SUMMER READING SALE! Get 40% off all titles plus free shipping with discount code SUMMER21-FM at checkout
Penn Press logo
Assembling the Local

In Assembling the Local, Upal Chakrabarti argues that the "local" should be reconceptualized as an abstract machine, which was itself central to the construction of the universal, namely, the establishment of political economy as a form of governance in nineteenth-century British India.

Assembling the Local
Political Economy and Agrarian Governance in British India

Upal Chakrabarti

2021 | 288 pages | Cloth $79.95
Political Science
View main book page

Table of Contents

Introduction. Universality as Difference
Chapter 1. Science, Method, and Indigeneity: Political Economy
Chapter 2. The Trace of the Local: Rent
Chapter 3. Temporal Geographies of Power: Property
Chapter 4. Grounding Governance: Village
Chapter 5. Disputes in the Locality: Peasants
Conclusion. Rewriting Production


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Universality as Difference

Model, Limit, and Difference

This book explores the problem of models and their limits over three interrelated sites in the first half of the nineteenth century: questions of landed property in a small area on the eastern coast of British India called Cuttack, debates over the method and categories of political economy in Britain, and practices of agrarian governance across different regions of British India. The category of the "local" featured recurrently in these three sites, signifying the limit of models. The local has been also similarly fashioned across a range of histories as an analytical tool to mark the limit, of models and frames. Interrogating the analytical constructions of this category in both the archives of the nineteenth century and more recent historiographic practice, I contend that it is more productive to read this limit as the model itself, rather than its outside.

In considering the model-limit problem, the book proposes a relation between political economy and liberal governance in the imperial world of the nineteenth century, different from the prevalent understandings of this relation in the histories of empire, liberalism, and agrarian South Asia. The use of the category of the local in the nineteenth-century sites examined here enables and directs us to trace the complexities of this relation—between political economy and governance—in the light of the model-limit problem. In each of these sites the local expressed a limit of, or difference from, a model. In the interregional debates over principles of agrarian governance in British India, models of revenue settlement were constantly scrutinized and revised as they failed to address local specificities. In Cuttack, long-ranging contests took place between different kinds of land controllers over the local peculiarities of proprietary rights in the area. In Britain the public sphere witnessed raging contentions on the method and categories of political economy, where the dominant model of Ricardian political economy was questioned for being inapplicable to the different local conditions of the world.

Generally, therefore, the local connoted difference from the universalizing claims of models. Specifically, it expressed differences in relations between forms of property and modes of sovereignty. In Cuttack, the local was mobilized by various kinds of native land controllers and colonial officials to highlight the differences in the proprietary forms of that place from other adjoining territories. At the same time, the category was repeatedly used across various levels of the imperial bureaucracy to argue that different regions in British India exhibited great differences in land tenures. In Britain over the same period, the debates that I refer to suggested that differences in property forms all over the world question the universal applicability of the method and categories of the prevalent and dominant framing of political economy. Differences in forms of property, in all these sites, were explained as effects of varying modes of sovereignty or political power existing in different places.

The book engages with both general and specific articulations of the local, weaving out of them, simultaneously, reflections on the problem of difference and a critical commentary on connections between political economy, agrarian property, and governance. It is evident that over the three sites examined in the book, through the expression of the local, the problem of political economy and governance became the same, namely, that of understanding and managing difference, in this case, of property-sovereignty relations. I make sense of this problem by setting up a conversation between the early and late works of Michel Foucault, namely, between his reading of political economy as a discursive formation of the modern episteme and his lectures on liberal governance. I suggest that the workings of the local can provide a critical analytical mediation in understanding how, as Foucault argues, the principle of self-limitation of power emerged as the concurrent rationality of political economy and governance over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This principle, as I demonstrate in greater detail later in this chapter, can be seen to manifest itself in the local, where difference was construed as constitutive of, and immanent to, universality.

By making the local foundational to the universality of the discourse of political economy as governance, this book attempts to release the category of its predominant analytical use—in a range of historical works on empire, liberalism, and agrarian South Asia—as something outside the universal. In most of these works the local is presented as a form of social reality, which by being located at a geographical distance from the center, seems to be necessarily capable of producing a space different from the universal. Its geographically bounded condition is taken to imply its natural mark of difference from the boundless expanse of the universal. The book attempts to reconceptualize the local, refusing to perceive it as equivalent to a locality, or a geographical particular, typically understood as signifying radical alterity by both the historical context and the historiography I examine here. The archival sites I bring together demonstrate that the local, as a problem of difference, was absolutely central to the structuring of the universal, or the making of political economy as governance in nineteenth-century British India. Although the local was posited in these sites as something outside the universal, I argue that instead of merely existing as such an outside, it functioned as the key category in the making of the universal itself. Therefore, the inside-outside opposition was an effect of the way the local was presented in this discourse. I probe this presentation in the book, to understand how difference constituted universality. At the same time, I argue that a range of historical works uncritically adopted this construction of the local as an outside, using it pervasively to explain connections between imperialism, liberal abstractions, and the shaping of agrarian societies in British India.

To displace the geographical foundationalism in these historiographic uses of the local, I do not argue that the local is already and always implicated in other more expansive spaces, like the regional, the national, the metropolitan, the imperial, and the global. Such an argument cannot fundamentally unyoke analysis from its geographical foundation. Contrarily, I argue, the local can be rethought as an abstract machine, producing spatial formations, which involve, but are not constitutive of, fixed geographical locales. This machine is assembled by releasing the local from its functioning in terms of the hardened binary of inside-outside, across the archival and historiographic sites mentioned earlier. I understand the machine as an immanent capacity to open up, which can also become a conceptual model for all those "rigidified territorialities that open the way for other transformational operations." What this book presents through this opening is not only a movement of perpetual displacement but also a capacity to effect transformations of meanings in practices.

It is with this philosophical imperative that I construct the local, from within its multifarious deployments in a range of practices. Examined in different chapters, these practices are epistemological debates over scientific methodology and categories of political economy in nineteenth-century Britain, contentions between officials at various levels of the imperial bureaucracy over principles of agrarian governance, practices of agrarian governance in several localities of British India, along with Cuttack, and a variety of strategies by landholders of different kinds in Cuttack negotiating the rationalities of rule. The local was mobilized variously, by these practices, as difference constitutive of universality. In each of these sets of practices, therefore, it operated simultaneously as a critique and a model of universality. In the process, it became a transformative potential, opening up old universals, only to propose new closures.

