Decolonizing English Studies: Attaining Swaraj
by Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD
Let me begin by saying in a few words what I will not do in this presentation. One way of accomplishing this is by telling you what I had planned to do initially and why I won’t be able to do it today. As you all know, I am supposed to give the Valedictory Address in this seminar. A Valedictory Address, among other things, is meant to sum up what has gone before. So the original plan was somehow to supplement or to complement or to try to round up what had happened in this seminar itself, thereby to try and bring to a completion what Professor Kapil Kapoor had initiated in his Keynote at the beginning.
You will remember that Professor Kapoor wished to give a direction to our endeavors here. I thought I could contribute to this task by attempting an internal audit on my own ideas on this topic of decolonization. I wanted to ask myself how my own ideas had progressed or changed or grown over since my book Decolonization and Development: Hind Swaraj Revisioned (1993) was published. That is what I had originally planned to do: to sum up the key ideas of this seminar and to offer my own reflections on the topic of decolonizing English Studies. But, as I just told you, I won’t be able to do that today. There’s a very simple reason for this. The fact is that my slot was changed from that of the original Valedictory Address to an earlier slot at the behest of Professor Kapoor. My paper, thus, will not be presented in the Valedictory session and must therefore attempt to do something slightly different.
Let me begin this process without further ado by dedicating, with his permission, this presentation to Professor Kapoor. Professor Kapoor is responsible, in more ways than one, for this. Not only for the change in the slot, but also for my being here today. Now, I want to tell you why I have made it a point to dedicate this presentation to Professor Kapoor.
You know that in our Indian traditions, at the start of anything auspicious, we try to dedicate what we do to something that is higher than us. Right? Something or someone that we respect, admire, and revere. And, let me tell you, there are a lot of advantages in doing this. One obvious advantage is that if you make any mistakes then you are not responsible, that higher authority is! Of course, Prof. Krishnaswamy, our esteemed Chair, has already said that we Indians are a very tolerant lot. So I know that you are going to be very tolerant to me. But to forestall any more problems that might arise, and as an added precaution, it’s advantageous to start by this gesture.
But, you know that it is not only in trivial or unworthy things, such as my presentation, that we safeguard ourselves by such a dedication, as I am doing now. In fact, at the commencement of even our best and highest endeavours we say “Hum jo kuch kar rahen hain, Ishwar ko samarpit karte hai.” If you listen to the parayan or recitation of the Vishnu Saharaswanamam you know that they say in the end, Kayena vacha manesendriyerva buddhyatamanava prakriteii swabhava karomi yagnyt sakala parasmaii, Narayanayeti samarpayami. What is this “Narayanayeti samarpayami?” and why is it important? We say that not only as a conventional “thank you,” but also as an expression of our devotion to the highest principle in the cosmos. We present our endeavours as a sacrificial offering so that they are purified and blessed. So, whenever we want to undertake a noble endeavour, we not only seek and invoke the blessings of those who are better than us and whose help we need at the beginning, we also offer them to the Divine at the end so that our actions and efforts are sanctified and purified. So I would like to follow that tradition today by invoking Professor Kapoor’s anugraha drishti and the beginning and, when I’m done, to offer the fruits of what follows to that which is even higher. Professor Kapoor desired that my slot be changed so that he could listen to me. I pray to him to look upon my efforts kindly and to bless me as he attends to my words.
But let me hasten to clarify that it is not only to cover up my own flaws and frailties that I want to dedicate this presentation to Professor Kapoor. On the contrary, I would like to pay my own humble tribute to his achievements as a thinker, as a scholar and a teacher today. What is more, I wish to do this not only as a younger colleague of his, but also as a proponent of decolonization, to discuss which process we are gathered over past two days. For those of you who don’t know him personally-and I think there are very few such people in this room today-let me say a few words about him. Consider these remarks as a part of the opening gambit of my presentation. I would like to link his work to the topic of the seminar, which is Decolonizing English Education.
To this end, of his many achievements, I want to highlight four things that he has accomplished. The first thing, which I think is really radical, is that Professor Kapoor has introduced into the curriculum of English Studies in India certain texts which are very crucial to changing the direction of our thinking. He has introduced courses on three seminal texts of Classical Indian thought: Bhartrihari’s Vakyapadiya, Panini’s Asthadhyayi, and Bharata’sNatyashastra. He has also introduced other key texts from both the aesthetic and the philosophical traditions, such as Dhvanyaloka or Kathopanishad into the syllabus of an M.A. English programme. Now as far as I know this is not been done by anybody else, anywhere else in India, or for that matter, in the world. What is more, he has done this in a place such as J.N.U., which, as you know, is the bastion, in fact, almost the monopoly of a certain ideology.
In fact, somebody yesterday asked me about this. He said, “You’ve moved to J.N.U., how does it feel?” I said what do you mean, “How does it feel?” He said, “You know, how do you cope with the typecasting of yourself as a J.N.U. person, a person who’s teaching at J. N.U.?” The point of this exchange is simply an acknowledgement of the pressure of a certain kind of ideology and the hold it has on the mindset of our intelligentsia. In the middle of such as environment to introduce these texts has larger ramifications, which I am going to explain in a minute.
In this context I am reminded of what Professor K.J. Shah once told me. The late Professor Shah was a very important contemporary philosopher in India. He taught at Dharwad for many years, but didn’t publish that much. Let’s just say that he was a part of a very rich, vibrant, and powerful oral tradition, and that he influenced many, many thinkers, critics, scholars all over India. He told me, “The day I started reading the Manusmriti I lost my anxiety about the latest book published from abroad.” That remark was extremely important, not because of the particular text that he chose-how easy and cheap it would be to draw that kind of interpretation! The point is that the day you begin to take your own tradition seriously, you begin to get a strength, a grounding, a sense of belonging, a purpose, and an identity.
Professor Shah and I used to have these long discussions about precisely the kind of issues that we have been engaged in in this seminar. The key issue, to put it in a nutshell, is: what is wrong with the Indian mind today and how are we going to fix it? The choice of text that Professor Shah referred to might be disputed, though I don’t think we should dispute even that. In fact, there is a great need even to read a text such as Manusmriti, to read and interpret it seriously. Today, this text is being abused without being read. Even if we wish to reject it in the end, we must read it, understand what it contains, come to terms with its worldview, and the tradition to which it belongs. If we were to substitute Manusmriti by Panini’s Asthadhyayi or Bharatrihari’s Vakyapadiya or Bharata’s Natyashastra or Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka, or any other seminal texts of our tradition, the point still remains. What Professor Shah was saying was crucial. The day you start taking your own tradition seriously, you experience liberation, decolonization.
