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India needs to challenge colonialism in its own language. But solution isn’t Hindu worldview

There's no cut-off time to recover India's 'indigenous consciousness'—it's the product of a colonial mindset. Think across traditions, ask real questions.

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Are we still colonised? As we march towards the 75th anniversary of attaining political freedom, we must ask: Have we attained swaraj in ideas? The aggressive questioning of the deracinated ‘Khan Market elite’ has given a new context and renewed urgency to this question.

Professor Sudipta Kaviraj, political theorist at Columbia University, addressed these questions squarely in a recent lecture. Titled ‘Anthropology of the Self,’ the lecture was conducted in the memory of Professor Partha Mukherjee, a leading sociologist who passed away last year.

Normally, one would not expect Marxist scholars like Professor Kaviraj to entertain this question. Marxists have generally been dismissive of those who raise the issue of Western cultural colonialism. As his former student, I was not surprised by what he said. Starting as a scholar of Karl Marx’s ideas and its application to study Indian politics, he always maintained distance from Marxist orthodoxy and has interrogated the Eurocentric assumptions of Marxists ideology as well as Karl Marx himself. Of late, he has turned his attention to cultural and intellectual history, including the Mahabharata and the Bengali Vaishnavite tradition.

Unlike most Leftists, he was candid enough to acknowledge that while we have overcome political colonisation and addressed economic colonialism, we continue to suffer from cultural and intellectual colonialism. We exemplify “a self, a colonial self, studying itself as if it is studying a stranger,” he said. He traces it to a “double estrangement”. We think about our society through concepts that were meant for a very different type of society. And we think in English, not in the languages used by ordinary people who we theorise about. Added to these is the institutional dominance of Western academia, which serves to cement a hierarchy of knowledge.

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Old question, new times

The question he asked is at least two centuries old. Challenging the dominance of the colonial worldview was central to 19th-century thinkers like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Swami Vivekananda, and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya. This weighed heavily on the minds of almost all the nationalist thinkers, especially Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, and Maulana Azad. In a sense, Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was a response to this question. K. C. Bhattacharya’s seminal essay ‘Swaraj in Ideas’ captured this nationalist concern.

With the slackening of concern for cultural autonomy after Independence, India witnessed a sharp rise in Westernised, imitative intelligentsia. Even then, thinkers like Rammanohar Lohia, Kishen Pattnayak, Nirmal Verma, Ramesh Chandra Shah and Dharampal kept this concern alive. Ashis Nandy’s book Intimate Enemy (1983) helped break academic silence on this issue. This coincided with the shift in Western academia, following Edward Said’s Orientalism that critiqued the framing of the “Orient” by the West. The rise of post-colonialism, again led by Western academia, has mainstreamed the critique of colonial cultural dominance.

How do we respond to this challenge of intellectual decolonisation in our times? Two recent books, from opposite ends of the ideological divide, address this issue. Both these interventions share Professor Kaviraj’s assessment that our current modes of making sense of India are largely Eurocentric and seriously in need of repair. Both of these find the post-colonial intervention inadequate and instead argue for the “decolonisation” of our knowledge frames. But their understanding of what decoloniality entails differs radically.

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Search for indigenous consciousness

The first book is India that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilization, Constitution (Bloomsbury India, 2021) by J. Sai Deepak, an engineer-turned-advocate. While he rejects the idea of “Hindu nationalism” and eschews reference to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the book is, without doubt, an attempt to provide a deeper intellectual foundation for this political camp. The burden of his argument is that coloniality has shaped what passes for our modern knowledge of Indian society, its history and present, including categories like caste or tribe. This understanding has shaped the institutional architecture of post-Independence India, including the very idea of a nation-state. This is a valid, though no longer novel, reading, worth remembering and repeating. As I mentioned above, this is very much the thrust of social theory, coming from Western academia for the past three decades.

Where Sai Deepak differs from other critics of coloniality is his insistence that the main driving force behind British colonialism was Christian political theology and that this was preceded by “Middle Eastern colonialism”. For him, decolonisation is about overcoming the impact of this dual colonialism. This would mean the recovery of indigenous ‘Bharatiya consciousness,’ which is preserved by group identity. This would entail recognising India as a civilisation-state, not a nation-state and aligning our legal-constitutional architecture with our civilisational consciousness. Rephrased into simple English, it would read as follows: In order to overcome the dual burden of British and Muslim subjugation, we must recover the authentic Hindu worldview and rewrite the Constitution accordingly.

My problem with this interpretation of decoloniality is not just that I vehemently disagree with its political implications but mainly that this is a product of a typical colonised mind. I cannot think of an expression more colonial than ‘Middle East’ — Whose east? Middle of what? Similarly, the assumption that there has to be a cut-off date (the eighth century, according to Sai Deepak) that separates authentic indigenous consciousness from impure foreign intrusions is another piece of colonial and colonised history writing. And it would take a perverse colonial mind to completely disregard the role of India’s freedom struggle in redefining the civilisational consciousness of our times.

I picked up this book in the hope of finding a serious pro-RSS/BJP interlocutor, something largely missing from our intellectual landscape. Frankly, I was disappointed. He is clever, but as yet unable to engage seriously with alternative formulations of decoloniality. I could not help thinking that Sai Deepak could begin the project of decoloniality by educating himself on the fascinating debates on this issue in India. It is rather odd that an Indian book on decoloniality has no mention of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Lohia’s Marx, Gandhi and Socialism or Ashis Nandy’s Intimate Enemy. This book is the first in a promised trilogy, and one should hope that the author might attend to some of these gaps in his reading list. As of now, Sai Deepak presents us with a model of how not to go about decolonising ourselves.

Also read: Hindi’s hegemony didn’t start with NEP, Amit Shah or Ajay Devgn. It’s been on since 1947

Dialogue across traditions

Coming from the opposite ideological end, Aditya Nigam makes a more subtle, if consciously modest, proposal in his Decolonising Theory: Thinking Across Traditions (Bloomsbury India, 2020). Like Prof. Kaviraj, he too comes from a heterodox tradition within Marxism. He does not waste his energies on the critique of Eurocentricism, for this task has been accomplished. Aditya Nigam is focused on how to decolonise our theoretical apparatus. Although his book was published before Sai Deepak’s, it anticipates and responds to his argument. He argues, quite persuasively, that the search for pristine, authentic and indigenous perspective is a chimera. We don’t have a developed indigenous tradition of social and political theorising, nor can we wish away the elements of modernity that constitute our present.

Aditya Nigam makes a more grounded proposal.  We must begin with the here and now. Our starting point could be an unpacking and reworking of the Western social theory that we have received. This could be supplemented with learning from other post-colonial societies that went through a similar experience. Along with this, we should develop our own concepts – he offers a reworked concept of the mandala, Puranic thought, and the ‘para-modern’ as examples, offering a better fit for our reality. This is what he means by thinking across traditions.

What I liked most is a fleeting suggestion at the end of the book: “How we then frame our questions and proceed to answer them seem to me to be questions of critical importance.” I wish the author had pursued the radical suggestion implicit here. Practical problem-solving offers a way past any theoretical logjam. The challenge of decolonisation, with this reading, is about asking real-life questions that ordinary actors raise in their own language, rather than from the expectations generated by received, colonised theory. A good theory or concept is one that helps the practitioners make sense of and see their way forward in the language and the world that they operate in. In the last instance, decolonisation is about cultural and civilisational confidence in asking our own questions and searching for answers that work for us.

Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. 

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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