The practices examined in this book do not make a space where connections are simply established geographically, either as authoritarian flows from the metropole or as rebellious counter flows from the colony. This is also not a space in between, that of the empire. The book does not have the intention to argue, as Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler do, that "Europe was made by its imperial projects, as much as colonial encounters were shaped by conflicts within Europe itself." Histories inspired by this methodological move, despite establishing the dynamic space of imperial circuits as the object of analysis going beyond the metropole-colony division, remain analytically tied to geographical foundations. As a result, the imperial often falls back upon different kinds of movements between the clearly segregated geographical spaces of the metropole and the colony. It displays none of the dynamism that might be expected of what Cooper and Stoler identify as an "imperial" space, generated by contestations at various levels of a network of practices in the unified analytical field of the metropole-colony. Most important, these histories do not unchain space from physical geographies.

Moving away from such physical-geographical spatial organizations, this book makes sense of the local differently. I show how the spatial meaning of this category—generated from within the practices studied—served as an engagement with the problem of universality, and as its critique. From this point, I build the local up as a conceptual space, which had the capacity to transform old meanings and build new ones. I further demonstrate that all of this, across the diversity of the practices considered here, developed with reference to an astounding variety of physical geographies. The local, however, had a far more complex relationship with these locales than merely being their geographical expression. The geographical was an effect of this machine. But before dwelling further on the nature of this machine, let us turn to the practices themselves and to the locales they were entangled with.

Contextualizing Cuttack

I will begin by noting the reasons behind choosing Cuttack as one of these locales in relation to which these practices making the local are studied in this book. Cuttack was the nineteenth division of the Bengal Presidency, which the East India Company's government occupied in 1803, defeating its erstwhile Maratha rulers. The conquest of Cuttack was crucial to a geographic consolidation of Company rule. Cuttack occupied an area along the eastern coast of British India that began beyond the borders of the Midnapore district of the Bengal Presidency and continued up to the districts of Ganjam and Koraput, which were part of the Madras Presidency. Evidently, Cuttack was the missing link in the possibility of a continuous territorial consolidation of the Company's government. On top of that, being ruled by a strong regional force, the Marathas, from their headquarters in Nagpur, the area of Cuttack remained a potential gateway for threatening incursions of the Marathas into company territory. This was reason enough for the governor-general, Lord Wellesley, to propose to the raja of Nagpur the establishment of a British subsidiary force in the raja's territories. Given its strategic location, it can be assumed that a total military control of this territory was necessary for the government. Predictably, therefore, as the raja of Nagpur refused to permit the posting of Company soldiers in his territory, British troops marched in and conquered the area of Cuttack. In December 1803, as the Treaty of Deogaon was being concluded with Raghuji Bhonsla—the raja of Nagpur and the Maratha chief—Cuttack came under Company rule.

The Company's government divided Cuttack into two administrative areas—the Mughalbandi and the Garhjat. Mughalbandi was governed by company regulations, while the Garhjat was marked as a princely domain. The Mughalbandi was composed of three districts: Balasore, Cuttack, and Puri. In 1804, the annual revenue of the Mughalbandi was estimated at Rs. 11,78,000 As an entire division within the Bengal Presidency, in terms of its revenue-yielding capacity, Cuttack was a tiny dot on the Company's financial map. As this book bears out, however, in the organization of its agrarian territory, Cuttack received a distinct kind of governmental attention. Right from the beginning it was perceived as an anomalous zone. In spite of being a part of the Bengal Presidency, a permanent zemindary settlement—the mode of revenue administration prevalent in the greater part of this presidency—was never introduced in Cuttack. During the initial years, settlements spanning brief periods, like one, three, or five years, were made with zemindars, or big landlords. Very soon, in the aftermath of an insurrection, known as the Paik rebellion (1817), changes were introduced in the nature of land settlement in certain parts of the division. More significant shifts took place in the agrarian life of the territory over the years 1837-45 when an extensive survey and settlement operation was launched in Cuttack, which fixed rents, classified proprietary titles to lands, and, more generally, carefully defined the agrarian social as an economy of roles, capacities, and relations. Soon after the completion of this settlement, the division witnessed a plethora of disputes over property in land, which reshaped, yet again, the sinews of agrarian power in the district.

What brings these practices of governance and self-identification of agrarian groups in a particular place, like Cuttack, within the fold of this book is their critical implications in the making of the local there, and elsewhere. This is because throughout the first half of the nineteenth century an intense debate went on at various levels of the imperial bureaucracy regarding the local specificities of agrarian conditions in different regions of British India. Cuttack, like other locales, was centrally implicated in this conversation. In fact, it is in the light of this debate that the Bengal Code, or the regulations pertaining primarily to revenue administration in the areas of Bengal Presidency acquired earlier by the Company, was perceived as inapplicable to Cuttack. Accordingly, the so-called Permanent Settlement signed in 1793 was never extended to this division of the Bengal Presidency. A brief historiographic digression is in order here. The major works of South Asian agrarian history focusing on Bengal have very little to say about Cuttack. These histories have defined Bengal only in terms of its permanently settled areas, thereby excluding those vast tracts within it which were temporarily settled. Consequently, their conclusions about Bengal's agrarian development have been skewed.

The aborting of the Permanent Settlement, or the Bengal model of revenue settlement in Bengal itself, was spurred by a general critical disposition within Company governance toward itself. This strategy of self-critique was, in turn, an expression of the problem—epistemological and political—that universality posed for governance. The category of the local was mobilized to make sense of and resolve this problem. The local, as I understand it in this book, did not give up on universality but refigured the way in which it had appeared as a problem. This is why, I argue, histories ignorant of the non-Permanent Settlement areas of Bengal betray not only a gap in the knowledge of agrarian conditions of a locality; they also demonstrate a blindness toward the very nature of the epistemological project that shaped governmental rationality during this period. This book suggests to the earlier historical works that nothing in Bengal or within the foundations of governance was permanently settled.

