On Oriental Savagery and its Political Uses

All travel accounts of Western adventurers in Oriental lands contained a perfunctory chapter or two on the savagery of the Oriental despot. So, the narratives of the Indian people never failed to mention the author’s witnessing of live and screaming sati. And the travelers in Islamic lands always had an account of brutal hand chopping, preferably of a child. Well, who could deny the thrill of these customs! Of course, witch burning could be equally exciting or tales of the carnivals of public hangings in London too! Too much of a thing can be boring so the turn towards the lure of the foreign and the exotic. But these accounts of Oriental savagery were handy too when it came to justifying colonialism which was not conquest but bringing the light of civilization to the lands of darkness. While too much is made of ‘Orientalism’ and its ideology I don’t see anything particularly evil in it. After all, every civilization considers those beyond its boundaries as barbarian. Every civilization has used its superiority as justification for conquering foreign lands. There is nothing particularly different about Orientalism except that it was more effective.

I have written in an earlier post of the post-colonial state carrying on with strategies of its colonial predecessor. The post-colonial state is never shy of using this Oriental discourse, suitably modified, of course, but the superiority complex intact. What is particularly galling about this is that most people, especially the international press, take these accounts at face value. Take the case of the Af-Pak region – Southern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan.

Most press accounts about this region have the implicit recognition of the ‘savage independence’ of the peoples that live in these lands. Take the Pashtun. We talk of the Pashtun’s resistance to change and modern influence. We talk of brutal honour codes. We talk of intergenerational vendettas. Well, of course, we talk of these things because they are true, to an extent. And we assume that this life-style, if we can call it that, is the way things are and the way they will be, that is it is natural to the Pashtun to live this way. But is it?

Well, anyone who makes the slightest effort to scratch below the surface will know that the borderlands of Pakistan, and historically Afghanistan as well, have been deliberately kept away from mainstream society. What this implies is that while the national society has moved on, in the case of Pakistan, the peoples of the borderland are still held hostage to their pre-modern, a rude term though its is, ways. Does anyone ask why there are no roads, schools, or even proper elections in these lands? Well there aren’t, you’ll hear, because the customs of those folk don’t allow them. Implication : they are by nature a backward people. Isn’t that a Orientalism of a sort? A post-colonial sort.

I mentioned this case due to its hold in the popular imagination. But one can look at any post-colonial country and find pockets of ‘less-than-civilization and better that way’ in them. The truth is post-colonial states have always kept certain sections of their population away from mainstream society because it helps to avoid crucial issues such as the question of overlap between the nation and the state. The transition from colonial to post-colonial was more often than not a transfer of power from the colonial government to a certain group which would, so the assumption ran, with which it would continue to maintain good relations. These groups then find colonial policies conducive to maintaining their hold on power. In some countries, there are upsurges from the wider population which successfully manage to challenge the power of these groups. We saw this, to some extent, in the Arab Spring. We saw this in post-Indira Gandhi India. We saw this in Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan. And, in my view, we will see this again in Pakistan if the central government doesn’t get its act right and starts seriously thinking of integrating and developing its northern regions.


Finally I want to say a few words about the romance of the indigenous. This tendency is particularly prevalent after the so-called cultural turn in academia. It is somewhat strange that Leftist ideologues have lapped this up, possibly because it offers a ready opportunity to oppose the modern neo-liberal state. What is this romance? Simply put, that indigenous, a polite term for pre-modern, ways of life are rich and substantial in themselves. They should be protected from the march of the neo-liberal state. Now, as far as protecting the rights of people when they have to face the burdens of development are concerned who could argue against that. But equating the protection of their rights with anti-development is wrong too. A lot of this negativity arises from the political uses that modernization theory, etc. was put to particularly in the Cold war era. But we would be wrong if we assume that modernization, if it means development, is a bad thing that destroys traditional ways of life. The truth is traditional ways of life need to be destroyed. In today’s age of global modernity those carrying on their traditional ways of life will continue to remain at the margins of society an subject to all sorts of exploitation, including ideological exploitation as we see in the case of the Taliban or even the Maoist insurgency among the tribal peoples of central India. If you need to voice your demands in the modern state you need to do it through the instruments of modernity. As long as you don’t have them others will continue representing you, and bring their own interests along, as is so often the case. And leaving ones traditional ways of life is not the same as discarding your culture. In fact, it might help regenerate a culture. Look at Japan, for instance.

Although on the face of it, these two tendencies that I’ve described above may seem to belong to different contexts I feel there is a tendency for them to feed into each other especially in the popular imagination. So, a fascination with this romanticism of the indigenous might make cause one to miss the real problem on the ground. This has been the case, to a very great extent, with the situation in the Af-Pak region.


Western travelers in Oriental lands often had a picture of what to expect, who to see and what not to see, during their travels before they even left their native shores. So, no trip to India would be complete without the witnessing of a live sati. This was a serious problem for the host. Sati was a rather rare occurrence with no more than a few dozen cases recorded in British Bengal which apart from Rajasthan was possibly the only place were the custom was prevalent. This was possibly the case with hand chopping too. After all, if it was such a common thing and considering human nature it would have been hard to find someone with hands to chop hands at all!

It is also interesting to note that Eastern travelers to the West were often just as biased as their Western counterparts, focusing rather too much on filthy habits and the nakedness of women. While there is some truth to the former, shampoo after all was an Indian gift to the British. Regarding the latter, I never understood it till I read descriptions of Anna Karenina’s fashion sense, which probably reflected the tastes of Western high society.

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