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Urgent need to de-colonize our minds

SAM Special 2020-07-14 070650
A marble statue of Christopher Columbus was beheaded in Boston

The corona pandemic and the new social movements created by it has stirred up – apart from racism – another critical topic: “colonialism” and how to deal with colonial history. 

With pandemic isolation fostering frustration, the dispute has turned violent in many places. Protesters rallied in Columbia to demand the Confederate flag's removal from South Carolina's state capitol. Such efforts were underway in four other US states - Texas, Mississippi, Virginia and Tennessee. The flag was a potent symbol for the southern states fighting in the Civil War and an icon of slavery and racism. In Canada, statues of Edward Cornwallis and John A. Macdonald were removed from their respective pedestals in Halifax and Victoria. In South Africa, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement led to the removal of a statue honoring the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

Statues and monuments have become major flashpoints of political conflict over the past decade. The New Zealand city of Hamilton tore down a statue of the colonial military commander Hamilton after whom it was named, joining a growing list of places worldwide that are reckoning with their past. Hamilton was a naval commander who fought indigenous Maori defending their land against British colonial expansion in the 19th century. In Washington DC the statue of Columbus was brought down.

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Monument controversies are not unique to the 21st century. Commemorative landscapes have been radically transformed during political regime changes throughout history. Following the Second World War, monuments to the Nazi regime were toppled. Similarly, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of apartheid in South Africa led to significant changes to the memorial landscape. The removal of statues and monuments is often equated with “erasing history.” But history itself is a process that has witnessed countless changes to commemorative landscapes.

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Though it suits neither, India and Pakistan have so far refrained from giving much critical thought to their colonial heritage and both are running the inherited political system – parliamentary democracy – whether or not successfully is a moot question. The feudal system used by British to force-multiply the authority of their rule was further amplified by their “divide and rule” policy.   

In Pakistan, the British bureaucratic system is in a shambles. Whereas in the rest of the world the feudal system is either completely eliminated or near elimination, in Pakistan it is thriving alongwith the Client-Patron relationship as never before. Unless the feudal system is eliminated, Pakistan may well descend into a criminal state i.e. if it remains an independent state.

Uncritical views on colonial history mainly highlight the ‘civilizing mission’ of the British that introduced railways, industries, and modern education. Pakistan is one such former colony where postcolonial narratives and the persistence of colonial legacies such as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas of FATA, have survived British rule for decades and have contributed to growing instability in the country.

While FATA and FCR are in the process of replacement, other elements of colonialism survive. So far independence has been in many ways a formality, an unfinished process. In order to decolonize and to better understand who we are today as a nation, a critical view of our colonial history would be helpful.

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British colonial rule actually started with the East India Company, a trading entity created in 1600 as a joint-stock trading company with a charter from the British crown providing a trading monopoly for ‘East India’, meaning India up to China. From 1613 it set up trading posts in different coastal regions and rose to account for half of the world's trade, particularly in basic commodities like cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, spices, saltpeter, tea, and opium. 

At that time, the Mughal Empire being intact, permission for trade by the Mughal emperor was needed. At the beginning of the 18th century Mughal India’s share in the world economy was 23%, as large as all of Europe’s economy put together. By the time the British left India in 1947, India’s share in global economy had dropped to three percent. British colonialism was of benefit to Britain, not India!

During the 18th century, the trading company started interfering politically and militarily in the conflicts of the dissolving Mughal empire and even conquering Indian territory – something that was not at all within the ambit of a trading company. All this has been very well documented in two excellent books, William Dalrymple’s “The Anarchy” and Shashi Tharoor’s “An Era of Darkness.” 

The Diwani issued by the politically weakened Mughal emperor Shah Alam II gave the EIC the right to collect taxes and made them de facto rulers first of Bengal and then successively of most of the subcontinent. By the end of EIC rule in 1858, the company had introduced English law based on English legal principles alien to India, private property of land, non-existent before, and interfered in the cultural and social traditions of the local population.

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Probably the most fatal interference was the de-industrialization of India so that Britain could sell its own products in the Indian market. Karl Marx wrote in 1853 that the hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society. The British broke up the Indian handloom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. Simultaneously, England began driving the Indian cottons from the European market, very deliberate and in brutal fashion. From a leader of the industrial world, India was reduced to being a net recipient of manufactured goods.

Another innovation the British introduced was hunger and epidemics that cost the lives of millions of Indians. The last famine was man-made, created by Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1942 during World War 2 when he diverted wheat from Australia meant for India to the UK.

The British ruled and plundered India for 200 years. A tiny number of British officials and troops (about 20,000 in all) ruled over 300 million Indians. Counting all souls in all trades, profession, etc. there were a total of 300, 000 British in India at the most. This is often seen as evidence that most Indians accepted and even approved of British rule. Britain could not have controlled India without the co-operation of the Indian princes and local leaders, as well as large number of Indian troops, police officers, civil servants etc.

In fact this may become a major US Presidential election issue, on US Independence Day July 4, Trump used the occasion to defend the statues as part of US heritage. This has divided the nation. This is the same sort of servitude that we continue to display, the most incongruous being the Nicholson Memorial on display on the Margalla Hills on GT Road. Nicholson was a brutal sadist who hated Indians. What he did to the mutinous Pathans and Punjabis in 1857 was horrific. And yet we glorify British victories won against native Indians. Consider the "piping" worn on the shirt collar by some units of the Pakistan Army commemorating the bloody storming of the Delhi Gate in 1857. So what do we call the 1857 episodes, the “Indian Mutiny” or the “War of Independence”?

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The British tended to portray British rule as a charitable exercise - they suffered India's environment (e.g. climate, diseases) in order to bring to India good government and economic development (e.g. railways, irrigation, medicine). British schools and universities taught Indians to be grateful and cherish the ‘white man’s burden’.

The end of British colonialism was not the end of exploitation of the subcontinent and newly founded Pakistan. The British variety of direct rule has simply been substituted by the neo-colonial rule of multinational enterprises such as Telcos, pharmaceutical companies, tobacco giants, etc. employing Pakistanis to do their bidding. The investment by multinational corporations (MNCs) though needed, enriches only the ruling elite in underdeveloped countries and causes humanitarian, environmental and ecological damage to their populations. This results in unsustainable development and perpetual underdevelopment. In addition, those multinationals have bought the loyalty of the Pakistani bureaucracy and political elite so as to influence their decisions in the multinational’s favor.

Our own Pakistani entrepreneurs have learned quickly and applied the same methods. Thus sugar cartels have been created and have established their influence in parliament and the government. Wheat and flour mafias create artificial shortages and extract extra profits from the population.

Pakistan needs to decolonize its economy, its political system and the culture of our elites. This doesn’t mean limiting or eliminating foreign investment, but it does require weeding out corruption and establishing the rule of law in our governance.

 

(The writer is a defense and security analyst).