How Modernity arrived to Godavari

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This article traces the way in which modern institutions emerged in one region of British-ruled India—the Godavari Delta of coastal Andhra—during the early nineteenth century. Rejecting recently popular cultural theories and the vague language of ‘multiple modernities’, it suggests that modernity can be defined as the practical effort to govern subjects perceived as strangers with abstract and general categories. But, arguing that our conception of modernity needs to be limited, the article suggests that modern institutions always rely on non-modern ways of life: the rule of law depends on ideas about individual honour; bureaucracy; on family connections and affective expressions of loyalty; and rational interests that are coordinated by archaic idioms of political leadership. The peculiarity of the history of modernity in imperial India was marked not by the limited or partial imposition of modern practices, but by the British regime's reluctance to accept the legitimacy of the very non-modern forms of power it relied on. Tracing this process in the Godavari Delta, the article shows how a regime with limited local resources asserted the monopolistic authority of its structures of government, but in doing so, corroded its own capacity to exercise power. Local institutions which had coordinated local productive resources were undermined, but alternative forms of local leadership were unable to emerge. The consequence was famine in the 1830s, and in the 1840s an effort to refound the imperial regime by imposing British power on the region's natural resources.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)399-431
Issue number2
Early online date6 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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