26). The doctrine entailed distinguishing between the private and the public via "legal and administrative" reforms put in place through 1862-1872. Through these reforms, "multiple personal codes" (one for each officially recognized religious group) were promulgated; however, "a single legal bureaucracy" was institutionalized for the public sphere by rendering "Islamic law" inapplicable in criminal trials, abolishing "all Persian titles", and debarring "Muslim assistants to the colonial courts" (p29).
The government also restricted "the market" in the name of "protecting the village community from moneylenders", farmers from traders, and "the landlord's estate from division and fragmentation" (people so grouped through the Censuses' caste and tribe categories); it also established special protections to the religious minorities it defined: "Muslims in the 1880s and 1890s" followed by Sikhs, "non-Brahmin groups," and "Hill Peoples" (p27). Later, "the Indian Councils Act of 1909, also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms" created "separate electorates ... in the provincial and central legislative bodies" for whose council seats "only Muslims were entitled to vote" (p30).
The Malay States: "civilized" (by Islam) versus "aboriginal"
In the Malay States, the key distinction made was between "civilized" and "aboriginal," with "the regime of protection" for the latter having been established by Swettenham (p31). Initiating the British colonization, the Treaty of Pangkor (1874) "defined a Malay as 'one who habitually speaks Malay, professes the religion of Islam, and practices Malay customs'" - a definition still "enshrined in Article 160 of the Malay Constitution" (p31). This definition "turned non-Muslims who had hitherto been as Malay as Muslim Malays into the aborigines they are considered to be today" (p32).
However, these "aborigines" had themselves got this singular label in the 1940s, when the British attempted to isolate "the Malayan People's Army" - the anti-colonial "communist-dominated guerrilla force" - from the villagers when the Army was also resisting the Japanese invaders in 1941. The associated violence had pushed many "villagers and forest peoples" deeper into the forest; calling them "aboriginal" (Orang Asli), the British had then "appointed them an advisor" and resettled them as cultivators.
The British also created the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) in 1950, and enacted "the Aboriginal People's Ordinance" in 1954. Until then, these myriad peoples had many different, sometimes uncharitable, names in the administrative literature (p32).
At its inception in 1957, independent Malaysia "distinguished between...'Malay'...and 'Orang Asli'," with the former (Muslims) "acknowledged as civilized ... by religion" while "the fully indigenous (asli) status" of the latter "implied" their sole suitability "to be subjects" (p33). However, the riots of 1969 forced the creation of a new category of peoples called bhumiputera (sons of the soil) - comprising the downtrodden from many groups, including the Malay and Orang Asli - who received "special privileges" through "the New Economic Policy of 1971" (p34).
Nevertheless, a subsequent "constitutional amendment... criminalized public discussion of 'sensitive' issues" such as "the privileged position of Malays in law, the role of Malay sultans, the status of Malay as the official language and Islam as the official religion - and the questioning of Malay privileges" (p34).
The Dutch East Indies: Muslims versus natives
As with Maine in India, Snouck Hurgronje "saw external historical influences ... as impurities" in the Dutch East Indies (p41). Made the "Advisor on Native and Islamic Affairs" in 1891 against the backdrop of an 18-year-long Islamist-led uprising (the Aceh War) in "northern Sumatra", he viewed Islam as the key external influence on the native traditions (p34). He thus dichotomized between "religious Islamic law (hukom)" and "customary law (adat)": the former as "dogmatic", "unworldly", "written", "easy to identify", and the latter as "flexible", worldly or practical, unwritten, "difficult to discern", and negotiable (pp35-37).
Believing that these two inherently dichotomous laws' historical intertwining was responsible for the unrest, he recommended that "the Dutch distinguish between the Islamic scholars (ulama) and the customary chiefs (uleebalang) and ... support" the latter against the former (p37). In reality, Mamdani stresses, Snouck Hurgronje produced "the opposition that he claimed [had existed] from time immemorial" (p38).