Excerpt: The Indians edited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar - Hindustan Times
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Excerpt: The Indians; Histories of a Civilization edited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar

ByMohinder Singh
Jul 21, 2023 09:02 PM IST

This extract, a chapter entitled Perceptions of Colonialism by Mohinder Singh presents the range of perceptions and responses to colonialism in the country

It is an interesting fact of history that the concept of civilization emerged in northwestern Europe in the same decades of 1750s and 1760s during which the foundations of the colonial regime were laid in India after the East India Company’s successive victories in the battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764) (Febvre, 1998). While initially emerging as a concept to refer to and theorize the emergent modes of civility and urban sociability of the post-feudal bourgeois world in Europe, civilization soon came to be used as a key ideological and political concept for the legitimation of European colonialism. The latter usage emerged along with the category of the West and the concomitant binaries of East–West and Orient–Occident during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The eighteenth century is also the period during which the geographical contours of Europe and other continents are marked clearly through the use of new cartographic practices. By the early nineteenth century, Europe is firmly placed on the “top of the world” not just in the new cartographic regime, but also, metaphorically, through the claims of civilizational superiority. This combination of discursive representations became important determinants of the perceptions of colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Portrait of an East India Company official (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
Portrait of an East India Company official (Shutterstock)

Illustration of the battle between the British army and rebels near the walls of Delhi during the first war of independence. Created by Dulong, published on L’Illustration Journal Universel, Paris, 1857 (Shutterstock)
Illustration of the battle between the British army and rebels near the walls of Delhi during the first war of independence. Created by Dulong, published on L’Illustration Journal Universel, Paris, 1857 (Shutterstock)

It is important to begin with a brief introduction to the concept of civilization as most of the perceptions of and responses to colonialism in the colonized world were framed in civilizational terms. These perceptions and responses can be gleaned from a variety of literary sources: autobiographies, travelogues, literary genres of fiction like novels, stories, plays, genres of satire, and the great texts of political thinking produced during this period. Before the Battle of Plassey, the Mughals and the elites linked to the Mughal rule — both Muslims and Hindus — treated the East India Company as one among the several firangi companies present in the subcontinent since the early seventeenth century. They did not have an appreciative view of several of their civilizational practices including their cleaning and toilette practices. The mutual comparison of the respective cultural and other practices between the Europeans and the Indian elite happened broadly on the basis of equality. Similarly, the travelogues written by the Indian visitors to Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century — by visitors like Mirza Shaikh Ihtishamuddin and Mirza Abu Taleb Ispahani — reveal that though they appreciated several scientific, technological, and political achievements of the Europeans, they did not exhibit any sense of civilizational inferiority. The appreciation was accompanied by criticism (Chatterjee, 2012; Majeed, 2007).

This perception began to change drastically and decisively in the early decades of the nineteenth century, particularly among the new Indian elites exposed to Western education. This change in perception corresponds to the change in attitude and policies of the colonial government from relatively non-interventionist approach to a more reformist approach to the social and religious practices of the “natives”, reflecting the selfconscious post-Enlightenment “civilizing mission” that the utilitarian liberals favoured. Consequently, the propagation of the theme of “moral and material progress” of the West became more aggressive in the colonial discourse. Gradually, the colonial power came to acquire a psychic life that would tend to affect the deepest level of the psyche of educated Indians, a power that Ashis Nandy has described as ‘intimate enemy’ in his classic work on the “loss and recovery of self under colonialism”.

Rabindranath Tagore. “For Tagore, one of the most disturbing aspects of a commerce-based civilization was its tendency to reverse the hierarchy of human values.” (HT Photo)
Rabindranath Tagore. “For Tagore, one of the most disturbing aspects of a commerce-based civilization was its tendency to reverse the hierarchy of human values.” (HT Photo)

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century (Nandy, 1983), this change in perception of colonialism gets reflected in the change in perception among the Indians about their own traditions. This new perception, exhibiting a level of self-doubt was substantially different from the one found in the eighteenth-century Indian travel accounts discussed above. The nineteenth-century Indian social and religious reformers — both Hindu and Muslim — like Syed Ahmad Khan, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Keshav Chandra Sen, and early nationalists like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in different ways reflect this change in perception. One of the main features of this perception was the recognition of the historical need to reflect weaknesses, drawbacks, and failures of the Indians in the mirror of the western progress. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, there is an attempt to reverse the hierarchy of the binaries of the East and the West. Yet, the binaries constructed by the colonial discourse get accepted at a deeper level. The most prominent representative of this approach is Swami Vivekananda’s nationalist discourse, in which the West stands for achievement in the domain of material progress and the East comes to be the depository of the spiritual powers of humanity.

Some of the leading Indian social reformers and nationalists in the nineteenth century regarded British rule as “providential” that connected India to the global forces of civilization and progress. Yet, at the same time, the powerful economic critique of the colonial rule developed in the late nineteenth century also began to consider British rule as primarily exploitative and was in a relation of immanent contradiction with its own putative claims. By the early twentieth century, the dominant discourse of nationalism is able to resolve these apparently conflicting perspectives in these terms: India as a nation should try to emulate the West by following the Western models of economic, political, scientific, and technological progress while maintaining its distinct cultural identity. This is the argument that Partha Chatterjee has made in terms of the nationalist division of the outer and inner domains (Chatterjee, 1993). In the early twentieth century, Japan emerged as an Asian giant that provided the model for the viability of this sort of resolution. The dominant nationalist idea of self-rule or swaraj in the early twentieth century was articulated in these terms.