And this is something that I was submitting to Dr. Suguna Ramanathan before she left. I said that if you are serious about critiquing Indian traditions you first have to read them, you first have to engage with them. This, a lot of us are unable or unwilling to do. We are used to condemnation and repudiation, often mouthing the very words of those who tried systematically to destroy this civilization. This only amounts to a suicidal disregard for one’s culture, like cutting off the branch one is sitting on, or cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face. Reform, criticism, and reinscription have been perennial processes of our civilization. But for these processes to continue, we must know who we are and who we are not. For this, an acquaintance with the key texts and traditions of our past is imperative. This is my way of re-echoing what Professor Kapoor said to us in his Keynote Address. He was rephrasing Bhartrihari, you will remember, by saying, “What does he know, who knows not his own traditions?” Of course, Bhartrihari had said the opposite, “What does he know who only knows his own tradition?” Unfortunately, we have come to that stage today when we only know other people’s traditions and have become gloriously ignorant of our own! Hence, the need to rephrase Bhartrihari. It is Professor Kapoor’s singular achievement that he has brought several generations of students back to our own traditions by equipping them with that basic and liberative knowledge so essential for the growth or a modern mind and critical sensibility.
The second thing, in my opinion, that Professor Kapoor has done is to create a tradition or a parampara of students who are doing extraordinary work in J.N.U. You will see-and hear-two of them in action today, so I don’t what to steal their thunder by saying too much about them. But I guarantee you that the kind of topics and the kind of work that they, and many other students like them, have done under his guidance is again unprecedented in any Indian university, let alone in an English department. Some of his students have translated and prepared editions of important Classical texts, while others have applied Sanskrit poetics to modern literary texts in innovative ways.
The third thing is the establishment of a Centre of Sanskrit Studies at J.N.U. Let me remind you that it took thirty years since the inception of this university to have such a centre. We have programmes and courses in a dozen other languages, including Arabic, Persian, Spanish, French, German, and Russian, but not Sanskrit. It is Professor Kapoor who took the initiative to establish this Centre, that too from a very selfless motive. Neither is he going to teach there himself nor head it, nor benefit from it personally in any way, and yet he worked nearly single-handedly, in the teeth of opposition and indifference, to raise the funds and to lobby the UGC and the Ministry to ensure that the Centre was sanctioned. The unique thing about it is that it is completely independent with it own building. It is not under the aegis of any of the Schools that we have. It is also not a Centre merely for the study and dissemination of the Sanskrit language, of Sanskrit Studies, a broader category of research, which implies an inclusive civilizational orientation, not just a linguistic one. And this is his third great contribution.
The fourth thing-and there are many more-but I shall only mention four because, out of my own selfishness, I have to move on to other things, is that he has been one of the guiding lights, one of the key movers in the foundation of the Sanskrit Society of India. And if you want to know move about its activities you can talk to him or to Dr. Santosh Shukla, who is here with us and whom you heard yesterday. The foundation of the Sanskrit Society of India is indeed a very noble endeavour, which will help all of us in one way or another by putting us in touch with the power of our Classical traditions. That these traditions need to be, and have constantly been, reevaluated is beyond doubt; that they have to be studied first, however, is neither certain nor obvious to most people.
So these are the four things that I thought I should mention as my way of paying tribute to him, but also of reflecting upon the topic of our seminar.
Let me now turn to decolonization. The first question that comes to my mind when we talk about decolonization is how are we going to go about decolonizing ourselves? I think one way that has emerged in this seminar and has been known in the past is that of recovering our own indigenous and native and traditional knowledge systems and strengthening them. Now this work is being done in many different ways, in many different of India. For example, there is an organization called PPST or called Patriotic Peoples Science and Technology. What they have been trying to do is to look at indigenous science and technology, some of which survives to this day and was available before the British conquest. A lot of very important work has been done on this subject.
One of the people who inspired it, who has been connected with it is, Dharampalji and I would suggest that all of you should read a book called The Beautiful Tree. “The Beautiful Tree,” is of course a quotation taken from Mahatma Gandhi, as Professor Krishnaswamy pointed out on the first day of the seminar. When you destroy the root the whole beautiful tree perishes, right? Dharampalji’s book is called The Beautiful Tree because he wanted to show how strong the roots of our culture and civilization were before the British tried to destroy them.
What this book does is to look at education in 18th century India from British records. Note that unfortunately our own native records are usually not available. So Dharampalji looks at colonial records and the results are astonishing. We are used to thinking that before British rule, we were totally uneducated. In fact, the paradox is that literacy was higher in the 18th century, in certain parts of the country, than it is today. So in this survey of several villages in Tamil Nadu where records were maintained, we find that the populace in general was fairly well educated, regardless of caste.
Similarly, Dharampalji and others have looked at the state of science and technology in 18th century India, before British paramountcy or the consolidation of the Empire. The question is what was the state of India? The British would like us to believe that it was very, very backward, but their own records show that this was far from the case. Dharampalji’s Collected Works, should you be interested, are now available from The Other India Press in Goa. Claude Alvarez has published them. Claude’s work is also very important when we talk about indigenous science and technology. He did a Ph.D. on Indian science and technology in the Netherlands. When he was researching on this topic, he found very little material. At last, he came across one of Dharampalji’s articles, which he read like thirsty man drinks a glass of cool water.
Let me give you just one or two examples of our indigenous science and technology. One is the advanced metallurgical traditions of India. Nowadays we talk about the need to cut down on the high energy expended to make steel. In India, we had a tradition of small furnaces in which we made pretty high quality steel in villages. This skill was known and recorded in the 18th century and still continues today. Another example is inoculation. In Bengal there were people who toured the countryside inoculating adults and children against small pox. In the early 18th century, the British were learning from them. The latter made records, some of which are still available. Yet another example is plastic surgery. In Pune, for instance, barbers were expert plastic surgeons. There are detailed British records of how a person whose nose was cut off had a new nose grafted on to his face. Now, nose surgery is very sophisticated. Even today not everybody can do it. So also the case of artificial limbs. These were made, and continue to be made, extremely effectively in India. These knowledge systems-and many more-were available in India in the 18th century and some of them survive to this day.
So the point is that one way of decolonization is certainly by looking at traditional knowledge systems in whichever field they are. Whether they are in science and technology, whether they are in humanities, whether they are in social sciences and what Professor Kapoor has done is to help this process of recovery and renovation of traditional knowledge systems in our literary, aesthetic, and philosophical traditions.
Because there has been a rupture in own mind, that is to say that the continuity is broken, a lot of such work of recovery needs to be done before we can feel reconnected with ourselves. For example, when we read Aristotle we hardly realize that a lot of work had to be done on the Poetics before it could be applied it to texts. To make the past contemporary is the great task of the archeologist of knowledge. Similarly, a lot of work has to be done on our ancient texts, whether it’s the Natyashastra or Kavyamimansa or whatever. We need to make these texts not just available, but current; we need to make them applicable to our own lives and also to the literary texts that we read. So this is one important way of decolonizing ourselves and this is something that Professor Kapoor has been doing.
