A. Mukhopadhyay: Imperial Technology

Imperial Technology and 'Native' Agency. A Social History of Railways in Colonial India, 1850–1920

Mukhopadhyay, Aparajita
London 2018: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
242 S.
€ 153,15
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Amelia Bonea, Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies, University of Heidelberg

Ever since their introduction to the Indian subcontinent in the mid-nineteenth century, railways have come to be regarded as one of the most powerful and ubiquitous symbols of colonial modernity. As such, they have attracted considerable attention from both the scholarly community and the general public, often helping to fuel polarizing debates about their impact on Indian economy and society. For those who favour a balance-sheet approach to the study of British imperial history, the railways represent an important item in a rather long list of modern amenities that the British generously bestowed upon their colonial subjects. As one author argues, this also included „medical colleges, hospitals, schools, universities, roads […] airfields, harbours, bridges, telegraph and phone systems, and wireless transmitters.“ Such imperial „gifts,“ we are led to understand, more than offset the violence and exploitation of colonial rule, which, in any case, represented exceptions or lapses in an otherwise commendable imperial exercise.[1] At the other end of the spectrum, publications like Shashi Tharoor’s recent Inglorious Empire argue that far from being a benefactor, imperial Britain was, in fact, a self-serving predator that relied on modern technologies and infrastructure, first and foremost, in order to further its own military, administrative and economic agendas. Any advantages that might have accrued to the colonized populations were, in this narrative, an unintended „by-product“ of those grander imperial designs.[2]

One question that emerges when confronted with such diametrically opposed accounts – which, essentially, urge us to pick a side, with all the contemporary political implications that such a choice entails – is whether such narratives adequately capture the complicated intersections of imperialism and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, extricating ourselves from the conundrum of this choice, both theoretically and methodologically, is no easy task. Perhaps a good starting point would be to ask ourselves exactly this: what are the political and ideological underpinnings that make the moral redemption of empire such an imperative project for many a contemporary commentator and scholar? The benefits of attending to nuance and detail also deserve emphasis, especially in a world increasingly polarized by simplistic assessments of otherwise complex political and socio-economic problems. From this perspective, one fundamental issue with accounts like the ones outlined above is that they tend to conceptualize technology – and science, for that matter – as something that can be simply and unproblematically „transferred,“ following George Basalla’s outdated model, from one geographical location to another (and usually from the „West“ to the „rest“).[3] This betrays little understanding, if not complete disregard, of how individuals and communities make and acquire knowledge of technology, often in conjunction with myriad other social activities and practices, and how, indeed, they use and interpret technology in different social contexts. Put differently, by replicating those top-to-bottom, gender-skewed narratives of invention, progress and transfer that have for so long dominated histories of technology, we lose sight of a host of crucial details that ultimately give technology its social meaning and significance.

It is against this background that books like Aparajita Mukhopadhyay’s become particularly relevant, as they attempt to shift attention from the worn-out debates of British imperial virtues – or the lack thereof – to the people who were affected by the introduction of such technology into the Indian subcontinent. Rather than sweeping assessments, what the book offers is a glimpse into the complex ways in which Indians interacted with technology, by shaping, using, rejecting or investing it with multiple and often contradictory meanings. The book is commendable for its use of sources, in particular a host of travelogues in Bengali, Hindi, English and Marathi, which offer fresh insights into topics that have been either ignored or little explored in previous literature.[4] The first three chapters explore railway time, ticketing regulations and the development of railway spaces in relation to questions of colonial discipline in South Asia, while the next two interrogate the connection between social change and experiences of railway travel and rules of commensality. Finally, the last two chapters, although distinct, revolve around similar questions of how railway travel affected notions of space and the forging of collective identities – national or otherwise – in colonial India.

As the title also suggests, one of the main concerns of the book is to recover the “agency“ of colonized Indians in their daily interactions with „imperial technology.“ Although this theoretical move is not necessarily novel and the concept of „agency“ itself remains little explored in the pages of this monograph, the illustrations of the principle are very interesting and likely to attract attention from scholars of South Asia. For example, the discussion of ticketing regulations reveals not only lack of standardization – a direct outcome of „the complexities of railway management in colonial India“ (p. 70) – but also the ways in which the extant rules were shaped by demands originating with various sections of the Indian travelling public, among them pleas for „longer opening hours for ticket windows and an increase in the number of ticket counters selling lower-class tickets“ (p. 58). As the book repeatedly emphasizes, one way in which Indian agency manifested itself was by appeal to the „commercial logic“ of railway business (p. 131) which, petitioners surmised, was likely to resonate both with colonial authorities and the railway companies.

The book also demonstrates, in illuminating detail, that different social groups experienced railway travel differently and that, unsurprisingly, it was lower-class passengers who were most likely to bear the brunt of hardship and discrimination, not only at the hands of the British colonizers and railway administrators, but also at the hands of their fellow Indians. For example, as Mukhopadhyay provocatively puts it in her discussion of bribery and cheating associated with ticket booking practices, „the ill treatment meted out to Indian passengers mostly came from their compatriots“ (p. 64). Similarly, the discussion of water facilities at railway stations reveals that „for Indian passengers an adequate supply of water was as important as adherence to the religion and caste rules“ (p. 147), while the sections on space document how the desh (homeland, country) that railway travel helped to conceptualize was one that excluded both Muslims and lower castes (p. 174). In short, Indian experiences of and with railways varied according to caste, class, race, religion and, albeit less explored in this book, gender. According to Mukhopadhyay, such diverse experiences and interpretations of railway travel worked to undermine the efficacy of a railway-mediated colonial discipline imposed from above, in particular its assumed homogenizing and standardizing effects on Indian society.

Apart from the sometimes monolithic treatment of postcolonial scholarship, which would have benefited from a more nuanced examination of how previous scholars have engaged with some of the questions discussed here, one problem with this account as it stands is that it tends to pitch „commercial logic“ against the logic of the colonial state, rather than viewing them as inherently interlinked and enmeshed. It is true that the political and economic agendas of private „projectors“ and entrepreneurs in South Asia did not always overlap with those of the colonial state, but neither were such ventures able to extricate themselves from the webs of British imperial power operating in the subcontinent. For this reason, conceptualizing these diverse interests as interdependent would have also presented a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between individual agency and structural power and highlighted more clearly the limits of both (to return to a point made above). Similarly, considering the fact that at least one of the travelogues discussed was authored by a woman – Prasannamayi Devi’s Aryavarta (1888) – the decision to overlook gender as a category of analysis deserves perhaps further consideration, in light of the additional insights it could have provided into the experiences of women travellers and their representations/interpretations of them. Such criticism notwithstanding, the book is a welcome addition to the extant literature on the Indian railways. Also commendable is its availability in an open-access format which[5], it is to be hoped, will make it easily accessible to a wider audience of both specialist and non-specialist readers.

[1] E.g. Lawrence James, Yes, mistakes were made, but we must never stop being proud of the Empire, in: Daily Mail, 18.04.2012.
[2] Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire. What the British Did to India, London 2017.
[3] George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science, in: Science 16 (1967), pp. 611–622.
[4] See for example Ritika Prasad, Tracks of Change. Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India, New Delhi 2015, for a discussion of temporality and railway spaces.
[5] Open access: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315397108.

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