Political subjectivity in Edmund Burke’s India and liberal multiculturalism

Edmund Burke’s speeches on India illustrate the emergence of the orientalised political subject. Traces of this in the present can be seen through the relationship between British multiculturalism and the undocumented migrant. 

Zaki Nahaboo
5 November 2012

In the late eighteenth century a strand of conservative thought argued that one’s enjoyment of ‘rights’ was predicated upon cultural distinction and a venerated history. Edmund Burke’s famous critique of Indian affairs was made possible by a new way of perceiving colonial subjects as endowed with culture and history, and therefore certain ‘rights’. Orientalism became the means of constructing this political subject. In what follows, I argue that British multiculturalist politics contains traces of this orientalised political subject in its concept of national citizenship.


'The impeachment' (Warren Hastings; Edmund Burke), by Thomas Cornell (1792).
Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Throughout Burke’s political career, British presence in India was synonymous with the accumulation of capital by a quasi-private enterprise: the East India Company. Having wrested the eastern trade monopoly from the Portuguese by the 1640s, the company’s commercial and political ventures in India began to intensify. By the latter half of the eighteenth century the company took on an overtly imperialist character, embarking on missions to ‘wage war, make peace, raise taxes, and administer justice’, with rents paid to the monarch and public returns ‘for the benefit of the British nation’. It is in response to the actions of Governor-General Warren Hastings that a campaign was launched to discover what principles and practices could be applied to justly govern this emergent colonial population. The writings and speeches of Edmund Burke spearheaded this late eighteenth century search for colonial reform.

Burke, previously a supporter of the Company’s autonomy and its chartered rights, sought to critique the administration of India and the Company on the grounds of exploitation, corruption, illegitimacy of rule and damage to social and cultural stability. His proposals for colonial reform were made possible by his mastery of contemporary orientalist discourse on Indian affairs. Despite the ending of his friendship with the esteemed orientalist, William Jones, when Burke suspected him of lending support to Warren Hastings during his impeachment, his influence on Burke is undeniable. In a letter to the first Marquis of Cornwallis, Jones stated that ‘if we had a complete Digest of Hindu and Mohammedan laws … we should rarely be at a loss for principles at least and rules applicable to the cases before us’. Burke’s ‘patronizing/patronized orientalism’ reflected Jones’s ambition of justifying new foundations for rule and legitimacy to differentiate colonial subjects.

Burke speaks of Indians as ‘civilized’ and ‘cultivated’, in comparison to what he saw as the origins of Europe. This sentiment led him to state that Indians should be governed ‘upon their own principles and maxims and not upon ours, that we must not think to force them to our narrow ideas, but extend ours to take in theirs.’ He justified this through cultural difference. Burke claimed, for example, that Indians were unable to cross the ocean without losing their caste and were prohibited by custom from sharing a meal with foreigners. It is from this sympathy with the other that his pioneering critique of the East India Company aimed to rally parliament against ‘civilizational hierarchies … by which British power justified its territorial expansionism and commercial avarice’. Burke ultimately sought to reform the Company’s affairs ‘in the name of those [who] suffered from its moral and political exclusions’ since he saw the other as enfeebled by colonialism and cowering in the light of the British state. For Burke, Indians constituted a political community.

Of course Burke’s attempt to recover and protect the imagined ‘rights’ of Indians can be viewed as pre-empting the colonial invention of tradition to legitimate imperial authority amongst the Indian populace: a logic which shapes culture as a ‘means and end of colonial conquest’. After all, knowing the Indian through history and culture did not lead Burke to reject colonial rule during the impeachment of Hastings. Burke only intended that local traditions should not be swept aside by the forces of colonialism. Once we contrast this configuration of ‘difference management’, with practices reserved for those deemed to fall outside orientalist knowledge, namely black slaves, we start to reveal the full functionality of this orientalised political subject. 

Why were black slaves not conceptualised in the same orientalising terms Burke showed for Indians? Burke’s early justification of slavery appears to contradict his famous critique of geographical morality: ‘the slaves we buy were in the same condition in Africa’. This was the case since blacks were not an object of orientalist sympathy. They were seen as having no distinctive history apart from slavery. Burke could not deploy history to legitimate rights in this presumed all-determining situation of an unchanging violence. Since there was no threatened or forgotten tradition to be recognized and sympathised with, blacks could not be seen as bearers of rights which could be infringed by colonialism.

