How Britain turned tribe against tribe

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Niccolo and Donkey
How Britain turned tribe against tribe

Asia Times Online

Piyush Mathur

August 2, 2013

Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity by Mahmood Mamdani Reviewed by Piyush Mathur

In Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity , Mahmood Mamdani carries forward his pioneering, hefty contributions to (what I would call) an historical epistemology of world politics: this time by discussing (the European colonization of) not only Africa - his usual focus - but also India, the Malay States, and the Dutch East Indies.

Mamdani argues that the British-colonial turn to indirect rule as a response to India's Great Revolt of 1857 hinged on producing a set of codependent, dichotomous identities involving native and settler, to which the modern preoccupation with defining and managing difference is traceable. He concludes that "native does not designate a condition that is original and authentic" but was created in specific forms by "the colonial state" using specific tactics (p2).

Unlike previous European imperial governments, "including Roman and British 'direct' rule before mid-nineteenth century" and the French policy of "'assimilation'" as well as its early-20th-century counterpart of 'association'", indirect rule shifted the focus from civilizing and assimilating "colonized elites" to defining mass subjectivity in differentia from the elite imperial minority (p1, p43). However, indirect rule's institutionalization of both political and social differences distinguishes it from "the modern state" as well, which "ensures" political equality "while acknowledging" civil differences (p2).

The core of British indirect rule's ostensibly protectionist differentiation was replicated elsewhere. So, after "the law enforced, the census recorded and history memorialized ... caste, religion, and tribe" among Indians. The Malay States saw their population defined as "civilized" versus "aboriginal", residents of the Dutch East Indies found themselves defined as Europeans, foreign Orientals, or natives; and, after the Berlin Conference (November 15,1884 - February 26, 1885), the census generally classified Africans into "races" and "tribes" (p46, p35).

Indirect rule: intellectual and administrative
Mamdani discusses "the mode of indirect rule ... both as an intellectual reflection on the mid-nineteenth-century crisis of empire" - comprising the Great Revolt of 1857 and Morant Bay in Jamaica in 1865 - "and as a set of colonial reforms designed to ameliorate" it (p4).

He frames Sir Henry James Sumner Maine's (1822-1888) tremendously influential formulations on the British-Indian crisis as a template for the institutionalization of the native-settler dichotomy through subsequent Euro-imperial crises elsewhere. Regarding the latter, he discusses the writings of Frank Swettenham (1850-1946) in the Malay States, Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936) in the Dutch East Indies, and key colonial and nationalistic historians of Africa (especially on the Sudanic belt).

As for the colonial reforms themselves, he focuses on the British-Indian administrative initiatives following Queen Victoria's Proclamation of 1858; Swettenham's divisively protectionist measures in British Malaya following the 1874 Treaty of Pangkor; Cornelius Van Vollenhoven's (1874-1933) implementation of Snouck Hurgronje's formulations in the Dutch East Indies after the Aceh War (1873-1914); and the British tribalization of Darfur (where the Indian lessons were first applied within Africa) after the Battles of Omdurman (1898) and Umm Diwaykarat (1899).

Before getting to the details about the above, let me mention that the book's last section focuses on Africa's intellectual and administrative antidotes to the indirect rule's legacy. Here, Mamdani introduces and recommends the contributions of Nigerian historians - Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Abudullahi Smith, Yusuf Bala Usman, and Mahmud Tukur - crediting them for finding ways out of colonial as well as nationalistic historical accounts and historiographies.

While Dike's Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta, 1830-1835 (1956) had detailed the comingling of different groups of people throughout the middle of the 19th century as they moved into the Delta States (thereby exposing tribalism as a later, colonial manufacture), Smith had challenged the so-called Hamitic Hypothesis regarding African history.

Usman, partly developing upon the foregoing historians' work, had introduced a theory of historiography (via an innovatively rigorous history of Katsina) whose key contribution was to advise the historian to remain critically "conscious" of the "specific categories, conceptions and assumptions" (s)he aims to employ to write a history (instead of focusing predominantly on pursuing sources) - as these tools themselves (as much as the historian) are historical products (p92). Tukur's work on the history of Zaria, Nigeria had shown how different peoples comingled there prior to the British restriction of their movements and residence after the railways began to operate.