Instead, practices of governance in Cuttack were aimed at assembling the local as difference. In the process, there emerged a gamut of strategies of different kinds of agrarian groups, who tried to make sense of their location in conversation with the rationality of these practices. Inside and outside Cuttack, therefore, this book follows lines and circulations of the local that were spun around a variety of localities, about specificities of agrarian conditions in British India. I locate Cuttack as various congealed moments in this interconnected field of motion, only to point toward their continuous decomposition and recomposition. Interestingly, the idea that Cuttack was not only one of the innumerable localities in British India but stood for something much greater than itself came out in several official enunciations. Perhaps their pinnacle was reached when this obscure locale found an exclusive mention in John Stuart Mill's "Memorandum of the Improvements in the Administration of India During the Last Thirty Years" presented in 1858 to the British Parliament.

Mill argued that Cuttack represented the best system of settlement, because it combined the specific respective advantages of different models of settlement. That is why, he further noted, it should serve as the leading model for agrarian governance. He proposed its extension to other recently conquered territories of the Company. Settlements, as I discuss later in detail, primarily involved making sense of the varying forms of property in land in different regions of British India and, thereby, instituting a framework for their governance. Accordingly, from the time of the earliest of such settlements, namely, the Permanent Settlement of Bengal of 1793, till the end of the first half of the nineteenth century, the greatest task faced by the East India Company's government was that of understanding and managing property in land in India. In appreciating the model of settlement adopted in Cuttack, Mill was, therefore, actually indicating that it represented the ideal form of government of the regional differences in property in India.

Mill's declaration was deeply embedded in a long and complex debate over property that animated an astounding range of levels and regions of governance in British India over this period. The question of specificity was formulated, and answered, albeit temporarily, by these discursive practices of governance. This book explores how governmental rationality engaged with the problem of universality versus difference, in comprehending specific forms of property in land in British India. Cuttack appeared as one of the seminal lines in this field of engagement, which, in turn, generated other lines traversing a great variety of categories and geographies in British India and beyond. What brought these lines together was the problem of universality-difference, fashioned as the category of the local; its operations were also visible in other analytical spaces, like the interface of science and political economy in contemporary Britain. Empirically speaking, J. S. Mill was important for both these spaces—debates over property in Cuttack and British India, and debates over categories and methods in science and political economy in Britain. For a preliminary understanding of these entanglements, let us now turn to an outline of the chapters of the book.


The first chapter introduces the local with an examination of a range of debates over the methodology of political economy in early nineteenth-century Britain. To appreciate the significance of this material, it will be useful to briefly revisit the seminal scholarly assessments of the relations between political economy and empire in early nineteenth-century Britain. It is widely accepted that in this period the theoretical field of political economy in Britain was predominantly defined in terms of David Ricardo's system. Historians have, however, qualified the extent of the intellectual authority of Ricardian principles within political economy circles. Ricardian principles were critiqued within political economy from different perspectives. Such critical qualifications are, however, absent in the histories of empire and British India. Here, since Eric Stokes's pioneering work, which compellingly demonstrated how the rising tide of utilitarian ideals in Britain played a defining role in shaping different aspects of governance in nineteenth-century British India, the singularity of the authority of Ricardo's doctrines have been almost taken for granted in the historiography, especially in making sense of the Company's land revenue policy.

Ricardian political economy, Stokes argues, made its way to the agrarian affairs of British India through James Mill, Ricardo's close friend and reputed scholar-administrator. Mill made Ricardian thought, particularly its conceptualization of rent, the basis of property governance and land tax in British India. Most important, since land was the biggest source of revenue for the Company, it is through agrarian governance, that the authoritarian, universalizing, reforming impulse of Western liberal principles, in its utilitarian avatar, made its most forceful mark on an indigenous society.

In contrast to this interventionist liberalism, Stokes notes, there emerged a preservationist tradition, "the 'Romantic' generation in British Indian history." This tradition approached Indian/indigenous society with a sentiment "with which Wordsworth and the Romantics invested the noble peasant. . . . They brought to the Indian problem Burke's notion of history." Stokes's characterization of the philosophical basis of governance—not only agrarian but in general—in nineteenth-century British India in terms of a division between the utilitarians/liberals and the romantics/conservatives has been repeated later, even in its critique. Lynn Zastoupil, for example, points to the absence in Stokes's work of any consideration of John Stuart Mill's entanglement with British India. He fills this gap by providing a rich discussion of the influence the younger Mill exerted in formulating policies in various areas of governance in British India. In narrating this involvement, Zastoupil understands the philosophical outlook of J. S. Mill as composed of a mixture of the course of his intellectual development as a thinker, and that of his experience at India House as an administrator. Accordingly, he interprets Mill's philosophy as a reinterpretation of the senior Mill's abstract authoritarian universalism in the light of an appreciation of historical and cultural specificities. This reworking, Zastoupil argues, emerged out of the simultaneous impact on Mill of the romantic sensibilities of his time and the ideas of the "empire of opinion" group of British Indian administrators, who espoused a Burkean sensitivity toward indigenous life.

It is important to note that Zastoupil's empire of opinion group refers to exactly those administrators who, in Stokes's work, were categorized as the "Romantic generation." Although he insists that Mill's enunciations not only reflected engagements with varied strands of metropolitan thought but were also shaped by the imperial experience of administration through the ideas of the empire of opinion group, in reading these latter ideas in turn as Burkean and Whiggish articulations, Zastoupil ends up rewriting the "imperial" mind of J. S. Mill as a metropolitan one. In an attempt to explain Mill's philosophy in terms of an imperial intercourse, he ends up reproducing Stokes's analytical framework. Within this framework, formations of South Asian societies are understood as being directly caused by dominant metropolitan currents of thought. This is a diffusionist model resting on a series of binaries, like metropole-colony, Western theory-indigenous reality, abstract utilitarian universalism-concrete romantic particularism, inside-outside, and many others.

