Dr Pavi Ramhota

Following the article I wrote recently in Le Mauricien (Forum) [https://www.lemauricien.com/opinions/forum/decolonising-knowledge-in-india-and-the-indian-diaspora/441718/], I shall now attempt to demonstrate how by the 1830s with


absolute military domination of India, the East India Company (with instructions from the British Parliament in England) began consolidating its administrative and political control over a unified subcontinental region. It is no wonder then, post-1857, the colonial state began to introduce diverse systems of enumeration that would have far-reaching consequences on the practice of colonial rule and the structure of imperial domination in the subcontinent. For the British this was a gigantic task and it entailed developing both administrative conformity as well as ideological compliance from the native population.

Thus for example, the famous ‘Macaulay minutes’ of 1835 made it clear that the colonialists wanted to create a small section of indigenous elites who would be ‘British-like’ in taste, opinions, morals but Indian in colour. It was hoped that this section of indigenous elites would then operate as the intermediaries between the colonial rulers and the indigenous population. This entailed the establishment of a new education system together with several new institutions in civic and political life that could become the formative ground on which this new class of indigenous elites would come to acquire not only a new learning and a new set of skills but also in the process become the interpreters and trusted ‘citizens’ of the colonial state.

With this objective, the colonial state from the mid-nineteenth century onwards began to organise new institutions such as education, judiciary, police, military (recruitment of indigenous subjects), civil services, lower level bureaucracy, lower level revenue departments and also promoted civic organisations that would operate as ‘civil societies’ at the behest of the colonial regime. For entry and manoeuvring in these fields, the colonial state made it mandatory that the indigenous subjects had to possess certain kinds of cultural, social and symbolic capital such as educational degrees, rudimentary level of literacy in English, ‘noble’ family/social background and recommendations from recognised indigenous actors among other such criteria. Such practice as enforced by the colonial rulers ensured that native subjects were henceforth to be recognised through their community membership rather than as individuals. There were many such institutional sites in which community membership took precedence over individuals and we shall be considering the ethnographic representation and colonial ideology which was put in place to structure the system.

Representation and
colonial Ideology

In its endeavour to visualise Indian society in terms of its European counterpart, the colonial state with the aid of native ‘scholarship’ (predominantly the members of the Brahmin caste) constructed a knowledge system in which the Varna model of caste came to be recognised and legitimized. All castes and sub-castes were ranked into a fourfold classification. The notion that caste was a pan-Indian phenomenon, a system based on purity and pollution i.e. Varna system was now subtly imbricated in the discourse of the colonial state. [1]

In making caste an imminent, static, social and political entity, the census and other such ethnographic representations clearly open up spaces for caste contestations. In doing so, this contestation reaffirmed the idea of an omnipresent Brahmanical model as the way in which Indian society was ordered.[2] Equally interesting is the way in which a dominant and totalising knowledge system was instituted in colonial India and that prevails even to date. The colonial practices of domination through knowledge/power axis ensured the naturalisation of the idea of a uniform, all-encompassing, ideologically consistent and conceived caste system as the underlying keystone of understanding India.

It is through these mechanisms of representation that groups were construed as communities, tribes and castes. In due course of time tribes, communities and castes (the colonial way of understanding them) were frozen in time and came to be connoted as the colonial state imagined it to be. Thus, the colonial state in India ruled over the natives not only through overt military prowess but also through covert ideological domination. It was the latter that proved to be much more profound and immanent in facilitating its rule. Thus the colonial practices of domination through ideology i.e. through the knowledge/power axis, structured an understanding of Indian society so as to suggest that it was timeless, static, rigid, uniform, all-encompassing and ideologically consistent.

This framework was convenient for colonial governmentality as it was internalised over time by the natives who came to recognise themselves through this understanding. However, such transformations at the level of identity and categorisation proved to be deeply problematic. In pre-colonial India, the units of social identity had been multiple, and the interfacing and interstices were complex, dynamic and flexible. The referents of social identity were not only heterogeneous; they were also determined by context. Nonetheless, with the inauguration of colonial rule, the opportunities and the potential for individuals and social groups to transcend their social position in the ranked classification decreased. Further in the pre-colonial era, individuals and groups could capture power through military prowess and through control of the state thereby ensuring economic and social mobility. With colonial rule this proved to be impossible as the British had successfully separated the social and the political in two exclusive domains.  The political domain was now dictated by the colonial state. The only channel of social and economic mobility was streamlined through the access to the colonial structure and this was only possible when native subjects operated through the identities given by the binary model of the colonial state.

I am trying to argue how the colonial state engaged in practices of collecting, documenting, classifying societal data through which they constructed a colonial episteme. This colonial episteme in time naturalised and internalised by the native population thereby ensuring the continuation of colonial rule and Governmentality. It is clear as this article suggests that the colonial state did not have to resort to military might to govern the native population of the sub-continent. They could instead attain the same objective much more efficiently by hegemonising the minds of the natives. We have tried to show how ethnographic representation played a crucial role in putting together this colonial edifice of state domination and control. Such a use of the ethnographic method by the colonial state was to be found all across the colonial world.

But the story does not end there. This colonial episteme continues to play an important role in the post-independence period. It is only recently that these Euro-centric discourses were being questioned. The colonial episteme continues to influence our life worlds even in the post-independence era. The practices and habits of the institutions continue to be informed of this episteme. Even the kind of democratic practices which we boast of are remnants of the colonial form of knowledge. Similarly, the standardisation through law and legislation regarding family, marriage practices, and sexuality amongst many other such social practices is really a colonial artifact which needs to be questioned. Quite clearly the discipline of anthropology itself needs to be a site of critical engagement.


[1] Introduction by Dirks, N (1989), The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi and chapter 3 of Dirks, N (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, New Delhi: Permanent Black.

[2] For details read chapter one (Placing Criminals, Displacing Thuggee) and two (How to make a Thug) in  Schwarz, H (2010),  Constructing the Criminal Tribe in Colonial India: Acting Like a Thief, Wiley-Blackwell publications.