By the early twentieth century, the Western claims of civilization and progress began to unravel globally as the Western nations were shown to be involved in destructive imperialist wars culminating in the World Wars. Around the same time, the Marxist critique that considered colonialism and imperialism as products of the logic of capitalism was becoming popular through the spread of working-class movements globally. In India, this critique was taken forward in communist, socialist, and Nehruvian political perspectives. However, these perspectives were also based on historicist assumptions of the colonial rule, whereby, though founded on exploitative motives, the colonial rule also worked as a historical force [an “unconscious tool” of history in Marx’s words] that put India on the historical march towards a liberated socialist humanity.

BR Ambedkar. “Ambedkar also thought of colonialism as having played a historical role of putting India in contact with modern civilization with its conceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity and made Indian society reflective of its own shameful hierarchical social divisions and the religious-legal codes sustaining them.” (HT Photo)
BR Ambedkar. “Ambedkar also thought of colonialism as having played a historical role of putting India in contact with modern civilization with its conceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity and made Indian society reflective of its own shameful hierarchical social divisions and the religious-legal codes sustaining them.” (HT Photo)

Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar too broadly agreed with the Left nationalist assessments of colonialism as a fundamentally exploitative system that was out of tune with the spirit of the times. Again, along similar lines, Ambedkar also thought of colonialism as having played a historical role of putting India in contact with modern civilization with its conceptions of liberty, equality, and fraternity and made Indian society reflective of its own shameful hierarchical social divisions and the religious-legal codes sustaining them. This historical contact in turn had — from the perspectives of the untouchable castes — opened up liberatory possibilities for them in secular terms (Geetha, 2021).

In many regards, Mahatma Gandhi’s and Rabindranath Tagore’s perspectives on colonialism were radically different from all the others discussed earlier insofar as their responses went much deeper in questioning the West’s claim to civilizational superiority. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, written and published in 1909, was the first major frontal attack on modern Western civilization represented by colonialism by a non-Western thinker. Tagore’s critique can be found in his essays on nationalism written and published in the middle of World War I. In addition, he wrote essays directly critiquing the notions of civilization and progress in the 1930s, including his last essay, Crisis in Civilization, questioning the foundational claims of Western modernity.

Both Gandhi and Tagore refused to rehash the nationalist material – spiritual binary. Though they did work with the categories of East and West, they were both careful in emphasizing that it was the modern industrial civilizational that was their main target of critique. For Gandhi, civilization ie, modern civilization is defined by its ability to increase physical comfort and material prosperity. This civilization, he noted, didn’t care about ethical questions of good and bad or good and evil. It is just a quantitative measure of material progress. But the main characteristic of a “true civilization” Gandhi argued, was the promotion of good conduct and mastery over mind and passions. Similarly, for Tagore, one of the most disturbing aspects of a commerce-based civilization was its tendency to reverse the hierarchy of human values. While in earlier civilizations, “lower passions”’ like selfishness were subordinated, the modern civilization respected no such hierarchy, often glorifying the lower passions instead. Tagore believed that such fundamental reversal in the hierarchy of human values had a deadening impact on human sensibilities and led to the loss of touch with what truly made human beings human.

MK Gandhi. “The main characteristic of a “true civilization” Gandhi argued, was the promotion of good conduct and mastery over mind and passions.” (HT Photo)
MK Gandhi. “The main characteristic of a “true civilization” Gandhi argued, was the promotion of good conduct and mastery over mind and passions.” (HT Photo)

However, not the entire range of perceptions and responses to colonialism is covered by this mode of engagement, ie, within the form and the terms set by the Western colonial discourse itself. A whole range of responses fall outside it, primarily those connected to the subaltern groups — peasants, workers, and the tribal communities.These groups were the worst victims of colonialism and important actors in resistance to it, including in the most widespread anti-colonial revolt of 1857. Since the subaltern discourse is primarily characterized by the absence of literary sources, historians have struggled to develop appropriate techniques of recovering the subaltern “voice”. Ranajit Guha, Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, and other Subaltern Studies historians made important breakthroughs in historiography in this regard building on which scholars have taken the field further. One of the methods pioneered by Guha is to read the colonial official sources — “the prose of counter insurgency” — that record the subaltern acts of resistance in their own narrative framing, ie, “against the grain” or through a rigorous deconstruction of these sources to get as close as possible to recovering the subaltern voice.

Similar reading techniques have been used by folklore historians insofar as folklores, though important sources of the subaltern perception of colonialism, were also collected primarily by colonial ethnographers and language surveyors. What the historians of subaltern resistance and the folklores are able to distil through their critical reading techniques is that the colonial government was clearly placed among one of the main enemies along with the with the other local exploiters—the landlords and the moneylenders. In addition, the colonizers were also identified as the racial “other”: as in the expression “pale-faced invaders” used for the British rulers by the 1857 rebel farmers in North India. The 1857 rebels specifically targeted the structures associated with the British rule — telegraphs, post offices, and police stations. Several popular folklores represented the British as manifestation of evil spirits. Instances of popular rumours about the ‘evil’ intentions of the colonial government; for instance the spray of DDT being interpreted as poisoning of the wells. Such instances of radical “othering” of the foreign colonizers would eventually help in the emergence of the category of “Indian people”, despite the internal distance and differences with the educated elite. By the early decades of the twentieth century, however, the subaltern masses of the people are successfully mobilized in the anti-colonial struggle for national freedom, which was primarily led by the educated elites.

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