To move ahead, we all know that decolonisation means changing the mindset, right? But the question is whose mindset do we want to change? And how? This is when the question of agency comes in. Who is it that needs the change and who is going to be the agent of change? It is an extremely crucial question don’t you think? If you want to change the mindset you have to change the mindset of the culture determining group, the mindset of the so called elites of India. And one of the problems with the elites of India is that they are unable to recognize the work of any of their peers, so busy are they observing the latest developments in the West. That is where their sights are trained or, should I say, locked. Do you agree? Tell me how many people have been accorded recognition who have not been endorsed by the West? Whether it’s Rabindranath Tagore or Ravi Shankar, Mother Teresa or Arundhati Roy, you know the impetus for the process of recognition in India society comes from abroad. Even if you live and work in India, if you wish to be better known not abroad, but in your own country, you need to be published by Oxford University Press or Cambridge University Press or by Rutgers or Johns Hopkins or what have you. There are no well-established native systems of recognition and wherever these systems exist, they do so in a peculiar relation of subordination to those of the West. So, practically speaking, whatever you do in India is not going to be recognized. It might-will-be eventually but not now, not yet. So if you are Satyajit Ray you will not be recognized unless you get an award at Cannes. Ravi Shankar won’t be recognized until the Beatles lionize him. Even a Mahatma Gandhi had a C.F. Andrews or a Mira Behn; even he earned his satyagrahi spurs in South Africa before returning to India. Similarly, Swami Vivekananda had to go abroad, to the Parliament of Religions 1893, before Indians paid any attention to him.
You may give your life for this society and still die without a word of gratitude or kindness from your countrymen and women. Especially the intelligentsia-they will not appreciate what you have done. The people may love you for it, but the intelligentsia, whom I call the culture determining group, will continue to ignore you. You will not appear on NDTV, you will not be interviewed by Prannoy Roy. So this is the diseased mind we are dealing with. That is why it is all the more important, you know, to accord this recognition to one another, to read one another as a process of decolonization.
The first step is not to have this vertical and unequal relationship with the West, but to have a horizontal, mutually nourishing contact with your own peers, your own people. When Professor O. P. Juneja made his presentation yesterday, a disturbing thought that came to my mind. He spoke of how the course he had designed at the M.S. University was meant to subvert the canon, to teach dissent. The problem is that if you are first going to import the tools and the means of dissent, aren’t you actually consenting and compromising yourself in the first place. If your entire vocabulary of dissent is imported, if you import the methods of decolonization from your colonizers, how can you ever be free? Because you have to use Foucault to dissent your dissent is also in accordance to the dominant paradigm. I don’t wish to distort what Professor Juneja said in order to score a point. But, you know, the fact of the matter, Sir, is that there are official forms of assent and there are official forms of dissent. Unfortunately, these two options exhaust the possibilities of the elite’s cultural praxis. The crucial difference between dissenters and assenters almost evaporates as a result. So we have to be careful about relying too much on imported technologies of dissent.
I have been talking about the elites of India and what happens to their problem is that they utterly lack in self-confidence. Their self-contempt is to great that they are unable to recognize each other let alone read each other. We have another scholar in our midst today who exemplifies this neglect. Professor Jasbir Jain, who has been working for so many years, has certainly got much less recognition than, say, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. You know, comparisons are odious, but this is the fact. Look at the unequal relationship between the two: Professor Jain has to read Spivak or her own peers might think her illiterate, but Spivak has no such compulsions. Spivak, instead, makes her mark by translating Derrida! At J.N.U., for instance, where I teach contemporary literary theory, nobody wants to read our own critics-with the exception of Professor Kapoor’s classes, of course. They want to read the latest from the West. If you called Derrida to Delhi tomorrow you could fill a cricket stadium! But if announced a lecture by Ashis Nandy, you might have difficulty filling this hall. So there’s something terribly wrong with the Indian mindset.
That is why it’s so important that as a part of our decolonization process to recognize each other, read and cite each other’s work, and teach each other, none of which we do. Right? So, it is for some of these reasons that I wanted to pay tribute to Professor Kapoor and to dedicate this talk to him. I was shifted to an earlier slot because he wanted to listen to me. I am so grateful to him for having given me this. He has to catch a flight and I am so lucky to have spoken in his presence today. There are many other ways in which I am beholden to him but I would rather not talk about them today.
Before I end this section on changing the minds of our elites, I must emphasize and to appreciate the location of this seminar, the fact that this seminar on Decolonizing English Studies is taking place at the North Gujarat University of Patan. Here and I would like to congratulate Dr. Adesh Palji for having taken this initiative. Sir, you know a process of decolonization such as this will not happen, is not likely to begin from J.N.U. or Delhi University or the University of Hyderabad. Because these, by and large, are actually centres of neo-colonialism. That is why I resonate to what Dr. Adesh Pal said right on the first day, during the Inaugural. He said, we are a new university, that is why we can be brash or foolish enough to attempt something like this. What he was saying in effect is, look we don’t have this baggage, we don’t have these hang-ups. We are more innocent than you, we can afford to, take these risks-venture, as it were, where angels fear to tread. But here it’s the opposite-here angels have ventured where fools fear to tread. These initiatives are happening here because you are not the stakeholders and beneficiaries of neo-colonialism. The elites in Delhi or Bombay or Calcutta are. We who come from such centres of privilege and authority are the elites who have been the stakeholders and beneficiaries of colonialism and also neo-colonialism. And how will we, as beneficiaries, destroy our own power base and ourselves? “Apne hi pair pe kulhari kaun marega?” It is like that. We will not do it or we will twist it around in one way or another so that eventually it gets dilated and lost.
So, it is important that this initiative comes from Patan, from Gujarat, from the margin, so to speak. The centers, as I said, are already co-opted in this power game. That is all the more reason why I would like to make a suggestion to you, Sir. Please do let us not let this seminar go the way of many other seminars. Let’s do something concrete. Let’s try to produce, as a result of this seminar, a kind of decolonizing tool-kit, a resource pack so that anybody who wants to get involved, to join this endeavour would have some help on how it should be done.
Now I want to move on to my presentation proper after this very long preamble. I am reminded of what a friend of mine told me at a meeting at Sao Paolo. This was a meeting of activists from all over the world. I want to relate this briefly because after all we are all activists today sitting in this room. We are not just academies, you know, and in fact it is this activism which has its own joy and josh, it’s own ecstasy, you might even say. What my friend found very interesting about the Sao Paolo meeting was a distinctive pattern in the presentation. He found that there were the Europeans who had a particular style and then there were the Latin Americans, who had another style. The two discourse styles were quite different. The Europeans were extremely analytical and theoretical. And what were the Latin American people activists doing? They were not engaging in theory. They were telling stories! Stories of what? Well, they were sharing their experiences in the field and did so with a moving and powerful way. Telling your story, in a sense, is a more eloquent way of engagement and of consciousness raising, than being analytical and theoretical. Because, as the feminists used to say in the 1960’s, the personal is the political. What I’m trying to say is that since all of us are victims of colonization, simply telling our stories of how we dealt with it, how we got out of it, how we tried to liberate ourselves, is in itself producing theory. We create theory as we breathe because our lives exemplify the struggle against colonialism and neocolonialism. So telling your story is an alternative discourse style, which is what I wanted to adopt today. Not at very great length but to a very brief extent.
