Friday July 12, 2024

Understanding our colonial credentials

By Syed Muhammad Abdullah
January 22, 2022

While reading Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ recently, I realised I may have a problem of thinking about issues and even my own soil in an insular manner. The colonial mindset, or as I call it ‘the colonial lens’, imposes a silent limitation on one’s thoughts leaving one without the ability to appreciate indigenous socio-political thought.

Gramsci, as quoted by Said, defines and draws a distinction between civil and political society; the former comprises civil institutions such as school, family etc, while the latter bureaucracy, police and other state institutions. Ideally, there happens a mutual exchange in a symbiotic manner that enables one to understand the other. For successful exchange, compatibility is essential where the need of one should be reflected in the other making this cycle self-sustaining. If the exchange structure is weak or entirely absent, the system is bound to collapse sooner or later. More specifically, if the political society of a state is grounded in some colonial past rather than its own indigenous roots, then a structural conflict exists to start with and it is highly probable that the resulting political system will be shallow and ‘rootless’.

On the other hand, if the civil society too superficially aspires to become colonial in its outlook and is not in consonance with its indigenous social structure then for one both the civil society and the basic social structure are functioning in two parallel universe detached from the reality, becoming neither completely local nor completely colonial, impending social implosion.

By the same analogy, the structure of our present political society institutionalised the West’s understanding of our people of the Subcontinent which led to the establishment of institutions such colonial bureaucracy etc. More so, it was not representative of the aspirations of the people it governed and by the time the slogan of ‘Indianisation’ gained traction, the local political elite had become more colonial then the colonisers themselves, or as some might argue a certain political class was ‘created’ albeit inadvertently to take over the colonial project further either in the presence or absence of the British (Lord Macaulay’s famous statement of creating an ‘educated’ class who will be more English than the English themselves save in colour might be relevant here).

Gradually, the political society was transformed into becoming ‘foreigners’ in their own land and, as Gramsci would put it, the superstructure was not compatible with the base – thereby creating an invisible wall between the two and sowing the seeds of the everlasting social discord. This is by no means to argue that no social tensions preceded the British, but only to point out that the British and the local elite failed to understand the reality that existed for the common people, regardless of any colonial notion. Therefore, the ‘base’ that existed aspired to create a different superstructure while the superstructure created by the British had colonial inspiration and appealed to a different ‘base’. This is what created the structural problem of ‘not being able to understand your own people’. It may be termed a protracted case of Stockholm syndrome where not only have we fallen in love with our captors but more worryingly do not know how to function on our own. Unbeknownst to us, our dependency on the ‘colonial mind’ has reached levels where our own actions reinforce the very problem we have been hitherto suffering from.

For instance, if we go by the book the definition of ‘colonisers’ excludes the Sultans of Delhi, the Mughals and others where some argue that ‘they did not send the local exploits to some foreign land’ therefore they were ‘benevolent’ occupiers in contrast to the Westerners being ‘malevolent’ ones. We tend to forget that all the external powers who invaded the Subcontinent were only for their own benefit; any resulting cultural diffusion was an accident and cultural appropriation a tragedy. Therefore, it is cultural imports and the broader social influence of all the occupiers that need to be considered here which not only have shaped our identities, the existing socio-political structures and institutions, but also our way of thinking. It is the independence of mind more than anything that is at stake here.

More critically, if we examine the waves of political and administrative reforms in Pakistan from this perspective, we would realise that one of the essential reasons of its failure is the ‘foreign-ness’ of the imported reforms – devoid of any local understanding and applied to a governance structure that itself is ‘foreign’.

Now the question here is: how do we counter this influence? We begin by questioning the existence of everything that is associated with colonisation and a subsequent assessment to gauge whether a certain regime or institutions may have existed without the advent of the British, French, Portuguese or even the occupiers before them. What is the historical background of this and what were the practices it replaced? In what ways had it been detrimental and beneficial to us? What is the gain/loss of still keeping it in vogue? These assessments may begin from the ground level up and applied to one’s daily life to start with in order to develop a perspective and break the ‘colonial lens’.

I sometimes wonder how the Subcontinent may have looked had there been no Central Asian, English or even Greek and Roman influences. More importantly, how better it would have been had there been no extractive colonial institutions employed in ‘public service’ delivery.

If somehow the colonial influence wanes and the real fabric of our society is enlivened, it may be rediscovered that what was once termed as ‘civilisational progress’ is actually a hindrance not only in understanding our own people but also the essence of what our indigenous culture and society as a whole stood for.

The writer is a public policy practitioner hailing from erstwhile Fata. He tweets @syedabdullah100