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Colonial Governmentality and the Nepali Nationalist Discourse

By Bidhan Golay

I wish to begin by making a disclaimer at the very outset. The disclaimer:  please do not get carried away by the fancy title of my paper. The disclaimer is not humility nor is it a defensive posturing against any possible counter charge. Through this paper, I am trying to propose something quite different from the conventional understanding of the modern regime of power established by the British colonial rule in Darjeeling since 1835. And in presenting my viewpoint, I feel diffident because this is a work-in-progress and it is still at a preliminary stage. So what I propose here are more in the form of conjectures. I am yet to undertake archival research which may hopefully prove my conjectures right.

I think those of us who practice our trade in Nepali/Gorkha studies will agree that there are rarely any studies that have made attempts to look at the ‘History of Darjeeling’ as a history of Governmentality or shall we say the history of colonial modernity. I am not trying to say that      I want to be a pioneering researcher in this area. Of course, it will be extremely presumptuous on my part if I were to make such a statement. It is a strange thing about Darjeeling and the hills that we have been happy to play the role of a ‘native informant’ or a ‘data collector’ in the larger political economy of knowledge production. We are yet to witness the flourishing of social science in the hills. I am not blaming anybody for this but I am generally interested in knowing the reasons for the absence of the social and intellectual climate which could have, if they were there, reshaped the academic scene in quite a different way. However, I am certainly not that doom and gloom person. I see a lot of young people who are now beginning to realize this unequal structuring. They have now slowly started writing back, so to speak, from the margins. And you can include me in that lot if you still consider me young.

Well, to come to the central theme of my paper, I wish to delineate the broad outlines of the concept of Governmentality as enunciated by Michel Foucault and then come to colonial Governmentality proper.  And perhaps from here I will draw your attention towards the process of colonial subject formation – a specific process – the continuation of which we all can see in the construction of the nationalist discourse even to this day. To begin with Foucault’s concept of Governmentality, I do not want to dwell in great detail here. Let me straight away come to the conclusions he draws at the end of what is essentially a fascinating essay. In summarizing the concept of Governmentality, Foucault makes the following points. He says Governmentality would mean the following:

  1. The ensemble formed by the institutions, procedures, analyses, and reflections, the calculations and tactics that allow the exercise of this very specific albeit complex form of power, which has as its target population, as its principal form of knowledge political economy, and as its essential technical means apparatuses of security.
  1. The tendency that, over a long period and throughout the West, has steadily led toward the preeminence over all other forms (sovereignty, discipline, and so on) of this type of power – which may be termed “government” – resulting, on the one hand, in the formation of a whole series of specific governmental apparatuses, and, on the other, in the development of a whole complex of knowledges.
  1. The process or, rather, the result of the process through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages transformed into the administrative state during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and gradually becomes “governmentalised.”[1]

Let me quote David Scott from his article on Colonial Governmentality. Scott draws on Foucault’s idea of Governmentality and looks at the operations of modern power in colonial situation. Scott says that colonial political rationality is essentially the ways in which colonial power is organised as an activity designed to produce effects of rule.[2] And again, modern power is concerned with disabling non-modern forms of life by dismantling their conditions, then it aims at putting in place new and different conditions … Modern power seeks to arrange and rearrange these conditions so as to oblige subjects to transform themselves in a certain , that is improving (emphasis in original), direction. And if this is so, if the government of conduct is the distinctive strategic end of modern power, then the decisive locus of its operations is the new domain of civil society.

The anthropologist Talal Asad provides us with a similar kind of perspective in that that he looks at modernization and reform principally as a function of a dominant political power which creates new possibilities and destroys old ones. The purpose with which I bring these theories together is to create a framework for exploring the possibilities of revisiting the history of Darjeeling as a history of governmentality. Of course, categories like governmentality or colonial modernity are not something that you readily associate with Darjeeling. We are happier calling it the ‘Queen of Hills’. In fact, to talk of colonial Darjeeling is quite a jarring term for us. Now we start asking questions to ourselves: Why did we rarely talk of Colonial Darjeeling? It is not that we do not have memories of the British in Darjeeling. But the memories are more in the form of a lament for a lost glory; a secret admiration for the colonial order. The photos proudly displayed in one of the more famous studios in Chowrashta – the famous promenade in the town – do provide us with some food for thought. I am not at all suggesting that the admiration of colonial order is something unique to Darjeeling. Our former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, led by example in admiring British rule for providing local self-government in his Oxford speech some years ago. So the ambivalence is not a specific character of the Nepalis in Darjeeling.