Keeping in mind these historiographical trends, this book suggests a different way of thinking about the very epistemological conditions of possibility for a relation between political economy in Britain and governmental rationality in early nineteenth-century British India. The first chapter shows that Ricardian ideas—which these diffusionist histories identify as the dominant articulation of metropolitan thought influencing governance in South Asia—were themselves questioned in Britain in debates over the method and categories of political economy. These debates revolved around the problem of universality-difference. The way this problem was posed and resolved, I argue, opened up grounds for the recasting of political economy as governance. It is these relations—universality-difference and political economy-governance—which were made in and through the category of the local. The local unified disparate sites—Cuttack, British India, and Britain—not through diffusionist hierarchies but as simultaneous and intersecting lines of force in an apparatus.

Political economy in Britain over the first half of the nineteenth century got involved with the question of methodology in relation to a broader intellectual movement aimed at rethinking the epistemological basis of scientific knowledge. This movement claimed that an inductive methodology must be followed in building up knowledge in all forms of sciences. It was spearheaded by William Whewell, a meta-commentator of science, based at Cambridge. Whewell along with John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and Richard Jones formed a group that tried to programmatically develop an inductive methodology as the epistemological ground of all branches of science. Individually, these men were scholars working in different fields of the natural sciences, other than Jones, whose interests were in political economy. Whewell was a polymath who wrote on diverse fields, like mathematics, geology, architecture, political economy, and moral philosophy, among others. But above everything, he was what can be described in retrospective terms the first "philosopher of science." He attempted a systematic epistemological redefinition of the sciences, based on a championing of the inductive method. This was programmatically spelt out in his twin publications, which complemented each other, "History of the Inductive Sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Times" and "The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded upon Their History."

Whewell's inductivism entered political economy through Richard Jones. Jones critiqued Ricardo's system, pointing out that it was not grounded in inductive reasoning. Along with Whewell, he argued that Ricardian categories were based on deductive and, hence, false generalizations. Together, they declared that the manner in which Ricardo defined the chief constituent categories of his system made them inapplicable to, even meaningless for, the vast majority of the peoples living in different nations of the world. This is when, I argue in this chapter, the local became a category internal to, and constitutive of, political-economic reason. The debate sparked by this critique of Ricardianism was then taken up in the writings of several other political economists, like Thomas Malthus, J. R. McCulloch, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill. This chapter tracks this debate as it was conducted in terms of a series of substitutable conceptual oppositions, like inductive-deductive, hypothesis-observation, theory-practice, and abstract-concrete. This epistemological battle was carried out in a string of essays published in reputable contemporary British periodicals as well as in the more well-known texts of these authors.

This epistemological conflict was most sharply articulated in a series of debates over the definition of the category of rent. In responding to Jones's charge that Ricardo's definition of rent was not able to explain the lifeworlds of the greater part of the world's populations, defenders of Ricardo's system, like McCulloch and James Mill, brought out their own detailed examinations of the conditions of collective life of populations in non-Western parts of the world. Their representations invariably took India as an empirical ground and became an analysis of the relation between political structures and property relations of the country. This analytical direction assumed a more comprehensive form when Jones published An Essay on the Distribution of Wealth and on the Sources of Taxation. The book proposed a rewriting of political economy in the light of the indigenous conditions of different nations in the world. Jones argued that meanings of the chief categories of political economy, like rents, wages, and profits, were determined by the variety of conditions under which production and distribution take place all over the world. He emphasized that agricultural production, or the very act of laboring on land, was always and already grounded in multifarious frameworks of the distribution of produce. These conditions of distribution, in turn, were historical outcomes of complex and multilayered entanglements between property and political power. Jones elucidated his perspective by highlighting the various kinds of rents prevalent in different nations. From Western European nations to Russia to Central Asian lands to China to India, he explained these rents as reflections of relations of power, shaped by relations between varying modes of political sovereignty and forms of proprietorship, existent in different nations.

This is how, I argue in this chapter, these debates effected a general reconfiguration of the epistemological object of political economy. Political economy became invested in understanding differences in the sovereignty-property complex of nations. The local stood for this transformed object of knowledge of political economy. The local was not simply nationally varying specific formation(s) of sovereignty-property relations. It was a framework for making sense of the problem of universality-difference. It acted as a tool with which the universal could be reassembled in and as difference.

Of course, this difference was organized as a hierarchy. In the debate over the meaning of political-economic categories, the form of sovereignty-property linkage existent in Europe, which provided the basis for Ricardo's definition of rent, was considered ideal in many cases. Accordingly, the form of such linkages visible in other nations was perceived as an inferior one. But across a range of positions, self-identifying as Ricardian and anti-Ricardian, this hierarchization was put under suspension. In this moment of an epistemological shift, difference was more important than hierarchy. The local emerged, therefore, as the conceptual possibility of making difference the new epistemological object for political economy.

The chapter also argues that difference was fundamental to the Whewellian program of inductivism. Whewell's induction, I suggest, was not simply about replacing "theory" with "facts" or putting "observation" ahead of "hypothesis" in building knowledge. Taking a close look at how Whewell uses these terms, and more technical ones like "colligation" and "superinducement," in his writings, I contend that his proposed method had grand ambitions of universalization. The method's emphasis on observed particulars, or "facts," was already andalways embedded in a scheme of classified, successive, and hierarchized concepts. Pivotal to this scheme was the methodological possibility of observing, understanding, managing, and interpreting difference in observed particulars. The shift in the epistemological object of political economy, thus, gathered conceptual force from this immanent centrality of difference in Whewellian inductivism. The program of induction had a totalizing imperative. It wanted to develop a super-synoptic eye, which, in one compact look, would be able to introduce an integrated meaning into the bewildering heterogeneity of the world.

This is what the local was supposed to perform for political economy. It was meant to become a framework for the achievement of a greater universality, superseding the epistemological limits of the Ricardian system. The inductivist critique of Ricardianism, therefore, did not entail a rejection of universals in favor of empirical particulars. Rather, it offered a new method of universalizing, in and through difference, which articulated itself also as a redefinition of political-economic categories. Political economy was no longer understood as a set of fixed law-like relations operating between the natural, pregiven, and universal domains of production and distribution. Rather, these domains were considered to be conditioned by globally varying constellations of sovereignty and property. Accordingly, all the categorial constituents of these domains, namely, rent, wage, profit, and, most important, labor itself, were posited as contingent on power differentials.