To say black slaves, as the sub-humans of eighteenth century thought, have no history apart from slavery, is also to make a subtle claim that they have no history without Europeans. It can be argued convincingly that European and African history is embedded within a unified historical process of capital expansion. However, Burke is not pointing to the intractability of ‘their’ and ‘our’ histories through the world system. Instead it is this absence of history deemed to be outside ‘the West’ that has a profound impact upon how black slaves are imagined, in a state of pure passivity.

When we turn to Burke’s gradualist abolitionism, in A Sketch of the Negro Code, there is no recourse to local tradition as a means for justifying why the institution of slavery should be reformed. Instead his proposed regulations were a means to civilise. Similarly, when he ponders emancipation in his Speech on Conciliation with America, he considers that it will come at the hands of the master. Although Burke notes that slaves may be suspicious of abolition from ‘that very nation which has sold them to their present masters’, he nevertheless makes no suggestion (if we were to follow his logic) that emancipation coalesces with African traditions.

Burke was able to distinguish Indians from black slaves by shrouding the foundational violence of British presence in India with a ‘sacred veil’. This serves to legitimate the ‘uncovering’ of Indian’s ‘authentic’ forgotten past to find a basis for political legitimacy, functional for both a benevolent colonialism and the ‘recognition’ of Indian political subjectivity. The fabricated distance from the ‘true’ mythical India enabled Burke to separate contemporary Indian practices, which he admitted might have offended British law, from principles during the impeachment trial. The application of orientalist knowledge led to the ‘uncovering’ and essentialisation of native laws and institutions supposedly on the cusp of being derided and forgotten through colonialism. Burke was led to ‘respect’ the ‘great force’ and ‘stability’ of Muslim institutions, claiming that their vast historical permanence placed their laws outside of British judgement.

When faced with Hastings’ ‘geographical morality’, which posited that bribery and exploitation were in accordance with local despotic custom, Burke is commonly said to have drawn upon universalising arguments derived from natural law. However it is Burke’s orientalist veneration of an imagined India that led him to critique Hastings’ portrayal of oriental despotism. Burke stated ‘Oriental governments know nothing of this arbitrary power’. He argued ‘their morality is equal to ours’. If this separation between us and them did not impinge upon a differential valuation of morality, it was precisely because of Burke’s reverence for imagining tradition as historically and culturally situated grounds for debating justice.


Portrait of East India Company Official by Dip Chand (1760-1764).
Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Burke saw that political power in India could only be legitimated through a state’s duty to uphold the customary and property rights of its subjects (against Company abuse), which was also the condition through which natural law could be known and respected. Orientalism plays a crucial part in enabling this position. Yet Burke’s orientalism diversifies the model of what it means to be a political subject beyond that of the abstract ahistorical citizen.

This fuelled the disagreement between Burke and Hastings, leading to a situation whereby Burke’s notion of oriental tradition as neither despotic nor entirely beyond the West’s judgement, had a subversive impact on ‘political orientalism’, which held that the only way of expressing the political is through an abstract judging Western political subject defined in contrast to the despotic oriental. This position matures as he concludes the first day of the impeachment of Hastings:  ‘I impeach him in the name of all the Commons…whose name he has dishonoured… I impeach him in the name of the people of India, whose laws, rights and liberties he has subverted … I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed’.

By turning to this less acknowledged and largely unrealised strand of early colonial ‘difference management’, we can see how Burke’s version of orientalism (eroticizing the other can lead to the ‘recognition’ of different political traditions) reconfigures and subverts the thematic of ‘political orientalism’ (there is only one form and body through which politics can be recognized in opposition to an inferior East). Burke exemplifies a branch of (anti)colonial and anti-Jacobin thought which imagined political subjectivity as visualized through and enacted by virtue of historical precedent. Not any history or people could be recognized to exhibit political subjectivity, only those who could be culturalised and historicised. Orientalist knowledge provided the means of rendering the Indian intelligible on these politicising terms, while emplacing the slave beyond the pale of discrete historical traditions.

In contrast to the abstract western citizen defined against non-western others, this manner of knowing the subject allows Burke to maintain his conception of the British constitution as a benchmark for the political, valuing Indians because of their supposed equality ‘in law, culture and political institutions’, while also refraining from ascribing them any claim to sovereignty. The complex and ambivalent orientalised political subject, as a product of early colonial ‘difference management’, was a figure founded for both domination and liberation, at once on terms acquiescent to western valuations of the political subject and beyond such valuations.