On the administrative side, Mamdani discusses and credits Mwalimu Kambarage Julius Nyerere's (1922-1999) exemplary "statecraft", which decolonized "the indirect rule state" without succumbing to violent Leninism - except that it ended up prioritizing "nation-building" over "democracy and social justice" (p5).

Post-1857 British India
Maine had blamed the failure of the "civilizing mission" of the liberal Utilitarians and Evangelicals on their lack of understanding of "native ... religions and social belief" (p9). Toward generating that understanding, he had shifted the attention to "observing daily life" of Indians (whom he had presumed were primitive) from the erstwhile Eurocentric Orientalist study of Sanskrit texts. He was driven by, and also contributed to, dubious theories of history that implied that one could understand the past of a presumed progressive or modern civilization (the West) by observing presumed primitive contemporary civilizations (the non-West).

On the whole, Maine's approach - Mamdani shows - was only superficially empirical, selective, racialized, analytically misleading, and logically flawed. He believed in a real India whose "'extreme geographical isolation'" had left it unadulterated by external influences and ended up manufacturing it while trying to articulate where to find it. He opined that the Indians were ancient offshoots of the so-called Aryan race - except that they had failed to progress from kinship-based "'natural groups'" to individuals and from "customary to civil law" because, like the Irish, they had failed to benefit from the Roman Empire (p16, p19).

Being custom-bound (as ensured by its religion - "'Brahminism'"), India - in Maine's framework - was also status-driven, cultural, and contextual. For having an abstract civil law, the West, on the contrary, was contract-based and free from culture as well as context. While India's civilization had been arrested by its customs (which he dubiously singularized as customary law), Western civilization had led to its civil, progressive, abstract, modern law (p6, p16, p20).

These ideas, Mamdani illustrates, retained "a theory of nativism" that rendered "the settler" as "modern", historically progressive, and belonging to a legislated or political society - and the "native" as traditional, defined by geography, naturally stagnated, insulated, and religio-cultural (p44, p6, p14). For Indians, unlike for the Europeans, Maine therefore recommended "local ... decentralized ... and customary" governance (p26).

Administratively, this discriminatorily protectionist stance came inscribed in "the doctrine of noninterference in the private domain, especially in religion" via Queen Victoria's Proclamation of 1858 (p26). The doctrine entailed distinguishing between the private and the public via "legal and administrative" reforms put in place through 1862-1872. Through these reforms, "multiple personal codes" (one for each officially recognized religious group) were promulgated; however, "a single legal bureaucracy" was institutionalized for the public sphere by rendering "Islamic law" inapplicable in criminal trials, abolishing "all Persian titles", and debarring "Muslim assistants to the colonial courts" (p29).

The government also restricted "the market" in the name of "protecting the village community from moneylenders", farmers from traders, and "the landlord's estate from division and fragmentation" (people so grouped through the Censuses' caste and tribe categories); it also established special protections to the religious minorities it defined: "Muslims in the 1880s and 1890s" followed by Sikhs, "non-Brahmin groups," and "Hill Peoples" (p27). Later, "the Indian Councils Act of 1909, also known as the Morley-Minto Reforms" created "separate electorates ... in the provincial and central legislative bodies" for whose council seats "only Muslims were entitled to vote" (p30).

The Malay States: "civilized" (by Islam) versus "aboriginal"
In the Malay States, the key distinction made was between "civilized" and "aboriginal," with "the regime of protection" for the latter having been established by Swettenham (p31). Initiating the British colonization, the Treaty of Pangkor (1874) "defined a Malay as 'one who habitually speaks Malay, professes the religion of Islam, and practices Malay customs'" - a definition still "enshrined in Article 160 of the Malay Constitution" (p31). This definition "turned non-Muslims who had hitherto been as Malay as Muslim Malays into the aborigines they are considered to be today" (p32).

However, these "aborigines" had themselves got this singular label in the 1940s, when the British attempted to isolate "the Malayan People's Army" - the anti-colonial "communist-dominated guerrilla force" - from the villagers when the Army was also resisting the Japanese invaders in 1941. The associated violence had pushed many "villagers and forest peoples" deeper into the forest; calling them "aboriginal" (Orang Asli ), the British had then "appointed them an advisor" and resettled them as cultivators.

