As you all know, I have a perfect alibi for not saying much today. From the announcements earlier in the day, you know that someone has been interested enough in my work to “remove” my file folder not once, but twice. Of course, the perpetrator need not be the same person in both instances; I cannot think of anyone in this audience that is so fond of me. In the first folder was my paper. In the second were the notes I had hurriedly scribbled when the paper went missing. Now that I have neither my paper nor my notes, I think I will be excused for whatever you may find wanting—if not wanton—in this presentation.1
So let me begin by stating what I am not going to do. I am not planning to talk about Edward Said, though this seminar and many others like it not only in India but in other parts of the world are dedicated to his memory. I have an immense regard for Professor Said, whom I met briefly, not just for his humanism, a word that is much attacked these days, but also for his extraordinary courage. To be a public intellectual in contentious times is never easy. I think that for Professor Said his representing the Palestinian cause in the heart of America’s most Jewish city, New York, compounded this challenge. To tell the Jews, who are themselves a persecuted people, that they are now persecuting others required a special kind of integrity and fearlessness, which Professor Said had. Said’s activism and scholarship flowered in the U.S., not in Palestine. It is certainly ironic that he grew up to champion the cause of those very people whom his biography, so tellingly called Out of Place, shows him alienated from during his isolated and highly Westernised childhood. My only comment on his oeuvre is that though it provoked enormous self-criticism within the thinking West and immortalized Said as one of the founding fathers of the discipline of post-colonial studies, most of his work remained not only within the West, but also continued to address primarily Western concerns. Correcting Western attitudes towards its Others is one thing, but for these Others to understand and represent themselves according to their own self-fashioning is a task that we cannot expect him or his followers to do for us. This we will have to do for ourselves and it is in this larger task that I am most interested. As to Said, I think there are and will be enough papers on him in the sessions to come.
I must also clarify that neither am I planning to do what Professor Tapan Raychaudhury attempted to do this morning. He gave us a magisterial overview of the European or rather the British encounter with India. What is more, I think that he was trying to present a new model for this encounter, which he termed “catalytic.” The idea that Europe changed very little in its encounter with India, but, like a catalyst, triggered a massive transformation in India is, to the say the least, debatable. I would prefer to see cultural contact as a two-way street even if the official signs say “One Way.” However, I do agree with one aspect of his argument, namely his refusal to reduce this encounter simply to terms such as dominance and subordination. Yes, these may be the broad parameters of the engagement between the colonizers and the colonized, but when we look more closely what we see are numerous complications, many pockets of resistance, and various contrarian impulses. The total picture thus gets more complex than we are normally given to understand. I think it is Homi Bhabha who says somewhere that “culture abhors simplicity”; listening to Professor Raychaudhury reminded me that we need to bear that in mind. But where I most resonated to his ideas was his attempt to rethink the Indo-British encounter along independent lines, actually looking for spaces of autonomy and resistance, of what I might call Svaraj, though he did not use that word. That everything in this encounter was not a matter of dominance and subordination, but there were many inflections to this broader equation is worth appreciating—but even that is not what I wish to explore further in my talk.
What I am really planning to do is to focus on the genealogy, development, and perhaps demise of what is called “post-colonialism.” To this end I wish first to offer a narrative, a survey of how this field developed in the last twenty-five years or so. Let me forewarn you that this is going to be a very brief survey. In fact it will be a survey conducted in a kind of short hand, if not underhand manner. So, once again, you will have to forgive me for my errors of omission and commission: as I have already told you, I have a perfect alibi.
