This article explores how colonial rule in India and the Indian Diaspora including Mauritius, West Indies, Surinam etc. was established and enabled through technologies of


documentation and classification of social life of the natives. This ethnographic information was employed to construct a knowledge system and legitimise a structure of domination through which the colonial rulers viewed the colonised world. Through this writing I will try to demonstrate how the role of ethnography as a discipline that was closely associated with colonialism and later we shall look at how the colonial state legitimised practices of domination in the guise of undertaking a civilising mission, using as its weapon a knowledge of native society obtained through the disciplines of ethnography and anthropology.

I want to suggest that the colonial encounter with India and Indian Diaspora for the British was from its very outset an encounter with diverse communities interfaced with each other and inhabiting a territorial space dominated by numerous kingdoms and chiefdoms. Each of these displays both homogeneity and heterogeneity. For British imperialism, the process of consolidating colonial power necessarily involved a need to obtain information about the customs and practices of the native population. For this purpose the colonial state had to firstly classify and document the diverse population, their customs and traditions and order it into a new framework that would facilitate the practice of governance by the colonial administrators. It was in this respect that anthropology found favour with the colonial state and many of its knowledge practices were in turn shaped by this colonial encounter.

Anthropology and

the Colonial Episteme

As a discipline, anthropology emerged out of the European colonial expansion in the non-western world. Borrowing from the methods of the natural sciences, European scholars of the 19th century believed that they could similarly study the natives and their life worlds in an objective manner. This methodology of comprehending and representing the ‘primitive’ ways of life was undertaken from the ‘high ground’ of the civilized west. In this exercise quite clearly as Talal Asad (1973) has argued, many of the anthropologists became enmeshed with the larger project of colonial domination. Not surprisingly then, anthropology as a discipline became engaged in the project of constructing a colonial episteme which functioned as a discourse of domination and subjugation all across the non-European world.

How does one characterise this colonial episteme? How does one represent the complex and dynamic ways in which the colonial episteme came to embody very contradictory claims of both dominations and progress? It may be noted here that from the very beginning it was ethnography and its techniques of data collection that functioned as the basis for an anthropological study of non-western societies. This method employs a range of techniques to document and classify ‘exotic’ life worlds, such as participant observation, anthropometery, physical and morphological measurements, case studies, field studies etc. It follows then; these ethnographic methods provided the colonial rulers and a strategy of ‘making sense of the social customs and practices of the natives’. In this connection ‘the myth of the civilising mission’ as construed by the imperial west served as a useful legitimisation to represent this entire knowledge through a Eurocentric lens.

It is this Eurocentric gaze as recorded by colonial administrators, scholars and missionaries which characterizes the core of the colonial episteme. In its representation the colonial episteme took the form of binaries as in the West and the East, the ‘I’ and the ‘other’. The ‘other’ quite clearly signified the native subjects as exotic, pre-modern, uncivilized, eccentric, backward, sensual, despotic and lazy, immoral, passive religious and spiritual. Clearly then,  the ‘orient’ was constructed by the West as a mirror image of what is inferior and alien “Other” to the West. Within the larger project of imperial domination this knowledge soon became a source of power, a modus-operandi through which the British were to rule Indian subcontinent for more than two centuries.

Yet, it is important to note that even as the colonial episteme functioned as an ideological regime to legitimize the continued domination of the native people, it sought to justify the knowledge of anthropology by resorting to the principals of strict scientific investigation. With its emphasis on empirical observation, measurement, enumeration, and classification, the science of anthropology came to be intricately entertwined with agendas of colonial dominations. Not surprising then in many parts of the colonial world, especially in Africa, anthropologists also served as administrators within the colonial government.

Further, this ethnographic project involved many of the colonial institutions engaged with administrative, military and judicial function. Several institutions like The Anthropological Society of London, The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, The Anthropological Survey of India, The Asiatic society of India the Census of India amongst others were hugely involved in collecting and documenting information of the diverse native cultures. Military officers, civil servants, and members of the clergy were trained in collecting ethnographic details. As far back as the 1820s the East India Company had sought the services of Herbert Risley to conduct an ethnographic survey of the tribes and castes of the Bengal Presidency. Similar such ethnographic surveys were produced for the colonial state in other parts of India.

A quick survey of these ethnographic records clearly reveals the emphasis on types and classifications thereby providing the colonial administration with a much more comprehensive understanding of the native population and their diverse cultures. In addition, such trained ethnographers many of whom also came from the native population also published in reputed scientific journals such as ‘Anthropological Magazine’ and ‘Man’. Such publications did they not further legitimise the perception of ‘biological and cultural backwardness of the natives’?

It is little wonder therefore that anthropology is today viewed as a colonial construct that legitimised colonial state policies and its project of ideological rule over the native population. Across the colonial regions of Africa and Asia, colonial anthropology functioned in more or less the same manner. i.e. becoming the knowledge support for the practitioners of colonial governance.

In the next article we will look at the sites of practice in which anthropology and the ethnographic method were consistently deployed to maintain and reproduce the structures of colonial domination.