The decolonization debacle

By Themrise Khan
October 26, 2020

One of the latest buzzwords in the global academic and political fraternity, is “decolonization”. There has been heated debate for the last many years that several sectors across the world, must be ‘decolonized’ and find new ways of working. From foreign aid, to foreign policy, from academia to gender, from history to language, from Africa to Asia – the list is endless.


Decolonization isn’t a new concept. It has its origins both in the post-colonial world by those seeking to distance themselves from their former colonizers as well as in Northern academia, as a way to undo the effects of colonialism in their work with former colonies.

But decolonization has led to a dichotomy because both sides use the concept for different ends. The formerly colonized use it to regain control over their independence and autonomy from the more powerful nations. And the former colonizers use it to continue to retain their dominance and control with their now ‘allies’, by changing their modus operandi.

We in Pakistan, as a former British colony, are one of the countries caught between this dichotomy. I personally do not agree with the debates surrounding decolonization, because we fought a bloody battle against our colonizers to achieve independence and sovereignty. But the reality is that we are also heavily dependent on the legacy they left behind. Our language, laws, even our infrastructure, is still dictated by our colonial past. We also remain heavily compromised and aligned with our former colonizers and their quest for continued control over our resources through ‘diplomacy’ (but certainly not tact).

So while we do not need to decolonize in the traditional sense of the word – Pakistan is independent and sovereign – there are continued threats that impact this sovereignty. The most prominent being that colonizers have taken on new forms in post-colonial society. The US, Saudi Arabia and China are a new breed of colonizers who use religion and money to exert seemingly autonomous control over our borders and national decision-making. Multilateral finance and development institutions, likewise, constantly keep us financially burdened and indebted – to the point of collapse. And the Commonwealth, despite its own redundancy, keeps us tied to British colonial history.

And this is the same all across post-colonial territories.

So how can we extricate ourselves from these legacies? We are a sovereign nation. Why can’t we institute sovereign policies? And for the sake of argument, how can Pakistan ‘decolonize’?

Some may argue that we already do. And that is true to some extent. But we also refuse to make some hard choices on the policies and practices that we endorse.

For instance, decolonizing our educational curriculum will mean not just institutionalizing Urdu and other regional languages alongside English as part of instruction, but also making children aware of our multi-ethnic and religious diversity. Decolonizing isn’t about picking and choosing how you want to present yourself.

Likewise, decolonizing our financial security will mean refusing the IMF and other multilateral loans and finding our own ways of generating revenue (other than taxation, so good business and investment practices). The same will apply to taking grants and loans from development aid organizations. This will mean coming up with our own unique ways to support social services and protections afforded to our populations, rather than depending on donor-led ideas.

Similarly, we will need to invest in intellectual debate and rigour that takes subcontinental history into account, warts and all, rather than depend on Western theoretical models and business practices to guide our innovations (globalization notwithstanding).

Can we do it? We could, of course. But there are many reasons why we may not be able to.

The main reason we can perhaps not successfully decolonize is because we have created an internal form of colonization within Pakistan, where the rich control the poor. Where the majority stalks the minority. A situation not very different from our pre-partition history, just perhaps, worse.

How can we decolonize ourselves from the global power fraternity, when we have no way of doing it internally? How can we fight for autonomy and sovereignty, when our own citizens aren’t free and independent?

The irony is that this is exactly the excuse the international community uses within its own decolonization agenda, which seeks to continue exerting power over us, just in more subtle ways. That countries like ours are still not ‘independent’ enough. But there is a difference between being independent and being politically demotivated to remain so. Pakistan falls in the latter category. We would happily give away all our assets to the highest bidders to feed the souls of a few at the top.

True decolonization is an act that comes from the formerly oppressed towards their oppressors. Not the other way around. They have already divested of their colonial interests. But in Pakistan and other countries like it, we are still grappling with the demons of our past.

Here is to yet another form of oppression. The fight to decolonize ourselves from ourselves.

The writer is an independent specialist and researcher in international development, social policy and global migration.