Liberalism and Its Other: The Politics of Primitivism in Colonial and Postcolonial Indian Law

Article excerpt

Liberalism is widely regarded as a modern intellectual tradition that defends the rights and freedoms of autonomous individuals. Yet, in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, liberal theorists and lawmakers have struggled to defend the rights and freedoms of political subjects whom they regard as "primitive," "backward," or "indigenous." Liberalism thus recurrently encounters its primitive other, a face-offthat gives rise to a peculiar set of dilemmas and contradictions for political theory and law. In what ways can postcolonial law rid itself of its colonial baggage? How can the ideal of universal liberal citizenship overcome paternalistic notions of protection? How might "primitive" subjects become full and equal citizens in postcolonial societies? To explore these dilemmas and contradictions, I study the intellectual trajectory of "primitivism" in India from the construction of so-called tribal areas in the 1870s to legal debates and official reports on tribal rights in contemporary India. Through a close reading of these legal provisions for tribal peoples and places, I explore the continuing tension between the constitutional ideal of liberal citizenship and the disturbing reality of tribal subjecthood produced by colonial and postcolonial Indian states.

[Liberalism] is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London, 1859)

Liberalism is widely regarded as a modern intellectual tradition that defends the rights and freedoms of autonomous individuals. Yet, in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, liberal theorists and policymakers have struggled to defend the rights and freedoms of political subjects whom they regard as "primitive," "backward," or in more politically-correct terms, "indigenous" (Damodaran 2006b; Jung 2008; Pagden 1982; Viswanathan 2006). Liberalism thus recurrently encounters its primitive other, a faceoffthat gives rise to a peculiar set of dilemmas and contradictions for political theory, policy, and practice in colonial and postcolonial contexts (Banerjee 2006; Ghosh 2006; Ivison 2002; Ivison, Patton, & Sanders 2000). In what ways can postcolonial law rid itself of its colonial baggage? How can the ideal of universal liberal citizenship overcome paternalistic notions of protection? How might "primitive" subjects become full and equal citizens in postcolonial societies?

To explore these dilemmas and contradictions, I study the intellectual trajectory of "primitivism" in India from the construction of so-called tribal areas in the 1870s to legal debates and official reports on tribal rights in contemporary India. As such, this article has two principal aims: first, to read closely the legal provisions justifying colonial and postcolonial rule over tribal populations in order to highlight the ambiguities and paradoxes of primitivism as an ideology of rule in India, and second, to understand these legal texts in their proper intellectual and political contexts in order to develop an historically-inflected understanding of the continuing tension between the constitutional ideal of liberal citizenship and the disturbing reality of tribal subjecthood produced by colonial and postcolonial states in India. In doing so, I seek to put into conversation the small but influential literature on liberalism and modern empire with the voluminous writings on colonial anthropology and administration in British India.

My approach in this article may be termed interpretive or hermeneutical. I read primary legal texts closely with particular attention to continuities and shifts in their languages and concepts. …