Decolonising the mind is a complex endeavour
A new history has begun through Kartavya Path, or the path of duty. Modi urged the nation to leave behind all vestiges of colonial mentality.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi inaugurated the transformed Central Vista and the statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on September 8. In his address on the occasion, Modi said that the symbol of slavery — Kingsway, that is Rajpath — was consigned to history and would disappear forever. In its place, a new history had begun through Kartavya Path, or the path of duty. Modi urged the nation to leave behind all vestiges of colonial mentality.
There can be no quarrel with Modi’s basic proposition that all Indians should shed slavish conventions of the British Raj and walk on the path of duty inspired by the spirit and sacrifice of leaders such as Bose. Quoting the great Tamil poet Bharathiyar, Modi urged Indians to help India achieve greatness and said this was only possible when citizens fulfil their duty. This is surely inspiring, but leads us to the question: What constitutes duty?
The sure guide of duty for all — including constitutional authorities, people’s representatives, civil and military officials and the ordinary people — is to follow the Constitution in all aspects. It is the basic document to which all Indian citizens can turn to whenever assailed by any questions concerning public policy, personal conduct or governance. Therefore, Kartavya Path should always remind the political class and the people that the path to duty passes through the Samvidhan or the Constitution.
Modi’s exhortation to Indians to abandon slavish mentality is unexceptionable, especially after 75 years of Independence. At the same time, it cannot be overlooked that the Indian response to British colonialism was essentially an authentic expression of an enslaved people to discover the achievements of their past, usher in social reform, forge a sense of nationalism, and imbibe universal values of rights and egalitarianism emerging from European Enlightenment. Thomas Babington Macaulay may have wanted to develop a group of British clones cut off from their roots but the Indian renaissance did not let him succeed.
Eradicating the influence of past colonialism has been an avowed focus of this government. In his October 2019 lecture to the Atlantic Council in Washington, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said “…the old elite is now out of business and really you have a new set of people there with different thoughts, with their own sense of roots who relate to the world obviously differently from the people who dominated the Indian political scene before them”. In the same address, he eloquently, though briefly, mentioned the colonial exploitation of India and noted “…that the history of India and the West is also the history of really a famine, of slavery, of opium trade, so that is a very dark side.” It can be confidently asserted that on these points, the “old elite” or the “new set of people” have no difference of opinion.
There will always be differences in the nuances of what constitutes colonial mentality. This is especially because Independence did not mark a complete rupture of relations with Britain, or an abandonment of the institutions of governance and an overhaul of the legal framework developed during British rule. The approach of the “old elite”, of which Vallabhbhai Patel was a part, was to opt for an evolutionary approach regarding the institutions of governance while quickly instilling in them the spirit of the independent Indian Republic. In many respects, the “new set of people” — for all the changes they want in public culture and modes of expression — has not shifted from the old approach.
A particularly relevant example of this similarity or continuity is evident today. The “old elite” led by then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed that India would continue to be a member of the Commonwealth even after it became a Republic. The organisation’s norms were changed to prescribe that King George VI became its head instead of the Crown. Later, Nehru also agreed to Queen Elizabeth II taking over as head of the Commonwealth when she became the British monarch. But why did India agree in 2018 that Charles would succeed his mother when he became king? Certainly, India has always insisted that the international order should be democratic. It was, therefore, strange that it did not insist that after Queen Elizabeth II, the head of a multilateral organisation such as the Commonwealth should be elected. Thus, the “new set of people” acted like the “old elite” in this matter.
Thus, removing colonialism and its remnants from the Indian mindset is a complex project with no black-and-white answers. Indeed, this is also part of a larger, and somewhat related, issue: Does not Kartavya Path now demand the proud and valiant Army of the Indian Republic to abandon the legacy of how some of its units were raised? That would be a fitting tribute to Netaji, the Indian National Army he built, and the hero of the 1857 war of Independence, Mangal Pandey.
Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat
The views expressed are personal