The British also created the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) in 1950, and enacted "the Aboriginal People's Ordinance" in 1954. Until then, these myriad peoples had many different, sometimes uncharitable, names in the administrative literature (p32).

At its inception in 1957, independent Malaysia "distinguished between...'Malay'...and 'Orang Asli'," with the former (Muslims) "acknowledged as civilized ... by religion" while "the fully indigenous ( asli ) status" of the latter "implied" their sole suitability "to be subjects" (p33). However, the riots of 1969 forced the creation of a new category of peoples called bhumiputera (sons of the soil) - comprising the downtrodden from many groups, including the Malay and Orang Asli - who received "special privileges" through "the New Economic Policy of 1971" (p34).

Nevertheless, a subsequent "constitutional amendment... criminalized public discussion of 'sensitive' issues" such as "the privileged position of Malays in law, the role of Malay sultans, the status of Malay as the official language and Islam as the official religion - and the questioning of Malay privileges" (p34).
Niccolo and Donkey
The Dutch East Indies: Muslims versus natives
As with Maine in India, Snouck Hurgronje "saw external historical influences ... as impurities" in the Dutch East Indies (p41). Made the "Advisor on Native and Islamic Affairs" in 1891 against the backdrop of an 18-year-long Islamist-led uprising (the Aceh War) in "northern Sumatra", he viewed Islam as the key external influence on the native traditions (p34). He thus dichotomized between "religious Islamic law (hukom)" and "customary law (adat)": the former as "dogmatic", "unworldly", "written", "easy to identify", and the latter as "flexible", worldly or practical, unwritten, "difficult to discern", and negotiable (pp35-37).

Believing that these two inherently dichotomous laws' historical intertwining was responsible for the unrest, he recommended that "the Dutch distinguish between the Islamic scholars ( ulama ) and the customary chiefs ( uleebalang ) and ... support" the latter against the former (p37). In reality, Mamdani stresses, Snouck Hurgronje produced "the opposition that he claimed [had existed] from time immemorial" (p38).

While framing the ulama as the enemy of the Dutch, Snouck Hurgronje also distinguished "between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political ideology", advocating tolerance toward the former and "ruthless suppression" of the latter (p38, p39). In effect, "religious tolerance" became the policy "toward those who acquiesced in Dutch rule" whilst "a brutal counterinsurgency" ensued against those "who did not" (p39).

Snouck Hurgronje's recommendations culminated, via the efforts of Cornelius Van Vollenhoven (1874-1933), in "separate legal codes for Europeans, foreign Orientals, and natives" that remained in place until the inception of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945 (p42).

Africa: races versus tribes; Darfur
With "civil law" being viewed as "the marker of" civilization, "different systems of customary law" were said to exist among the colonized - and their imperial articulation divided "the colonized majority into ... administratively driven political minorities" that were called tribes in Africa (p45). In practical terms,
When a census-taker entered your name, it was either as member of a race or as member of a tribe. ... Races were said to comprise all those officially categorized as not indigenous to Africa... Tribes ... were all those defined as indigenous in origin. (p46-47)​
Then, while "races were governed under a single law: civil law", each tribe, by definition, was viewed to have been governed by its own customary law, which turned out to be a caricatured cultural selection made under colonial supervision. Apportionment and content of rights were made to hinge on the perceived civilizational state and stage of the peoples: "the colonizing master race (Europeans)" had civil privileges over "colonized subject races (Asians, Arabs, Colored, and so on)," who had civil privileges over "native tribes" (p50-51).

Within customary law, "tribes" were divided into "native and non-native" - with the former favored and identified only in terms of "origin" (an ultimately unascertainable criterion). The presumed uniqueness of each tribe ensured the state's intervention to certify its traditionalism and authenticity - equally the parameter for the tribe's value as a native ally - and to singularize its governing authority in the "chief", inevitably an older male (p49). This contradicted Africa's "political history" of pluralism, in which "the definers of tradition could come from women's groups, age groups, clans, religious groups, and so on" depending on the "domain" (p49).

