Towards a Post-PostColonial Age?

A French Scholar visiting our University for a Seminar last year proposed an interesting question – is India entering into an era of post-postcolonialism? The question like I said is interesting and is even tempting. The gentleman’s view was that this could possibly be the case with 21st century India. Although I did not agree with his argument the idea of post-post colonialism has stuck with me ever since. Thus, this exploration.

So, how should one conceptualize this idea? We can approach this question from two perspectives, or rather – positions – regarding the nature of colonialism, thus of post-colonialism, and therefore of our concept. The first position, a shallow if not superficial understanding, could relate colonialism to the absence of sovereignty. Then post-colonial could be an age of limited sovereignty moving towards absolute sovereignty -if that is ever possible in this world. If we follow this line, then yes, maybe the argument that we are moving beyond a post-colonial age can be accepted. But a deeper understanding of colonialism – or putting it better : the colonial experience – forces one to wonder whether it is ever possible for any society to overcome its history. Because that is what colonialism was – an historical event. An historical event of conquest, domination and the loss of freedom. The condition of conquest has been overcome. What about domination, in all its socio-cultural aspects? And freedom? Some comments follow in the two sections below.

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I mentioned before that the idea of post-postcolonialism can be tempting. India today stands at a crossroads. Two, three, even four decades from now we will be a drastically different society. The process of change is inexorable. Nobody needs to do something urgent and immediately necessary about it. Except that something of that sort can be done to prevent the change from happening – a war, for example. The point is that when we are a changed society, it will be tempting to alter history to suit our new condition, especially the embarrassing parts. It could be possible then that we try to make a break with the past, not just the past of colonialism but the decades after Independence when we were a poor, weak and often struggling state. The post-postcolonial age could be a possible narrative of such an India. But as with all official narratives this one will be more reflective of what we want to be that what we are!

Official narratives are generally backward looking. They belong to that category of stratagems described by George Orwell by which the powers that control today control yesterday, history that is. I am talking about visions of the future. The future is too important to leave in the hands of the state As a society we have the great responsibility of creating a vision of the future. To imagine. Change is an inexorable process but what we will change into depends on what vision of being captures the imagination of our society today. How are these visions born? Who knows? Who can tell? There is no blueprint. One thing, however, is certain. Writers, scholars, intellectuals, thinkers, listeners and all such folk play their own parts. In this essay, I am speaking of the idea of post-postcolonialsim as a possible narrative of the future. The first step towards laying the foundations of that narrative is to understand our age and the legacies of colonialism in our post-colonial age.

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The direct consequences of the colonial age are with us today. There is a burgeoning library of post-colonial literature which deals with these issues. There is, however, a slight word of criticism that I hesitantly put forward for what has now become the discipline of post-colonialism. Like all ‘ism’s’ tend to do post-colonialism has just flown away too far high above ordinary sights, like mine. Although I can hardly claim to have studied this literature in any depth – I’m probably only acquainted with the tip of the tip of the iceberg! There is too much focus on the post-colonial condition, on the after-effects of the cultural project of colonialsm, of psychological dominance, all of which is relevant but is more relevant to a limited section of the post-colonial society – the highly literate sections, specifically. Now, of course, this is so important in its own right and I’m definitely not questioning this importance – neither am I qualified to.

My claim rests on the personal belief that the most stifling legacy of colonialism is the post-colonial state and this must be the main concern of post-colonial studies. Somehow, we seem to have lost focus of this. In the initial years of post-colonial studies there was a lot of focus on the state, especially by Marxist scholars. But since it was mostly Marxist scholars who led these studies the endeavour had inbuilt problems. Firstly, because these studies were conducted from within a Marxist framework, it was an ‘ism’ challenging an ‘ism’, the scope, dimension and appeal was limited. Then. after the fall from glory of the USSR everything associated with its supposedly associated ideology seemed to lose credibility. The study of the post-colonial state was a victim of changing fashions in academia. Cultural studies influenced by post-modern ideas were the new – even though I hesitate to use this word – fad. Though I cannot confidently make the claim that post-colonialism’s focus on the cultural aspect was directly engendered by this fad it was certainly heavily influenced. (I somehow feel that such culture studies, etc. are also an easy way out for a scholar. I believe that the spirit of changing the world should move the scholars pen. Cultural studies are fascinating but they lack this purpose. This is a view open to debate – even within my own mind! But I feel this strongly so I decided to mention it here.)

I am certainly not saying that culturally focused scholarship is unimportant. On the contrary, it is absolutely necessary. We need to understand the world in all its diversity and complexity. We need to understand plurality of experience in the world. But this should feed into what is the greatest challenge of our age : the pursuit of freedom. What a great task to set for oneself, na? Any talk of freedom and its associated idea is often seen as a wall. Since we can never seem to agree what they truly are how can we ever decide on the routes to realize them. Again there is an (over)abundance of philosophical literature on the idea of freedom. For me, however, in the context of this essay, the route to freedom is very clear. Let me be clear, it is only the route to freedom. I don’t know what lies at the end. It might just go on and on like the universe. One day, however, we might find the end (or beginning? – another strange irony!) of both.

