Posted on: 11 May 2021

On Colonial Experience and The Indian Renaissance: A Prolegomenon to a Project
By S. N. Balagangadhara
Professor at the Ghent University in Belgium

One of the striking things about the British colonial rule is its success in developing certain ways of talking about the Indian culture and society. The British criticised the Indian ‘religions’, the Indian ‘caste system’, the Indian education system, practices like ‘sati’ and ‘untouchability’, and so on and so forth. They redrew the outlines of Indian intellectual history as indigenous responses to some of the ills they saw in the Indian society and culture: for example, ‘Buddhism’, as it emerged out of their reconstruction, was a revolt against ‘Brahmanism’ and ‘the caste system’[i]. Many Indian intellectuals emphasized British criticism by making ‘truths’ in the latter their own: the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, many Hindu ‘reform’ movements, and so on exemplify this trend. I say ‘truths’ and place it in scare quotes because the unbroken line of continuity between the colonial period and the one following the Indian independence raises two kinds of questions. The first is this: would there have been such a line of continuity if there was no ‘truth’ to the British portrayal of our history, traditions, and culture? This question uses the ‘fact’ of continuity to suggest that the British descriptions could be ‘true’. That is, our current experience of our culture and society appears to lend truth-value to the colonial descriptions of India. The second question transforms our ‘current experience’ itself into a problem: does such a line of continuity indicate that our experiences themselves are still colonial in nature? This question throws doubts upon the ‘facticity’ of the British descriptions of India, and suggests that they could be ‘untrue’. In the process, it also challenges us to look more closely and investigate our own experiences today. That is, the second question withholds assent to the ‘truth’ both of the colonial descriptions of India and of some of the claims we make about our experiences of our culture and society today. To some extent, and only to some extent, the so-called ‘post-colonial’ writings can be seen as attempts to make sense of the second question. Even though I do not fancy the label of being a ‘post-colonial’ myself, I perceive a shared sense of a quest with them. There is something deeply, deeply wrong with the line of continuity that exists between the colonial period and today’s India, and the challenge is to say what it is.

Participants in the Debate

Something more requires to be said about this ‘line of continuity’ and I will do so by identifying the broad responses to the colonial descriptions of India. Let me begin with the event that colonialism is. To most of us, including the colonizers, this event appears to have taken the status of a historical proof of the cognitive superiority of one culture against the other. That is, for some reason or the other, we look at colonization as though it was a contest between twotheories much like, say, the contest between the Aristotelian theory and that of Galileo. Our colonization by the British is seen to express the weakness of our culture and, by the same token, their superiority.

Many explanations of this weakness float around. (a) India was never a nation before the British made us into one; (b) the weakness of the Mogul rule at that stage; (c) the caste-ridden, divisive society that India was; (d) the absence of a centralized state and the presence of multiple small kingdoms, (e) because of which the policy of the British to ‘divide and rule’ was successful. There are many more than these five, but this list should suffice. “How could a few thousand conquer a nation of millions, if we were not weak?” This is how Gandhi formulated the problem, as did the Indian Independence Movement. Our nationalist thought has crystallized around the certainty that colonization expressed our weakness and the British strength (even if the latter was confined to exploiting this ‘weakness’).

However, the above perception does not emerge from a scientific study of either colonialism or imperialism but from the rhetorical force of another question: “if colonization is not an expression of our weakness, what else is it? An expression of our ‘strength’?” Even though every historian can routinely assure us that ‘higher’ civilizations can be conquered and overrun by ‘barbarians’, the so-called ‘scientific’ studies into our history do not appear to have moved away from this rhetorical question. On the contrary. Such studies try to provide ‘insights’ into our weakness, and tell us what the latter were. Simply put: the consensus (more or less) of all and sundry is that colonialism expressed the ‘weaknesses’ of the colonized and the ‘strengths’ of the colonizer. The industrial revolution in the West that antedates colonialism and the origin of the natural sciences that predates colonialism have somehow become telescoped in the popular consciousness into one state of affairs: the scientific, technological and the military might of the western culture. In short, colonialism expresses the civilizational superiority of the West. And, of course, the obverse of this conviction is: in many ways (in all ways?) we are inferior to the western culture. (The ‘we’ picks out the Indian culture here.) This conviction expresses itself in a variety of forms: from the rigidly nationalistic framework to its diametrically opposed stance. Provocatively put: colonialism is seen as a contest between two theories; one has won out proving the other as false (or passé) thereby.

