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  • Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity by Mahmood Mamdani
  • Chloe Ahmann
Mahmood Mamdani, Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 168 pp.

In an intellectual climate where scholars are increasingly wary of categories like “custom,” “tribal,” and “traditional,” Mahmood Mamdani’s latest work offers a satisfying unmasking of colonial constructions, and an antidote to their legal and political legacies. As a scholar whose work frequently straddles the border between law, politics, and culture, Mamdani has a reputation for revealing the rational bases for otherwise unconscionable histories. From his examination of the Rwandan genocide in When Victims Become Killers (2001), to more recent works examining politics, identity, and terrorism such as Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (2004) and Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (2009), Mamdani convincingly traces the philosophical foundations of community, citizenship, and policy to evidence the influence of colonial categories. His latest work stems squarely from this tradition, offering the added value of comparative analysis, and demonstrating the holding power of “native” as a political identity in the post-colonial world.

Indeed, while decades of anthropological literature on the technologies, philosophies, and legacies of imperialism have located the origins of racism in practices of colonial rule, Mamdani asserts that racism is only half the story. In Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity, Mamdani argues that colonial authority from British India to the Dutch East Indies was specifically based on two different axes of discrimination—“race” and “tribe”—through which natives and settlers were legally distinguished, differently ruled, and confined to separate social and political destinies. Mamdani further argues that the shift from direct to indirect colonial rule, [End Page 927] rather than lax control over colonized populations (which promises of “non-interference” might suggest), masked colonizers’ vast ambitions to renegotiate the native’s subjectivity. Binding the movement to indirect rule with parallel shifts—from civilizing missions to projects of protection, from assimilationism to a preoccupation with defining and managing difference, and towards a new form of governmentality dependent upon an emerging settler/native binary—Mamdani powerfully asserts that “the native was the creation of theorists of an empire-in-crisis” (6). No longer under the clear control of crown rule, colonial subjects became objects in need of stricter rule and, therefore, necessarily more subversive forms of subjugation.1

Mamdani places the colonial crisis point at the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India: “In the reflection that followed the crisis,” Mamdani explains, “the colonial mission was redefined—from civilization to conservation and from progress to order” (8). The movement culminated in 1858 with Queen Victoria’s proclaimed doctrine of noninterference in India (8). While this doctrine superficially diluted colonial control of the region by abandoning assimilationist projects in favor of protecting customary practices, Mamdani suggests that indirect rule achieved the opposite, for “the prerogative to define the boundary, the substance and the authority of the ‘customary,’ gave vast scope to the powers of the occupying authority” (27). Combining the political necessity of social order with an interest in conserving custom, administrators capitalized upon the bureaucratic implications of indirect rule to emphasize differences that would keep the masses divided among themselves.

With great attention to colonial political history, Mamdani traces this movement from the Indian subcontinent through reforms in British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and several African colonies, arguing that colonial intellectuals undertook the process of defining, and by extension transforming, race and tribe as academic and administrative shortcuts to gaining control of subject populations. Define and Rule develops this thesis through the book’s three chapters, originally written as lectures for the W. E. B. Du Bois series at Harvard University. In his first chapter, Mamdani focuses on “architects” of the theory of nativism, in particular Sir Henry Maine, whose theories—articulated in his mid-19th century publications on ancient law, the development of society, and the transition from status to contract—fill one-third of Mamdani’s short book. Mamdani justifies this focal weight by characterizing Maine, a member of the viceroy’s cabinet [End Page 928] in post-mutiny India, as the source of an authoritative...