Decolonization or Where do we go from Here?

Atreyee Majumder

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A strong call for decolonization of social sciences like sociology and cultural anthropology have come from Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang who write from the point of view of sovereignty of Native American communities in the context of North American settler colonialism and anthropology’s collusion in the same. They write (Tuck & Yang 2012, 3):

Decolonize (a verb) and decolonization (a noun) cannot easily be grafted onto pre-existing discourses/frameworks, even if they are critical, even if they are anti-racist, even if they are justice frameworks. The easy absorption, adoption, and transposing of decolonization is yet another form of settler appropriation. When we write about decolonization, we are not offering it as a metaphor; it is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonization is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools. Decolonization doesn’t have a synonym.

What they mean is that in the decolonization, a lot of liberal, critical arguments pass, and that the former and the latter are not the same things. Decolonization, for Tuck and Yang, and several scholars from indigenous studies in North America and Latin America, are of the opinion that decolonization must begin with seizure of imperial wealth and resources. They write further (Tuck & Yang 2012, 7):

Decolonization as metaphor allows people to equivocate these contradictory decolonial desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation. In reality, the tracks walk all over land/people in settler contexts. Though the details are not fixed or agreed upon, in our view, decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically. This is precisely why decolonization is necessarily unsettling, especially across lines of solidarity.

I empathize with Tuck and Yang in the strident attack on colonial and neo-colonial plunder and material exploitation, which is also true of places like India and other Asian and African nations. They call out the various settler moves to innocence – settler nativisms and erasure of difference through equivocation of other structural issues with those of colonialization and its continuation in the current time. Lastly, Tuck and Yang warn against the emphasis by scholars such as Paulo Friere that the freeing of the mind through change in education will be the primary key to decolonization.

The Indian context however has a different relationship with colonialism, wherein, land repatriation as in the Native American case is not the path we are seeking. Other than material plunder and physical violence that was brought to bear upon Indians by the British, there is the stark question of colonization of our psyche through colonial forms of knowledge – to remember Bernard Cohn’s coinage (Cohn 1992). Some part of this process continues on the site of the university, and some part of it through channels of public discourse including mass media. English-language education is the most obvious crime scene of this phenomenon. To the extent that we may accept the proposition that English is now an Indian language, we may pay attention to the way English is taught in schools and colleges putting certain texts and canons of the English world on a pedestal and teaching that literary canon as the bedrock of a literary standard, and literatures of the post colony as mere derivations of the standard. The famous Kenyan Marxist literary scholar Ngugiwa Thiongo, who chooses to write exclusively in his native language Ga, writes in the famous essay “The Language of African Literature”, reflecting on the particular worlds that are carried in and through languages (Thiongo 1987, 118):

Thus a specific culture is transmitted through language not in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history. Literature (written literature) and orature (oral literature) are the main means by which a particular language transmits the images of the world contained in the culture it carries.

Of the many practical uses of language, this strikes Ngugi as the most important – a conduit between a particular self and a particular world. This attachment to a particular world – in the Indian context, very diverse worlds within a national context – is broken by the introduction of the alienating, colonial, English-language education system. A particular kind of bourgeois, educated citizen-subject of a hyphenated status – they do not fully belong to any regional entity or group, they are of course not fully Western. I draw inspiration from the corpus of Ngugi’s work in the African Marxist tradition, to say make the argument that any attempt at decolonization of the Indian psyche through reform in education, especially higher education, has to first be on the site of language.

Growing up in India and Learning Language Hierarchies

To make this point, let me go back to my childhood memory of a posh school in Calcutta, where I was taught poets like William Cowper, Elizabeth Browning and Shakespeare from the Anglo-American canon by the time I was fourteen years old, and a little later, Nissim Ezekiel and Keki N Daruwalla as examples of Indian writing in English. Some eighteenth century Mangalkavyas of the Bengali canon were also taught in high school. But it took a Bengali teacher’s careful attention to my poetic nerve to expose me to the modern Bengali poet Joy Goswami. Joy Goswami wrote the lines “pagli, tomar shonge, bhoyaboho jibon katabo”. This is the first line of Goswami’s long poem Pagli Tomar Shonge. Translated (my translation): “Madwoman, with you, I will spend a terrifying life”. And I tried translating those lines as an adult many years later, contemplating the heavy weight of medicalised discourse that comes to bear upon the English word “madwoman”. The word Pagli is untranslatable, to my mind. It is an immeasurably delightful, loverly interpellation. My love for the Bangla poetry began thus. None of William Cowper or Tennyson or Keats or Shakespeare seemed to be able to conjure a loverly delight in a word like pagli

