After the Battle of Plassey in June 1757, the British established their supremacy in India. The East India Company, once a mere body of traders, started making wars and negotiating with Indian rulers. “India’s destinies”, as rightly observed by Jawaharlal Nehru, “were now in the hands of a set of merchants”. He added, “Government was largely trade, trade was largely plunder.” Meanwhile, the composition, organization, and training of Indian Army – comprising British and Indian Army units – was dictated primarily by its role in maintaining imperial rule in the subcontinent and facing external threats.
The essential motivations for the mapping of India were, thus, war and commerce. The ethnographic surveys carried out by the British rulers, during this period, created an intellectual resource for the administrators, military men, traders, and merchants. Notwithstanding the false traits they had set, they explain or contextualize social and cultural life in new and compelling ways. For example, the notes relating to Hinduism by Captain W.J. Newell (included here) create ambiguities of all sorts, but confirm that Hinduism is a construct.
Writing India exemplifies colonial ethnography by drawing together a range of Notes/Memorandums that appeared in the 19th-century. Written by British army officers, these Notes focus on Brahmans, Hindu Religion, Sikhs, Punjabi Muhammadans, Hindustani Muhammadans, Dogras, and Rajputs, among several others. Each of these pieces sheds light on aspects of the colonial mentalities. Although ‘blood’, ‘race’, ‘heredity’, and ‘selection’, have factored in, they have been used, challenged, or refined by others. Despite their prejudiced outlook on India’s past and present as well as several other limitations, they have great historical import.
Mushirul Hasan: an internationally distinguished historian, is former Vice-Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Currently, he is Director General, National Archives of India.