To illustrate the above generality of African colonization, Mamdani focuses on Darfur, where, after defeating "the Mahdiyya in the Battle of Omdurman", the British resorted to "tribalization" to counteract the Mahdiyya's Sufi-inspired ideology, Mahdism (p69, p71).

While being "anti-imperialist", mass-supported, and violently "repressive", the Mahdiyya themselves used to have an all-round cosmopolitan make-up (p71). The tribalization began to unfold as the British, making it "the centerpiece of their strategy in Sudan," sliced up "Darfur, the province into a series of homelands, dars " - which they had "identified with a tribe administratively tagged as native", attaching significant advantages to one's official nativity by origin (p71).

In this, the British "subverted" the customary meaning of dar , which used to signify "one of several locations, starting with one's immediate dwelling and extending to several localities in a series of concentric circles" (p71, p72). However, the new colonial definition of home as "tribal homeland ... became the basis of voluntary organization over time" (p72).

Uniquely for Africa, Darfur's tribalization systematized discrimination against "pastoralist tribes" in favor of "peasant" tribes (p73). That feature aside, the rest "is obtained in all African contexts ... from Eastern Africa to Nigeria, from Sudan to South Africa" excepting Rwanda, where "the historiography and the land tenure system, local administration and dispute resolution - were racialized" (rather than being "joined ... to a tribalized administration") in that "[e]very institution privileged Tutsi over Hutu" (p72).

The Hamitic Hypothesis, 'Arabization'
As for the intellectual component behind the construction of native versus settler dichotomy - and Africa's racialist tribalization - Mamdani blames the historiography that has rested on the so called "'Hamitic Hypothesis'," according to which "Africa was civilized from the outside, with light-skinned or fine-featured migrants from the north civilizing natives to the south" (p55).

He mentions the key historians - both colonial and anti-colonial nationalistic ones - who believed in that hypothesis, discussing some of them; he also outlines the key "forms" of this hypothesis.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries' colonial writings regarding central Africa, the Tutsi are "cast ... as the Hamites and the Hutu as the native"; in colonial accounts of West Africa, "the Berbers were cast" as "Hamites and ... presented as the founders of Hausa states and thus civilizers of the Hausa".

In writings regarding the Sudan, this hypothesis, which dubiously "knit together disparate histories of the Sudan" comes up as "Arabization" of native Negroes; and then there is the "Pan-Africanist version" - such as that authored by "Cheikh Anta Diop, who cast Egypt as the great civilizer of the rest of Africa".

Mamdani points out that while Diop "darkened the complexion of Hamites" by rendering "Egyptians of the Pharaonic period as a black people", he "left the logic of colonial historiography intact" (p54).

Focusing on its Arabization version, Mamdani debunks the belief that there was "an ongoing confrontation" between Arab invaders and native Negroes - averring that Arabs never invaded Sudan (p57). His account clarifies that Africa's Arabization had little to do with the Arabs, per se - and that the meaning of "Arab" in the historical context of Africa has been far from uniform.

Instead, an "Arab" identity was embraced in three major distinctive phases - between the early-16th century founding of the Sultanate of Funj and the 19th-century European colonization - by local royals, merchants, and masses respectively for spiritual, commercial, and political reasons (which he carefully outlines). In the last phase, for instance, "Arab" attracted many common Africans owing to "the anti-colonial pan-Arab movements, particularly Nasserism" (p59).

These temporal variations in the manifestation of Africa's Arabization aside, there were regional variations: While "settled" and powerful people got to be called Arab in "historical Funj, the heartland of northern Sudan", it was "nomads marginal to power" that were called Arab "in Darfur" (p59, p60).

In the book's last section, Mamdani provides a brief qualitative sketch of Africa's decolonization as a nationalistic "preoccupation of ... the intelligentsia and the political class" and as an attempt at going beyond the colonial dichotomy of settlers versus natives (p85). Through "the thick of civil war", the intellectuals attempted "to give the independent state a history", just as the politicians attempted "to create a common citizenship as the basis of national sovereignty" (p85).

As "mainly a post-colonial development", the African university has generally lacked distance from politics; hence, Mamdani credits here Nigeria and South Africa for "creating a significant density of institutional life" as a precondition for intellectual autonomy (p88). Given its benefit of autonomy, Nigeria happened to develop "an alternative historiography to colonial conventions on race and tribe" (p87, p88).