Let me indulge in some more lines from modern Bengali poetry, this time by the famous Bengali novelist, essayist, poet Sunil Gangopadhyay  “Shudhu Kobitar jonno tumi nari”. Translated: “Solely for poesy, are you woman”. This sentence is grammatically incorrect. A grammar software would probably put an “a” there before the word “woman”. But in the cadence of the Bengali version, that would totally destroy the essence of the line. These are all lines from love poetry, but they convey irony, humour, and a bit of playful belittling of the poet and the lover. This playfulness arises out of the peculiar postcolonial condition. The postcolony offers a canvas of broken dreams, uneasy attachments and the simultaneity of turbulence and peace, love and hate. In the middle of all this postcolonial juggernaut, the lover loves, not unconscious of the drama in his backdrop. As the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said, “Aur bhi ghum hain zamaanemein, mohabbat ke siwa”. There are more worries in this world, than the ones caused by love (my translation). The peculiar taste of an Indian socio-material world lies in the simple words of the tragicomic poet – who calls his lover “pagli”. It is said in half-seriousness, compassion, love, and yet, it is not pejorative. 

Decolonization of the Indian psyche, to my mind, requires these palates of language to be revived at the first instance. These palates, to remember Ngugi, will do the work of conveying our particular worlds, their eccentricities, their tragedies, their comedies, all at once. Decolonization must occur within and outside universities in India, not only by offering effective affirmative action to include students from marginalized backgrounds, but finding a way to include their languages and cultures within the imagination of what we call knowledge.

Travelling Theory

In the introduction to the important anthology Changing Theory: Thinking Concepts from the Global South, Dilip Menon (Menon 2022, 16) writes: 

So, the question we must ask is what allowed the travel of European knowledge? There is the obvious answer of colonialism and power which allowed for the projection of European nativism as a universal.

Menon asks, crucially, aside from colonial and capitalist infrastructure, why is it that European concepts translate more easily? Why is it that freedom and individualism and market economy and other such ideas and concepts translate from particulars of some regions of Europe and turn into powerful, hegemonic universals? In this question, I would like ponder upon a little upon the process of production of an idea into a universal. An idea, however big or small, emerges from a sociohistorical context. Particular historical conditions lead to the unmooring of a concept from its particularity as it begins to travel with a kind of generalised translatability, thus freedom in India becomes commonplace and equated with right to information, right to food, right to sexual orientation, right to freedom of conscience and various iterations of a freedom that makes sense in our context. But this receipt of another’s concept and its subsequent domestication into one’s own is a rather strange thing, I think. We don’t become standard format children of the Western Enlightenment. We become hybrids. We inhabit the public sphere in English, and our private dreams and nightmares in Hindi or Tamil or Malayalam. We become double, and yet fragmented. I state this without any value judgment over this process of inhabiting another’s universal.

My discomfort arises, in consonance with Dilip Menon, on the impossibility of Indian or African or Indonesian concepts from rising out of their sociohistorical contexts and travelling across the world. Menon’s edited anthology tries a version of that by culling conceptual vocabularies (including South Asian words like Andaj, Musafir, and so on) from the breadth of the Global South. But we come back to square one, we translate all these rich concepts into English for them to start travelling out of their origin-places. My question, then, for the case of Indian decolonization is: when and how will Indian-origin concept travel beyond the sites of colonial wound? When and how will we become comfortable in our languages and the concepts they make transparent? Famously, the Irish novelist James Joyce messed around with the English language in his novel Ulysses to give expression to an indigenous concept of what it means to be coherent. When and how will we write an English novel messing with English itself and make transparent our inner worlds? When and how will we stop seeking inclusion in the Western intellectual project? 

Towards an Indian Social Thought

A friend and colleague has been entreating me to consider seriously the question of an Indian sociology or social anthropology since that is the discipline I am trained in,  and I have been considering this question with some ambivalence.  I have also come to the tentative conclusion that it may be more valuable to look at Indian or South Asia routes to social thought rather than an Indian sociology or anthropology. I say this in view of the fact that a nationally organized sociological system, in which experts appear as sort of national representatives and speak with authority about the lives and worlds of people who live in these regions, is a deeply colonial invention. In this respect, sociologists and anthropologists have organized themselves into legible grids of nationality and regionality. Some would call this a methodological nationalism embedded within the very logic of modern social sciences.

I want to inquire into the possibility of a longer tradition within South Asia about thinking about man and his relationship with immediate and faraway collective formations – be they community, region, religion, nation, or the universe at large. In fact, the inception of Indian sociology departments across universities, I would argue, has destroyed the possibility of a novel genealogy of South social thought that surpasses the modern, postcolonial conditions of production of sociological knowledge. We learn a great deal about the agrarian countryside, the life of caste-based communities, religious rituals, the slow growth of urban sociology and all of these things in such a departmental sociology. It gives us nuggets of wisdom filled into categories that predictably dictate what India is. These categories, are inevitably categories invented by colonial forms of anthropological and historical knowledge. India becomes a space fraught primarily with the category modernity and lack-thereof. 

Beyond the post-colony dyad

To dig up the actual possibility of conceptualizing India apart from the postcolonial yoke  one must, I think, go to literary, aesthetic and philosophical texts. The root of a corpus of Indian social thought lies in sociological thinking in the pages of the literary and aesthetic genres as also philosophical commentaries that consider the question of individual human’s embeddedness in and separation from larger society. Tagore’s Streer Potro (The Wife’s Letter) and Mahasveta Devi’s Mother of 1084 and Draupadi or Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq, Abhinavagupta’s Natyasastra, Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on universalism are all examples of this Indian struggle for self-definition.  Keeping in mind the disparate historical conditions that led to production of these  works, all of these are texts of other genealogies of an Indian modernity, or whatever word one might concoct  an effort to engender a better version of the world. A wife writing to her husband about a long-suffering marriage that she must walk out of. A mother discovering the underbelly of far-left politics through the quest for the story of her dead son. A raped woman revolutionary confronting the power structures of state and patriarchy that expect to subdue her. A mad, pious Muslim king who struggles with handling power and restlessly asks questions about truth and justice. A commentary of the rasa theory of organizing one’s aesthetic life and impulse. These are all hints at an Indian social theory from the inside, look out into the world. Our attempts at decolonization on the site of the Indian university must begin with destroying the entrenchment of the predominantly colonial categories with which that continue to organize our minds (in its aftermath) and all attempts at intellectual life.

Whither University?

The university in India has descended into a place of routinisation of the modern knowledge project that regularly delivers ambitions into the market economy along with a range of degrees – law, technology, economics, medicine, or whatever else might be in demand in the market for employment. These ambitions are dictated by the demands of the global and national markets. These are important degrees to furnish, of course, to equip our young workforce to render important services in the government and private sectors. I wish to imagine a university in contemporary India that does much more than that. I wish to imagine a university that not only includes various sections of students from across socioeconomic, ethnic and religious backgrounds but also delivers an education that mirrors, in some respects, their biographies and experiences of being Indian. This prescription would not close off the exposure to various knowledges and traditions emerging from other parts of the world. It would not close off the possibility of cultivating an Indian cosmopolitanism, but it would be one that is rooted in the long tradition of argumentative and critical thinking that emerges from this sub-continent and its complex relations with culture, religion and power. Swami Vivekananda, in his remarks in Madras on February 9, 1897, marked this need to evolve an Indian cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness. He wrote (cf. Medhananda 2022, 6) “I cannot but think that we have to learn many things from other nations. We must be always ready to sit at the feet of all, for, mark you, everyone can teach us great lessons”. Along with this open-mindedness, there is need to cultivation of a rootedness, an inwardly contentment that is not parochialism or nativism. I offer these scattered remarks in celebration of the longstanding intellectual and aesthetic traditions of the Indian sub-continent, as an attempt to chart a way forward. I offer these comments not to restore a kind of Golden Age but with a hope of the future where the knowledge project is radically reconfigured and acts a nourishing source for society at large. I imagine the university as a resting place for such an intellectual project – one at which we can think the world from India.

Works Cited

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. 1987. The Language of African Literature. In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Medhananda, Swami. 2022. Swami Vivekananda’s Vedantic Cosmopolitanism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Menon, Dilip. 2022. Introduction. In Changing Theory: Thinking Concepts from the Global South. Dilip Menon (ed.). New York: Routledge.
  • Tuck, Eve & K. Wayne Yang. 2012. Decolonization is not a Metaphor. Decolonization, Indigeneity, Education, & Society 1.1: 1-40.

Dr Atreyee Majumder is Assistant Professor at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru.   She is a writer and anthropologist based in Bengaluru. This is part two of the two-part series on University and Decolonization.  

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