For now, let me only speak of the first steps on this route. We must begin with a serious introspection of the physical nature of the colonial legacy, especially that of the post-colonial state. The post-colonial state is only a slightly politer version of its predecessor – with the rough edges polished over by constitutional language. Freedom is born from the political order of society. A movement towards a political order of greater freedom must incorporate a conscious change – if not destruction – of everything in our post-colonial state which had its origins in the colonial state. Let me give two brief examples to give solid grounding to these airy-fairy idea.

First, in the context of India. We continue politically order our society on the basis or caste and/or religion. It seems to be a natural way of ordering our society. But it is not! This is a colonial legacy if there ever was one. After August 15, have we ever consciously sought to move away from this order? No, we have only entrenched these identities. So, one step (and what a monumentally huge one!) towards the post-postcolonial age. (If the reader hasn’t guessed my meaning already!)

Second, let me give a different kind of example. I’ve been reading about the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan for a while now. Apart from all the other reasons and analysis of the problems in this region one thing that stands out for me is the legacy of the colonial policy of the British. I will not get into any details about this but for me the root of the problem is how the post-colonial state of Pakistan has continued to treat the ‘frontier of the Raj’ as their own frontier. So, rather than integrating the peoples of their northern borderlands into the mainstream of society they have been ‘governed’ under the same laws as the were before Independence. Now, whatever the reasons behind this were is not important. The fact is that the state of Pakistan does not see these people as part of the nation of Pakistan – whatever that may be. This is an example from Pakistan – which itself is the greatest colonial legacy of all containing within it strains of almost every colonial strategy of domination. You could find similar vestiges in India, in Saudi Arabia, or even in the United States for that matter. I have mentioned the borderlands of Pakistan – are not our borders the most tragic colonial legacy of all?

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A Chinese diplomat of the Mao era commenting on the effects of the French Revolution felt it was ‘too soon to tell.’ Five or six decades is a very short time all must agree. In the long run, maybe five centuries we could relegate the era of colonial domination to that list of ‘’bad experience’ or as one of the innumerable barbarian invasions our ancient societies have had to patiently overcome through the ages. It could remain very important for the British still; reminding them of a golden age and leaving their children to wonder if this implausible history of the global empire of a tiny island is only another story. On a side note, Western scholars have always made so much of the story of Alexander’s invasion of India – and many continue to do so. In fact, all Alexander ever invaded was a few villages and one or two small cities on the fringes of South Asia. There is, in fact, no historical record of any Alexander from Indian sources although there is enough mention of Greek (Yavana) barbarians. Now this labeling of the Greeks as barbarians is an irony if there ever was one!

There is no analogy on the face of it between the tale of Alexander and rampaging, all-conquering British Colonialism. But consider this : just how much did colonialism change our societies? Do we not sometimes make too much of this change? The greatest legacy of colonialism is, like I said, the post-colonial state and its administrative machinery, including the software of law and language. And when we see the dominating presence of these in our society we conclude that we have been completely transformed by colonialism unlike anything witnessed before.

But the post-colonial state will be replaced one day. Well, not one day, I hope, but in the course of time. One day replacements of any state are more often than not of the brutal kind. After this state is gone, the post-colonial state that is, what value will the software have anymore? Consider this. How many of us in India can comprehend, leave alone speak, read or write, Persian? Persian was the language of Empire for more than two centuries before English replaced it. It’s gone. Whatever vestiges remain have been subsumed within the vast ocean of Hindustani language. This Hindustani – also called Hindi and Urdu considering how politically correct one wants to be – is an interesting phenomenon. It can be considered as an abstract archaeological site. Dig into it, and what you find in layer after layer are vestiges of what was once the language of the rulers of Hindustan, to Aryavarrta before, to possibly Meluhha (the Indus Civilization) before and what before who knows. In time, when this post-colonial Republic of India is gone, the remnants of English will make another layer. That, however, will be a long time from now in what truly will be the post-postcolonial age.

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I began this essay by introducing the idea of post-postcolonialism. Are we in that age now? In my view, not yet. I do, however, believe that with time and the turning of the ages the overarching influence of colonialism will wither away. History transforms the realities of today into the relics of ages past. I understand the idea of freedom as tied to the political order of society. In that respect, the colonial age was one of un-freedom (different from no freedom) and the post colonial one of the potential for freedom (different from independence.) The post-colonial age is in the state of flux. At what stage will it come to rest? Will it ever rest? These questions are contingencies. The answers depend on what choices we make. On what vision of the future we create for ourselves. If that vision is to be one of freedom, we must consciously change the greatest legacy of un-freedom in our society. The post-colonial state. The post-postcolonial age will be born of the post-postcolonial state.

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