Multiculturalism and the undocumented migrant

Times have changed. The configuration of ‘difference management’ has shifted from how to live as and with colonial subjects to how to live as and with minoritized citizens. This is no longer a set of practises sustaining a moral justification for empire and the preservation of tradition. Through multiculturalism, its modern day task is the maintenance of a cohesive national state capable of ‘recognizing’ multiple identities.

Turning to the birth of the orientalised political subject has shown us how a coupling of tradition and orientalism split those who could be ‘recognized’ as exhibiting non-western forms of political subjectivity from those who were deemed without tradition. Two figures emerged from this: the culturalised Indian and the naturalised black slave. Clearly these subjects have mutated over centuries of colonial government, and now come to reside in the margins of national history.  Traces of this colonial hierarchy, and how this differentiation was utilised to subvert political orientalism, can however still be found through the ways in which liberal-pluralist British multiculturalism administers its own ‘difference management’ of the minoritized citizen and the undocumented migrant.


Shah Alam II, Mughal Emperor of India, reviewing the
East India Company's troops, 1781 by John Richard Green (1894).
Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Once we shift to multiculturalist ‘difference management’, essentialism, culturalism and hierarchies of culture as means of determining one’s rights are resolutely rejected. Instead we have the site of multicultural struggle, collective tradition and active conceptions of citizenship. Although multiculturalism steers clear of undermining the ever-inclusive figure of the liberal citizen, it diversifies what it means to be political. Attempts at recognition such as ‘Muslim assertiveness’, religiously conceived political enactments or differentiated legal positions as an expression of citizenship, introduce a fleeting difference into the western ideal of what constitutes expressions of political subjectivity. It questions the premise that there is only one model and path of political subjectivity through the master signifier of the liberal citizen defined against an orientalised other. British multiculturalism achieves this by culturalising politics, at the same time as it creates a new figure devoid of culture and tradition: the undocumented migrant.

In the Parekh Report justice is a matter of extending human rights, not one of culturalising the undocumented so as to recognize equal status. The Parekh Report warned that multiculturalism cannot be secured by ‘tough immigration policies’. It condemns the racialisation of immigration and puts forward various recommendations to overcome negative stereotypes and monitor treatment in reference to the 1998 Human Rights Act and EU policy.

Seeking to extend the civil and social rights for those who are deemed undeserving by virtue of where they originate from and their status of mobility, at the expense of culturalising migration (the problem in the first place), is a welcome move. Yet as we have seen, multiculturalism subverts ‘political orientalism’ not by directly challenging nationally conceived rights, but by undermining its homogeneity. Multiculturalism diversifies enactments of citizenship through the subject of the minoritized citizen. However the challenges multiculturalism poses to the unified singular political subject can only emerge at the expense of the non-citizen. The potential of the minoritized citizen is dependent upon being a bearer, if not a champion, of liberal rights. This is realised against the backdrop of those who cannot formally belong to the national community. The paradox in Burke’s culturalisation of the other as a means of simultaneously maintaining and subverting domination is cast anew in the form of a differentiated culturalised citizen whose subversion of ‘political orientalism’ can only be attempted if occupying the position of a nationally esteemed rights-bearing other, in contradistinction to the undocumented.

Michel Foucault reminds us that discourse is not simply ‘divided between the dominant discourse and the dominated one; but [exists] as a multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies’. By pointing to the emergence of the orientalised political subject, we have seen how this subject was conceived as both manageable for colonial rule and devised to question a homogenous western ideal for conceiving of political subjectivity. The other to this orientalised political subject was not simply the self-determining Briton, but the slave that was imagined without tradition. Once we shift to the minoritized citizen, this contemporary figure is envisioned through multiculturalist state practice to simultaneously constitute and mollify issues of cohesion, illiberal extremism and so on. Yet this figure also threatens western conceptions of political subjectivity by bringing culture and religion to the fore of the political; the last bastion which allowed the west to politically define itself against others. Nonetheless, this contemporary subversion of ‘political orientalism’ has also reconstituted its own other: the undocumented migrant.

Today, disillusionment is rife concerning multiculturalism’s potential for both anti-racism and securitization. Could this be an opportunity to make the mapping of the traces of the orientalised political subject into a critical enterprise, finally moving us beyond the contradictory legacies of colonial domination?


This article is an edited extract of ‘Subverting orientalism: political subjectivity in Edmund Burke’s India and liberal multiculturalism’ which appeared in the Citizenship Studies 2012 special issue ‘Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project’. The referenced and complete essay can be found here. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249379. 

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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