Inspecting India vis-a-vis colonialism

Posted by Arpita Sahai
October 17, 2017


In early twentieth century India was not only bidding defiance to Imperialism, but also demanding its retreat. The rising revolutionary spirit against Imperialism set the ball rolling for the idea of Independent India. The question of India’s identity and the drafting of her Constitution were the immediacies which were to be addressed after the long overdue departure of British colonisers.

Nationalism is a political idea, which is surcharged with emotional connotations, which has constructed and moulded the contours of the world – both physical and otherwise. The five acclaimed schools that deal with Nationalism in India, owing to the pluralistic state of our society, are: The Imperialists, the Nationalists, the Marxists, the Quasi-Marxist-Nationalists, and the Subalterns. The different theories of Nationalism vary due to the way theorists have viewed our ethnic history and answered the following, relevant set of questions:

  1. How far is it veracious to say that the leaders of Indian Nationalism formulated policies to colour their own interests in the name of the people of India?
  2. Did the national struggle provide social security to only the elite classes when the poor stood at the forefront of the struggle and bore the brunt of it? Did the elite seize the movement for self-promotion?
  3. Did women empowerment take shape, as decided, or the measures taken only strengthened patriarchy in the colonial era?
  4. How has colonialism affected Indian nationalism? Was it an alien rule which sought exploitation alone or did it introduce the art of governance?

The elite classes have hegemonised the historiography of India since time immemorial. The elite, both indigenous and foreign origins, have conjointly continued their dominance until the post-independence era. However, the indigenous elite classes indulged in individual as well as class interests and appropriated a dual policy of collaboration and rivalry. Moreover, this policy was applicable even with other indigenous classes within the country. The facts on national movement read today, thus, are but idealisation and aggrandizement of the sacrifices undertaken by these classes and omission of the agreement it made with the colonial administration for self-promotion and other personal interests. Such tradition of history writing introduces an extremely distorted view of participation in the national struggle. Massive participation was presented in a horizontal order where the peasants, industrial workers, and the rural poor voiced out the exploitation faced by them at the hands of the elites and claimed their identity. However, it could not represent the national movement full fledgedly and soon died out. Often, the relationship between Indians and British imperialism was termed as ‘primary contradiction’ and the discrepancy between different classes within India as ‘secondary contradiction’ where the former was incongruous, the latter had scope for reconciliation. If viewed from the perspective of totalitarians, the national movement was but the offshoot of the interests of Indian people and was never triggered by sections of it. Nationalism, then, can be traced as a collective memory and shared opposition of Indians against the British rule. Some critics like A.R Desai and R.P Dutta insist that such a viewpoint is a figment of our imagination and is bereft of empirical materiality and actuality. They say that the one factuality is that elite took away the lion’s share when the interests of the poor were maintained in cold storage – well preserved, more so to seek their support rather than genuine concern. However, even when secondary contradictions prevailed, they did not supplant the primary ones. This, at one hand, strengthened the movement and, on the other hand, maintained the primal relations with their specific classes.

British colonialism may be broadly divided into three phases- mercantile, industrial, and financial. The strategies varied with every phase but the basic idea of looting India and making it a slave to the British capitalist interest was constant in all. In Imperialists parlance, capitalism is the highest state of development hence, India progressed. Even when each progress, such as transportation, communication, emergence of new classes and modernity, took place in their interest, it certainly had positive impacts on the nation. However, Marxists were defeated in understanding the Indian national movement for they could not come to a common ground in deciding the enemy- Was it the British bourgeoisie or the Indian bourgeoisie? The multiple class foundation of the nation was not taken into account, which debunked their ideologies. The transfer of power from British bourgeoisie to Indian bourgeoisie in 1947 has been termed as ‘position of war’ by Antonio Gramsci.

Various schools assert that ‘Nationalism’ was never known to India (it was only a by-product of the British rule) and that India was never a nation but an assortment of various castes, classes, and communities. India’s coming out as an integrated, unified and powerful front, thus, must be accredited to the British. Gandhi had a very different ideology though. He purported that the concept of a nation and nationalism has always prevailed in India. Only that it was a concept polar opposite to that of the European concept of nationalism where political unity was preferred over cultural unity. Gandhi stated, “The British has made India more helpless than she was before, politically and economically.” Therefore, in terms of ‘Hind Swaraj’, to credit the British rule for our nationhood is a misrepresentation of the historiography of India. In the political realm also, British created an independent judicial system, ensured freedom of Press but underlying this mien of a somewhat democratic state was the most authoritarian way of disposal on the slightest challenge to the British. The semblance of this judicial system evanesced and the most undemocratic injunctions superseded them, giving discretion to men rather than law. The freedom of the Press was strangulated and throttled in a way that it ceased to exist.

British are said to have made certain democratisation measures that educated Indians on administration grounds. Some such constitutional Acts were laid down in 1861, 1892, 1909, 1919, and 1935. As a counter argument, it was a measure undertaken to ensure legitimacy and stability of the British regime. British organised a strong set-up of military and police in the country that continued to be favourable post-independence era but not to forget is the verity that such armed forces subsisted only to placate the otherwise rising wave of nationalism. Therewithal, these armed forces only ensured their continued reign in the Indian nation. Edward W. Said professes, “Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate”. Hence, it is for us to scrutinize the cake-layered rule of the British and support the argument in favour of its constructability or destructibility.