Agrarian South Asia

This remapping of political economy in the first chapter sets up tracks for forays into agrarian governance in British India in the subsequent chapters. It also establishes one of the important directions of historiographic critique informing this book. It destabilizes the series of interchangeable binary oppositions that have constituted the analytic of most works on South Asia's agrarian past. The conceptual separation between (abstract) political economy and (concrete) indigenous reality is invalidated as I show how the indigenous became internal to the discourse of political economy in early nineteenth-century Britain. The emphasis on historical specificity that Stokes and others associate with the preservationist, romantic-conservative sensibilities, as opposed to the interventionist utilitarian liberalism, is also questioned by this interpretive move. I argue that history, indigeneity, specificity, and preservation were not opposed to the universality of political-economic categories. On the contrary, they were constitutive of its universality. In making this argument I also point out that a large number of richly textured histories of the making of agrarian societies in British India have used the category of the local to signify an indigenous essence of these agrarian orders. In doing so they have reproduced a series of oppositions, like inside-outside, abstract-concrete, theory-practice, deductive-inductive, and others, that structured governmental rationality in the nineteenth century. Having introduced readers to the chapters of the book, I note how we can reassess meanings of the local in agrarian histories of South Asia.

Over Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, the book examines practices of agrarian governance and the production of proprietary subjects in British India over the first half of the nineteenth century, all along reflecting on the interrelationship between political economy and governance. Chapter 2 traces the production of the category of rent through practices of governance in various localities, including Cuttack. It shows how specificities, as local conditions, were construed in these practices as a hierarchized gradation of property rights existing in different parts of British India. Rent was used as a historical clue to determine, and assemble, these proprietary conditions. This, I argue, inaugurated the search for an authentic, indigenous, "Indian" sovereignty-property complex in British Indian agrarian governance. Moving away from the Ricardian definition of rent, as the measure of differences in soil fertility, rent was staged as a transaction, which brought out differences in the entanglements of property and political power in the different agrarian territories of British India.

Chapter 2 tracks the career of rent, in the aftermath of the permanent settlement of Bengal, over several sites of governance. It shows how within Bengal Presidency itself administrators reinterpreted the proprietary provisions of the Permanent Settlement, in the light of this understanding that rent was the chief vehicle of power in agrarian societies. The chapter notes that there were attempts to fix rent in Ricardian terms in the North-Western Provinces in the early decades of the nineteenth century, which were, however, quickly abandoned. By the time the Company's government started a detailed settlement of Cuttack, that is, between 1836 and 1845, rent became generally perceived as a regulator of political power. This led to the granting of proprietary privileges to village leaders and hereditary cultivators. Their right to share the rent with the state was reconstructed out of the historical remnants of sovereignty-property relations in India. In this chapter, therefore, I demonstrate how rent operated for governance as a trace of the sovereignty-property ensemble that determined conditions of production in India.

Chapter 3 engages directly with the ways in which governmental rationality constructed this distributed field of proprietary power as the authentic political (sovereignty-property complex) of India. It begins with the earliest and most systematic deliberations in the nineteenth century, on sovereignty and property in India presented to the British Parliament. Examining these representations, the chapter shows how the category of the local was assembled to make sense of the sovereignty-property problem. Administrators from different parts of British India suggested that there existed a direct proprietary relation between the state and the peasant cultivator in an ancient Hindu polity that was distorted, obfuscated, or lost over time. With time, other landholders emerged in between these two primary constituents of the sovereignty-property matrix, displacing their unmediated intercourse. Accordingly, localities were understood as embodying this scarred past in their proprietary landscape, exhibiting varying dispersals of power between the state, the big landlords, the village leaders, the peasant cultivators, and the village itself.

The chapter shows how governmental mobilizations of the local—the universality-difference problem, posited in terms of the new political-economic object of sovereignty-property relations—re-cognized different kinds of landholders in different parts of British India in terms of their connections with the original form of the proprietary cultivator. They were considered as absent presences, as transformed representatives of a lost origin. In the settling of revenues of regions like Cuttack, theclaims to proprietary privileges of these different kinds of landholders were accordingly adjudged on the basis of the authenticity of the marks of the past they exhibited in the present. One kind of landholder was fixed as the authentic proprietary figure in each locality. Others were not completely displaced. They were granted positions depending on the degree of authenticity they could evince. The selection took place over circulating practices of governance, which continuously drew upon other localities in order to justify a specific selection in a specific locality. The chapter documents such circulations and selections over a variety of territories, debates, and practices in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Determining the prospects of production, or agricultural "improvement," the chapter argues, was also one of the major aims of these practices. Governance was invested in the identification of a prospective improver, from within the specific sovereignty-property relations that conditioned the possibilities of production in India. In positing "despotism" in India as inherently fractured, leading to a dispersal of power, governmental reason in the nineteenth century destabilized the earlier official investments in the big landlords, or zemindars. Operations of the local enabled other kinds of landholders, especially the substantial peasantry, influential at the level of the village, to gain proprietary entitlements out of this shift. A preference of peasant proprietors over big landlords, as ideal agricultural improvers, also expressed an important stand of political economy in Britain during this period. Some historians have tried to explain this shift in agrarian policy toward an appreciation of such dominant peasant groups in British India as reflective of this political-economic argument.

This chapter, in tune with the general argument of the book, disagrees with such understanding of the relationship between political economy and governance. Unlike the dominant historiographic portrayal of this relationship in terms of "influences" of the "outside," the book shows how political economy was immanently connected to governance. Political economy here functioned as a governmental rationality that aimed at totalizing the proprietary field through production and management of difference. Consequently, it argues that the move away from big landlords in practices of agrarian governance in British India did not signify a straightforward translation of a political-economic preference of the peasant proprietor. As this chapter shows, none of the figures who were selected as the chief proprietors of a locality, or its potential improver—the "village zemindars," or the proprietary ryots grounded in the putteedaree tenure, or the mukaddams and surburakars of Cuttack—reproduced the figure of the farmer-like peasant proprietor of the discourse of political economy. The figure of the improving peasant farmer of the Continent was mediated by the discourse of the local. It was recast in terms of the construction of the authentic indigenous "political," as a despotism fractured from within. Accordingly, a huge variety of land controllers, with varying degrees of proprietary rights, were upheld by the government in different regions.

