How British was British India? Recovering the cosmopolitan dimension in the Indo-British colonial encounter

The Center for India and South Asia invites Professor Claude Markovits from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Sociales to present his latest paper.

Friday, March 04, 2011
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

The paper seeks to look at the British-Indian colonial encounter in a manner which avoids the bipolarity that structures most of the existing literature. It does so through the use of the notion of cosmopolitanism, rather than of hybridity, which has become fashionable. The polysemy and broad spectrum of that notion, which encompasses a whole range of attitudes and practices, is what makes it heuristically valuable. While most of the recent discussion of the colonial encounter has centered around the question of whether the British in India achieved hegemony or only dominance, as argued in a famous text by Ranajit Guha, the paper puts forward an alternative approach through its interrogation about the “Britishness” of British India.

This question is firstly discussed in the context of the redefinition “ Britishness”  underwent in the late 18th century, in particular with the reforms of the civilian and military establishments effected under Lord Cornwallis in the 1790s. They resulted in the rejection of the fairly large mixed-blood population as well as of the “domiciled” British white population to the fringes of the colonial order, thus preempting the emergence in British India of a specific form of “Creolitude” that could have developed into a challenge to the bureaucratic rule of the East India Company. Once “Britishness” had been so to say hijacked to the exclusive benefit of a small coterie of white officials, those who could claim some sort of “Britishness” but did not belong to that group had great difficulties to find their voice. The Macaulayan project of creating a class of “Anglicized” natives was clearly not aimed at redressing the injustice of the exclusive appropriation of “Britishness” by a small group of whites, and the class of Western-educated Indian literati that started emerging in the 1820s, before Macaulay, not finding it possible to participate in a “British-Indian” political community that did not exist, had to seek alternative strategies. Some sought to take advantage of the existence of a form of “imperial cosmopolitanism” to claim a place for themselves.

The paper looks at what “imperial cosmopolitanism” could mean by focusing firstly on the question of the law and secondly on that of the political regime.  Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1858 and the subsequent birth of a “ Dual Monarchy”, redolent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ironically called “Kakania” by Robert Musil, are adduced as evidence of the incomplete transformation of India into an ordinary British colony and of a residual cosmopolitanism in its ideology.  This opened the possibility for some members of the Indian elites to pursue “Imperial citizenship” as a goal, like in the cases of Dadabhai Naoroji  or of Gandhi in South Africa. But, parallel to that quest of a form of imperial citizenship, there were other strategies deployed by Indians that deliberately tried to break away from a strictly “ British” political framework and sought instead to form broader cosmopolitan connections. There were different waves of this non-imperial or even anti-imperial cosmopolitanism during the 1820-1947 period and the paper takes a quick look at them.


Claude Markovits is a Senior Research Fellow (Directeur de recherche) at the CNRS, Paris, attached to the Center for Indian and South Asian Studies of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. His principal publications include: Indian Business and Nationalist Politics 1931-39 (Cambridge  University Press, 1985), The Global World of Indian Merchants 1750-1947 (Cambridge University Press, 2000), The Un-Gandhian Gandhi (Permanent Black, 2003) and Merchants, Traders, Entrepreneurs (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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Juliana Espinosa