India could never develop as a strong national identity had it not been for the leaders of the national movement channelizing the masses’ rage and guiding them. However, the Imperialist school believes that there dwelt a great many leaders who sought self-promotion and favours from the ruling party to a point that they indulged in a severe competition amongst themselves. Such national leaders pacified the local leaders by guaranteeing them the fringe benefits. And, that was the chief reason for their camaraderie. If one was to undoubtedly follow the Imperialists point of view, one must wonder what, then, lead to our independence since nothing seems to be constructive and worthwhile for them –  Neither the British,  nor  the Indian leaders,  nor the masses, nor the Indian nation. Tapan Roy Choudhary has ridiculed it as ‘animal politics’. It surpasses the Machiavellian politics. History bears a testimony to the falsification and negation of the Imperialists beliefs. The leaders incessantly fought to eradicate any form of communalism and inculcate secularism. True, the partition did take place on communal grounds followed by a treacherous communal holocaust but India succeeded in incorporating secularism in the constitution. Taking the social experiences of the colonized under the colonizers and arriving at a conclusive, common interest, they developed a crisp, unambiguous anti-colonial ideology. The national movement did not lack such unprecedented leaders but equally distinguishable were those who worked days and nights for the present-day India- abandoning homes, overlooking their needs, while their children starved to death. In Subhash Chandra Bose’s (founder of the Indian National Army) words:

“One individual may die for an idea; but that idea will, after his death, incarnate itself in a thousand lives. That is how the wheel of evolution moves on and the ideas and dreams of one nation are bequeathed to the next.”

The nineteenth century colonial era is known for a great many religious and social reforms like abolition of child marriage, sati, widow-remarriage, untouchability etc. that gave mobility to women and the lower classes in terms of the national movement and otherwise. With the emergence of nationalism, gender issues, initially, were put on the back burner and later, died out. Feminists like Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid assert that the reformist movements taken up by the colonial administration only strengthened patriarchy irrevocably. In their book , Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, they contend that all said and done, these reforms were, in truth, the consequence of the ‘modernizing movement’ as opposed to ‘democratising movement’. Modernizing movement led to the advancement of the middle class women while keeping the working class women on the back burner. Democratising movement, on the other hand, worked towards the betterment of the women from weaker sections of the class hierarchies. So, while these socio-religious reforms, in a way, modernized the society, it also upheld, incidentally, the strong hold of patriarchy. Along the same lines, the institution of patriarchy was reiterated through land revenue . Individual landownership was granted to landowners which not only concentrated the economy to a particular powerful class but led to the worsening conditions of the proletariats, doubly so for women who could not own lands. With the emergence of Nationalism, such gender issues took a back seat, due to the urgency of the prior but later they faded away for they were said to be coming from a westernised, liberal system.

Before vacating India, British generated the seeds of communalism so much so that India suffered a partition. However, Sumit Sarkar professes, “Simply blaming the British for the communal riots was quite an inadequate response. Satan cannot enter till he finds a flaw.”  Just with the awakening of India on the eve of its independence, the bloodiest carnage followed. A mass exodus mingled with rapes, abductions, murders and mutilations followed on the streets on both sides of the border. Even the armed forces and administration was caught  in this communal and political frenzy so as to be unprejudiced in their discourse. In such a scenario, one grappled with the idea of nationality. Was it the geographical fence or the sense of belongingness wherefore laid the cultural background?  How does one cope up with the crisis of values and identity?  Men rode around in jeeps, murdering and raping  people found roaming on the streets, third degree methods were appropriated to extract the ‘truth’ from innocent victims, testicles twisted till one was unconscious with pain, powdered chillies shoved up the rectum , hands and legs tied to charpoy and a dozen policemen urinated on the victims—such was the torment suffered by people only born in a certain religion. Not to mention, the same transpired on the other side of the border post the partition. Today, the hatred is internalised to the extent that one needs no third party to instigate it.

One tends to believe that post-colonialism brings with itself independence and non-domination and often, neo-colonialism is confused with post-colonialism . Neo-colonialism is the attempt of the Occidental to dominate the socio-economic system of the Third world countries in the post-independent era whereas post-colonialism is a much more subtle phenomena. On the one hand, it records decolonisation which led to the independence of multiple countries but on the other hand, it marks that the multi-faceted domination that these countries suffered was so internalised that it seemed impossible to withdraw themselves. Moreover, post-colonial thinking does not end in observing such a sad state of affairs but it goes beyond and claims putting an end to it. It is this totality of affairs- from identification to intervention to remediation- that is post colonialism. The central question that arose post-independence was – How must India cope with its colonial past? Must she disburden herself from the past, organise herself according to the past, or resort to the earlier Indian lifestyle? Every choice was much difficult than what appeared on the face value. Reason being; the elite (the ones in power now) were drenched in the colonial lifestyle. Their earlier support in the national movement was to supersede the colonial masters rather than creating a nation that followed its own culture. Moreover, the West, post independence, was constantly retrying to overpower India. In such a scenario, there was a fair chance of an alliance between the ‘free’ men (elite) and the ex-colonisers. That was precisely the reason why ‘neo-colonialism’ came into being. In addition, the cold war between the Soviet Union and USA persuaded the Third World countries to join either of them, which doubly threatened their independence. The non-alignment movement led by Nehru, Naseer and Sukarno were not of much help. It was only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the process of post-colonialism was intensified.It aspired to free people from any kind of tyranny and regain their voice, freedom and identity by uprooting the strong colonial rule. However, even then it could not trace back and indulge in any kind of revivalism- whether philosophical or institutional. One wonders, then, if India is really free.









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