The above stance (conviction, attitude, call it what you will) generates two antithetical intellectual movements. (It is a kind of a pendulum swing during the course of the last two hundred years we are not rid of yet.) The first is a fiercely ‘nationalistic’ mode. It claims that the Indian culture had everything: from quantum physics to psychoneuroimmunology, and from the rockets to the nuclear bombs. It further claims that there is nothing wrong either with ‘the caste system’ or with the Indian ‘religions’. The second is its antithesis: it brands any attempt to interrogate the Indian traditions and the Indian culture in order to recover and understand our current experiences as ‘obscurantist’ if not downright ‘fascist’. It believes that the current state of our society clearly shows the need for: ‘abolishing’ the caste system because it is the cause of social injustice; ‘reforming’ the Indian ‘religions’ so that they become more responsive to the needs of the modern day world; ‘establishing’ more firmly a ‘secular state’ that guarantees the upholding of the liberal values, etc. Between these two extremes, there are a number of opinions (of various shades) that tell us that we should ‘absorb’ the best from both cultures. However, these shades have been cognitively uninteresting so far.

There is, however, a third participant in this debate today. Standing outside the spectrum defined by these two antithetical movements, this voice suggests that both the responses are fundamentally colonial in nature. It suggests further that both ways of talking are obfuscating the nature of our experiences. It says that the Indians today have difficulties in accessing their own experiences, and that their learnt ways of talking about their culture and society are responsible for this state of affairs. It tries to argue that one needs to break out of the centuries of descriptive straightjacket that confines our thoughts and distorts our experiences. It is, I believe, a voice of the future which pleads the case for an Indian Renaissance. I hope to make plausible why this voice is believable and is worthy of credence.

The Structure of the Article

On its own, this article cannot realize the hope I have just spoken of. It requires more than even a couple of books to go some way in achieving the objective. Consequently, I will be taking but a step in that direction. And I intend doing it by using an unorthodox literary strategy in a debate that actually involves multiple voices. The strategy is the following: I will deny voice to myself. Or, better put, I will play the ventriloquist: my voice will be lent to one of the strongest opponents in this debate. Who is this opponent and why this strategy?

By way of an answer, let me begin by ‘gendering’ this voice: it is a he. He is a reasonable person but one who is logically very consistent. He shares the popular perceptions about the two banes of modern India, namely corruption and caste. Being a reasonable man, he wants a transparent government free of corruption and a just society that is rid of the socially unjust caste system. As a consistent person though, he follows his thoughts through to their logical conclusions and talks about the nature of Indian ethics as well. This reasonable and logical person is my opponent to whom I will lend my voice throughout this column and my own, at best, will be heard as interjections.

The readers of this column, I presume, share these popular perceptions as well. Whatever one’s sex, my portrayal of the commonsense perception should facilitate the reader in identifying oneself with this reasonable person. How far one goes along with this man depends on how consistent one wishes to be. For my part, I shall strive to make him maximally consistent. Consequently, the challenge the reader faces will be the following: would one like to be consistent and follow my opponent all the way through, or is one willing to interrogate afresh the commonsense perceptions of our society today? This strategy, if you like, is a variant of the famous reductio et absurdum. It is aimed at inducing what once was called ‘cognitive dissonance’. The ensuing discussion on the forum will make clear the degree of its success.

The Social Ethics of Corruption

1. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2002, India ranks behind Columbia, Argentina, and Honduras and occupies the 73rd place in the list of ‘corrupt’ countries. In India, the newspapers are full of stories about corruption and everybody knows somebody who is ‘on the take’. It is almost axiomatic that every politician is corrupt. The same applies to almost everyone in the government services – from the high-ranking officer to the lowest of the doormen. All state-owned enterprises (from electricity to the telephone) appear to suffer the same fate. Banking and Insurance sectors owned by the state seem to join the queue as well. If we simply add the numbers up, my guess is that we are talking about 80-100 million corrupt people (10% of the Indian population).

Of course, this is what is visible in the media. Very little is written about the business-to-business corruption, where an entire hierarchy demands suitable homage from their suppliers, mostly small-scale businesses themselves. If you include ‘greasing palms’ to get seats in ‘fully booked’ theatres, private hospitals, or on trains and private airlines, or gain entry into the educational institutions to this list, we are probably talking about 150 million or more. Should the ‘black market’ be drawn into the picture as well … it is anybody’s guess. (In all probability, we are now talking about 20% or more of the Indian population.) In short, corruption is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe in India and that, in most big cities, is much polluted. The media does not stop clamouring, the citizens do not stop complaining, and there is still no solution in sight. Commissions set up to punish the corrupt end up becoming corrupt themselves.

