The postcolonial blind spot

The war on colonial injustices often left other hegemonies largely unscathed, such as the Brahminised-Hindu hegemonies of India, and the Islamic hegemonies of Muslim societies.

August 11, 2016 01:45 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

A Facebook post about “jihad” caught my eye recently. It started with homilies that I found familiar: “To meet a stranger with a smile is jihad. To do your best at work is jihad.” And so on. In the Muslim circles of my childhood, this was what had been understood by jihad. I had no objection to such definitions of jihad. But the last line made me pause: “Jihad is not what the media tell you.”

Why didn’t this post, I wondered, concede that many horrors are being perpetrated by Muslims in the name of jihad too? After all, organisations like the Islamic State (IS) are not just something the “media tell you”. They exist, and their atrocities — in the name of jihad — have been verified.

The Prophet of Islam is said to have defined jihad as a struggle with the evil within oneself. If so, blaming “bad reports” of jihad simply on the “media” seems to show a remarkable reluctance to examine tendencies within one’s own community.

If you think that this blindness is just a Muslim matter, you are mistaken. Our world is full of it. And yet, I feel that it is a tendency that is particularly pronounced in post-colonial societies, like India or Iraq.

Focussed on exorcising colonialism When countries colonised or semi-colonised by European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries attained independence, largely around the mid-20th century, they were led by leaders, intellectuals and writers who were primarily concerned with colonial power. This was inevitable. Colonial power was the dominant hegemony, and all anti-colonialists — Western or Eastern — were struggling against it. The thing to attack and dismantle was European colonial dominance.

In the realm of intellect, some great books came out of it. One thinks of the foundational works of Leopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and others. In recent years, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Pankaj Mishra, etc., from India alone, have developed and accentuated that train of necessary criticism of Western imperial hegemonies, as have ‘Western’ scholars like Timothy Mitchell. Then there were the political actors, and the creative writers: novels that explored (and continue to explore) the complex tragedies of colonisation. Amitav Ghosh’s novels, for instance, have extended that oeuvre further.

This was, and is, necessary and enabling. And yet, it carried a hidden danger within itself. The war on colonial hegemonies and injustices by the best anti-colonial and postcolonial minds often left other hegemonies largely unscathed. Because though the colonial Western hegemony was the dominant one, it was by no means the only. There were various others: some global, like the various versions of patriarchy cutting across societies, and some regional, like the Brahminised-Hindu hegemonies of India, and the Islamic hegemonies of Muslim societies. There were local ones too.

Like all hegemonies, these were structured to maintain a certain order in society, and hence could be defended from certain perspectives. This, unfortunately, was and is the case with European colonisation too — and it explains why so many Western politicians (and some historians) still talk of the “Western contribution” to civilisation or defend the British Empire. The problem was that all these hegemonies also operated in order to maintain structurally unequal and institutionally unfair societies, and hence what was good from the perspective of some was also exploitative for many others. The White man’s burden, as I have remarked before, was mostly borne by the Yellow, Brown and, most heavily of all, the Black man (and woman).

The other hegemonies we ignore What I am trying to highlight is the blind spot at the heart of all such hegemonies. Just as many Western colonisers and imperialists remained wilfully blind to the disastrous effects of their hegemony on the colonised and their societies, a similar wilful blindness operated within other hegemonies. Hence, for instance, the repeated attempt to deny or justify caste-based oppression in Hindutva circles, or the above-mentioned attempt to blame the “bad reports” of jihad on the media and not on fellow Muslims.

Given the nature of the world, and the dominance of European colonial hegemony in the past, as well as the critical books written against it, today, it is difficult for any serious scholar to totally defend European colonisation. This is more so in postcolonial nations. Much has been done to expose the lies and atrocities of European colonisation in the past, especially by scholars in or from postcolonial societies.

But because our attention has been focussed on Western hegemonies, we have often failed to engage with equivalent rigour with our own regional and local hegemonies, unless it was to trace their imbrication with European colonisation or American imperialism. The rise of both Hindutva and Islamism is a consequence of that.

That Hindutva is less virulent in India than Islamism is in many Muslim nations might have much to do with the fact that, at least in India, some of our leading anti-colonial leaders also aimed their criticism inwards at Hindu society: Gandhiji did so from a caste-based reformist position, Jawaharlal Nehru from a universalist-socialist one, B.R. Ambedkar from a more located and hence angrier anti-caste Dalit perspective.

Their anti-colonialism did not totally blind them to the hegemonies within, though again all of them were more careful in criticising religious Muslim sentiments as they were not Muslim. The self-analysis of such Indian leaders and intellectuals was seldom the case in most Muslim countries, and when it half-happened, it did so, as in Turkey, from a position of authoritarian elitism, or, as in Iran, from that of an undemocratic monarchy.

Today, I am afraid, we are reaping the harvest of this partial blindness — perhaps inevitable historically, but not so any more. It is time to turn the searchlight inwards more often than we tend to do. If greed is the cardinal sin of the aberrant power of colonialism, resentment is that of the lagging self-assertion of postcolonialism. To blame the coloniser (or the media or the other) and not to blame oneself is often just an expression of resentment. It offers no solution.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.