Place, Personhood, and Ethnicity in Military Service of South Asia, 16501900

AHA Session 118
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 5
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Terenjit Sevea, University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia

Session Abstract

This panel will focus on the ways in which ideas about place, personhood and community were reframed in the 18th and 19th centuries in the context of warfare and military service. We build upon the work of historians who have illuminated how Mughal imperial culture was adopted and reworked in successor states of the 18th century around shared notions of martial honor, masculinity, aesthetic sensibilities and an Indo-Persian language of statecraft. Drawing also upon histories that consider how martial traditions were reworked in the 19th century as colonial rule absorbed the “military labor market” and spread across the subcontinent, we focus on the problematic of space and identity in relation to martial and imperial ethics. How did people frame and express corporate identities in a changing political climate where the local or regional held out more promise for state formation than the imperial? How did an interconnected Indo-Persian sensibility based on cavalry warfare and cosmopolitan (and extra-regional) identities inform a new martial sensibility based around infantry (labeled the “peasant army” by Seema Alavi)? In what ways did gender norms and family structures shape attachments to home and facilitate movements abroad? As place became an important component in redrawing martial identities, what sort of theories about environment, subjectivity and racialization circulated to naturalize such formulations? How did colonial ideas about race borrow from and upset contemporary ideas about place and identity?

Individual papers address these questions by analyzing changing representations of courtly martial aesthetics, the role of Afghan identities and networks in various Indian successor states, and the place of ethnicity in Nepal and the Indian Army. Meadows traces the changing aesthetics and practices of consumption associated with a uniquely masculine and martial status symbol in Persian horse treatises (farasnama) of 1650 to 1800.  Rupakheti’s paper examines the eighteenth- century Gorkhali state in the Himalayan corridor to show how different and competing ideas of military labor were embedded in and informed by the imperatives of state-making. The Gorkhali case is particularly revealing in that while the House of Gorkha drew heavily on the pan-Indic Rajput genealogies for its political legitimacy, the ethnically heterogeneous  military labor market operating in its domain reflected a different politico-historical reality of state-making and governance. Naqvi investigates the histories and political ideologies of Afghan princely states (c. 1750 – c. 1950) of the subcontinent through Persian and Urdu texts including regional ethnographies, geographies, and biographical accounts. Warner analyzes the contradiction between the theory of martial races and ideals of frontier warfare in the context of “hill” groups brought into the Indian Army in the late 19th century. She argues that Army recruitment de-politicized ethnic groups who had come to control key borderland areas in the pre-colonial period and paved the way for evacuating the state from frontier landscapes in order to police them as imperial appendages. Taken together, these papers highlight how military service, ethnicity and place all influenced changing state-society configurations across time and space in 17th- to 19th-century South Asia.

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