So, I want simply to tell you my own story, to share with you the trajectory that my own academic career. It is, no doubt, certainly a predictable trajectory on the one hand, but with some interesting variations on what might happen to a member of the Indian intelligentsia. I studied in Christian institutions, such as a lot of us did. Sometimes you have to study in such institutions to understand what happened to our country and culture. My school, Bishop Cotton Boys’ School, Bangalore, was modeled on Rugby. The then assistant headmaster of Rugby-you know that it was Matthew Arnold’s father who was the headmaster-a man called Rev. Cotton, later became the Bishop of Calcutta. There are two schools named after him, one in Shimla and one in Bangalore. In fact, in Bangalore, you have the Bishop Cotton Boys’ and the Bishop Cotton Girls’ Schools. These schools are more than a 120 years old, very old by modern Indian standards. They were created basically for Europeans and Anglo Indians so that the colonies too could turn out products like those of Rugby and Winchester and Eton and Harrow to run the British Empire. The motto of the School was the Latin injunction, Nec dec trosum, nec sinis trosum-neither to the right nor to the left! And the school song that we had you know by heart went something like this:
- On straight on!
On Cottonians on!
Muster on the side of right,
March like warriors to the fight.
See the foe and strike with might-
Nec dec trosum, nec sinis trosum.
When I look back at the school song, I shudder at how colonial it was. Who was the foe that had to be struck down with might? It was the Indian, the Maratha or the Sikh, or the Jat. We were the foes in that militarist 19th century colonial song! The first Indian Principal of the school was appointed when I reached high school in the 1970s. Until then, the School had been run by Rev. I. L. Thomas, an English bachelor who, though confined to a wheel chair, lived up to his designation of the Warden of the School. Most of our teachers were either of mixed Anglo-Indian stock or of Indo-Portuguese descent. Apart from the Smiths and the Jones and the Russels, there were the Pintos and the Rosarios and the Rodrigues. I even had a P.T. teacher who publically said, “Oh, these Indian names are too much for me so don’t expect me to pronounce them!” When I spoke of my nationalist leanings to my Anglo-Indian friend, Kenneth Luxa, he said, “Do you make your servants sit at the table with you? If you don’t, how can you claim equality with your former masters? You are a subject race and will remain so in the eyes of the world.” Kenneth, sure enough, left for Australia for good.
It is paradoxes such as these that in some way trigger your mental growth. From that kind of school, the transition to Madras Christian College, another old institution founded by the Presbyterians, was almost seamless. Thence to the even more elitist St. Stephen’s College of Delhi, formed a hundred years back by the Cambridge missionary brotherhood. This was a College famed for producing our civil servants. As soon as you entered, you got an English nick name. Aniruddha became Andy, Mandeep became Mandy, Chakravarty became Chuck, Bhaskar became Buck, and so on. It was not hard to understand the mindset of those who ruled India.
Then going abroad to the USA to study to see and experience how this thing called capitalism and imperialism and the engines of modernity really worked. It was like being Jonah in the Belly of the Beast and then coming back alive! Well, very few people do that, come back that is. And why would one want to come back at all? To a backward, slow, static, restricted, poor, underdeveloped country? Well, there was certain recklessness, certain exuberance to it. Now I see that the reason that one wanted to come back was to be a part of something bigger than oneself, something exciting and challenging. It was to participate in this process that was taking place in India. It was nothing short of the recovery and the remaking of a whole civilization. True, the site of this was the postcolonial nation, hamstrung by its selfish and callous elites. But this process of recovery and reassertion were undeniable and omnipresent.
“May you live in interesting times,” they say as a sort of backhanded blessing. Well, these are interesting times. No doubt about it. Interesting because so much is happening and so much is going unnoticed. Interesting because you matter so much and yet not at all. It is a strange and sublime narrative, this journey that all of us are a part of, one way or another. Nowadays as postmodernists, we tend to be very suspicious, especially of grand narratives. But, arguably, it is grand narratives that give a vision and a direction to all our local narratives. Nationalism was one grand narrative which illumined and touched, transformed and transfigured the lives of ordinary Indians by bringing them in contact with something that was so big and so elevating that their mundane realities were changed into something magical and meaningful. The struggle for freedom brought out the best in them. The spirit of sacrifice, the courage to fight, the will resist-the average man and woman discovered these.
This process of nationalism is not yet complete; Swaraj is still a distant dream. That is why I think that this great civilization of ours is in a process of rediscovering itself, reasserting itself, recovering itself, rejuvenating itself-and this is quite a grand narrative. It certainly has the energy to sustain us. Of course it has lots of distortions. I am not here to endorse everything that’s taking place in the name of this civilization. We have to be very skeptical and critical when we look at what happens in our culture. But what’s happening in India can be read as a great story to be a part of which has been my privilege. So I am very happy to have made the choice to come back. Without question, this country has given me everything and more than everything!
Dr. Rajnish Mishra is going to talk about this, but I often wonder what is a liberated mind. Am I free? Am I decolonized completely? I don’t know how absolutely liberated I am, but I do consider myself to be among the really free human beings, without fear and without any sense of anxiety, without nagging doubts about who I am and without a sense of inferiority about my culture. And I also consider myself a patriotic Indian though patriotism might be an unfortunate sort of word. As you know, it’s a very patriarchal word, but still I think I mustn’t refrain from using it.
By telling my own story here, I have been trying to suggest that we must recognize how inextricably our individual and collective experiences are a part of a bigger story, one whose exact shape or plot may still elude us. But there is this story, glimpses of which we catch during our more lucid and lucky moments. So, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the process of decolonization has begun at Patan or can be finished here. Not at all. It’s 150 years old-perhaps, 175 years old or even much older story. It’s also a long story. So many people have made their contribution to it.
I will just give you two or three instances, just to bring in the history of this process of decolonization. Later, in this section, I shall also attempt a typology of decolonization. Through these examples I would like to show the complexity and multiplicity of this process of decolonzation.
Let’s begin this exercise of mapping the different schools of decolonization by looking at a book that was already mentioned earlier Hind Swaraj, published in 1909 by Gandhi. I think he wrote it when he was on a ship going from England to South Africa. It’s a very important book, which we all need to read repeatedly. It’s available for only Rs. 5 from its publishers, Navjeevan Trust in Ahmedabad. Hind Swaraj like a primer for the non-violent revolutionary and contains a very radical critique of Western or, rather, modern civilization. It’s something that we need to read, whether we agree with it or not.
Then, ten years later, in 1919, K. C. Bhattacharya published a very important paper called “Swaraj in Ideas.” In it he talked about the shadow mind of the Indian intelligentsia, something that we’ve all been referring to. The shadow mind reminds you of the famous dialogue in Plato’s Republic, where you have somebody chained in a cave and everything that person sees is distorted. Similarly, this Indian intelligentsia is afflicted with the shadow mind, which destroys its capacity for meaningful thinking and action.
I referred to Bhattacharya’s essay because whenever we talk about decolonizing the Indian mind we are talking also about Swaraj in ideas. As recently as 1984 there was a very interesting discussion on Bhattacharya’s paper, which was published in the Indian Philosophical Quarterly. In a special number both the original article and several comments and responses were published. The writers included some of the very important thinkers of contemporary India like A.K. Saran, Ramamachandra Gandhi, Ashis Nandy, and several others.