The lively, aphoristic writing of this short book improves upon Mamdani's previous books, which, though unfailingly thorough and groundbreaking, are typically ponderous. The book contains a number of interesting factual details and enlightening explanations that this review's reader must access on his or her own. This is not a comprehensive nor definitive book of history (but nor is Mamdani claiming that); it is better described as a historically informed theoretical explanation of the modern preoccupation with defining and managing difference.

A weakness of the work is that Mamdani does not question the conceptual status of "tribe" at all - let's say in the anthropological tradition. Hence, he is driven to showing that those that had been deemed "tribal" by the imperialists were not in fact tribal - by stressing such peoples' pre-colonial cosmopolitanism, demographic fluidity, or political organizing, etcetera. If, however, he had investigated further into the anthropological literature, then he would have come to know that the term "tribe" never actually came around meaningfully and has been deemed inherently flawed since Morton Fried (1975).

Another intriguing, worrisome problem with the book is that it shows no awareness of, and does not engage with the fact that the British efforts to develop pure, native law for India had dated as far back as Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal through 1772-1785, at whose initiative N B Halhed compiled A Code of Gentoo Laws; or, Ordinations of the Pandits in 1776. Further, compiling an "Ur-text that would simultaneously establish the Hindu and Muslim law" had preoccupied the British since Sir William Jones (1746-1794), well before the Great Revolt of 1857 or imposition of the indirect rule (Bernard Cohn, 1996, p69).

Mamdani likely has an explanation for his jump to Maine; however, he has not shared it with us. In any case, the book's early, pivotal dependence on this singular historical character - out of the crowded past - has about as many strategic disadvantages as benefits.

Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity by Mahmood Mamdani. Harvard University Press (September 17, 2012). ISBN-10: 0674050525. Price: US$25.62; 168 pages.
Niccolo and Donkey
Gruppenführer Glitter

Compare the British approach to ruling India with the empire that had proceeded it. Different Mughal kings ruled India with varying degrees of religious and cultural toleration. The most successful rulers were those who understood the difficulty of ruling India.

The Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb (the last powerful Mughal king) adopted a policy of all out warfare and Sunni assimilation against non-Muslim princely states. He waged decade long wars in Punjab and South India. He lived frugally, abolished court luxuries, and dedicated all of his time to running the empire and religious studies. His entire mission in life was conquering India in order to save it from, what he considered to be confusion and religious heresies. By the end of his long reign, his dream of a united Sunni-Islamic empire seemed hollow.

Aurangzeb managed to conquer nearly all of India, yet he was confronted with massive internal problems. There were multitudes of rebellions, some motivated by religious persecutions, others by intrigues among the vast and complicated network of governors, princes, and dignitaries. The large treasury his father accumulated was depleted and internal trade collapsed due to rampant banditry in the countryside. Aurangzeb himself was almost universally loathed as a tyrant, and his imperial achievements quickly unraveled following a succession crisis after his death. I have a book with translations of Aurangzeb’s letters and poetries, and even he seemed to have grave doubts about his life’s work by the end. There is one particular letter he wrote to his eldest son shortly before his death: “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am or what I have been doing. I have sinned terribly and I do not know what punishment awaits me.”

70 years later, the Mughal Empire’s power did not even extend beyond the walls of the Red Fort. The desire to make India into a monocultural empire ruled by one king with a civil bureaucracy has always failed. There are really no exceptions. India is not China. It has too many cultures, peoples, and classes. Energetic and talented conquerors like Aurangzeb and Ashoka have died broken men in the pursuit of a united India. The British realized this, and managed to govern India in a more indirect way while still maintaining economic supremacy over the region.

Empires who have tried to make India in a single cultural and religious entity have always failed very quickly. When I think about it, most of the old Indian empires don’t have legacies comparable to say, the Roman or Ming states. There are old palaces, mosques, and temples attributed to certain rulers but institutional or infrastructural legacies aren’t really there. The problem that all these great Indian empires faced is that their strength could only be guaranteed so long as there was a strong and able ruler who could maintain the delicate balancing act that came with uniting disparate parts of their empires.