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  • Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India ed. by Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann
  • Srirupa Prasad
Colonialism as Civilizing Mission: Cultural Ideology in British India. Edited by Harald Fischer-Tine and Michael Mann. London: Anthem Press, 2004.

Colonialism as Civilizing Mission takes a fresh look at one of the most complex yet productive “tensions”[1] that remained at the heart of colonialism—the “civilizing mission” undertaken by British imperialism across much of its colonial territory. The editors and the contributors to this volume collectively seek to ask a fundamental question—to what extent was this colonial grand narrative a success? The answer to this, they argue, lies in deciphering some of the “paradoxes” and “inconsistencies” (24) that have defined the very ideological and moral core of this “civilizing mission,” instead of accepting interpretations which call for straightforward affirmation or negation. But what the volume argues in a novel way is that such “irregularities” were not anomalies in an otherwise well-scripted endeavor. These very uncertainties were productive precisely because they were appropriated by colonial ideologues and “enabled the British to react flexibly to changing colonial parameters and to ‘improve’ the means and mechanisms of self- legitimation.” (Ibid)

In the context of this broad intellectual agenda, in their Introduction Fischer and Mann make a case for their particular enquiry by arguing that while historians have analyzed some of instances of the European colonial “civilizing mission,” the very formation of this ideology has never been looked at critically. According to them, “historians who have written so far on the multifarious colonial attitudes towards British India and the other colonies have never paid close attention to the British civilizing mission in India and elsewhere as programme, conceptand ideology.” (26) The authors explore the emergence, consolidation, execution, and eventually some of the internal limitations of this classic instance of imperial-humanitarianism par excellence through a selection of empirically rich essays collectively reiterating the centrality of the mission civilisatrice as, “the sole ideology of British colonialism in India and elsewhere in the world, except in the white-settler colonies.” (24)

What is intellectually stimulating is the variety that this volume offers— ways in which individual essays bring into light a new body of archival sources as well as the manner in which each essay offers a specific geographical-cultural episode of a larger pan-Indian narrative around the colonial “civilizing mission.” Also productive is the way in which these essays have been brought together to document the chronological unfolding and articulation of this mission. For example, in the introductory essay to the section titled, “Trial and Error,” Michael Mann discusses some of the juridical reforms undertaken by the British in Bengal between 1772–93 — when “civilizing” became a legal codeword to control the powers of the “Oriental despot” (32) in an attempt to consolidate once and for all the legal framework of Bengal that would be vital to the future colonial administration. What is interesting to note, as Mann points out, is the way some of the discourses and concepts around “improvement” in Bengal, India or elsewhere in the British colonies were developing contemporaneously with the Enlightenment discourses in 18th century Britain. These discourses were therefore far from being complete and definitive.[2]

The second and third sections, “Ordering and Modernizing” and “Body and Mind,” trace the more concrete phase in the program around the “civilizing mission.” In her essay, Melitta Waligora stresses the need to make “caste” an object of historiography since it was one of the central objects of oriental knowledge that in turn gave a material and moral justification to the British “civilizing mission.” She shows how the trajectory of knowing, naming, and ordering castes changed over time. Similarly, in explicating how the “civilizing mission” was an embodied ideology that found expression in the potential upliftment of Indian bodies and souls, James Mills and Mridula Ramanna show respectively (through practices around asylums and preventive medicine) that here as well, the “civilizing mission” was in reality a set of undertakings that would at best grant to the colonizers what Jacques Donzelot in a different context has termed, “supervised freedom” — freedom that had to be forever policed.[3...

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