Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Author Replies # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 15:17

Nisveta Dedić. Current Debates. Seminar 1, reflection 1. 4th of February 2014

The book “Founding an Empire on India’s North-Eastern Frontiers” is an overwhelming read; it almost seems as if the topic of the book, which is defined by fluidity and dynamic ecological conditions of north-eastern Bengal, is reflected in the structure of the text. The text does not aim to give a totalizing account of the polity-forming process and questions the conventional history writing within the frames of nation states and essentialized categories of colonizer-colonized. Having an interest in philosophy of law, I mostly followed the thread of subject formation in bureaucratic practices, since it offers a unique insight in how the mercantile corporation the East Indian Company (EIC) moulded common law with custom-based local practices to create a civil bureaucratic apparatus and how a corporate bureaucracy driven by heterogenous interests differs from centralizing tendencies of state bureaucracy. Thus my reading of the text was primarily read through my interest in legal history, but the text also pushed me to question my preconceived separation of legal history from ecological conditions. What seem as stable legal categories in codified law, such as legal subject, private property, legal and/or political rights of subjects, came under serious questioning in the region characterized by drastically shifting landscape and consequently livelihoods depending on it, which renders the European cadaster-like land assessment quite irrelevant.
It is precisely the rigid revenue system created by the EIC that was not in accord with ground realities that challenged and halted the initial optimism of the EIC officers, who believed that an entreprenurial spirit and a simple bureaucratic fix will result in stable revenue and clear land rights. The Mughal Grant ceded to the EIC not only profits from revenue but also jurisdiction of the territory, but the corporate bureaucracy was alien to the social network framed by the Mughal administraton and consequently did not manage to construct a flexible apparatus. According to Cederlöf the primary intention of the so-called Permanent Settlement of 1793, was avoiding litigations arising from landholding rights disputes (p.130). But ignorance and downright denial of custom-based property rights resulted in fragmentation of land (cultivators became smallholders), thus adding to the chaos. Attempts at universalizing property rights on the basis of specific tribal societies that were comparable to European definition of legal subjects (male with property) resulted in access to land enabled by blood relation only and annuling of matrilineal inheritance (p.121). As time progressed, it became clear to EIC commissioners (Scott the foremost) that the revenue system based on classification unattuned to local social and ecological conditions, is inefficient. However, costum-based rights proponents (Orientalist or pragmatic) were disregarded and the British Governance simply annexed the unassessed land. After the Charter Act of 1833, when the EIC lost monopoly in China and tea trade, the EIC pushed on the north-eastern frontier towards the autonomous kingdoms. The land revenue system was inefficient again, because it did not correspond to shifting cultivation practices and the conditions of landscapes.
I believe the dysfunctionality of the corporate bureaucracy is partly due to its mercantile characteristics that was not able and was also unwilling to create ruler-subject relations that would not be determined only by fiscal advantages (the fiscal subject as termed by Cederlöf). This subject formation resulted in excluding the majority of population out of the polity network and especially people without property, bound labourers and women. The transfer of European codified law that was at the time undergoing major shifts (the emerging of discourse of rights) to a colonial polity was a differentiated, gradual and selective process; the abstract administrative revenue classification had to be remoulded in time- and space-bound conditions, thus internal strife between the EIC commisioners and the centralized Calcutta government was not unknown.