Category Archives: Colonial History

Everyday Empires: Descriptive or Analytical Category?

Back in May, the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History co-sponsored a conference on the theme Everyday Empires. A post reporting on the conference is now online and we reblog it here.

Everyday Empires

On May 25 and 26 2017 the Department of History at the University of Birmingham hosted Everyday Empires: Trans-Imperial Circulations in a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective. Sponsored by Past & Present, the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures, and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History, the purpose of the conference was three-fold. First, it set out to improve intellectual engagements between scholars working within particular historiographies of empire, with the goal of promoting greater cross-fertilization of methods and ideas. The second goal was to encourage perspectives that spanned career stages. Accordingly, each panel consisted of a Ph.D. student, an Early Career Researcher, and an established academic, with a view to generating an inclusive conversation that gave equal time to scholars’ research, no matter where they were on their career path. A series of blog posts for Past & Present, co-written by each of the panels…

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Guest Post: The Imperial Sociology of the ‘tribe’ in Afghanistan

 This week’s guest blog-post comes from our Modern & Contemporary History Research Seminar speaker this week,

Dr. Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)

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‘Pashtun Tribal Map’ Source: University of West Florida.

 

“When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.”[1]

 

For 200 years, from the time of the first engagement of the British imperialists with the country, to debates and strategies connected with the post 9/11 occupation, the “tribe” has been a notion intimately related to the West’s study of and involvement in Afghanistan. A particular lens through which the early East India Company administrators made sense of the alien people they were encountering, “the tribes” soon became the irrefutable marker of Afghan society, polity, and culture.

 

Indeed, the “tribe”, as a generic signifier for most relations and identities in Afghanistan appears to have displaced the need for a deep theoretical engagement with the changing political and social configurations in the country. This concept, widely used in the British Empire and initially deployed to capture a specific network of relations at a given historical juncture, has become increasingly de-historicised, losing any conceptual purchase and clarity it may once have had. Exemplified in the above statement by US General Jim Gant in 2009, it remains a dominant trope in the Western analysis and understanding of Afghanistan.

 

Even those such as Barnett Rubin and Thomas Barfield, that have recognised that the discourse of tribalism is problematic have not fully acknowledged its historical pedigree as a practice borne out of imperial violence. A key aim of my research then, is to unearth and make explicit the ways in which colonialism inheres within the very concept of tribe.

 

Tribes in Afghanistan are read as having a “potted history”. Popular images of Afghans, or more precisely Pashtuns, on whom the bulk of historiography has focused, have changed in line with the rise and fall of outside interest in the country[2]. Indeed there still exists considerable confusion about who exactly the Afghans, the Pashtuns, and the Pathans are and what their relation to each other is. For Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, for instance, Afghans, Pashtuns, and Pathans are distinct and separable groups because each group comes to “textual light and social life” in different historical contexts, and each group has its own dynamic historical relationship to Pashto and other languages, including Persian and Indian and Turkic languages. In the nineteenth century, meanwhile, “Pathan” frontier tribesmen were depicted as independent warriors in the British Empire and were prominent in the British (and possibly wider) consciousness as actors in the Great Game that was assumed to define Central Asia at the time.[3]

 

More recently, there has been a return to the original nineteenth-century narrative – or what Richard Tapper has called the “Kipling version” – of the Afghans first and foremost as tribesmen, driven by tribal logics and “ethnic” concerns.[4] In this vein, prominent Afghanistan scholar Olivier Roy has argued that the rise of the Taliban should be seen as “la revanche des Pachtounes”, or the revenge of the Pashtuns, especially the Durrani, currently considered the biggest and most prominent “tribal group”, in spite of the Taliban’s own insistence that they are an anti-feudal and “anti-tribal” movement.[5] This notion has become so widely accepted that it could be blithely remarked in 2010 that “[t]o be a Taliban today means little more than to be a Pashtun tribesman who believes that his fundamental beliefs and customary way of life, including the right to bear arms or defend the tribal homeland and protect its women, are threatened by foreign invaders”.[6]

 

In my research and in my talk at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History, then, I map the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, further problematising the concept and showing how a monolithic and unreflective body of work has become the norm in reference to Afghan social organisation.

[1] Jim Gant, “One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan” (Los Angeles, CA: Nine Sisters Imports, 2009), 11.
[2] See Hanifi, “Quandaries of the Afghan Nation”. Here I use the words interchangeably to remain consistent with the spirit in which they were employed by the British at the time.
[3] Contrary to popular belief, The Great Game was far from the only or even the most important narrative at the time. For more on this see: Benjamin Hopkins, The Making of Modern Afghanistan, 34; and Martin Bayly, “The ‘Re-turn’ to Empire in IR: Colonial Knowledge Communities and the Construction of the Idea of the Afghan polity, 1809–38”, Review of International Studies 7, forthcoming.
[4] Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 228.
[5] Roy, cited in Tapper, “Studying Pashtuns in Barth’s Shadow”, 227.
[6] Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human (London: Penguin, 2011), 262.

 

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Spring 2016 Week 4 Seminar: Nivi Manchanda (Leiden): The Imperial Sociology of the Tribe in Afghanistan, 1850-2015

 

Nivi.M&C.Poster copy

Poster image: Rajkamal Kahlon

The Spring 2016 Week 4 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 3 February 2016, at 16:15h in Arts Lecture Room 4 (LR4).