The chapter ends with John Stuart Mill. It argues that even the younger Mill's political economy moved away from the classical Ricardian frame. Here too the epistemological object of political economy was refashioned, but in a manner different from that of Jones. Once again, most historians analyze the relationship between Mill's political economy and property governance in British India as an "influence" of Mill's exaltation of the peasant proprietor on the revenue policy of the Company's government. In some works, this argument is further grounded in an imperial context of Mill's engagement with the Irish land question along similar lines. But these works, as I have argued about Zastoupil earlier, thrive on the imperial-local binary. I analyze Mill's entanglements with agrarian property in India by contextualizing Mill's political economy within its own discursive field in Britain, and pursuing its further transformations in the practices of the local in British India. Therefore, what become important in this analysis are the transformations within the apparatus, not the direction of flows between analytically separable points.

Chapter 4 argues that the category of the village played a crucial role in territorializing the object of political economy/governance, that is, differences in property-sovereignty relations, in British India. This chapter demonstrates how the village was produced by the practices of agrarian governance as a distinct territorial economy of property, power, and production. The village as an archetype, and the countless individual villages of British India, was fixed, by political economists and administrators alike, as the customary domain that organized production by protecting the proprietary status of the peasant cultivator from the encroaching tendencies of the big landholders. Custom, here, was a category internal to the discourse of political economy, not construed as opposed, and external, to it. The authenticity of the village was once again traced back to an ancient Hindu India. It was seen as the smallest territorial unit of power, formed by interrelations between different kinds of cultivators, occupational groups, and officers of the state engaged in the supervision of production and collection of revenue. Practices of agrarian governance privileged village-based proprietary titles, enacted surveys, and granted rent-free lands to occupational groups and officers of the state, thereby organizing the village as the quintessential domain of power and production in India, and the primary unit of agrarian governance. As in other chapters, heretoo I move in and out of Cuttack to demonstrate how interregional, imperial, metropolitan, and local practices spoke to each other in territorializing the local.

Chapter 5 focuses entirely on Cuttack. It documents a variety of moments when the governmental framework of agrarian power collapsed, only in order to be reinforced again. Here I examine situations where the government found it difficult to identify proprietors according to its own classificatory categories. I take a close look at governmental strategies of abstraction that tried to recast different kinds of payments around land as rent. In the process, these practices redefined other relations of power into those which fit into the frames of the local. This chapter also carefully examines the myriad ways in which dominant landholders of Cuttack articulated their identities in terms of governmental categories, in order to overturn older equations of power and create new relations of hierarchy. I show how all actors—the state, the big landholders, the village proprietors, and smaller cultivators—forged different kinds of alliances and enmities, to extract proprietary gains. Once the revenue settlement was over, Cuttack turned into a legal battlefield between various kinds of land controllers. This showed that governmental property classifications, in fixing certain equations of power, set free the possibilities of developing others.

It is important to note that this chapter does not use the familiar theoretical strategy of a gap between the "theory" and the "practice" of governance in analyzing its material. Rather it argues that the rationality of the practices of governance immanently produced a dynamic field, which perpetually deferred the closure of the apparatus. In this chapter, the book suggests, one can discern the mechanism by which a series of linked transformations in science, political economy, and governance were rearticulated as ceaseless battles over the control of landed property in localities. The meaning of production by the end of the first half of the nineteenth century became, therefore, conflict over agrarian power in the locality. The book ends with a brief chapter reflecting on the career of "production" in British India in the years to follow.

This highly differentiated regime of agrarian proprietary relations, I contend, was not produced out of contingencies of governance or failure of metropolitan imperatives to transform traditional indigenous social forms. The local has been deployed as an influential analytic by agrarian histories of nineteenth-century British India to make these kinds of arguments. In this scholarship it represents one side of a series of conceptually isomorphic binary oppositions. For some works, it stands for empirical realities of the ground, which could not be correctly perceived by distant metropolitan abstractions. In a related vein, others find in it the resilience of the traditional, which can block the penetrating zeal of the modern. In empirical terms, this body of work identifies the rise of the village-level land controllers as evidence of the power of the local. The suggestion is that the village, as the remote interior, away from the centers of power, is the local, which is also an embodiment of tradition, indigeneity, and the absence of colonialism/modernity; it is this interior that escapes the abstractions of the metropole and forces governance to accommodate concrete contingencies of the ground.

There are works that offer a more nuanced explanation of the making of agrarian societies in British India during this period. Some argue that agrarian proprietary relations were formed out of contradictory movements of colonial law that in a particular phase of its operation introduced modern forms of property, only to reinforce traditional ones in another phase. Some suggest that agrarian relations were formed out of dialectical encounters between state and society. Others argue that they were outcomes of interactions between European and indigenous ideas and practices. But each of them continues to work within the master binary of inside-outside, where the local remains the key explanatory category, posited either as the pure inside or as a fusion of the two parts of the binary.

The binary reappears in a different guise in even one of the more recent and theoretically sophisticated studies of early colonial governance in Bengal. This work argues that conditioned by the anxieties and insecurities of colonial officials, and their search for certainty in a world perceived as strange and alien, governance remained uncertain, unstable, and restless in the face of an intractable reality that kept on escaping its categorizing clutches. This, however, is where we find a return of the binaries of abstract-concrete, representation-reality, and ultimately, inside-outside. Like the older histories of agrarian South Asia, even this work insists, in its analysis of agrarian governance, that colonial codes failed to capture the reality of agrarian interiors. As the author notes, "Hidden away in their offices, collectors rarely physically encountered rural social relations." He seems to suggest that the very act of physical confinement also signified an imprisonment in the false structures of representation, from where one could break free by tasting the free air of the countryside, the organic reality outside.

