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Response to Review no. 697

I am very grateful to Dr Wilson for his generous and probing review of my book. I agree with him that the historiography of early colonial India does need establish new angles of vision, beyond the problematic of ‘continuity’ or ‘change’. Both of these false choices quickly lead to essentialised views of the ‘pre-colonial’ and ‘colonial’ periods, in which states and societies are treated as typological systems rather than as contested and uneven processes of change. The trick, for historians of the state, may be to re-emphasise political process over administrative structure, but without losing a sense of often incremental, but sometimes drastic, structural transformations and their varied effects in the realm of practice.

As Frank Perlin and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (among others) have recently emphasised, the political history of early modern and modern South Asia still often relies on functionalist modes of explanation. State policies and institutions are read as functions of some essential principles inherent in a system – most often the principle of revenue maximisation, but also including (at least for the colonial state) notions of racial hierarchy, capitalistic property rights, or theocratic assumptions about Indian society. While I would not wish to downplay the powerful acquisitive impulses behind colonial conquests, or to minimise the importance of concepts of race or ethnicity, political change cannot simply be explained as a function of a coherent idea or will inherent in the state. This is only partly because such an idea rarely cohered for very long, but also because of the diverse contexts in which power was articulated and fashioned. A more critical political history will thus be sceptical of the kinds of reductive assumptions about the state as a systemic agent which state functionaries (not least in colonial contexts) have often indulged in.

Rather than directly contrasting the pre-colonial with the colonial, my study tried to examine the changes, ruptures even, within what we commonly think of as the colonial state and its multiple ideas of itself. Yet in tracing an arc of change from an empire of constitutional restoration in the 1760s and 1770s, to a newfound emphasis on constitutional innovation in the 1780s and 1790s, I also risked exaggerating the coherence and completeness of each project. I am not sure I fully resisted this temptation, despite my emphasis on the contested character of British political ideas.

In the introduction to the book, for example, I described the idea of an ancient Mughal constitution as both the ‘ideological corner-stone of the Company’s rule in Bengal’, and also (perhaps confusingly) as a ‘fluid and unstable slogan rather than a coherent foundation for British imperial policy’. I might have written instead that the idea of a recoverable ancient constitution in eastern India was a widespread assumption of early colonial politics that never quite evolved into a fully-fledged ideology in the sense of a coherent program. It was discarded, as I tried to show, after becoming mangled in empire-wide disputes about the nature and limits of sovereignty, and also as the multiple local contradictions between a new rule of conquest and older hierarchies of honour and power became ever more apparent.

Wilson points to an important line of thought – the claim to territory by right of military conquest – that co-existed in tension with the notion of an ancient constitution. Yet, as he also notes, the ancient constitution was itself invoked to resist the potentially tyrannical implications of the right of conquest, and a figure like Warren Hastings tried to encase a masterful notion of the conqueror’s prerogative within the ambit of an ancient constitution. In focusing more on the internal government of Bengal, I did not deal with very important disputes about the justice and wisdom of the Company’s wars in other parts of India, notably the major conflicts involving the Marathas, Hyderabad and Mysore after 1778. The arguments around these wars require studying in relation to imperial wars in the Atlantic world, and they were important occasions for articulating and applying the idea of the law of nations.

Wilson’s other main critique is that my argument (like other ‘contextualist’ approaches to political thought) works better to describe relatively continuous systems of thought, constantly borrowing from and reinterpreting their own past, than it does to describe moments of crisis and rupture. This methodological critique is well-taken, and asks historians of political thought both to expand their notions of what count as relevant ‘contexts’, and also to attend to the sudden ruptures and breaks attendant on the movement of concepts across time and space. ‘Properly “contextualising” political thought’, he writes, ‘requires attention to the incoherence of human action, its semantic failures, as well as to moments when action occurs without an intention to explain at all.’

Again, the point is well-taken, and it points to the limits of a book like mine which tries to understand official ways of describing and justifying state power. In my book, I was largely concerned with explaining a specific type of action – the production of minutes, regulations and policy proposals which aimed to account for and direct the new empire. These, I argued, often tried to assimilate unfamiliar territories in India to decidedly familiar languages of politics concerned with respecting and preserving long established forms of law and order contained within ancient constitutions. Yet, as Wilson notes, political action in a broader sense cannot simply be folded into such justificatory languages. Indeed, in the particular case described in my book, the widening gap between language and action, between the idea of preserving and the act of tearing apart, eventually required the interposition of a more assertive notion of the colonial prerogative to innovate and improve.

Finally, I also agree with Wilson that a fuller understanding of political change in late 18th-century Bengal will require much closer attention to sources in Indian languages. I was cautious in my book of using the kind of translated fragments of Indian voices found in the colonial archive as a viable source for Indian political thought, or as substantive evidence of a ‘dialogue’ between British and Indian ideas. In a general sense, however, I think British evocations of an ancient constitution in Bengal did reflect a vibrant, diverse, but also relatively integrated culture of rights-talk in 18th-century Bengal, which sought to ground particular rights within the history of the Mughal empire, as well as in accounts of local custom, or in the expertise of knowledgeable communities of religio-legal scholars. Given the patchy and uneven quality of the early colonial state, we need to know more about the relationships between diverse and co-existent political languages. As important, perhaps, as excavating Indian ‘ideas’ themselves from under the surface of colonial representations, we also need more studies of the ‘practice’ of political ideas, of how strategies of representation, debate and consultation (for example, petitions, court audiences, administrative treatises) adjusted to the novel demands of the colonial era.