Uday Singh Mehta and Karuna Mantena: Empire and Liberalism

Uday S Mehta – Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth Century British Liberal Thought

Karuna Mantena – Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the ends of Liberal Imperialism

It is irrevocably clear that empire was an unvarnished disaster for nations that had been resisting colonial rule for centuries. But the colonial project itself was undergirded, justified and legitimised by liberal tenets, forwarded and propagated by a series of mainstream liberal thinkers and writers in Britain. British liberal thought was closely linked with the operation and understanding of the colonial project abroad and liberal ideas were used to root and cement the need for an imperial power and its rule. Two books cover this association in exemplary ways speaking to the larger ideas and thinkers that deployed various epistemes and theories to justify the continuation and consolidation of imperial rule across the world and critically, India, over the course of two centuries.

Uday Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire’s critical contribution is to stake out and mark the clear contradictions and inconsistencies within modern liberal thought and how these ideas served to propagate imperial fiat. The key connection here is the notion of unfamiliarity of peripheral regions and territories and the accompanying desire to extend colonial rule and governance in order to make them more more functional and governable. Key thinkers like Bentham, James and J.S Mill and Macaulay are part of a group of influential liberal thinkers that endorsed empire through this justification. In contrast, legendary conservative thinker and write Edmund Burke stood at the other end, valiantly questioning these obtuse invocations whilst exhorting the core difference that lies between the colonies and the metropole. As Mehta argues, ’no thinker or statesmen in the 18th or 19th century expresses anything like the moral and political indignation that Burke voiced against the injustices, cruelty, caprice and exploitation of the empire.’ By enlightening us with the hypocrisy surrounding these ideas and thinkers, Mehta impels us to comprehend the rather pervasive and disconcerting gap between the use and salience of ideas such as representative democracy, rule of law, individual rights that all these thinkers advocated for and their selective championing of them.

Through this critical book, Mehta informs us that tensions not only resided within colonial rule itself but also the ideas that served to legitimise it. Mehta’s thesis is equally ambitious. He argues that these tensions are not unique to the practice of liberalism or imperialism in this case but they are central to liberal political thought itself. In other words, the devil is not in the practice but the proof itself. Less important is power to effect change but the very substance in those ideational elements. Unlike Mill, Macaulay and Bentham, Burke differed on one fundamental count – epistemology. A realist lens and a more grounded understanding of India and its vicissitudes gave Burke a unique perspective of liberalism and of imperial rule but one that ultimately did not make much of a difference in terms of policy. Instead of essentialising the unfamiliar, Burke embraces the inherent nature of it. Instead of supporting a misplaced paternalism, Burke calls for humility and pragmatism when dealing with a country (India) that has had a complex structural and social edifice that has managed relations between a dizzying array of groups and communities. Other liberals treat India as an abstraction that called for the implantation of liberal ideas and implementation of liberal policies. By extolling the universal, they dismiss the local and particular. As Mehta cogently argues, intellectual arguments and claims of many generations past have a resonance and importance even today. Notions of liberal imperialism are equally relevant with the ascent of a hegemon that manages international affairs and is not shy to impose its ideas and visions over a widely diffuse and diverse world. Liberal ideas function as the dominant discourse and framework through which political and economic ideas get transmitted. As a result, it is or it becomes incumbent on us to grapple with the inherent and unsteady tensions that exist within liberal genealogies themselves. Out abiding commitment to liberalism should not blind ourselves from dismissing the validity and legitimacy of governing ideologies of other traditions that have equal, if not, more writ and authority in different locales.

Karuna Mantena’s brilliant book Alibis of Empire aims to track another important thinker – Henry Sumner Maine and the role he and ideas played in the governing of the empire since the mutiny of 1857. The rebellion, as she argues, proved to be the critical juncture that led to a divergence in the ideology governing imperial rule. Until then, Britain was keen on reforming and ‘civilising’ India and to enable it to better govern itself. From the mutiny, this liberal strategy became untenable. What followed was ‘liberal retrenchment’ marked by a clear notion of difference between the coloniser and the colonised. Replacing the civilisational project and tack was a more sober one that emphasised the key cultural differences between both sets of peoples and the attendant desire to manage them through a more localised and indirect mode of governance. Universalism gradually gave way to culturalism and parochialism. Moreover, Mantena goes on to elucidate how this approach ensued in theory and practice – through Henry Maine. The fundamental shift came in the conceptualisation of the peripheral regions. From the rebellion, indigenous societies came to be seen as fundamentally divergent and as traditional social realms that was seen as resistant to modern society and modernity. And through this conception came newer and more sober forms of ideas of governance and rule. Maine’s importance and legacy here came in the form of social and anthropological theory which received a fillip given the urgent desire to get a better understanding of these ‘different’ societies. Aside from being known as a leading Victorian jurist and historian, his trysts with anthropological and social theory greatly influenced the nature of imperial rule since the mutiny. Maine’s evocative and articulate account of the primitive and feudal nature of the subcontinent were infused to craft policies that emphasised indirect rule in alliance with a region that was suffused with a range of groups and structures bound by bonds of custom and kinship. The gradually emerging post-rebellion consensus was thus characterised by a diminution in the erstwhile civilising mission and a reconstitution of power that rested on more nimble alliances with local structures of power. And this also privileged the rise of the colonial ‘ethnographic’ state that sought to use various intellectual methods and tools of knowledge to gain a better understanding of native or primitive society. Maine’s work, as Mantena claims, proved critical in this regard insofar as elevating an alternate mode of knowledge generation and production. The book effectively seeks to situate Maine and his work at the centre of a seminal shift in imperial rule, one that was characterised by the rise of indirect rule and the exaltation of the traditional society as a model to be better studied and analysed for the purposes of governing. The cases used to delineate this particular argument is legal reform and land tenure, both cases where policies were crafted and implemented with a more sober and grounded understanding of local rule and politics.

When looked at with Mehta’s work, Mantena clearly sought to address one key aspect – that of Mehta’s claim that it was liberalism itself and not the practice of it that was central to the hypocrisies of liberal imperialism. Mantena claims that tensions within liberal norms and ideas of equality, tolerance, representation emerge not from theoretical inconsistencies but as a ‘contradictory entailment of liberalism.’ Through Maine and his ideas and epistemic foundation that led to indirect rule, Mantena seeks to illustrate that it was less a consequence of liberalism than of liberalisms’ capacity to reconstitute itself when confronted with unforeseen exigencies. Late imperial rule, in this respect, was ‘strategically, temporally, and logically linked to the collapse of that earlier agenda.’ Mehta, Mantena claims, fails to adequately grapple with the vicissitudes of imperial practice and its ‘outer limits’ that is as important as the internal contradictions within liberal political thought itself. Nonetheless, both books mark important ground insofar as examining the range of ideas and thinkers that informed imperial rule in India are concerned.


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