Colonialism and its discontents today

It is easy to invoke the ghost of colonial legacy, but for anyone pursuing de-colonisation, the fear of the state and the state’s distrust of the citizen ought to be their prime agenda

October 27, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 12:39 pm IST

From the book, The Earth and her People’

From the book, The Earth and her People’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A popular theme at seminars this autumn is de-colonisation. The concept notes explaining the theme treat it like a new deodorant — much required, of course, and expected to cure a chronic problem for good. Not that earlier generations had ignored it, but perhaps they lacked determination and propitious circumstances. The urge to undo the various legacies of colonisation was always there. Why the previous struggles failed arouses little curiosity in today’s crusaders against the colonial mindset. There is something about the idea of fighting colonialism that it excites each time the call is made.

As an ideology, colonialism has an inbuilt device to deal with reactive moods of the colonised. These moods vary according to economic and political seasons. Citizens of former colonies typically feel more comfortable when they are passing through a good phase of their collective economic life. Conversely, they get twitchy when growth slows down. Another mood swinger is politics. The colonial phase of history is a great political resource. In a multi-party system, it is easy to invoke the ghost of colonial legacy. Once aroused, the ghost performs reliable tricks to attract public attention.

Stances and politics

The young often wonder why the freedom struggle did not suffice to de-colonise. Good history teachers know how to explain that the legacies of colonial rule include the strategies that helped attain freedom and some of the rights we enjoy today. It is a complex idea and its absorption depends on whether history is taught in order to develop historical sense rather than to demarcate periods. In a recent official presentation at an international forum, India tried to make a distinction between foreign attacks and colonisation. Though it is probably the first time that India took this position, the idea itself is not new. The temptation to privilege one historical phase over another is part of an urge to use the past as a political resource. And this urge is not confined to the colonised nations. India’s coloniser, Britain, has been doing this quite avidly in the recent years.

De-colonisation received a major official push in several African colonies after they attained freedom. In education, language was a focus area, but the choice did not prove wise. Entrenched social inequalities came in the way of ideal goals. In India, we have experienced this trajectory several times over, but the fascination of radical stances has not diminished. Removal of English is a big draw among political parties which promise to exorcise India’s mind, body and soul from the ghost of colonialism. Alas, among the youth, English shows no sign of becoming unpopular. As Snigdha Poonam has documented in her remarkable study of provincial youth culture, ‘spoken English’ has emerged as a major component of the coaching industry.

Macaulay’s ghost

Several years ago, a colleague wrote an article, ‘De-Macaulaying Indian Education’ and asked me to comment on it. The title was a bit awkward, but that was hardly a problem, I assured him. What he did not appreciate was the critical point that Macaulay contributed little to the British policy on education in India. It would have been just the same even if Macaulay had not written his poisonous note. My colleague was not amused. Most people feel quite disappointed when they learn that the history of education in colonial India was not much affected by Macaulay’s famous minute. His racist ideas and the policies implied in his analysis of the Indian situation were far too flat to be of much use for British administrators in charge of education in different regions. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Macaulay resides in the hearts of examination paper setters for the B.Ed. degree. Take him out, and the syllabus of colonial education loses its favourite sting. Not just students, all lovers of simplified history depend on Macaulay to show off their shooting skills.

Colonisation was experienced differently across regions, classes and castes. That is a prime reason why de-colonisation remains so elusive. The various Indian discourses of the latter half of the 19th century show why it is difficult to paint colonial education in any single colour. Majoritarian nationalism has picked up English as a de-colonisation plank. Phule’s appreciation of English education was grounded in its potential to wipe out discrimination against the lower castes.

Nationalism is a fine guiding spirit of progress, but seldom proves accommodative enough to denounce the diverse legacies of colonialism. They evolved regionally in different time frames, creating complex contours of public perception. When a clarion call is made to overcome the ‘colonial mindset’, it seems inspired by colonialism itself.

Since Independence, enormous change has occurred in every social sphere, and some of it demonstrates the continued legacy of colonial history. No one-dimensional theory of colonialism and modernity can explain the changes that have occurred in different regions. Within education too, anti-colonial voices have taken so many twisted turns that a school-going child’s parent or teacher does not quite know whom to believe or follow. This is certainly one reason why valid, sincere calls to abandon English receive little attention from young parents.

Its stamp remains

Colonial rule is a faint collective memory now. Though many of its icons have been removed or replaced, its stamp on governance remains intact. The colonial citizen was an object of suspicion. The core pedagogy of colonial rule consisted of reaching out to the citizen with the state’s moral rhetoric. Colonial civics assumed that average citizens are docile and ignorant, that it is the state’s job to enlighten — and not just serve — them. That they must participate is a popular political and official rhetoric. It has become a lot louder in the digital age, without making much of an impact on the everyday reality of the citizenry.

It is never a good idea to fight with the past, no matter how old it is. Maturity lies in learning to live with the past, not in it — under the illusion that it can be changed. The past is the past, therefore inaccessible for human intervention. To study it with curiosity is a preferable option to quarrelling with it or harming the few tangible relics it has left behind. Colonised societies suffered similar consequences, such as drainage of wealth and the emergence of a state apparatus that the common people found difficult to identify with. Their fear of the state and the state’s distrust of the citizen ought to be the prime agenda for anyone pursuing de-colonisation.

Krishna Kumar is a bilingual writer and the author of ‘Politics of Education in Colonial India’

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