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  • Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India
  • Allen Kornmesser
Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. By Bernard S. Cohn (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996) 189 pp. $49.50 cloth $16.95 paper

This book consists of four independent essays, composed mostly in the 1980s, loosely bound together with an introduction by the author and a helpful forward by Nicholas Dirks. The works are classic Cohn, mingling the methodologies of anthropology and history, and calling into question the very categories by which those disciplines, and the social sciences generally, have come to know their subject—India and Indians.

In challenging and exploring the genealogies of the colonialist categories of understanding, Cohn’s work extends the valuable efforts of the “Chicago school” approach, known as ethnosociology (led by Marriott with Inden, among others), to identify and apply indigenous categories to the study of Indian culture and society.1 Cohn incorporates a concern with how the exogenous categories of knowledge became elements of, in this case, a colonialist discourse of power and instruments for the extension of power over a population that was the “subject” both of colonial rule and of colonialist knowledge.

The author’s introduction describes the formation of “investigative modalities” that collectively provided the framework of colonialist knowledge of India, beginning in the earliest days of the British encounter with the subcontinent. The most powerful and pervasive Cohn identifies as the historiographic modality, which provided for British rule a place and significance in the ontological process of history, while producing an “ideological construction” of an Indian past consonant with it. Other modalities include an observational / travel modality, a survey [End Page 371] modality, an enumerative modality, a museology modality, and a surveillance modality—all of which contained within a broad discourse of colonialist power to which each contributed in its own way. These themes recur in the subsequent four essays, but never again so systematically, and never with satisfactory theoretical completeness. They remain introductory comments in a volume that reaches no general conclusions beyond those contained in each individual essay.

The chapters themselves, previously published and re-edited to varying degrees, each stand alone as provocative inquiries that invite further research. The essay on language shows how knowledge of the particular languages of law and administration, besides trade, became a requirement for an East India Company intent on overcoming the limits on its power and productivity resulting from its dependence on translators and other native intermediaries. The motivation of Company administrators to educate its employees in Persian and Sanskrit was, in the beginning, to wrest power from the munshis, akhunds, and pandits, on whom they depended to mediate between the Company and native princes and merchants, and to provide translations of the legal and historical documents thought relevant to conducting business in India.

A brief chapter, “Law and the Colonial State in India,” shows how further extensions of colonialist power and knowledge built upon the access that knowledge of Indian languages provided. Operating on an assumption that, apart from persisting ancient and traditional forms of local self-government, a “state system” had survived in India as well, though everywhere degraded and in disarray by the time of the British arrival, the colonialists strove to “revive” the tattered vestiges of traditional administration, and to re-package it within a framework of British categories of rule and regulation. The search for the knowledge required to fulfill these goals ultimately required the redefinition, or “construction,” of forms of authority and rule, turning collectors of revenue into landlords and princes, and systematizing the courts of law and their administration, on the presumably coherent foundations of an indigenous legal “system” based on translations of Hindu and Islamic texts.

Cohn’s third essay explores the museological as well as the survey modality of investigation, by which the British categorized and objectified India, treating it as a giant storehouse, or museum, of Europe’s own frozen past. The notion that India was lacking history, either in the form of reliable written historical documents, or as evidence of “progress” through time, was a warning to the British that past foreign rulers have all been devoured by that timeless India...

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pp. 371-373
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