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Dr. Carey Watt’s “Civilizing Missions” Published by Anthem Press

Dr. Carey Watt’s second book was recently published by Anthem Press.

Co-edited by Watt and Dr. Michael Mann, professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, Civilizing Missions in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia: From Improvement to Development is a collection of essays that highlight the complexities and contradictions of British and Indian civilizing missions in South Asia.

Dr. Watt describes the gestation, purpose and relevance of this new publication as follows:

My interest in “civilizing missions” comes out of my longstanding fascination with the social, cultural and political history of colonialism.

The term “civilizing mission” has commonly been used in relation to European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially regarding French or British attempts to justify their colonial regimes by claiming a duty or “burden” of  “improving” the supposedly “backward” or “savage”  people of the world to make them more modern and “civilized” – according to self-serving “Western” definitions of the word.

Sadly, however, the civilizing mission theme is still relevant today, whether in the context of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation of Iraq since 2003, NATO’s ongoing war in Afghanistan, or the treatment of aboriginal peoples in Canada and around the world (as can be seen in Residential Schools issue and its place in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada). This makes the book an important read for historians, but it has much wider relevance too.

The first twelve pages of my introduction to the book actually start off with a discussion of these kinds of global current affairs issues – especially Afghanistan – before focusing on civilizing missions in South Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries.

My own chapter (#9) covers the period from 1820 to 1960, and it looks at how the British colonial state, Indian NGOs and the postcolonial “Nehruvian” state of the 1950s tried to use philanthropic initiatives to “civilize” Indians. Ironically, such civilizing efforts tended to put excessive emphasis on the need for discipline, obedience, austerity and asceticism. This was even true of Gandhi’s NGOs and their “constructive work” in the 1920s and 1930s.

We used the term “civilizing missions” in the plural because we brought together nine essays by scholars from Canada, India, Germany, the United States and Great Britain that look at the complexities of civilizing missions in colonial and postcolonial South Asia – from roughly 1800 to 2010. We wanted to show how the civilizing project wasn’t restricted to the officials and institutions of the British Raj. “Western” missionary societies and NGOs were also implicated in the civilizing mission, and élite Indians internalized many assumptions of the British colonial civilizing mission and applied them to their fellow Indians from the lower classes and castes as well as adivasi (tribal) groups.

In addition, a couple of the book’s chapters explore civilizing missions in postcolonial India (after the attainment of independence in 1947), and several employ a world history perspective that works well with the kind of history we do at STU.