Revisiting the Notion of the Colonial Archive: Imperial Monolith versus the Multiplicity of Voices

AHA Session 139
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Boylston Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Ramnarayan S. Rawat, University of Delaware
Anand A. Yang, University of Washington

Session Abstract

In the last two decades, the colonial archive has lost much of its attraction for scholars of South Asian history and society, many of whom have turned instead to non-institutional sources: Indian language texts, ethnographic research, and oral narratives.  While this is certainly a welcome change, it has at times also entailed dismissing the usefulness of colonial archives in the writing of social and cultural history.  The central focus of these criticisms of the colonial archive has been on colonial knowledge production, and particularly on the powerful ways that documents like decennial censuses, caste and tribe surveys, and gazetteers have shaped dominant representations of Indian society and history.  Yet such a focus has also had the unintended side effect of underestimating the analytic power of the multiple alternative voices present in the colonial archive, especially those that may never have made it beyond local, district, or provincial archival collection practices.  By focusing on the differences in representations of Indian society and history at different levels of archival collection and by contrasting metropolitan archival collections in Delhi and London with more local archives, the papers on this panel underscore the continued importance of colonial archival sources.  The multiplicity inherent in the archive is of particular importance in the writing of Dalit histories and other more regionally specific kinds of histories that may have been effaced by dominant metropolitan representations of Indian society and history.  In illuminating this, the panel not only offers new ways of engaging with colonial sources, but also interrogates the easy dismissal of colonial sources as univocally hegemonic that frequently prevails in scholarship today. 

Our research in local, district, and provincial-level archives has found that colonial archival sources not only contain a multiplicity of voices, but that many of these voices are noticeably absent in the more metropolitan archival collections located in London and Delhi.  More strikingly, the voices of dissent located in provincial and district level sources frequently challenge the dominant representations of Indian society that prevail in the censuses and caste and tribe surveys.  For example, the agendas of local surveys and inquiries were frequently markedly different from the agendas undergirding the production of decennial censuses and pan-regional surveys, and documents of the former type may have been far more central in the formation of colonial subjects than the latter.  Furthermore, district-level settlement reports, district surveys, and local inquiries prove to be crucial sources for the writing of histories of marginal groups.  Local police intelligence reports provide evidence of activism and protests that are noticeably absent from both Indian nationalist and official colonial documentation housed in the metropoles (both Delhi and London).  Local level officers’ writings, therefore, significantly and directly undermine what metropolitan archives record. This panel, in short, will assess the adequacy of viewing the colonial archive in the singular, drawing its conclusions from the productivity of contradictions and tensions between metropolitan, provincial and district level archives.

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