Nitin Sinha. Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India: Bihar, 1760s–1880s. London: Anthem Press, 2012. 310 S. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-85728-448-8; ISBN 978-1-283-70504-2.
Reviewed by Amelia Bonea
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (August, 2015)
N. Sinha: Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India
In recent years, ‘communication’ has emerged as an important keyword in research about colonial South Asia, both as a topic of investigation and a useful heuristic device through which to re-evaluate extant scholarship on histories of transport and ‘public works’, but also the relationship between technology, processes of knowledge-making and colonial state formation. Christopher Bayly’s now classic Empire and Information is an early example of such scholarship which examines the role of communication in shaping political processes and organization in South Asia, while also pondering the limits of colonial knowledge and the ways in which the emerging system of communication of the colonial state intersected (or not) with indigenous networks of information and knowledge exchange. Other important precursors—also discussed at length in the book under review— are a number of seminal texts on the history of transport in the Indian subcontinent and Ravi Ahuja’s more recent work on colonial Orissa, which focuses on railways, canals and roads to interrogate the ‘public’ nature of ‘public works’ in colonial India. Ravi Ahuja, Pathways of Empire. Circulation, ‘Public Works’ and Social Space in Colonial Orissa, 1780–1914, Delhi 2009; Jean Deloche, Transport and Communications in India prior to Steam Locomotion, 2 vols., Delhi 1993; Ian Kerr (ed.), Railways in Modern India, Delhi 2001.
Nitin Sinha’s book has much to contribute to these ongoing debates. In eight well-researched chapters, he approaches the topic of communication and colonialism in eastern India topically, from a number of inter-related perspectives. Chapter 1, for example, discusses pre-colonial and colonial practices of surveying and map production in an attempt to understand the various ideologies which informed these similar practices. The analysis leads Sinha to conclude that ‘strategies of spatial reclamations’ differed in pre-colonial and colonial times: if, in the former case, landscape was an ‘affective space’ which became ‘integrat[ed] into the body-politic of the empire’, in the latter it was objectified and subordinated (p. 15). Similarly, Chapters 2 & 3 discuss ways of ‘opening up’ and knowing India’s ‘interior’ through acts of travelling, as they are reflected in a wide range of visual and textual narratives. Here, we learn that people travelled for a variety of reasons and that the act of travelling itself—and the ‘ways of seeing’ it engendered—were transformed with the emergence of novel ways of locomotion in the form of steamers and railways. Equally insightful is the discussion of various print media used to disseminate information about India’s physical and human ecology (Chapter 4). Sinha uses the example of road books and maps to consider the process of publication, the intertextuality of print, the relationship between ‘knowledge acquired’ and ‘knowledge represented’ as well as the ‘limits of circulation’ (p. 115).
In Chapters 5 & 7 people take the centre stage: in the former case, Sinha follows mobile groups such as banjaras, fakirs, gosains and sanyasis who became the target of government scrutiny on account of their itinerant habits, but also played important roles in trade and processes of knowledge-making. The latter chapter investigates the labour force that made possible the construction of these networks of communication and the ways in which the new routes of communication became incorporated into local patterns of trade. Parts of this account bring to mind Natalie Zemon Davis’s celebrated study of imposture in medieval France and one wishes that Sinha would have dedicated more space to the exploration of such themes as ‘disguise’ and ‘deceit’ and how they figured in the local and British imagination of the colonial period. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, Cambridge MA 1983. The topic seems particularly relevant in light of the book’s own engagement with the relationship between various types of historical sources and the ways in which they benefit historical investigation.
The book makes an important contribution to existing scholarship at a number of levels. Firstly, although Sinha moves away from a narrow focus on ‘big’ and better studied technologies, he does not actually leave them out of the story. Rather, he attempts to examine such technologies in conjunction with roads and waterways as part of an interrelated system of means and patterns of communication. Secondly, there is a welcome geographical focus on Bihar, a region which has been generally glossed over in studies of colonialism in South Asia, let alone in studies of communication. Thirdly, the long temporal focus and the commitment to examine both pre-colonial and colonial notions and patterns of communication contributes useful insights into the fraught debate about continuity and change in colonial South Asia, as we have also outlined above.
Finally, the book makes use of a great variety of, linguistically diverse, historical material, in the form of colonial records, maps, rare books, literary works, correspondence and illustrations, originating not only from familiar repositories such as the Asia and Africa Collections at the British Library, but also less perused material from institutions like the Bihar State Archives, the Record Room of the Water Resource Department and the Khuda Bakhsh Library in Patna. One of the most commendable features of the book is that, rather than privileging the epistemological authority of one type of source over the other, it manages to bring this great variety of sources into conversation with one another, critically pondering what each of them can contribute to our understanding of the history of communication(s) in colonial South Asia. The result is a book which is not only nuanced and convention challenging, but also successful in simultaneously navigating several strands of historical investigation. There is something in here for the historian of transport, as there is for the historian of cartography, the economic historian and the historian of print culture.
Perhaps the main point of criticism, from the perspective of a reviewer with a particular interest in Media History, is the lack of emphasis on newspapers as a historical source. In light of the book’s own engagement with issues of publishing and the circulation of printed matter, a more consistent examination of this type of material would have added an important dimension to the present study, all the more so since debates about the nature and progress of ‘public works’ and about the need to ‘open up the interior’ represented valuable publishing material for the emerging newspaper press. It would have been interesting, for example, to know how such debates featured in the newspaper press and how they might have been similar or dissimilar to the ones already examined in the book, especially considering the relatively broad(er) target audience of this form of print media, not only in India, but also in other parts of the British Empire and the world. Indeed, ‘journalistic cartography’ has been recognized both for its potential to disseminate and to create knowledge for imperial projects. James R. Akerman (ed.), The Imperial Map. Cartography and the Mastery of Empire, Chicago 2009.
Nevertheless, these are minor points of criticism that do not detract from the overall value of a book which is likely to become important reading for scholars of colonial South Asia.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/.
Amelia Bonea. Review of Sinha, Nitin, Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India: Bihar, 1760s–1880s.
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