After reading studying this history of Swaraj, I have come to understand that right from the first glimmers of imperial domination in modern India we’ve had patterns of resistance. It therefore a mistake to think that either our generation and our times are unique in this respect.
Let’s look at some of the available attitudes to the phenomenon of colonialism in the 19th century, which is the cauldron of modern India. What you find is a variety of approaches and attitudes to Western colonization, to Western knowledge systems, to Western domination. You can start with Rammohan Roy’s minute to Lord Amherst, 1823. You find a certain kind of insufficiency thesis being propounded there. Rammohun says Indian civilization is lacking in certain respects and badly in need of these inputs from modern knowledge systems from the West. One aspect of Rammohun’s letter that is very clear is that he does not have much use of traditional or Sanskrit learning. He says, what’s the use of learning vyakrana, that is grammar, or nyaya, that is logic. We might say that his attitude and approach is very unfortunate. This is one side of the argument. But you should also look at what it is that he is asking for. He’s not asking for English education, if you read his letter carefully. He’s not asking to read Milton and Shakespeare there. The latter is what was foisted upon us by Macaulay and the others. What Rammohun wants is anatomy, chemistry, physical sciences. He want modern empirical and scientific knowledge. Now, I am not sure that this unqualified enthusiasm for techno-modernity is entirely positive, but is almost entirely understandable. Rammohun shows a curiosity and thirst for knowledge as a basic human right. He wants to doors of the Indian mind to be opened up. Now this is not at all a bad thing. How will we understand and discriminate if we don’t know? In Rammohun, we already see the ability of the Indian mind to engage with and evaluate modernity. Rammohun definitely wanted something from the West. But what he-or we-got was quite different. I think we need to understand this difference before we endorse or reject Rammohun’s insufficiency thesis on India.
Rammohan is, of course, a complex figure. There was a debate between Gandhi and Tagore on him. Gandhi with his usual bluntness said that in comparison to the saint of medieval India, Rammohan Roy is a pigmy. Tagore, who was born in a Brahmo family, was very offended and wrote a long rejoinder. The correspondence is published in a book called The Mahatma and the Poet edited by Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and published by National Book Trust. Tagore said, and I think rightly, that you can’t dismiss Rammohan Roy so easily. Lots of other people, especially Bengali intellectuals, would agree. They see Rammohun as the progenitor of modern India. That Rammohun’s modernity was based on a rejection of Indian traditions does not bother them much. It does bother me, however. And yet, his rationalism, skepticism, libertarianism, catholicity, and activism are attractive to me.
Gandhi saw things differently. His Hind Swaraj, which I mentioned earlier, contains the anti-thesis of Rammohun’s insufficiency thesis. Gandhi advances what might be termed the complete self-sufficiency thesis. He says Indian civilization is superior to modern civilization. The word he uses for civilization is the Gujarati sudharo. You will remember that Hind Swaraj was originally written in Gujarati. Now sudharo means improvement, betterment, or progress but without the post-enlightenment or utilitarian connotations of these words. We will understand this if we ask what is the opposite of sudharo. It’s kudharo or the unrighteous path. So su-dharo, not only means improvement, but it also means the rights path. To Gandhi, then, a great civilization is one, which points the way to virtue, which guides and enables you to become a better human being. Such a civilization emphasis virtue as its desired objective, not the accumulation of material goods. That, for Gandhi, is the mark of a superior civilization. Modern civilization, by contrast, is based on pleasure and consumption according to Gandhi and is therefore kudharo. It will only take you to your own destruction.
To understand Gandhi’s mindset, we need to remember the great Kathopanishad, where Nachiketa confronts Yama, the Lord of Death. The latter becomes his teacher, initiating Nachiketa into higher wisdom. Yama says there are two paths-one is ‘shreya‘ and one is ‘preya‘. Shreya is that which is good and preya is that which is pleasing. And all of us have to decide which of the two we want. But what is wonderful if you really go into it deeply, shreya is also preya. That which is virtuous is also pleasing, but not necessarily vice-versa. That which is virtuous is not devoid of pleasure. But most people don’t know it; they think virtue is boring and uninteresting. So it’s very interesting to note that one reason Gandhi was opposed to modern technology in Hind Swaraj is because it adds speed, not virtue. He said that the devil loves speed, whereas virtue moves much more slowly and steadily. So it is that with any new technology the evil people are the first ones to get onto it. The hackers, the pornographers-they are the first ones to capture the information highway.
Anyway, Gandhi’s idea of traditional Indian civilization was that it was self-sufficient and couldn’t really be improved. Some people might consider this a very limited and static view of human endeavour, extremely conservative. Again, Gandhi is a most complex figure. He had no use of several detestable and crippling aspects of Indian custom and tradition. These included untouchability and the oppression of women. He found no scriptural sanction for these practices, but he also went to extent of saying that if scriptural sanction were found, he would reject it. Gandhi’s self-sufficiency thesis was thus tempered by a stringent social critique and by an admiration for several qualities of Western culture.
Between Rammohan’s insufficiency thesis and Gandhi’s sufficiency thesis may be placed most important thinkers of modern India, whether it is Bankim or Nehru, or Vivekananda or Tagore, Aurobindo or Ambedkar. Most of these thinkers advocated some kind of compromise between these two positions. And I would say that this is the broad modern intellectual tradition to which most of us belong. In my humble opinion, both Rammohun and Gandhi were interested in resisting colonialism. Neither was a self-serving traitor or betrayer of Indian civilization, though several critics of either of them assert otherwise. So they were not on opposite sides, as it might at first seem.
If we wish to trace the best of this lineage of resistance and renewal to present times, I would site the example of the Swadhyaya movement inspired by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. I’m sure that Swadhyaya work is being done right here, even in Patan today. Based on the idea of kriti bhakti or action-oriented devotion, hundreds of thousands of volunteer-devotees are active in over 80,000 villages in India, working tirelessly to build communities and improve the lives of the most neglected sections of our society.
Of course, I will also admit that there are thinkers and activists who don’t quite fit into this spectrum, who were actually supporters of imperialism, feudalism, communalism, or totalitarianism. For instance, there was the gifted Bangla poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutta. During one of his radical outbursts, he likened Hinduism to a rotten tree trunk, which has to be cut. Then there are those who believe that everything that needs to be known is contained in the Vedas, including the design of aeroplanes and nuclear power reactors. There are also those who want to turn India into a Muslim or a Hindu or a Communist state and are therefore against democratic processes of change. I shall not focus on them because they will not help us in decolonizing our minds.