Practices of governance in British India had since the turn of the nineteenth century used the local to mean differences in proprietary relations, which, over the next fifty years, led to the assembling of a national indigenous complex of sovereignty-property relations. Agrarian histories of South Asia, so far, have mostly reproduced this governmental understanding of the local as difference, embodied in indigenous forms of proprietary power relations. My book argues that the local can be more productively understood as the category in terms of which political economy became governmental rationality in the nineteenth century. Probing the category in this manner can help us displace the indigenist essentialism it is currently invested with. All the chapters of the book meticulously demonstrate how an entire conceptual infrastructure of indigeneity acted as constitutive of governmental/political-economic reason across linked sites of philosophy of science, practices of governance, and proprietary conflicts in Britain, British India, and many more locales in the period under consideration. What the East India Company's government and dominant forms of South Asian historiography present as indigenous insides of the agrarian, like proprietary power in villages and a non-absolute field of rights, can be rethought as effects of a modern liberal governmental rationality.

Property, Sovereignty, Governance

In this concluding section, I reflect on the discursive function of the category of the local in the interconnected lives of political economy, imperial governance, and South Asian agrarian societies in the first half of the nineteenth century. This is a conceptual elucidation of the specific form of universality achieved by the local, in and through difference. Here, the book turns to an engagement with the works of Foucault, in order to construct a theoretical relation between political economy and governance. I propose a conversation between his characterization of political economy as a formation of knowledge in the modern episteme and his genealogy of liberal governance.

Foucault argues that the shift in the structure of discourse from the classical to the modern episteme was marked by a change from representation to its limits. As he demonstrates, by the end of the eighteenth century a new discursive constellation had emerged, of producing knowledge about life, labor, and language, congealing around the disciplines of biology, philology, and political economy, respectively. This epistemic shift generated labor, or production, as the epistemological object of political economy. The manner in which the category of labor as production was formulated in political economy, especially with Ricardo, Foucault notes, revealed changes at a deeper level of thought. The mode of being of things was no longer considered as representable. They could not be horizontally distributed over a table of equivalence in terms of identities and differences. Rather "they turn in upon themselves, posit their own volumes, and define for themselves an internal space which, to our representation, is on the exterior. . . . The very being of that which is represented is now going to fall outside representation itself."

Particularly speaking, in terms of the birth of political economy, this entailed a move away from exchange as the basis of analysis of wealth to labor as the condition of possibility for exchange. In the classical episteme value was defined as representation of the equivalence of all objects established through exchange. In the modern episteme, value was seen as rooted in a deep, primordial, organic force, beyond and beneath representation—in the activity of labor. Accordingly, production displaced circulation, in becoming the foundational principle of political economy. All constituents of the process of production were perceived as ultimately reducible to units of labor, applied at different moments. In Ricardo's system, production was invested with a historicity, which was the continuous historical time of the application of successive units of labor.

Let us now look at Foucault's presentation of political economy in the light of the local. The primacy of production was not rejected in the debate over the legitimacy of the method and categories of Ricardian political economy. Concurring with Foucault, I argue that production, as the organizing principle of political economy, was discursively constituted at an autonomous level of reality. Right at a time when Ricardian ideas were gaining public attention in Britain, however, the local reconstituted the universality of production as difference, using the same epistemic logic. Historicity, marking production's depth, was mobilized to rewrite the category as determined by sovereignty-property differences. This meant that on the one hand the universality of production got reconfigured as difference, while on the other its autonomy got displaced by power, in the form of sovereignty-property ensembles. This is why political economists like James Mill, McCulloch, Richard Jones, and John Stuart Mill, in the debate over the universality of Ricardian political economy, ultimately moved toward examinations of the different forms of political power existent in different nations of the world. In arguing over the definition of rent, they ended up emphasizing how forms of sovereignty, giving rise to different kinds of property relations, functioned as conditions of production. Production, therefore, became a derivative of power and difference at the very moment of the inception of political economy as a particular epistemic formation of modernity.

This reconditioning of political economy by the category of the local, I argue, can be considered a necessary analytical bridge to step into Foucault's understanding of governance. In his lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault notes that he has tried to "grasp the level of reflection in the practice of government and on the practice of government." He calls his object of study the "art of government," distinguishing it from real governmental practice. Instead of taking governance as a given category, by equating it with the established universals of sociology, history, or political philosophy, he attempts to examine it immanently, in terms of its self-reflection. This reflection, he argues, changed in its character from the eighteenth century in Europe. The change was about "establishing a principle of limitation that will no longer be extrinsic to the art of government, as was law in the seventeenth century, [but] intrinsic to it: an internal regulation of governmental rationality." This transformation gave birth to "modern governmental reason." Foucault then specifies that this principle of internal limitation came into governance from political economy. Political economy, other than being an analysis of the production and distribution of wealth, generally meant a mode of reflecting on the economy of power in society. Therefore, Foucault remarks, "I think that fundamentally it was political economy that made it possible to ensure the self-limitation of governmental reason."

Before digging deeper into this connection between political economy and governmental reason, let me clarify the location of the local in it. Following Foucault, it is evident that political economy was lodged into governmental reason as a self-reflexive principle of limitation of power. By reconstituting the universality of political-economic categories in terms of difference, the local was performing the same function in early nineteenth-century Britain. In making political economy reflective not only of its method and categories but also of variations in the form and distribution of power all over the world, the local prefigured the problem of governance. This is why both the debates in political economy in Britain and the practices of agrarian governance in British India extensively engaged with the question of modes of distribution of power in society, as manifested in varying arrangements of property. Political economy became governmental reason, as the meanings of the categories of the former could be only accessed as reflections on the distribution of power, from within the practices of the latter.

Agrarian governance in British India from the turn of the nineteenth century exemplified this connection. The Company's government almost obsessively started reflecting on its past, on its own principles of governance, debating carefully about its "successes" and "failures." Most important, interregional debates and local practices of the Company's government became all about considerations on the principle of internal limitation of power in understanding and managing property in land. Property was understood as an effect of the form of sovereignty. Thus, governance was all about producing an economy of power by limiting itself to indigenous forms of sovereignty-property differences. This self-limitation was practiced in terms of the category of the local, by assembling a complex field of sovereignty-property differences in different localities, one of which was Cuttack. Agrarian groups acted within these conditions to produce their own proprietary capacities. Different kinds of landholders devised an array of strategies, mostly by reconfiguring the governmental economy of power, to suit their respective proprietary conditions. In this way, the governmental framing of links between property, sovereignty, and production was mobilized at the level of the most obscure and tiny villages of British India to create a variegated and complex regime of rights and interests in land.