But for us, who are more troubled by the central contradiction in the lives of the people of the region, the answer to the questions must be located somewhere. The journey begins with the immediate but in no time it travels far beyond the horizon of our immediate lives.

I go back to the theoretical discussion we had a little while ago and with the help of it make a suggestion; a suggestion that borders on blasphemy and more seriously it denies agency of the people. After Asad, we can say that the social and cultural renaissance that Darjeeling witnessed from the middle of the third decade of the last century was essentially a function of colonial governmentality. That this whole reform business, this jati ko sewa business is, in fact, specific effects of rule. Will it be  so  outlandish as  to think of this period – by the way the discursive frame remains the same even today – as modern power at work, arranging and rearranging conditions so as to oblige subjects to transform themselves in a certain,  that is improving, direction. We all know that the legitimation of colonial rule was effectively done with the help of creating a public domain in the form of civil society. And it is also true that since the colonized people in Darjeeling could not effectively be members of this limited civil society, they began constructing their identities within the narrative of community. And it is this process of construction of the narrative of community that eventually supplied the life-blood  to the production of nationalist discourse. The nationalist discourse derives its ideological resources from the reform movement that I mentioned a while ago. I do not think I am making a seminal argument here. But I want to go a little more further to suggest that it is because the reform or renaissance followed a specific trajectory that we have a nationalist discourse that fails to address the central contradictions in the lives of the Nepalis living in Darjeeling and elsewhere in India.

Most reform movements are culturalist. They represent ideas and ideologies that are themselves produced in a specific discursive space. They are very rarely about the material questions of life. The reform period we are discussing about – roughly the last eighty years or so of the last century – was indeed very culturalist in its emphasis. I am not at all suggesting that Marxism never caught the imagination of the people. Nor am I saying that there was no other variety of nationalist discourse. But what made the culturalist variety dominant are the specific conditions of colonial governmentality that created conditions for its natural growth. It led to the flourishing of art and literature, theatre and music. And the nationalist and political discourses borrowed liberally from them. The result of this borrowing is that it created a problem of a special kind. To me, the problem is that the dominant nationalist discourse is too culturalist to make any meaningful interventions in history. The ideas of nationalism, if they indeed are the discourse of freedom, never seem to attain material force.

Going back to the original question of governmentality, it can be suggested that the construction of identity necessarily took a culturalist turn because the conditions created by colonial governmentality could only afford such variety. We also know the operations of colonial modernity, the modern techniques of rule that led to the production of categories. The ‘martial race’ was one such category that got objectified. The nationalist discourse which is essentially culturalist still struggles to put this figure of a brave Gorkha in its scheme of things. The figure who proudly claims agency in World History strangely finds no role for itself at home.

So let me end by making a submission. If the true process of intellectual decolonization has to take place, then it must begin by looking at the history of Darjeeling as essentially the history of governmentality, as a history of colonial modernity. To look at it this way may perhaps help us to bring out the material interpretation of history of Darjeeling. This may help us to assess the various forms of domination, the various cultural technologies of rule that continue to rule us.

[1] Michel Foucault, Governmentality, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon et. al. (ed.) Foucault Effect Studies: Studies in Governmentality, University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 102 – 103

[2] David Scott, Colonial Governmentality, Social Text, No. 3 (Autumn) 1995, p. 193

Bidhan Golay
teaches Political Science in the Department  of Political Science, Sikkim University. He took his M. Phil from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is presently pursuing his doctoral research from the same Centre. His research interest includes identity and nationalism, bio politics, governmentality and spatial histories. Email:; Ph. No. 03592-201827/ 8927561225.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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