Scholarship on the pre-Bentinck period of Indian history has taken little notice of the inevitable dilemmas of colonial rule as they became visible in the districts. This book argues that the disdain the eighteenth-century Westminster parliaments expressed both for Indians and the East India Company induced the Bengal civil service under the leadership of Lord Cornwallis to formulate for itself a corporate identity that, because of its distant and self-centered character, prevented it from acquiring an executive hold on most levels of the Indian administration. The core of the book consists of superbly-detailed studies of the ways in which, in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, villagers, revenue farmers, Indian policemen and revenue officials, bankers and judges struggled to overcome or profit from this feature of the colonial administration.
Dirk H.A. Kolff, is Emeritus Professor of South Asian History, Leiden University. His publications mainly deal with the early modern history of India.
One impulse to embark on the present study of an aspect of India's early colonial history was my desire to look for, get to know, and bring to the centre of attention a greater number of those who were sub-jected to foreign rule during its initial phase. I wondered about the degrees of passivity or initiative that characterised their reactions to the new British regime and about the relative impact on their lives of the decisions of the colonial district officers, the East India Company's government at Calcutta, and the London authorities.
Another impulse, I must admit, was a more serendipitous curios-ity that was activated by my chancing upon the extraordinary papers of Frederick Shore kept in the British Library in London. As Shore served in the 1820s in Bulandshahr and Dehra Dun, this soon led me to the other districts of the Upper Doab, the region between the rivers Yamuna and Ganga to the east and northeast of Delhi, then the frontier of colonial rule. Though aware of the need to limit myself geo-graphically, it became clear that the administrative dilemmas fought over in the Upper Provinces of the Bengal Presidency, which included the Upper Doab, could often be understood only against the back-ground of the crises of rule as they confronted the British in Benares and Calcutta in the pre-1830 period.
Going in this way from one set of Company records to another or, I should perhaps say, from one controversy about how to administer a district to another, I was struck, first, by the centrality in these controversies of the self-definition, the group identity, of the Bengal civil service in this period and, second, by how the legitimacy of this self-image was grounded on the constitutional code of 1793, the long-lasting legacy of Lord Cornwallis to the government of Bengal.
Whether this dual motivation, the one to try and do justice to as many as possible of the Indian agents of the history of Hindustan under early colonial rule and to explore the story of their strategies and choices, the other to demonstrate the limited nature of the impact of a colonial civil service that didn't owe its character to a consideration of local needs, has led to a balanced study, is not for me to judge. But it is clear that there is still much to discover about the local experience of colonialism during the period. Though decisions taken in London and Calcutta did affect some of the rules of the political and financial games as pursued in the districts, they did so in a generally unintended manner. The historical records kept in Great Britain and India exhibit the stories of their impact often in great detail and without inhibition. In spite of their colonial origin, thanks paradoxically to the foreign rulers' conscious lack of administrative ambition and the confusingly unexpected consequences of their measures, these records allow the modern historian to come quite close to many of those in the villages and towns, to discern their voices and to perceive their outlook and predicaments.
The period between the Mughal grant of the diwani of Bengal to the East India Company in 1765 and the promulgation of the so-called Permanent Settlement of the land revenue in 1793 is among the most intensely studied in the historiography of India. The interest of West-minster in Indian affairs during these years and the force of Burke's convictions as set out by him during the impeachment of Warren Hastings, continue to fascinate historians, especially, as is natural, those in Britain. The same is true with respect to the Company's search during those decades for a viable and ideologically defensible method to manage the fiscal and judicial business of Bengal. In contrast, the years that followed these discussions appeared much less exciting. The administrative paradigm of the Cornwallis Code of 1793 that resulted from the search for a way forward, would hold captive the population as well as the internal administration of North India for more than thirty-five years. Yet, it has not been regarded as requiring historical analysis. With respect to the post-1793 period, historians have admittedly addressed the question of the success or failure of Cornwallis's agrarian settlement in Bengal. On the whole, however, interest shifted from the regulation of the interior affairs of Bengal to the military campaigns on the Company's frontiers. The decades since the promulgation of the new code were seen foremost as those of the Bonapartist attacks of Lords Wellesley and Hastings on the Indian princely states, that is as a period of imperialist achievement, during which the Com-pany acquired its unassailable position of political dominance on the subcontinent. As to the revenue affairs of India, the idea was that this was an intermediate period characterised by a tedious and unfruitful groping for the reform of an as yet inefficient and unpractical system of agrarian fiscal management, especially with respect to Madras and the Upper Provinces of the Bengal Presidency. Only the measures of Lord William Bentinck (Governor General 1828-35), according to this view, ended the impasse and marked the starting point of the period of classical imperialist rule, which was what British India was really about.
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