Because the distance between common sense and scholarship on this issue is virtually zero, let me cite a ‘netizen’ talking about it.[ii]

“Corruption is destroying the innards of our country” (Vinay Sharma)

“Customs officers raided, 29 lakhs recovered from a single officer!” If you’ve been reading the newspapers about a month back, this was the hottest news item then. It is downright mind boggling, not in the least because you assumed customs too be a squeaky clean department but by the sheer amount of money a low level government officer can make in the right jobs. According to sources in the customs clearing business, the amount of speed money earned by an appraiser is nothing less than Rs.20,000 a day, and what the Asst. Collector takes home is almost Rs. 30,000 a day. Rs. 30,000 a day adds up to, hold your breath, a cool Rs. 1.2 crore per year, tax free!. No wonder a job as an Assistant Collector of Customs is hotter than a job as a Country Head of a high flying MNC. Not that the Assistant Collector of Customs gets to keep it all, part of it must be shared with equally corrupt seniors and powerbrokers who ensure you get the right job in the first place through their contacts in the Ministry. Nowadays you come across young men whose prime ambition in life is to take up a government job. This desire is not fuelled by an urge to do something for the country and it’s people but to fill one’s own pockets by harassing common people. These people form the first link in a vicious circle that includes government officials at all levels, powerbrokers, members of the legislature and parliament and even ministers. These are a few cogs turning the wheels of the parallel economy. Add to them the unscrupulous businessmen and the process of defrauding the nation is complete. At this junction let me clarify that there are exceptions to this rule albeit rare. Once in a while you come across a officer who is twiddling his thumbs being given a posting where he can do no harm, no harm to the vested interests of the honourable politicians and their flunkies. As far as the businessmen are concerned there are many who may have resisted succumbing to the unjustified demands of these so called officers and have suffered, their good being held up on flimsy grounds, official clearances not being given, the list is endless. The Indian Government has vested so much power in the officers that they can hold you to ransom and you are absolutely helpless. If you decide to approach the courts, be prepared for a wait of at least a decade or so by which time your business is all but closed and your family is out on the streets. The same story is repeated across all government departments. The government has now established the post of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner, the person responsible for tacking the menace of corruption in the country. The recent raid on the Customs officers in Mumbai is courtesy the CVC. The appointment of the CVC is a step in the right direction but when you see the sheer number of government departments and the number of government employees across India, you realise the enormity of the task. In my opinion much stronger measures are called for to stop the menace of corruption from destroying the innards of the country. These strong measures have to be taken us, the common people of the country. Can we demand for special courts for speedy trial of corruption cases, can we demand for tougher laws against corruption that lead to life imprisonment for corrupt officers and politicians. Of course no politician in his right mind would pass such a law would he? Should we boycott people known to be corrupt and if so are we prepared to bell the cat? Is there any resort for the common people of this country?

The author is a concerned common citizen of India

2. Our ‘concerned common citizen’, even if he requires an Internet connection to publish his WebPages, tells us exactly what you hear on the streets, at the press club in Delhi, in the villages about the local Tahasildar’s office. Amazingly, the way one talks about fighting it is also identical: “Punish the corrupt severely,” but then who should do so? Quis Custodiet ipsos Custodes? “What we need is a strong entity (an individual or a government) that threatens, andpunishes the errant – and then ‘they’ will learn.” The ‘they’, of course, are the ‘corrupt’ – as I say, about 20% or more of the population.

2.1. What is one saying when one says this? The logic of the word ‘corruption’ tells us that either something or someone is corrupt – it is either a corruption of norms, or of values, or of principles, or of individuals … If we take our contemporary usage, corruption indicates a ‘loss of integrity’ – whether of individuals or of your database. The same usage also tells us that ‘corruption is rampant in India’; that ‘corruption is a social phenomenon’; that ‘corruption is wide-spread in India’ etc.