It will be delivered by:

 Nivi Manchanda (Leiden)

All are welcome and there will be drinks afterwards!

This talk is part of seminar mini-series on “Nationalism, Identity and Community from Medieval Times to the Present”  jointly presented by The Birmingham Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages and the Centre for Modern and Contemporary History.

Abstract: The ‘tribe’ is a notion intimately related to the study of Afghanistan, used as a generic signifier for all things Afghan, it is through this notion that the co-constitution of coloniser and colonised is crystallised and foregrounded in Afghanistan. By tracing the way in which the term ‘tribe’ has been deployed in the Afghan context, the article performs two kinds of intellectual labour. First, by following the evolution of a concept from its use in the early nineteenth century to the literature on Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, wherein the ‘tribes’ seem to have acquired a newfound importance, it undertakes a genealogy or intellectual history of the term. The Afghan ‘tribes’ as an object of study, follow an interesting trajectory: initially likened to Scottish clans, they were soon seen as brave and loyal men but fundamentally different from their British interlocutors, to a ‘problem’ that needed to be managed and finally, as indispensable to a long-term “Afghan strategy”. And second, it endeavours to describe how that intellectual history is intimately connected to the exigencies of imperialism and the colonial politics of knowledge production.

 

 

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Whose postcolonialism? The French and their colonial past.

Dr. Emile Chabal will be speaking in a joint event on Wednesday 7 October, co-sponsored by the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Here he blogs on some of the themes to be discussed at this week’s seminar, in the first of a series of occasional guest pieces by visiting speakers and contributing historians around the world.

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Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Memorial to French dead in Algerian War of Independence, Sète, France. Photo by Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.


Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh

In my recent book, I place postcolonial questions at the heart of contemporary French politics. I argue that apparently insular debates about citizenship and the nation are, in fact, closely tied to France’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. I also argue that it is impossible to analyse the key dividing lines in French politics without understanding the attitudes of political actors to France’s colonial project.

Yet, over the course of my research, I have discovered just how nationally – and linguistically – bounded postcolonialism really is. There is a common misconception that France has not “dealt with” its colonial past and that French academia has been extremely hostile to postcolonial theory. To some extent this is true. Postcolonial studies courses, for instance, are still a rarity in university literature departments in France.

But this is hardly the whole story. In fact, one could easily argue that France has had a much more vigorous debate about its colonial past than almost any other country in Europe, especially the UK. Since the late 1990s, issues like colonial violence, torture and the relationship between Islam and the French colonial project have been at the forefront of public debate. Even if we go further back into the 1970s and 80s, postcolonial questions were clearly visible in the identity politics of France’s substantial pied-noir community.

So what’s the problem? Why do British and American scholars of France maintain that France has failed to come to terms with its colonial past?

The difficulty, it seems to me, is one of definition. Most people would accept that, in North America, the UK and South Asia, discussions of postcolonialism emerged from the disciplines of literary criticism and social theory through the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and others.[1] By contrast, the genealogy of postcolonialism is quite distinct in France, where it has been local politicians, activists and non-governmental organisations who have grappled with colonialism and its legacy.

This means that, while much of the debate surrounding postcolonialism in the English-speaking world has focused on “texts” and “representations”, in France it has focused on street names, memorials, museums, parliamentary laws and issues of historical memory.

One of the consequences of this is that postcolonialism has had a much wider reach in France than elsewhere. Instead of being confined to university departments and research seminars, the question of how colonialism should be remembered, what its impact was and what sort of legacy it has left is one that is fought out in the public sphere.

There are few better examples of this than a 2005 legislative package which included a clause to ensure that French schools teach the “positive” aspects of colonisation. Predictably, this caused huge controversy. Pied-noir organisations, who had been the driving-force behind the legislation came out strongly in favour of it, while historians and left-wing political organisations lined up to criticise it. Eventually, the offending clause was removed from the legislation by presidential decree, but this did little to stop a far-reaching discussion of French colonialism in every major press and media outlet.

The whole affair was a stark reminder that, even though the development of postcolonial ‘theory’ was a distinctly Anglophone phenomenon, the French have been no less engaged with their colonial heritage. It is simply that, as with so many other things in France, the political and partisan aspects of postcolonialism have always been much more prominent than its academic manifestations.

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[1] It is worth noting, however, that there have been many distinguished Francophone theorists of colonialism (including Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), and that many Anglophone postcolonial theorists were inspired by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida. So, even in this strictly theoretical definition of postcolonialism, the French are present.

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Autumn 2015 Week 2 Seminar: Vincent Hiribarren (KCL) & Emile Chabal (Edinburgh): Hiding the Past, Shaping the Future: the Politics of Archives, Citizenship, and Belonging in the ‘Postcolonial’ Present

HiriChabal copy

The Week 2 Modern and Contemporary History Research Seminar is on Wednesday 7 October 2015, at 16:30h in the Danford Room (Arts Building, 2nd Floor) (note change from usual time). We are delighted that it is organized in conjunction with DASA Africa Talks and will be delivered by: Vincent Hiribarren and Emile Chabal, with comments from Berny Sebe. All our welcome and there will be drinks afterwards.

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