Rule and Representation: Transformations in the Governance of the Water Commons in British South India

David Mosse
2006 Journal of Asian Studies  
offers fresh insight into the nature of colonial and postcolonial state power by clarifying the complex relationship between rule and representation. He demonstrates how policy universals, which appear as rational abstractions separate from the social order they govern (as the rule of law, private property, or the economy), can be shown to be historically grounded in particular interests and events, contingencies, violence, and exclusions. The apparent logic, universality, and coherence of
more » ... d coherence of these ideas, as well as the expertise and rational design that they call forth, are not inherent, but are produced through the messiness of contingent actions which succeed in concealing social practice by effecting the separation of ideas and their objects: a bifurcation of representation and reality that is characteristic of the modern world. Mitchell addresses a key dilemma in the study of colonialism: the dramatic social and environmental changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries cannot be made sense of in terms of the rationalizing principles of colonial rule, yet imperial systems of knowledge have had a lasting impact on social and physical systems. Drawing on these ideas, this article will illustrate how colonial rule in India did not involve the assertion of the rule of law, administrative code, or science over kingship, community, or nature. The principles of property, revenue, or law did not constitute a preformed conceptual structure of rule imposed from the outside, but were worked out through compromise and contingent action in a variety of areas such as altered revenue demands, property disputes, engineered technology, and court decisions-not as the application of policy principle, but as selective, arbitrary, local actions and exceptions which wrought change not by their own logic, but through the rupture and contradiction that they effected in the existing social and political systems (Mitchell 2002, 77). David Mosse ( is a Reader in Social Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. I am grateful to the Ford Foundation (New Delhi) and the Economic and Social Research Council (grant no. l320273065) for supporting the research undertaken during 1993-96 and to M. Sivan for field assistance.
doi:10.1017/s0021911806000064 fatcat:aqbc7tpb65cujiffzd3akqphyq