THE SEGMENTARY STATE

I disagree with this Eurocentric political formulation. Colonial subjugation during the eighteenth century altered and may have distorted the trajectory of state formation in India, but even before the imposition of British domi- nance, and very likely as a precondition of that dominance, relations between states and historic urban and rural communities had changed irreversibly. During the eighteenth century there is clear evidence of class-divided societies in many of the advanced parts of the subcontinent and, along with that, a radically different enstructuration of civil institutions.

In place of the conventional view of the pre-modern state in south India, in my previous work I adopted the notion of the ‘segmentary state’ from its use by the African anthropologist Aidan Southall. The segmentary state differs both from the unitary state with its fixed territory, its centralized administra- tion and coercive power, and from the ‘feudal’ polity, by which is meant a variety of political relationships, but most usually – as in the Anglo-French species – a form of prebendalism. In positive terms, the segmentary state is a political order in which:

  1. There are numerous centres, or political domains.
  2. Political power (in Indian classical reference, kshatra) and sovereignty (rajadharma) are differentiated in such a way as to permit some power to be wielded by many notables, but full, royal sovereignty only by an anointed king.
  3. All the numerous centres, or domains, have autonomous administrative capabilities and coercive means.
  4. There is recognition by lesser political centres, often through ritual forms, of a single ritual centre and an anointed king.

In medieval south India, hundreds of local societies, called nadu in the inscriptions and literature of Chola times, constituted a communitarian struc- ture, and were the fundamental components of society. The relationship between these hundreds of communities and the medieval Chola kings seemed crucial to me for an understanding of these, and perhaps other pre-industrial, societies. At the most general level, in this view a state is that political

formation comprising several or many communities, which, through their community political leaders (typically ‘chiefs’), acknowledge and often serve kings and accept and even participate in the anointed status of the latter.

‘Community’ in this usage is to be understood in its usual English meaning as simultaneously a people and a place, rather than in its limited sense of subcaste or religious group. In this sense, community pertains to shared senti- ments and values; however, it is also about shared rights or entitlements over human and material resources, and thus, in particular, pertains to small, local spatial entities under conditions of pre-modern technology. It is because very localized affinities, sentiments and, especially, entitlements, as well as the cultural, social, and political means for defending them, continued to persist in India until well into contemporary times, that I have been encouraged to see segmentary political forms as extending into the nineteenth century, a perception that gives the concept considerable historiographical reach.

The earliest documentary sources from the subcontinent – those related  to the career of the Buddha and the evolution of the sangha (congregation of monks) which transmitted his teachings – exemplify this type of com- munity. The context is sectarian: the elaboration of doctrine. Later, medieval historical accounts of states and communities were embedded in inscriptions recording religious endowments by the devotees of Shiva or Vishnu, kings and their more affluent and respectable subjects. Again, the context is reli- gious, not as an accident of documentary survivals, but as a reflection of the dominance of a discourse about worship and worshipping communities in relation to states and societies. Again, it was not an artefact of documentary survival that inscriptions virtually cease to record great events and their main actors by the year 1700. This was an era of state creation and of very much more powerful and grasping political authorities who notably failed to find an alternative language for expressing the totalities previously expressed through religion. Indeed, even as the twentieth century opened and com- munities, weakened by increasingly successful mercantilist regimes both prior to and during British hegemony, were assaulted by class divisions from within and by penetration by state powers from above, religious expression- ism was still employed by the most vulnerable groups, those we now speak of as dalits.

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