Skip to content

Response to Review of Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India

Indigo Plantations and Science in Colonial India studies the engagement between the colonial state-society complex and the external impulses that traversed colonial South Asia through a focus on the longer and more widespread history of indigo.

The review by J. N. Sinha acknowledges the focus of the book on the colonial state and its externalities. It then assesses the book’s treatment of the planters’ diaspora, flows of knowledge over large spaces, indigo agriculture in Bengal and Doab, landscape, scientific experiments, and the impact of the First World War, and demonstrates a comprehensive engagement with the major arguments of the book.

But I do take issue with a few points raised by the reviewer. These concern two of his observations about the characterization of embedding of indigo history in colonial conditions and in the course of the nationalist agitation.

First, the reviewer criticizes the book for neglecting the ‘social realities’ of life on the plantations, referring to the exploitative relationship obtaining between the European planters and the Bengal peasantry in material terms. Excellent works by Amales Tripathi (1) and B.B. Chowdhury (2) on the workings of colonial capital; by Blair B. Kling (3) on politico-legal subjecthood; and by Prabhat K. Shukla (4) and Jacques Pouchepadass (5) on indigo peasantry have clarified the precise modes of colonial exploitation and their surfacing in daily life and in colonial relations more broadly. I did not intend to revisit those.

There is not much of a chasm between the reviewer’s suggested course and the path the book actually takes in substantive terms. In line with the reviewer’s exhortation to analyze ‘exploitation’, Indigo Plantations and Science charts how colonial appropriation, hegemony, and subjecthood impacted indigo production, trade, and science. These are traced in colonialism’s multiple and heterogeneous modes of operation and at myriad sites in structural terms: the colonial state’s facilitation of the entry of European planters and indigo treatises into Bengal; the displacement of rice fields of Indian peasantry by the plantations; the modes of manufacture and trade of a colonial commodity for international markets; the marginality of European planters based in the colony; and the perils of doing science under colonial conditions.

In addition, the book also makes the claim that the exploitation of Indian peasantry and working hands on the indigo factories was part of a global story of appropriation. The planters used colonized forms of labor to produce the dye. The beneficiaries of this colonial mode of appropriation included not only the planters in Bengal but also the class of dyers and printers in the metropolis and in the rest of the world to whom British merchants supplied the blue dye. Thus the book argues that cheap and premium quality indigo, made on the backs of the Indian peasantry, was appropriated by consumers globally. And British colonialists in Bengal were agents of this global process of appropriation.

Second, the reviewer points towards a lack of engagement with nationalist agitation. I agree that Indigo Plantations and Science does not aim at a full-fledged treatment of nationalism. Rather, nationalism provides the context for explaining the colonial state’s move towards science in support of planters, as elaborated in chapter four. The planters’ first instinct on facing price competition from synthetic indigo was to bring down the price of agricultural indigo by increasing the rents of the peasantry, manipulating levies to their advantage, and by lowering wages through various means. But colonial administrators would not condone any such missteps that were likely to evoke nationalist objections. The plantations were a visible symbol of extreme coercion and simmering discontent that had invited the attention of nationalists. Under such circumstances the colonial administrators decided to back the indigo industry through sponsorship of science. This is the analytical framework of chapter four. The book also uses nationalism in this way, as context, in considering peasant resistance in Champaran in the first two decades of the 20th century.

The reviewer raises three more specific points that I would like to respond to. Against the line of the reviewer’s critique, the book does deal with indigenous practices of indigo manufacture. It considers pre-existing methods of manufacture among the peasantry in different regions and refers to the viewpoints of specific authors that the reviewer lists. Chapter two in its entirety discusses local agriculture and the changes introduced through the expansion of indigo under colonial conditions. This chapter also uses the case of William Roxburgh and early European planters to illustrate the method of colonial engagement with the manufacturing practices of the Coromandel peasantry.

The reviewer questions the use of the phrase ‘local science’ rather than ‘indigenous science’. In its defense, the book actually problematizes the issue of what is indigenous or ‘local’ in the history of Bengal indigo. Such exercise has merits in terms of allowing for trans-colonial comparisons. An exclusive reliance on the category of ‘local’ reinforces the notion of some presupposed and sustained binary opposition between the ‘local’ and the ‘global’. Studies based on such notions have paid rich dividends. But they have also intoduced notions like ‘introduction’ and ‘transfer’ that are limiting further analysis. The book tries not to overlook the tensions between global/western and local/nonwestern but also makes an attempt to go beyond such oppositions.

Lastly, the use of the epithet ‘indigo science’ is a ploy to draw attention to the particularities of science assembled around the indigo enterprise in colonial India. It certainly shares commonalities with both ‘plant science’ and ‘colonial science’. However, indigo science also had unique attributes. It was deployed by colonial planters. But it was also impacted by colonial conditions. The book captures these positions of privilege and marginality that simultaneously shaped the development of indigo science.