Over the first half of the nineteenth century, as the Company kept acquiring newer territories, there emerged a governmental framing of the relation between property and sovereignty in India, which defined the strategy of managing proprietary conditions of specific locales. Conversations between administrators executing revenue settlements in different parts of the country assembled an understanding of the authentic "indigenous" form of sovereignty-property relations in India. Officials noted that anciently property in land in India involved a sharing of interests between particular kinds of peasants, who were proprietors of villages, and the state. This also meant that the state in India was not considered the absolute owner of property. Government officials noted, out of their "experience" of working in villages, that the state's absolutism was always arrested by customary rights of a category of peasants/village proprietors on the use and alienation of land. The state had a share of the rent, as a co-owner, and could not oust these peasants from their lands. This was an arrangement of shared proprietary capacities, which also reflected a dispersed sovereignty.

In this understanding the property-sovereignty condition was also explained in religious terms. The Company's government noted that this authentic indigenous condition of a shared economy of power and property existed in an ancient Hindu India, which grew corrupt over the long period of Islamic rule. Accordingly, different localities were perceived as bearing differing traces of this authentic proprietary condition, depending on the extent of the influence of Islamic rule over them. This classification of agrarian territories, in terms of local differences in sovereignty-property relations, reflected the working of political economy as governmental reason in British India. Again, the local, as difference, was deployed as the principle of limitation of governmental sovereignty from within. As and through this limitation, governance became a strategy of devising and managing property in the form of an economy of power. The Company's government distributed this power, over the productive resources of the population, between the state and different kinds of landholders in the varied territories of British India.

One can find conceptual resonances of the local in Foucault's discussion of the different traditions that informed this new governmental rationality, of self-limitation of sovereignty, in Europe since the end of the eighteenth century. Foucault notes that historically there emerged two approaches to this problem, of "how to set juridical limits to the exercise of power by a public authority." He terms them the French revolutionary approach and the English utilitarian approach. The former began with law and ended with government. It considered the question of juridical limits from the perspective of the original/natural rights of man against sovereignty, thereby determining how these rights can be modified and redefined. The latter moved in the reverse direction, analyzing government itself to arrive at the problem of legal limitation. Here the logic of limitation was derived from history or tradition, but in a way that matched the ends of useful and desirable government. Modern governmental reason was formed out of complex interactions between these two traditions. Interestingly, Foucault comes to this conclusion by referring to the history of property: "Between these two heterogeneous systems—that of the revolutionary axiomatic, of public law and the rights of man, and that of the empirical and utilitarian approach which defines the sphere of independence of the governed on the basis of the necessary limitation of government—there is, of course, a ceaseless connection and a whole series of bridges, transits and joints. Consider the history of property rights, for example."

It can be justifiably argued that governance in British India too arrived at the problem of self-limitation of sovereignty, in making sense of property, in terms of these two traditions. My book, however, claims that over the first half of the nineteenth century, history, indigeneity, and tradition served as the basis of the self-limitation of sovereignty in the field of landed property. This is because difference, as the local, played a constitutive role in determining the imperatives of a governmentalized political economy. It not only enabled the configuration of specific strategies of governance for the particular proprietary conditions of localities. It also assembled a general economy of power, by defining the indigenous sovereignty-property condition as non-absolute and dispersed. These possibilities, going back to the debate over scientific method in Britain, emerged out of an inductivist reformulation of political economy, which had structural implications for governance.

Here it is important to note that the use of tradition in determining governmental goals was not incompatible with liberalism/utilitarianism. As the discussion in this section shows, the local made liberal governance limit itself through tradition/history/indigeneity. The work of the local was not opposed to the imperatives of utilitarian liberalism. On the contrary, this problem of limitation, as Foucault's argues, was also that of utility, "defined on the basis of what it would or would not be useful for government to do or not do." This helps us rethink another set of oppositions established by the dominant historiographic understanding of the influence of liberal thought on governance in British India. A great range of historical works argue that in the first half of the nineteenth century universal ideals of liberalism determined imperatives of governance in British India, while in the second half of the century there was a turn away from these ideals in governance, to more particularistic visions of the social.

This book contends that governmental investments in assembling indigenous arrangements of sovereignty and property as the foundational social fabric of the agrarian can be read as consistent with, and not contradictory to, liberalism's universal ideals. Some recent works have also pointed out in a similar vein that custom, indigeneity, and difference can be internal to the conceptual articulations of liberal universalism. Karuna Mantena powerfully demonstrates how late nineteenth-century governmental strategies of upholding the "native" social in British India drew its intellectual inspirations from the universal frames of Henry Maine's ideas and were not "pragmatic" accommodations to local realities. Likewise, questioning the separation between metropolitan thought (abstract) and colonial practice (concrete), Andrew Sartori deftly explains the development of property relations and peasant identity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengal as a historical reproduction of the abstractions intrinsic to the discourse of liberalism. He makes sense of the specific "vernacular" articulations of property amid the peasantry of this rural hinterland of British India, in the form of a Lockeanism, transformed and retold as a critique of property. In doing so, he notes that the "the role of colonial contexts in shaping colonial liberalism was not only one of interrupting liberal universalisms and of demarcating spaces of exclusion and exception."

This is also how I locate the argument of this book within histories of entanglements between empire and political theory. The book shows how staple problems of political theory, like connections between sovereignty and property, constituted rationalities of imperial governance, but only in and through a network of connections between transformations in the epistemological object of political economy, methodological debates in the philosophy of science, and strategies of subjectification by agrarian actors. In these connections, the local did not function as a category of colonial exception. On the contrary, it was absolutely central to the liberal governmental imperative of self-limitation. The local was not the margin of the empire—it was at the heart of its logic of rule. In recent times an impressive body of scholarship has brought out striking connections between the canons of Western political theory and imperial practices across the world. But these connections are still grounded only in readings of canons. My book suggests that such connections can be, and need to be, made over a much wider and heterogeneous field of practices. Further, in positing the local as the constitutive logic of this field, the book argues for a recentering of the category, against its construal as the contingent margin of encounter and difference in some influential histories of empire. This can help us deromanticize the local while rewriting its centrality in the making of complex connections between science, political economy, imperial governance, and agrarian power in colonial locales.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved