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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Catriona Ellis about her book, Imagining Childhood, Improving Children: The Emergence of an ‘Avuncular’ State in Late Colonial South India

Our member, Dr Catriona Ellis (University of Strathclyde, UK), talks about her new book, Imagining Childhood, Improving Children: The Emergence of an ‘Avuncular’ State in Late Colonial South India (Cambridge University Press, 2023).


Q: What is this book about?

This book considers state policy towards children in South India in the 1920s and 1930s and the ways that ‘modern childhood’ was imagined by those in authority. Children were widely viewed by policy makers, teachers, and civil society activists as both objects to be saved, on account of their innocence and vulnerability, and investments as future citizens, disciplined into a new relationship with the state. The nature and focus of these policies reflected the increased participation of the elite in globally entangled discourses of child-saving and the new experiences and opportunities of governance under the, albeit limited, constitutional reforms of 1919. The book considers how adults in authority used the concept of modern childhood to frame themselves as both modern and avuncular, gaining authority through an appropriation of familial and kinship terms as well as the claim to modern, scientific expertise.

The emergence of this new discourse is interrogated through detailed case studies of education, health, sexual consent, and juvenile justice. By looking at legislation and specific policy initiatives in the Madras Presidency, the book analyses the extent to which practical policies for the child were still informed by other markers of difference, namely caste, class, gender, and religious community, and argues that the intellectual inconsistencies of this approach framed the way in which childhood was viewed in the post-independence period. Finally, the book contrasts adult intentions and actions with the autobiographical memories of childhood, highlighting the limits of adult authority and offering glimpses of the ways that school, family, and peer relationships were experienced in practice.

Q: What made you write this book?

I’m particularly interested in historicising the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and in analysing when and how this became the universally accepted standard for modern childhood in South Asia. I was curious whether this concept of a universal modern childhood reflected the impact of colonial ideas on the Indian elite or whether there was a distinctive change in attitudes to children after independence in 1947. My research suggests that the key moment of change was the 1920s, reflecting changes in both governance in India and in global ideas about children’s rights and the obligations of adults toward children.

As a historian of children, I’m also interested in tracing children’s experiences, agency, and silences in the archives and in the ways that childhood is remembered through autobiographies. This is part of a wider concern to recognise children as historical actors shaped by, but also contributing to, wider social forces. Although almost always mediated through the lens of adults, these sources adds depth, personality, and a different outlook to our understanding of the past, and I wanted to reflect these perspectives within the social histories of South Asia. 

An excerpt from the book:

Even if we trace a modern universal childhood to an intellectual framework which emerged in the modern West, to see it merely as a further example of the continuing ‘colonisation of the mind’ or a slavish adherence of the political and social elites to Western modernity is to fail to understand the specific circumstances of the 1920s and 1930s. Three intertwined themes were particularly important: the relationship between scientific authority and practices of governmentality; the global intellectual networks of the elite; and the impact of constitutional change in 1919. Control over the child’s mind and body through education, medicine, and the criminal justice system established the authority of modern scientific methodologies and their practitioners, and facilitated the statistical surveillance of new populations as Indian elites established their own practices of governmentality.

These approaches professed to be modern, based on reason and the apolitical application of universal principles established through scientific methodologies of observation, experimentation, and quantification, often modified to integrate indigenous concepts and contexts. This was seen in scientific approaches to normal child development and to play as a medium of education as the child learned to conquer his environment, in the writings of pedagogues in the journal Educational India (Chapter Three), or in the medical inspection of school children for ‘defects’ (Chapter Four). The collection of statistics on school attendance compiled in terms of communities (Chapter One), the detailed regulation of the daily lives of children incarcerated in the Certified Schools (Chapter Five), and the application of biological science to definitions of puberty (Chapter Seven) or paediatrics (Chapter Four) meant that science both shaped governance, and informed the methodologies and regulatory practices through which governance was carried out.

The authoritative status of new disciplines such as nutrition, paediatrics, psychology, and pedagogy boosted the prestige of the experts – almost exclusively Indian – who carried out the research, and of the politicians who claimed the educational training to understand it and believed in its transformative potential. While specific expertise differed, the mutual respect grounded in a shared perception of modernity encouraged collaboration which could contest the scientific modernity of British rule on its own terms, and could be used by the governing elite to distinguish themselves from the ‘non-modernity’ of the ordinary citizen. The workings of power in the modern Indian state were based on the methodologies of modern science.

This urban, highly educated elite gained authority not only from their intellectual heritage and modern education, but from their interpersonal and professional links with a variety of global organisations ...

Ideas about childhood were not merely decided in the corridors of power but were constantly reformulated in the tensions of everyday rule, the harsh realities of implementation and budgetary constraints and in conversations with both childhood practitioners and even children themselves. Each section of this book considers how the child was imagined in legislation, such as the Education Act 1920 (Chapter One) or the Children Act 1920 (Chapter Five). It then looks at how these ideas about childhood and children were implemented at the level of social policy, with the formulation of schemes to provide midday meals (Chapter Four), to enforce compulsory education (Chapter Two) or to establish a juvenile court (Chapter Six). The correspondence between a variety of levels of government decision-making, the budgets, the minutes of civil society organisations, the teachers’ professional journals, the curriculum of the teacher training colleges and the submissions to the Joshi Committee reveal the deep-rooted tension between the universalising discourse of the global child and understandings of childhood articulated and experienced by those in daily contact with Indian children.

Tracing the relationships between state and non-state actors, parents, teachers and sometimes children, reveals a stark contrast between the value placed on children at a policy level and the lack of political will to divert the limited state resources to improve the living conditions and life chances of poor children. In particular it highlights the persistent disjunction between rhetorical promises to the child as vulnerable and as an investment and the lack of political commitment to fund intervention, whether in the provision of food (Chapter Four), of adequate buildings for schooling (Chapter Two), or of personnel to facilitate the rehabilitation of youthful offenders (Chapter Five).

The child who was imagined as ‘universal’ was in practice assumed to be male, upper caste, Tamil speaking, physically able, Hindu and urban. The failure to adequately deal with child poverty, illiteracy, discrimination and abuse was thus based on a conceptual gap about the nature of childhood. Social and educational policies were structured to mean that any child who failed to meet these assumed criteria failed to reach a normative standard of ‘modern’ and ‘universal’ childhood and was constructed as ‘Other’.

Indeed the ways that implementation was structured for the majority both highlighted social difference and even strengthened social boundaries. This was seen most clearly in the formation of educational communities based on caste, religion, gender and language, and in intersectional hierarchies of exclusion which meant that education was not even offered, even denied, to groups such as poor Muslim girls (Chapters One and Two). The majority of children, subject to at least one though more often many, of these perceived social disadvantages thus failed to reach a normative standard of ‘modern childhood’. And to be Other was to be insufficiently childlike, and so the failure to be fully ‘a child’ and thus entitled to the nation’s resources could therefore be located not only in colonial strategies of rule as shown by Satadru Sen (2005), but also embedded in the workings of power by Indian lawmakers and officials. The fitful and uneven ways in which ideas and practice changed, reveal a consistent lack of political will, the limited financial power available to state and civil society actors combined with an unproblematised theorisation of modern childhood, which set a pattern in policy failure which continued in state policy long past independence (Balagopalan, 2014).



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