Thursday, September 21, 2017

Self-Colonialization of India

I came across the term, 'self-colonialization', in a news report on Arundhati Roy's recent speech in Berlin. She was speaking at the launch of her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in German. The news report only mentions the term cursorily: Ms Roy was speaking about the violence the Indian state unleashes on its tribal and its poor and being on the front-line of the battles for the rights of tribal and villagers, such a characterisation of the Indian state is only natural for her. Besides, coming at a time when India has drowned a few hundred villages by making Sardar Sarovar Dam operational, and fighting mini-civil wars in Central India in the name of 'Development', 'self-colonialization' sounds like an appropriate term.

Surely, this would be greeted with derision in India as unnecessary bad-mouthing of India by one of the pet Hate Figures of the Indian establishment. But this has nothing to do with the validity of what Ms Roy is saying, and rather, this is about the peculiar adolescent self-concept of Indian Middle Class: Unsure of itself, it bristles in any criticism abroad. Particularly a person of Indian origin speaking anything critical about India is treated particularly harshly; after all, India only wants its expatriates' money, but none of their opinions. Ms Roy should be treated differently, as she is an Indian citizen living and working in India; but, rather peculiarly, her English writing and global fame makes her 'foreign', and the establishment commentators would both summarily dismissed her views as 'liberal-elitist' and harshly confront her conduct as 'trecherous'. Indeed, she is neither: She is closer to the ground than any of the foreign-educated Corporate Bosses or Upper Caste Babus would ever be; and, her commitment to action, her work with the poor, at the cost of a life of celebrity and fame which she could have otherwise lived, makes her anything but treacherous.

But I write this not to defend Ms Roy - she needs no such defence - but to reflect on the idea of 'self-colonialization', which resonated with me. For me, self-colonialization in India is more than just the obvious manifestations of State Violence - the uprooting of tribal, the unchecked army brutalities in Kashmir, the martial law regimes in North-Eastern states, the civil war in Central India - and includes the various acts of objective violence, the everyday intrusion of a bureaucratic state in the lives of people, its laws which are borrowed from the English and are still at odds with Indian ideas of culture and community, its ordering of economic lives through brute state diktats and its cynical manipulation of a vast number of repressed citizens through a combination of identity politics and hand-outs. The British colonialised Indian minds through various means other than the 'Hard' power of the Military - the number of British Officers and Personnel present in India was always very small - but by subtle manipulation of patronage and privilege, cloaked in the rhetoric of modernity and progress, which made a class of Indians foot-soldiers in the imperial project. Today's slogans of Development are direct derivatives of the Colonial scheme, the assumptions that villages exist to serve at the pleasure of the Cities is a carry-over of the Colonial mindset, and that the natural resources are there to be extracted and monetised is an unquestioned belief passed on from our Colonial masters.

One could argue that such repression is not new or novel, and it happens in every society, including the developed ones. However, there are distinctions to be made. The developed countries, take England or France for example, have come through several revolutions and war, experiences that shaped political consciousness from below and codified demands of the commoner in the laws of the land. India has had no such experience: Its moment of truth in Gandhian activism was enveloped in the broader Independence movement, and ended in bitter disappointment of Partition. Gandhi was assassinated just in time for his revolutionary credo to take hold, and the Gandhians since then remained on the margins of political action in India, as the figure of Gandhi himself was taken over by the Indian state. Gandhian cultural revolution remained unrealised, no one fasted in Delhi after his death, and the Colonial State was inherited and continued, in spirit as well as in letters, by successive generations of Delhi politicians, business bosses and the Babus of various kind. And, it is important to underscore that the Indian State models itself after the Colonial one - and not the British one - as the Home experience of the empire took a different trajectory. 

In that sense, Colonialisation is not foreign to India, but its very own. And, indeed, it is no surprise that the Independent Indian state did not try to establish a new capital, such as Washington DC, but rather conveniently continued the British Capital, complete with Lutyen's palaces. And, this continues: The current ascendancy of Hindu Nationalists, who are following the fascist playbook to effect a social revolution and erase out periods of Muslim domination from India's history (for them, this part of Indian history was ejected out to Pakistan, as one of them helpfully explained to me), is not trying to get rid of the Colonial past. Rather, they are reclaiming the Colonial instruments with its full power to impose a culture and a way of life from above through a powerful modern state. 

So, 'self-colonialization' is an useful concept for India today. This would have limited appeal, for sure, as this critique would not only be directed to just the Hindu Nationalists, but to the entire experience of Independent India. It would confront the claims of nationalism and progress, which underpins the idea of India as it existed since 1947; and indeed, this would open up the possibilities of new conversation which no one speaking English really wants to have. But it is an interesting possibility, and I would return to this when I get to write about the competing conceptions of India, which I shall do someday.


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