There are also those, from the beginnings of colonialism to now, who wan to capitulate entirely to the West and make us completely modern, entirely Western people, remade in our masters’ image. I don’t think that is the “Indian way,” the way of most of us. You’ve read Grant Duff’s statements or Macaulay’s letter to his sister where, I think, he said that we’re going to convert everybody because no Hindu will have faith in his texts once they have English education. This is a constant refrain among not just the missionaries, but the British liberals as well. William Wilberforce openly stated in the British parliament that one of the missions of the empire was to Christianize India and to destroy it’s heathen civilization. Even Max Mueller’s private papers reveal this hidden agenda. So you have this utter and cynical disregard of Indian civilization on the one hand and then, on the other hand you have a person like Radhakanta Deb, again a very complex figure, who was actually a proponent of sati and several other “orthodox” customs. For instance, he was against the remarriage of windows and an advocate of child marriage. Today, most of us would find this positions both untenable and unacceptable.
So there are complete capitulators and complete revivalists, both of whom are outside the spectrum of the Indian consensus. That is why we mustn’t think that we are making a new beginning. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There is a very rich and varied tradition of decolonization that is available to us. When we examine the parameters of this process of decolonization in India, we know how we can ideologically map all the major thinkers.
For instance, you will find that some are more spiritual, while others are more materialistic or some are more militaristic while others are more nonviolent. For example, the Indian Marxists are more materialistic, while Tagore, Aurobindo, or Ramana Maharshi are more spiritual. While Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is more militaristic like, Gandhi is are more non-violent. Again, some, like Dayananda Saraswati or Gandhi will use the language of tradition, while Dadabhai Naoroji or Nehru will use that of modernity. But both are opposed to the British imperialism. So you can actually conceive of this map of opinions, can you not? You, get a spectrum of decolonizing strategies if you examine that last 150 years or 200 years of our cultural encounter with the West. I think that in our efforts towards decolonization we can derive strength from this spectrum.
So the most important things that we should bear in mind about this process of decolonization is that there is not one and only one way of achieving it. There is no one official or right way of decolonization, just as there is no one official way of colonization. Both colonization and decolonization are complex and polyphonic processes. That is why I would like us to reconsider what Professor Kapoor had to say about Edward Said. Yes, I would disagree with the way in which Said has made his point mind-after all, all the Orientalists weren’t scoundrels, rogues, or villains. A lot of what they did was actually very useful, and continues to be useful, to us. Similarly, the work of Western Indologists, to this day, is of considerable value to us. But what is important to remember is that this work is neither innocent, apolitical, or “disinterested.” It is informed by a large network of interests which might easily be colonial or neocolonial. In other words, we need to understand that colonialism is complex system of domination and subordination, a system in which individual intentions may not override larger interests.
Colonialism, then, is a system in which a set of one or more countries, cultures, races, religions, languages, dominates and exploits another. The entire productive capacity, that is, the economic, social, political, cultural, spiritual resources of the latter are subordinated to the interests of the former. It’s a kind of vampirism. Somebody is drinking your blood, sucking the sap out of your body and soul. I’ve put it a bit crudely, but there it is. In this huge system of exploitation and domination, culture plays a very important role. The Orientalists, however useful their efforts might have been to us, were actually serving themselves and their empires-this is a fact whether we like it or not. That they were also severing knowledge is something that I will not deny, but this knowledge, as is all knowledge, was tainted by the same urge to dominate and exploit that had characterized most of the history of the West’s interaction with the non-West. Even today, globalization is a strategy to extract surpluses without physical colonialism. It is not a system to share wealth or to remove poverty.
So what we’re up against is a gigantic economic, cultural, political network. You may actually benefit from its internal contradiction, just a bright young engineer or MBA benefits from a job in a multinational corporation. But the purpose of the corporation is to extract the surplus from the country in which it does business and it will reward all the natives of that country who will help it to do so. So just as there is a linked network of colonial and neocolonial interests, there is also a linked network of forces of decolonization, not only in India, but all over the world.
That is to say that the work that Professor Kapoor is doing is not isolated but connected with what my friends in the Tarun Bharat Sangh are doing in Alwar, for instance. They are rebuilding and recharging tanks and local water bodies. Another friend of mine, Smitu Kothari, is documenting all these efforts in a large and ambitious project called, “Seeds of Hope.” In other words, just as there is a discourse of colonialism, there is also a discourse of decolonization. Here, I am using the word discourse in the Foucouldian sense, as Said himself does. Discourse as a large body of texts with a similar intent and set of protocols. In this manner, the different movements that are taking place all over India bear the seeds of the resurgence that I spoke of.
We don’t have to make either colonialism or decolonization a unified, singular or a monolithic process. Let’s never forget that it’s plural process. There is no need to be alarmed, therefore, if we disagree with each other. There’s no cause of fear if I disagree with Kapoor sa’ab or you disagree with me. You do your decolonization in your way; let me do mine my way. There are millions of ways in which you or I can do it. But yet both you and I do need to make a choice. Do you want to be a part of the solution or do you want to be a part of the problem? I think this is the crucial choice that we have to make in English studies. Do we want to continue our subordination and inferiority or do we want to grow out of it to a selfhood and dignity?
That is why I used this opportunity to tell my own story just to share with you the joy and exuberance of being a part of a larger narrative, of being part of a larger movement which can unite us, which can give us hope, which can inspire us. This is so important because we in India tend to get so easily dispirited and disheartened. We get so depressed and we always complain. So we do need inspiration, we do need some hope. We do need positive things to do that will keep us alive and kicking intellectually and morally. As intellectuals we need to work not just for our survival or get a degree or a job, but also get to something, which feeds our soul, our deeper selves. It’s not just the feeding of our bellies, which brings us together, but also something nobler, I hope. Of course, there’s nothing as noble as filling one’s belly with the right kind of food and in the right company!
I have been arguing that the process of recovery, resistance and selfhood are complex and multiple, just as processes of subordination are complex and multiple.
Now in the last part of my presentation what I want to do rather quickly is to outline five levels at which this process of decolonization can take place. Some of these, no doubt, have already been discussed. That is why I won’t go into them in great detail but just to outline them.
The first level is the level of what Professor Kapoor called the code. This refers to the ideology, the mindset, or the drivers or the system.
Now how do we change the code? And there are again a variety of options, you know. But the first is that you have to try to understand what this Indian mind was with its multiplicity. And to do this you have to try to understand what the traditions are. Because all discussions of colonization and decolonization hinge on constructions of India and of the Indian past. Also on constructions of what the West.
For instance, if you construct India as an area of darkness or a wounded civilization, with every imaginable form of social ill-as a superstitious, benighted and unfortunate country-then you will have a certain kind of ideology. Regardless of how Marx felt about the poor and dispossessed, regardless of how much he hated capitalism, he still believed that the British rule was necessary to get India out of its barbarian stasis, the so-called Asiatic mode of production. Similarly, read Hegel on India. I think he called us “the land of lotus-eaters.” So all these people had a certain view of India and they thought of it as a very backward and woe-begone country, feudal, w, obscurantist, and superstitious. And the British-or whoever-would have to destroy this useless, old system before something new could be born. I, for one, would beg to differ with these images and representations of India. And we can only do that by empirical analysis, by really good historical scholarship, but also through a change in attitude, through a change in mentality.