2.2. If it is our experience that corruption has known a phenomenal growth since Independence, it can only mean that the social fabric or the social structure enables such a rapid growth. Our soil, so to speak, must be very conducive to the growth of a cancer that “eats into the innards of our country”. Indian society hosts this cancer, and its immunological mechanisms must be pretty ineffective in fighting against it. If the people of India constitute the cells of the country and if ‘corruption’ is the disease, the only possible immunological mechanisms are the social and moral principles, of course. If Indians can so quickly, so easily and so massively be corrupted, what does it say about their morals? They should be pretty well non-existent, I would say. Or such is their morality that it encourages one to be immoral. When is a person a ‘fool’ not to take bribes? In a situation where everyone else is corrupt. It is a successful social strategy: because everyone else is corrupt, it pays to be corrupt oneself. That is, in today’s India, it is rational to be immoral.

2.3. How does one learn to be corrupt? In social groups, of course. If ‘being on the take’ is a successful social strategy, then it follows that the social group from which an individual learns this must itself embody this strategy. That is, the social group must itself be corrupt. However, because ‘corruption’ cuts across all empirical groupings in the Indian society, it follows that the ‘social group’ in question must refer to the society at large. Such must be the nature of this society that the individual learns to be immoral in his going-about with his fellow human beings. In some appropriate sense of the term, the social structure must itself be corrupt.

Caste – the Ethical Corruption

3. If much of the western description makes the caste system synonymous with India, caste also appears as ubiquitous to the Indians as the very air they breathe. From politicians to political pundits, from the pimps to the Prime Minister – all of us seem to belong to the caste system. Most intellectuals, from the extreme right to the extreme left, have firm opinions on the subject. Quite a few theories float around as purported explanations of the caste system. Some see a deformed class-relation in it, others a fossilised coalition of associations. Some see hygienic principles operative in the caste system, yet others some transaction rules. Some call it racial segregation, whereas others see in it the propensity of human beings to maximise fitness through extended nepotism.

Whatever one’s thoughts on the subject, most intellectuals appear to agree that the caste system is an obsolete form of social organisation. Its obsolescence is indexed by the hindrance it offers to everything that is desirable: progress, economic development, social equality, and justice … Without exaggeration, it could be said to be the bane of our society and culture. The caste system epitomises everything that is bad and backward.

4. Why does it so stubbornly refuse to disappear? How to eradicate this impediment to progress? The existing answer, in both theory and practice, is surprisingly simple: the caste system persists because of ‘prejudice’ and that is what one should remove. What kind of prejudice? Let us run through some of them quickly: the prejudice of ‘untouchability’; the prejudice that the accident of birth condemns one to servitude; the prejudice that the Brahmins belong to a superior ‘caste’ because of ‘Karma’. … Not only is this a well-known list, so also are the anecdotes that accompany it: horror stories of discrimination against the Harijans by the upper-caste groups, denial of basic human rights to some people, refusal to allow entry into temples or to partake food and water, etc. As this anecdotal discourse progresses, it transpires that the caste system is virtually synonymous with untouchability, moral discrimination, the denial of human rights, and so on. That is, these (and allied) prejudices are instilled in people from their birth, and the caste system is kept alive through practising these prejudices. Very simply put: caste system is a set of immoral practices.

4.1. Let us get some grip on the extent of the immorality of the caste system by comparing it to other large-scale (immoral) phenomena we know. For example, discrimination against the minorities in the US is not a social organisation, even though it is a social phenomenon. The apartheid regime was both the policy of a government and a regime imposed on society, but it was not a social structure. Fascism was a political movement (and a state form) and was unstable. Caste system is, in some sense, all of these but is also much more. It has survived onslaughts from Buddhism, Bhakti movements, colonialism, the Indian reformers, the current Indian legislation, and the western theorists. Clearly, we have a unique, sui generisphenomenon on our hands. It is more evil than colonialism and the concentration camps, more widespread than ethnic discrimination, and has a longer history than slavery.

4.2. However, when we say that the caste system is a set of immoral practices, we are actually saying at least two things: that these practices are immoral and that they are (logically or mathematically) ordered. (Actually we are saying more, but that does not concern us in here.) While one might be willing to grant that the practices (like the ones indicated above) are immoral, it might not be obvious why the caste system becomes an immoral system. The answer is simple: ‘caste’ is an ordered and structured system. Any social organisation, if anything is a social organisation then the caste system is, is ordered and structured. The immorality of this social organisation consists in the fact that it imposes immoral obligations in an ordered and systematic way. That is to say, caste system is an immoral social order in this double way: not only does the practice of caste discrimination violate certain moral norms but, as a social order, it makes immorality obligatory.

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