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Reviewed by:
  • India in the Shadows of Empire: A legal and political history, 1774-1950
  • Elizabeth Kolsky
India in the Shadows of Empire: A legal and political history, 1774-1950 By Mithi Mukherjee. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mithi Mukherjee's new book makes a major contribution to the growing historiography on law and legal institutions in colonial India and to the broader scholarship on colonial legal politics and ideologies of empire. Using the lens of law, Mukherjee presents a thoughtful and sustained argument about how India continued to evolve in the "shadows of empire" even after the formal conclusion of British rule. As Indian nationalists chose to retain the legal, administrative, and judicial systems created by their former colonial masters, colonialism did not end with the "transfer of power" from Britain to India on 15 August 1947. Mukherjee focuses on the domain of law and the discourse of justice to construct an elegant case about continuities in modes of governance between the colonial and post-colonial periods.

Mukherjee was the last doctoral student of the late, great Bernard Cohn at the University of Chicago. Cohn's impact can be clearly discerned in Mukherjee's emphasis on discursive analysis. Cohn's seminal work on the nexus between colonial knowledge and colonial power opened up a new terrain of interdisciplinary studies of empire and Mukherjee takes her mentor's work a step forward by analyzing the ongoing life of colonial discourse in the post-colonial period.

In the first (and best) chapter of the book, Mukherjee presents an illuminating argument about the difference between the colonial and the imperial. Colonialism is generally associated with a politics of territorial expansion and conquest. Imperialism, if we follow the classic arguments of Hobson, Arendt, Cain, Hopkins and others, emerged in the late nineteenth century as a political manifestation of capitalist power and interests. Mukherjee brings us a fresh new perspective on the distinction between colonial and imperial notions of governance. She argues that the discourse of colonial governance was framed by ideas about territorial conquest and domination whereas the discourse of imperial governance posited a supranational and deterritorialized form of power based on ideas about justice and equity. Mukherjee traces the development of imperial discourse through 3 historical stages beginning with the establishment of the Supreme Court in Calcutta in 1773, following with Edmund Burke's critique of colonial power during the impeachment trial Warren Hastings, and culminating in the aftermath of 1857. Mukherjee argues that the difference between the colonial and the imperial had little to do with the emergence of late capitalism and points our attention instead to the development of the notion of the British monarch as a disinterested servant of justice who would protect the rights of native subjects against the arbitrary and rapacious tendencies of colonial officials. This insightful analysis offers a new way of understanding the pervasive legalism in the British Empire and the multi-polar nature of colonial power relations. The old dyad of colonizer-colonized does not adequately describe how empire worked, for as Mukherjee convincingly demonstrates, the imperial discourse of governance constructed a triadic structure that changed over time. Prior to 1857, imperial power was conceived of as a third-party arbitrator governing conflicts between colonial officials and Indian society. After 1857, this triadic structure positioned the Queen/Empress of India as mediator between a society of divided and ruled Indian communities.

Mukherjee argues that the imperial notion of government as a neutral and impartial judge and dispenser of justice is the thread connecting colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial politics in India. By examining the pre-Gandhian speeches and writings of members of the Indian National Congress, she concludes that the demand of these early nationalists was not for national freedom but for imperial justice. Mukherjee suggests that the lawyers who appointed themselves political representatives of the Indian people were essentially collaborators who addressed themselves to the Queen in the adopted language of imperial justice. Here, I would suggest, Mukherjee overstates the case for colonial collaboration in what could sometimes be a form of anti-colonial resistance.

It is true that early Indian nationalists thought in and through the logic and rhetoric of...

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