So at the level of the code, at the level of the ideology, at the level of the mind we will have to work very hard. We also to see what our tools are and what the possibilities of recovery might be. Because when you go deeply into what the traditions mean, then you get an entire world view, a cosmology, not just a fragment from a certain historical conjuncture. This may be a hierarchical worldview, a worldview which you may not wish to accept in its totality, but it is a worldview where everything is ordered coherent and meaningful.
This sense of order comes from several sources. The ashramas, for example. From childhood to death there’s a certain pattern which gives cohesion to your life. Modern life, on the other hand, is without cohesion, without order, without a sense of purpose and, ultimately, despite all its pleasures and blandishments, without a sense of satisfaction.
So we have to understand all this, though I don’t have too much time to into this. Hence the code, ideology, mind-level one.
But it’s not enough just to stay with that. We also have to look at the institutions. Because if you want to decolonize, you need appropriate institutions. Everyone knows that our institutions are in a very bad shape. This is what we have learnt from so many presentations yesterday. We are in desperate need for institutional reform. Our university systems, for instance, have to be revamped. Professor Jasbir Jain talked about this. We have to change these structures because they are so stultified and because decolonization won’t take place just through an exchange of words like this.
Likewise, we need journals, we need books, we need libraries. But look at the state of our libraries. The tallest building in J.N.U. is the library building. It is not only the tallest building but also built on a plateau, which makes it looker taller. But if you go there and you feel like weeping. Books are scattered everywhere, every thing is in a mess, you can’t find anything, windows panes are broken; what is worse, books have been stolen, torn, ripped off, defaced, and misplaced. We have become a jahiliya society of people who don’t read. Others used to burn libraries; we don’t burn libraries, but we bury them alive, we turn them into garbage dumps or graveyards. Who can we blame for this? The British, who colonized us? Fifty years after independence, in the name of postcolonialism, can we blame them? Or the Americans? The fact is that we can’t blame anybody now but ourselves.
Once you start decolonizing you have to take responsibility. How long can you go on blaming others? The politics of blame will not suffice, revenge histories will not satisfy.
That is why institution-building is so important. Let me give you a small anecdote here. You’ll all agree that we need access to information. I was lucky to use e-mail and the internet here. Do you know that your library has internet? But when I asked a friend here who is in this very Department whether he used this facility, he told me “hum ko to allowed nahin hai.” You see this attitude everywhere-allowed nahin hai. Everything is under lock and key. We need to work so hard just to open up things up so that people use them to grow and flourish.
Therefore level two-institutions.
Then level three-content. Take the case of our English syllabus. It’s so obvious that we have to change it. That this has already happened in several universities is heartening. We need to ask what is it that we are actually teaching, and why. Here we’ve been changing our syllabus, including new texts, but is anybody reading Bhartrihari? Yes there are some people, as we know only too well, but so few of them. That is why I said that we need to create a little tool kit for decolonizing the Indian mind. We can put in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in it; in fact he uses this very phrase “decolonizing the mind” in his essay on the need to write in an African language. We can put Franz Fanon in this kit. But we also need to put Gandhi in it. As my friend Professor Satendra Nandan of the Australian National University says, how is it that the works of the man who led the largest struggle against colonialism in human history are excluded from every reader on postcolonialism? Or we might put in Sri Aurobindo’s Foundations of Indian Culture in our kit. When you read texts like these, you feel empowered. You feel that you have a surer grip, a firmer handle on this business of colonialism.
This process needs to be effected in all our areas and disciplines of study. The content has to be changed constantly in keeping with our goals and needs. We simply can’t afford the sort of syllabi, which remain static for literally half a century at a time, as is still the case in India.
Now to the fourth level. It is what I would call the medium. And as I’m sorry to repeat this but just as the Governor said this morning, you cannot constantly keep talking about decolonization only in English. Ho nahin sakta, ho nahin payega. Yadi ungreziat ko hatana hai to sirf ungerzi mein is ungreziat ko kaise hataenge? Ungreziat ko hatana hai to ungrezi ki bhi jo jageh hai usko badalna padega, uski bhi reordering honi padegi. Now again I wouldn’t like to go so far as to suggest ki ungerzi ko hi hata do. Even Gandhi didn’t say that. Magar uska sthanantaran karna bahut zarori hai.
You will remember that we got very interesting views on this topic in this very seminar. We had Dr. Suguna Ramanathan who almost said, lets recolonize. Let have more British literature. We’ve benefited so much from the British, from the English language, from our contact with the West, so let’s get more of this. Haven’t we heard such views before, some many times, over the last 150 years? The providential intervention of the West into our sad and wretched country-haven’t we sung hosannas of praise for all that they did for us? The railways that they built, the modern institutions that they gave us, and above all, this wonderful language, which is today the worlds’ number one medium of communication. Surely we have so much to be grateful for. Let’s forget about how many people died of famine and starvation, how an entire civilization was beggared, beaten into submission, and oppressed.
After her talk I asked her, why is it that you can’t conceive of a world without English domination? If somebody else had colonized you would you still be speaking English? Or what if nobody had colonized you? Why can’t you even conceive of such a situation? Why is that it is almost impossible even to conceptualize an uncolonized India? She said, English were better than the Japs or the Germans. But if the English hadn’t been there, wouldn’t it have been even better?
English has no monopoly over knowledge or culture or science and technology. The Russians make do, the Japanese, Chinese, French, Spanish, and so on, all do with little or no English. Sure, let’s use English as a resource to earn or to gain knowledge, but we mustn’t think that we can’t survive without it.
If the position of English has to be changed, then what is the best way to do this? Professor Krishnaswamy talked about translation. He said that all communication is interpretation. Therefore translation is so important. I agree with him. We must read translated texts, even if we do so in English. We know that English monolingualism in India is a curse. Imagine being an India and knowing no other language but English! How impoverished culturally such a person would be, don’t you think? This is actually happening in our cities today. And it’s going to be disastrous because language is a system of culture, not merely a system of communication. A culture is deeply embedded in a language. The citizens of Israel knew this; that’s why they switched to modern Hebrew, though it was no one’s mother tongue.
So we need bilingualism, multilingualism, right? At the same time there are different kinds of multilingualisms. Do we want an English dominated multilingualism? Or do you want a Hindi dominated multilingualism? Or do you want a pluralistic multilingualism in which no single language dominates over all of India? I would favour the latter. I also agree with the proposition that to decolonize you need English. But I would not agree that you can decolonise only through English. If we want Swaraj, we need also to look beyond English.
So that was level four, the medium.
Now, finally, let me come to the idea of agency that I’ve already mentioned. That is the fifth level. Who’s going to do this job of decolonizing for us? Are you going to look to the state? Of course, the state is important. I would never want to dismiss it. But are we going to wait for the state to take the initiative? Shouldn’t the independent Indian state have accomplished this way back? Why didn’t it? Why couldn’t it? Or, alternatively, will the initiative have to come from civil society? And if it is from civil society what do we mean by that phrase? Who constitutes the civil society? Will the elites have to do it? Or will the masses have to do it?
