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Decolonization of the Mind

by Aditya Nigam, Kafila
Our modernity is incomplete, our secularism impure, our democracy immature, our development  arrested and our capitalism retarded: ask anyone trained in the social sciences, economics in particular, about what ails India today and you can be sure of getting one or all of these answers. And you can go on adding to the list of more and more things ‘we’ lack. We did not have ‘history’, we do not have social sciences – and of course, we do not have theory/ philosophy.
Everything, in other words, is about our ‘backwardness’ and our need to catch up with the West. And seen through the lens of social science, most of the world looks like this – living ‘inauthentic’ lives, always ever in the ‘waiting room of history’, to steal historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s suggestive phrase.


In the world view of our state elites, this is actually a form of what one could call, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, ‘Capital-Envy’. The ‘realization’ that ‘we do not have it’ can be a source of serious anxieties. That is what lies behind the current frenzied desire to ‘catch up’ with the West. And generations of feminist scholarship has challenged this unquestioned Freudian  assumption that the penis is the norm and not to have it, is Lack. Perhaps women do not want it? Freud never conceived of this as possible. Indeed in today’s world, there are many men who claim that they feel they are women trapped inside male bodies. Generations of scholarship has made us realize that the aura of that grand universal theory actually rested on the fact that it did not just describe the sexes; it produced the sexual norm itself.
The vision that propels our political elites and their parallel numbers who write in the media today, is something like that fantasy of Freud. The anxiety produced by this awareness of the ‘primordial Lack’, is what drives them today towards what has been the most violent phase of development in our entire history. Violent uprooting of populations from their land, often at gunpoint, coupled with the most ruthless plunder of our common resources by unscrupulous corporations – all this and more has been going on with the state elites looking on ‘benignly’. For they seem to know something ordinary mortals do not – that all this is but the necessary price to pay for becoming ‘modern’ like them.
Economists and policy analysts of course, invariably point towards the ‘standard experience’ of industrialization and development – which basically comes down to the experience of the ‘enclosures’ in England during the 16th to 18th centuries, in which common lands were transformed into private property in a bloody transformation. This was extended in America where native populations were simply exterminated to free up the land. That pattern was not really repeated even in most parts of Europe not to speak of other parts of the world.
As against this now common-sense notion of the standard experience, political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj has argued that the trajectories of modernity and development in countries like India cannot but be different from the so-called standard experience. For unlike the West, India had democracy and democratic politics in place long before ‘full industrialization’ could take place. From the standard social science viewpoint, this is a clear disadvantage because such democratic politics impedes our ‘normal’ course of development. From its point of view, even the modern democratic political subject had to be the product of a massive pedagogic exercise, trained in the ways of ‘reasonable’ dissent, even when their entire lives and livelihoods were at stake. And typically this subject – the citizen – could be trained in a time when there was no democracy. The invasion of the portals of representative institutions by the ‘untutored masses’ is no less than a scandal from that point of view. Seen from another angle, however, this could be our advantage: opening up the possibility that our path could be less violent and not based on the ruthless elimination of agricultural or tribal populations. It could also be seen as an acknowledgement that we need not necessarily mimic the Western model but conceive of another kind of development – less obsessive about something called growth, more concerned with justice, more ecologically sensitive.
This means that there could be at least two ways of relating to the Western experience. One, espoused by our political elites, that treats it as the norm to be followed; and the other that is crying out to be acknowledged, that we treat it like any other experience from which we can and must learn. And learning from the experience of others involves avoiding the more grievous of their mistakes.
Social science knowledge shows us an image of ourselves that is like an image in a distorting mirror. It is perhaps a little bit like us, but not quite. What do we say of a body of knowledge that produces such images of most societies in the world? We would not hesitate in describing such a mirror as a ‘distorting mirror’ but when it comes to a body of knowledge with all the weight and aura of a ‘science’ attached to it and a galaxy of big names associated with it, we do feel a bit intimidated.
Perhaps, ‘intimidated’ is not the right word. For we are enchanted by it. Seduced by the vision of what seems like life beyond. If ‘we’ have to be like ‘them’, we must adopt their ways of thinking and being. It was when we accepted this line of thinking, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, that we acknowledged defeat. Indian nationalism from its very birth acknowledged this. A large part of the great nationalist intellectual ferment through the first half of the twentieth century was directed at proving to the colonizer that “we too had it” – “it” being anything that they had. If they had science, we too had it, as Gyan Prakash shows in his fascinating book Another Reason; if they had political theory and a Machiavelli, then following Rudrapatna Shama Shastry’s publication of the rediscovered Arthashastra in 1909, we could claim that we had our Machiavelli centuries before theirs!
Even those who were wont to glorify ‘our great Hindu past’, Hindu nationalists like Savarkar, conceded defeat on this front and not many people remember that he was a great admirer of science, technology and the European enlightenment. Gandhi was perhaps the only one who rejected the claim of superiority of modern civilization – and to him, it was clear that the problem was not ‘the West’ but modernity. But so powerful was the lure of the modern that Gandhi was to be consigned to the pages of history – to be revered as little more than an eccentric grandfather.
As the new independent nation-state got down to the business of nation-building and began setting up its universities, it dropped even the basic attempts to think through the problems of the hegemony of western knowledge that many intellectuals had been struggling against in the period of the anti-colonial struggle. The urgency of setting up social science departments, designing curricula and putting new institutions in place naturally led to the easy way out – take what was being taught in Western universities, tweak it a bit and produce our own syllabi. A whole new system that would merely regurgitate the knowledge produced in Western universities was thus established.
This colonized knowledge is increasingly coming into question today. And this questioning goes far beyond critiques of western models that retain a reverence for western theory. A lot of such contemporary scholarship realizes this distorting-mirror-effect of western theory even while recognizing that it is an important part of our common pool of thought. The difference is that it no longer treats that body of knowledge with the reverence that had once blinded the colonized; that had once led them to invest that knowledge with the value of absolute truth. Today the exploration of other traditions of thought – Indian, Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese – has become a part of a serious examination of the story told to us by Western thought of its own birth, a story where all thought begins in Athens and ends in Paris. As if there is a straight line connecting them; as if life in other parts of the world for centuries was lived bereft of thought. We fail to see in this picture the intricate lines connecting different parts of the world. We also fail to see here how, what we know today as western knowledge, was assembled at the dawn of its modernity, with knowledge-formations from different parts of the world – Arab, Indian, Chinese to name some. We fail to see the impact of Ibn Rushd on the early dissenters in 13th century Europe. We fail to see Moses Maimonides reading Al Farabi and Spinoza reading Moses Maimonides and what effects these might have possibly produced.
In other words, it is not just the theoretical knowledge that the West gives us that is in question today but also the story it tells us of its own birth and development.

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