Reclaiming our past and our present from the West

Updated on Sep 20, 2022 08:46 PM IST

One cannot ignore that the legacy of colonialism shapes us in debilitating ways. An example is what colonialism has done to knowledge, that is, to questions like what we know and how we know it

The monopolisation of the past by history has produced ugly consequences in many parts of the world, including in India. (AP) PREMIUM
The monopolisation of the past by history has produced ugly consequences in many parts of the world, including in India. (AP)

The death of Queen Elizabeth II evoked two kinds of responses. It grieved many. But among people who — or whose ancestors — suffered British, European or western colonialism, it became an occasion to recall centuries of moral and practical harm. Western colonialism ended several decades ago, but its legacy lingers. The climate crisis, racial discrimination, territorial disputes, ethnic conflicts, and enduring poverty are only some of them. Western colonialism was largely responsible for the modernisation of most societies in our part of the world. Universal ideas such as human rights and liberal democracy may not have succeeded had western colonialism not created the conditions for their favourable reception among the elites that came to govern postcolonial countries — an excellent example being India. Non-western powers such as Japan, China, Turkey, and Russia have acted as empires of exceptional brutality. For example, Japanese deeds across East and Southeast Asia during World War II were unimaginably terrible; and the Turks attempted to wipe out the Armenians — killing perhaps a million and forcibly converting thousands to Islam — during World War I.

In recent years, multiple western governments and institutions have begun acknowledging the wrongs of their predecessors, leading many to apologise to the formerly colonised. The rising numbers of non-White faces in government, media and business in the United States, Canada and Britain illustrate the real gains of that willingness to admit past wrongs. And when compared to its peers such as China, Russia or many powers in the Muslim world, the West remains a force of good and stability in international affairs.

Yet, one cannot ignore that the legacy of western colonialism continues to shape us in the non-West in fundamental and debilitating ways. An example is what colonialism has done to knowledge, that is, to questions like what can we know and how we know it.

Consider the idea that history based on written records is the only legitimate way of accessing, understanding, and assessing the past. A result of how western societies became modern, this idea travelled to the colonised regions and, over time, became a global common sense. In the process, it outcompeted two traditional ways of living with the past: Memory and myth. Memory has the virtue of being subject to our tendency to forget, and this was helpful for societies with conflict-ridden pasts to forget some of what happened, attempt forgiveness for what was variously remembered, and move on.

The monopolisation of the past by history has produced ugly consequences in many parts of the world, including in India. Here, we have learnt history but we do it badly. History requires that we read records of the past within the context in which they were written. Instead, we read them to validate our notions of what may have happened. Worse, we have learnt to disfigure myths and mythology by reading full-blown facts into the epics – such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata – which are invaluable treasures but about whose connection to facts we must always remain uncertain.

Moreover, British historians divided Indian history into three periods: The glorious ancient, the barbarous medieval, and the progressive modern, corresponding, respectively, with Hindu, Muslim and western power. The framework for dividing the past into three parts was based on European history. But we made it our own, confusing the simplicity of a framework to study something with the simplistic conclusions we draw from it. The idea that all was glorious before the Muslims arrived; that all was barbarous when they held power; and that we turned towards progress only under the British is not just wrong — it is unreal.

There is one case which shows how deeply unfair the knowledge problem can be. It is extremely difficult for an Indian to write a good history of their own past, especially of the last several centuries before Independence. The reason is that a lot of the important material required to write any kind of decent history of India lies in British libraries, museums and private collections, moved there during colonial rule. Writers in the West have easy access to these resources and can write about our part of the world more easily, fully, and frequently than any one of us ever could.

The financial and logistical challenges of collecting such material are so immense that they invariably prevent even the most driven among those based in India or South Asia from doing what historical privilege allows our counterparts in the West to regularly do. One can be philosophical about this enduring gift of colonialism, but it makes one realise that so long as asymmetries of knowledge such as this exist, Indian academia can never level up with the so-called “world-class” institutions of the West. And it also means that we will always lag behind our western counterparts in creating knowledge about our past and present.

Queen Elizabeth II’s reign saw the transformation of a hierarchical British Empire into a community of equals called the Commonwealth. Her last major act was the appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister. Truss could partly decolonise the Queen’s legacy by announcing that her government would make all the resources concerning South Asia lying in British institutions and of South Asian origin digitally and freely available to Indians and South Asians. The principles of equity, access, and fairness require that this be done. A nudge from the South Block will help.

Atul Mishra teaches international relations at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence

The views expressed are personal

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