There are no easy answers to this. But I would say that ultimately the responsibility rests with the more privileged people, with us. How can we expect the disenfranchised proletariat to take the lead? All their energies are consumed by the struggle to survive. That is why we have to plant a traitor in every family. I am merely rephrasing what Gandhi said. You have to be traitorous not to the state but to the dominant culture of the elites, a culture which is self-serving, self-seeking, and exploitative. That is the culture that breeds inferiority in us. That is the culture that makes us think that we are second best or third best in the world system.
Let me give you an example of canon formation in contemporary Indian English literature. A book received attention only when it’s accepted by a foreign publisher; it’s the advance that first generates the hype. Then, when it is published, the first reviews come from abroad. Whether it is Arundhati Roy or Manil Suri, the Indian press starts by genuflecting to the Anglo-American reviews. India Today quotes John Updike on Arundhati Roy. That is what we are. The Head of Department of Gao University once made the mistake of inviting my friend, Claude Alvarez, to give a lecture at a Refresher Course for English lecturers. Claude began by saying, “You buggers have less self-respect than the bloody coolies at the railway station.” After the initial hush, there was the predictable pandemonium. Claude was booed out; he told me that he was most happy to leave the room full of frauds and phonies.
Unfortunately, we’ve become a society of culture of glamourphiliacs. This is a neologism, of course, but the disease is as serious culturally as hemophilia. Such a culture is sure to bleed to death. People go to listen to the Dalai Lama not because he has something to say but because he is so glamorous, because Richard Gere and Segal. Look at the Times of India or any major newspaper. All the supplements are full of pictures of beautiful people who’re partying. Why do you and I need to know about them? What does it matter which party who goes to? The result of all this glamourmania is the murder of somebody like Jessica Lal. All because someone who has money in his pocket and a gun says, I want to gate crash into this culture of the rich and famous.
So this is so important-this question of agency. I think that this is where we have to decide that at the individual level we have to decolonize ourselves first and then, or simultaneously, we have to work for this collectively too. So we have to accept this whole idea of agency; we have to own up our responsibility towards this country and its people.
In conclusion what I want to say is that as we move forward on this path, we realize that we’re forced back on our own resources. It’s a lonely road and a seemingly futile struggle. Why bother? Well, why not? Do we and the others like us really have a choice? Haven’t we been marked for life, condemned to plow a lonely furrow? You have to be prepared to walk alone if you wish to decolonize yourself.
But not forever.
I’m doing some loud thinking here because after I returned from the US I experienced a terrible kind of enclosure if not isolation. Much of my work was pushed back by many years. I had little access to books and computers. I couldn’t afford to travel very much. And yet, I’ve survived, if not thrived. This was possible because of what I’d learned as a graduate student in the U.S.
What a country like the U.S. does for you is you is to force you back into your essential self. It’s an ideal place to discover India. The U.S., as Whitman said so eloquently, is actually a passage to India. Of course, it is also a passage to more than India-it would never do to belittle that potential that it carries. What the US gives you is the resources to learn and discover whatever you wish to. I had access to the most wonderful library where I could read whatever I liked. You see it’s a very dangerous situation isn’t it? You have access to nearly all the knowledge in the world and you are forced back onto your own resources. You have to ask yourself, who am I really? When I met Professor T.G. Vaidyanathan for the first time he said something quite interesting: “What has happened to you, Makarand, is that the West has worked like sieve and only the most essential things have remained. You’ve eliminated from your life all the inessentials. That must make you so threatening to so many people who live at the surface of their lives.”
When you are in India you are still listening to rock music and you’re doing all sorts of things because you want to be like anybody else. And then you go there and it forces you to confront yourself in a very deep way and then you start eliminating, shedding things because life is not unlimited. And you go into only what is really valuable. Am I going to listen to Madonna or am I going to listen to Dhrupad? And the answer is that of course I want to listen to something that will uplift my soul. No doubt, I can listen to both. But you still have a sense of the difference between the two.
When I came back to India, I thought I was through with the West. I had seen what it was and that we didn’t really need it. I thought we had everything that we needed to pull ourselves up entirely by ourselves, by our own efforts. But now, after years of living and working here, I don’t think we can, and I am very sorry to say this. It’s not that we don’t have the brains or the resources, but because we don’t have the self-respect or the courage to honour ourselves. The damage is so deep, you know the backbone is broken and the psyche is deeply wounded. That is why we will always need some form of collaboration and help from them. And I am happy to say that in the West also there are people who are actually happy to give that to us. It’s almost as if they need us to need them. Moreover, they have grown tired of the dominant system. They too want a change and they look for help from us. So there are possibilities of co-operation and of doing things together. We need them because I don’t think that we have the confidence to do it all by themselves; they need us because they need to help others in order to help themselves.
That is why, at the end of my presentation, I would like to acknowledge this shift in my own position on decolonization. From a sort of “hard-line” posture, I think I would now like to adopt a more compassionate, softer stance. So I would say that we have to get out of the older paradigms of the colonized and the colonizers, not in the manner in which Homi Bhabha does-which is to collapse differences-but to retain differences and yet to seek ways and means of co-operation. That we have to do it partly with the help of the West, partly with the help of modern technology, shouldn’t frighten or dishearten us. Let us have the grace to accept it. We have to rethink what we mean by Swadeshi, so that we can use the resources of the contemporary world.
This is how, together, we have to rebuild this nation and this civilization. Native elites alone are incapable of doing this. If we talk about cultural choices and alternatives, we must produce alternate texts, alternate traditions. We have to show results, not just talk, talk, and talk. This is what I tell my friends even in the alternative sector: you can’t just tell people consume less, be less wasteful, kamre ke bahar hi mat jao, plane mein safar mut karo. You can’t go around telling people not to use aeroplanes because it adds to the global warming! That cannot be the solution. Temporarily, we might be persuaded to abstain or down size, but that can’t be the permanent condition of the human race. That is why, the alternative must exceed the dominant system. It should be better because human beings want more freedom, more power. They don’t want to be told don’t move around, don’t read, close your eyes, close your mind. That is not the solution. Decolonization doesn’t mean make do with little, don’t explore, don’t venture, be rigid, be confined, close your mind, tala bandh! It doesn’t mean apne aap ko lock kar diya jaye. You have to do better than that. That is why the challenge is greater and that is why I think we need to have original and multiple notions of what we mean by decolonization.
This innovation must include an interrogation of even the term decolonization. Remember, after all, decolonization is a negative term: de + colonization. That is why the word I have used constantly in my book, and which I’ve taken of course from Gandhi, is swaraj. Swaraj is very important because it indicates a positive state, not a negative one. It doesn’t depend on its opposite for its definition. It is also a term which is culturally grounded, ultimately going back to the Upanishads-“apnoti swarajya“-(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad). It means not just personal liberation but collective amelioration also. So we need a bridge between the two. Each one of us should grow individually as a human being to higher and higher levels of awareness and freedom and power and vitality, rather than growing weak and helpless and disheartened. At the same time, our individual growth should contribute to the growth of the collective as well. That is the kind of link between the individual and the collective, swa and sarva, swaraj and sarvodaya that I have been advocating.
Thank you very much.
Makarand Paranjape, A.M., PhD
Centre of Linguistics and English,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi