Return of the Colonial Mind

Priyamvada Gopal is a member of the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge
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How Hindu majoritarianism has undermined the Nehruvian legacy
There has been some discussion recently about how the ongoing project of normalising India’s Hindu majoritarian Government—and rehabilitating the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to re- configure him as a man of impeccable, if improbable, secular credentials— has involved appropriating iconic national patriarchs such as Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel. Both Nehru and Gandhi undoubtedly espoused different sets of ideological commitments from Modi and his Sangh Parivar, and had ideas of India that were quite different from each other’s and from his. Whatever Nehru’s failings in policy and practice, he certainly did not envision an India run by implacable votaries of Hindu majority dominance.

While it will simply not do, as the ultra-radical sometimes tend to, to claim that there is no meaningful difference between the Nehruvian vision of a secular and plural India, and the rather more insidious brand of majority ‘toleration- ism’currently on offer to India’s minorities— whereby they will be tolerated as long as they defer in docility to majority rule— it is worth asking one question: Was there something about the moment of Nehru’s ascendance and the forging of the so- called ‘Nehruvian Consensus’ that paved the way for the present, the era of Modi’s yet to be manifested ‘Achche Din’? The answer is ‘yes’ and the reasons for it lie in a concept I have touched upon before in Open: India’s ‘arrested’ and incomplete decolonisation, which has as much to do with Nehru’s own ambivalences and compromises as it does with the existence of powerful retrograde forces which sought to hijack the new nation birthed from the ruins of empire. For all the triumphalist bluster about self-reliance and sovereignty, the India of Modi is one that is being taken back towards, not away from, the toxic, hierarchical and exploitative vision of the world set up by the British Empire, one in which the worship of corporate profit merges seamlessly with religio-cultural triumphalism.

The seeds for this lethal cocktail were sown during the immediate post- Independence era, when India, despite the great strides made by its freedom struggle, set off down a path of partial decolonisation, one which failed to break entirely from the structures, practices and habits of thought put in place by two centuries of British imperial rule. For all the important gains of Independence and the anti-colonial visions behind it, the truth enshrined in the national motto—‘Satyamev Jayate’—demands that we acknowledge the many ways in which post- colonial India has itself become a colonial state. This claim can be exemplified by many aspects of India’s present, but I will restrict myself to three related spheres which also, unsurprisingly, constitute three areas of conflict: land and resources, militarism and repression, and finally, religious nationalism and communalism. In these, the heavy imprint of colonial ideologies can be seen, with populations displaced and impoverished, innocents shot down by military forces, and divide-and-rule manifesting in riots conveniently instigated just before elections. How is it, we must ask, that a land once subjugated is becoming—or has become—one that subjugates?

What is colonialism in the first instance? After its initial trading ventures, Britain came to dominate India in order to feed its quest, fuel- led by the Industrial Revolution, for natural resources and eventually cheap labour and markets for its goods. In the process, Britain deforested India extensively, partly to build the railways, taking over forests through legislation which also disastrously restricted the rural poor’s access to them as well as other resources traditionally held as ‘commons’. The quest for fixed land revenues and land for lucrative plantations, for instance, displaced millions of the poor, who attempted, then as now, to resist, only to be brutalised by the forces of the colonial state. Were these processes of expropriation arrested by Independence in 1947? Despite some limited land reforms and labour legislation, the key feature of Nehru’s ‘mixed economy’ still entailed capital-intensive industrial- isation accompanied by the unsustainable and cheap extraction of resources, with heavy pollution part of the fallout. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894, not amended till recently, granted the State enormous power in appropriating land without adequate compensation to the poor who were displaced in large numbers, not least for dams, Nehru’s beloved ‘temples of modern India.’ Following liberalisation in the 1990s and the on- going erosion of the few environmental and labour protections in place accompanied by swifter clearances for industrial and mining projects, exploitation, displacement and environmental degradation have taken on gargantuan and unchecked proportions. India is still a site for a multinational corporate scramble for resources, with hugely damaging consequences for people and the ecology; this scramble is now being extended to parts of Africa by Indian companies. To raise concerns is to be accused of failing to ‘Let India Develop’, development that has overwhelmingly favoured the urban middle class and elites. Madhusree Mukerjee, reviewing the book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India by Aseem Shrivastava and Ashish Kothari, notes that the capacity of India’s natural resources to sustain its people has almost halved over the past 40 years with India as a whole actually losing wealth, if ecological resources are accounted for. People’s rights campaigners Felix Padel and Samarendra Das argue that the ‘internal colonialism’ that takes the form of large-scale privatisation of resources and appropriation of cultivable tracts of land by mining companies in places like Orissa are tantamount to ‘cultural genocide’, with hundreds of communities, particularly Adivasi ones, simply ceasing to exist. To resist, which people do, is to invite being branded a ‘Maoist’ and to face the barrels of State weaponry, literally and judicially. The ‘drain theory’ propounded by people like Dadabhai Naoroji condemned the way in which India’s resources and wealth were siphoned off to Britain; if you are a poor person in rural India today, your experience is not very different.

Colonialism is to hold down a population by superior military technology, ostensibly ‘for its own good.’ Britain’s possession of India using a coercive state apparatus was justified in terms of security threats from Russia and later from Germany and Japan. Now it is Pakistan that provides justification. The great achievement in breaking free of colonial rule might have given India an ethos of sympathy for national sentiments and the will to self-determination. It was this ethos which ostensibly drove India to support Bangladesh in its liberation war against Pakistan. Why then has the Indian state resorted to such enormous violence in holding down the people of Kashmir—and in repressing insurgency in the Northeast? Is being ‘Indian’ something to be voluntarily embraced or is it something, like the ‘civilisation’ that the British claimed they gave us, to be shoved down reluctant throats? Whatever the complexities of the Kashmir issue and the fact that it has become political football with an equally belligerent Pakistan, the fact remains that in Kashmir and also towards the Kashmiri people, the Indian state behaves much like the British did towards its Indian possessions and the people of India, using ‘security’ and ‘order’ as its mantras. No surprise then, that like many other pieces of repressive legislation, including anti-sedition and Emergency laws, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)—which has shielded the Indian Army from accountability for thousands of deaths, ‘dis- appearances’ and rapes—was originally a colonial creation, brought into force as an ordinance by Lord Linlithgow to crush the Quit India movement, killing thousands. Nehru’s Government reworked this ordinance and passed the AFSPA in 1958 to crush a Naga rebellion. Today, as Irom Sharmila fasts bravely— for the fifteenth year running—for the utterly indefensible AFSPA to be repealed, the Army in Kashmir finds itself once again with the blood of teenage innocents on its hands.

In steadfastly refusing to address the question of self-determination for Kashmir, which Nehru left in the limbo of Section 370, and letting militar- ism run riot in the name of fighting Pakistani terrorism, how are the Repub- lic of India’s behaviour and methods different from those of a heavily armed Britannic empire 70 years ago?

The British Empire, of course, began as a multinational corporation, the East India Company. Mired in scandals, the Raj of the ‘Kampani Bahadur’ came under direct Crown rule. What did not change was the primacy of the ‘sacred hunger’, as the novelist Barry Unsworth once put it, for huge corporate profits. Nehru’s famous ‘socialistic’ leanings did not obstruct a select handful of big business houses making money through good old-fashioned capitalism —particularly in resource-intensive sectors such as coal and steel—assisted lavishly by state subsidies. Nationalism, as Burton Stein notes, was good for business. Liberalisation under Rajiv Gandhi loosened the hated bureaucratic Licence Raj and fostered a prosperous middle-class, but also made way for rampant privatisation, undermined safety nets and widened wealthy disparities: today a mere hundred Indians own assets worth a quarter of the nation’s economy. The British put in place a formidable state apparatus aimed at suppressing labour unrest and this too was deployed by the post- colonial Indian state which also failed to ratify international regulations of the ILO for recognition of trade unions. Some anti-union laws were resisted, unsuccessfully, by Muslim and Dalit groups, not Nehru. Today, the process of safeguarding the interests of business at the expense of labour has intensified, with Prime Minister Modi promising ‘minimum government’ as part of so-called ‘shrameva jayate’—this means fewer labour inspections, easier firing of workers, and an erosion of protections including those pertaining to paid leave, maternity and retirement benefits, apart from workplace safety.

Colonialism also draws on a powerful sense of civilisational superiority. While Nehru was both an internationalist and personally committed to a genuinely multi-religious polity, the Nehruvian Consensus that emerged stressed national ‘unity’ and ‘integrity’ over the claims of different communities. Where Nehru did attempt to articulate an expansive sense of nationhood, he had to give in to pressures from the right, refusing necessary safeguards for religious minorities and insisting on the need for their assimilation with the larger national culture which was rendered in a Hindu-ised language. Hindu nationalism meanwhile simply parroted the claims that votaries of British civilisation made: Indian antiquity was falsely represented as Hindu and Brahminical, steeped in greatness, a just society organised by divisions of labour rather than caste hierarchies. The same bombastic claims that Macaulay made for English as the greatest language were made for Sanskrit. The peculiar claims made by Prime Minister Modi of the existence of ancient plastic surgeons or Vedic rockets are not new; one way of dealing with British arrogance was to simply echo it by claiming that what was great about the West was already inherent in Indian culture. The approval of affluent Western countries, being visited by Modi in a parade of triumphant trips, seems as important to him today as it was to Indian elites who did well collaborating with the British Empire. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, theorist of Hindutva, was a self-declared atheist who explicitly modelled his idea of Hindu India on Western theories of nationhood based on a linguistic, cultural and religious homogeneity. As in post-imperial Britain even today, minorities and outsiders are acceptable so long as they assimilate with British culture just as minorities in India are expected to agree that Hindu culture is the ‘national culture’ (an idea mirrored by Pakistani Islamists). Nehru, to his credit, did not see secularism as an ‘amazingly generous’ or a ‘very mighty’ gesture on the part of the majority community as it is by some today: ‘We have only done something which every country does except a few very misguided and backward countries.’

While Independence brought India hard-won gains, the Indian state retained far too much of the apparatus and habits of thought put in place by two centuries of British rule. Yet, India is also fortunate in having other resources to draw on, more expansive ways of thinking about collectivity that are in danger of being suppressed or forgotten. In the recent controversy over ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem, one thing was forgotten: its author, Rabindranath Tagore, firmly refused a conception of the nation as an ideologically limited and culturally restricted entity which could exercise force to ensure compliance. Today, as India faces the prospect of turning into the mirror image of its erstwhile colonial oppressor, we could do worse than remember the great poet’s willingness to speak unwelcome truths both to foreigner and countryman: ‘Never think for a moment that the hurts you inflict upon other races will not infect you, or that the enmities you sow around your homes will be a wall of protection to you for all time to come.