It seems to me that though issues of colonialism were in the air for a long period, the term as such became popular around the time the book The Empire Writes Back came out. You know this book by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffith, Helen Tiffin—it is now in second edition—was originally published in 1989, about ten years after the earlier landmark which everybody knows, Said’s Orientalism (1978). But in Orientalism, neither the notion of post-colonialism, nor the term is used frequently. The key word is, of course, “Orientalism,” the discursive corpus and academic discipline whereby the West studied its Others, especially in the East. So in these intervening ten years, post-colonialism—the term and field of study, attained prominence. Orientalism itself came to be subsumed by post-colonialism. What is post-colonialism? There is actually an essay by this title by Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge published in 1991. In it they distinguish between a continuation of colonialism and a resistance to it, a distinction that I find of crucial importance, even though they predicate it on the rather flimsy hyphen (or its absence) between “post” and “colonialism.” To me, however, post-colonialism has come to represent a certain smorgasbord of different theoretical perspectives, attitudes, and styles, besides signifying a huge academic industry whose centers are primarily in the West or in countries of advanced capital. There has been a fairly extensive discussion of this origin and provenance. I would especially like to draw to your notice Aijaz Ahmad’s essay, “The Politics of Literary Postcoloniality,” in which he problematizes the rise of post-colonialism. He shows how the term migrates from the social sciences, particularly political theory, in which it was prominent in the 70’s, to the discourse of literary criticism in the late 80’s and early 90’s. What is more, this transition is bereft of the degree of self-reflexivity that one normally would expect in such a migration. Ahmad further argues that this repackaging has something to do with the retreat of the organized Left and the rise of postmodernity. It is left to post-colonialism and its likes to offer a weak resistance or the appearance thereof to the triumph of capitalism.
I would like to bring this debate closer home, to India, if I may. I think the first time that post-colonialism, as opposed to commonwealth or world literature in English, was discussed seriously was in the conference held in Shimla in 1994 called ‘Interrogating Post Colonialism’. I was at that conference. A volume came out edited by Meenakshi Mukherjee and Harish Trivedi, in which I have an essay called ‘Coping with Post Colonialism.’ In my essay I tried to make a distinction between the discourse of post-coloniality and the condition of post-coloniality. My point was that paradoxically the prerequisite for entrance into the discourse of post-colonialism was an exit from the condition of post-colonialiality. That is, there were really no post-colonials in the discourse of post-colonialism. Post-colonialism, like Orientalism, was about privileged people in the West discussing underprivileged people elsewhere. What made this less obvious was that these privileged people were often brown, not white, and from areas that were formerly colonized.
Therefore, there was no way in which the conference in Shimla could really interrogate post-colonialism as it set out to do. All it could do was to notice the ascendancy of this field, make peace with it, and if possible, ask for a small piece of the action. So, though the ostensible purpose was to interrogate post-colonialism, the interrogation was actually a ruse to camouflage a late entry into a discourse that had already overtaken us. The conference was a roundabout admission, a way of saying that we were a bit behind in that we continued to speak of commonwealth literature and so on, but we now accept that the new name for who we are is “post-colonial.” If we really wanted to mount an interrogation, we should have done so much earlier. But unable to do that, we finally woke up to the idea that we were left behind, and must catch up. The point of my talk is that if we missed the boat in announcing the arrival of post-colonialism, we must not miss the boat in declaring its demise. This is what I propose to do today, to announce the end of post-colonialism.
Very soon hereafter, such announcements and analyses will be made in different parts of the world by more competent people than I. What I wish to offer is more like an advance warning or a trial run. In a major conference coming up in August 2004—the triannual ACLALS—I have proposed a panel which includes Vijay Mishra, R. Radhakrishnan, and I. Vijay Mishra, again with Bob Hodge, has a paper in it called “What was Post-colonialism?” which I think nicely complements the earlier paper I mentioned just now. My paper is entitled “Post Colonialism – A Requiem.” The third paper by R. Radhakrishnan, is about “Post-colonialism by any Other Name.” These titles, as you can see, are telling. For instance, Radhakrishnan’s paper is likely to argue that the issues that post-colonial discourse highlighted will continue to be with us in one fashion or another, even if the discipline goes into decline. Vijay Mishra, on the other hand, will speak of Marx and Lacan, among others, to point out how post-colonialism gave us an opportunity to resist the dominant. My paper, of which I will say more, will try to show that we are better off with Indian studies than with post-colonial studies when it comes to studying ourselves.
May I also say, in passing, that the location of this announcement is certainly as important as its content. You cannot have a more appropriate place to talk about colonialism, and in some sense post colonialism, than Calcutta, because as we all know Calcutta as a city was the creation of the Empire. The native bourgeoisie, which eventually produced some kind of counter discourse, were also a product of that very system that produced this city. Likewise, the so called decline of Calcutta may actually be traced to the shifting of the imperial capital to Delhi. Calcutta was the second city of the Empire, and the first city of the East. Incidentally, in those days, the second city of the East was of course Shanghai, which was also created by the trading interests of the Western, capitalistic powers. Colonialism, an extremely resilient, powerful and varied system, had diverse manifestations in different parts of the world; naturally the responses it engendered are also diverse and complex. This diversity and complexity accounts, in part, for the differences and similarities between Calcutta and Shanghai on the one hand, and London and Calcutta on the other. The end of post-colonialism that I have been speaking of does, I believe, have some bearing on Calcutta, which is why I shall return to the subject of this city at the end of my presentation. But, briefly, let me say that Calcutta seems poised at the threshold of another revival because it is going to be central to another kind of world order, which is emerging even as we are talking here. This world order is predicated on the end of the sort of post-colonialism that we have had in the past and on the birth of a different kind of discourse and material reality in the East.
But, even as I come to my main argument, let me unpack the internal contradictions of the term “post-colonialism.” These have been explained before, but we would do well to remember them. It is obvious that post-colonialism refers to a heterogeneous terrain, rather than a homogeneous one. That is, it is more likely to have hills, valleys, rivers, forests, flat lands, a variety of soils and climates, flora and fauna, than to be one sort of habitat. It is also obvious that this term encompasses a vast body of people and their cultures and therefore is bound to be varied and diverse in its contents. But what is not equally obvious is that the term hides two contrary impulses and therefore maintains an internal contradiction. The word ‘post’ as everybody knows it, is a sort of neutral marker behind which hide some extremely incongruous approaches to the whole discourse of post colonialism and also the kind of consciousness it creates. To my mind, this inner variance is also present in the word “end” which is in the title of my paper. So both the key words in my talk, “post-colonialism” and “end,” have contrary impulses within them, which I wish to exploit to express my meaning.
The word “post,” as I was saying, hides two contradictory impulses. In one sense, you might substitute “neo” for post. So the word “post-colonial” really means “neo-colonial,” in several cases and contexts. At the same time, the other impulse in the word “post-colonial” is “anti-colonial.” So, at the least, there is always a tussle between these two meanings of post-colonial, “neo” and “anti.” Similarly there is a contradiction between two other senses of the word post-colonial—the ideological sense and the chronological. The chronological sense suggests continuity and the ideological sense a rupture. Indeed, “post-colonial” is a very convenient blanket word, a portmanteau, a holdall if you will, which allows a lot of different types of things. It is this imprecision and ambiguity that has contributed to its prevalence.
I would add that there is a fascinating dialectic between the “pre” and the “post,” between what comes before and what comes after, between pre-colonial confusion and post-colonial clarity. If we see these contrary impulses and unravel them from our own vantage point, we will begin to notice that the real beginnings of post-colonialism—as opposed to the beginnings of colonialism—have to do with a clear sense of what atma bodh (self knowledge) and shatru bodh (knowledge of your adversary). You begin to get colonized when you lose sight of the distinction between yourself and your adversary, when you don’t know who you are and what you are struggling against, both individually and collectively. Conversely, the beginnings of decolonization and, eventually, of post-colonialism, come from a clear notion of the self and of the adversary. If we re-visit pre-colonial times, for a moment, we notice that a clear sense of our collectivity does not commence until several decades after the Battle of Plassey. Because there is no consciousness of a sharply defined collectivity that can be pitted against the oppressive or dominating collectivity, call it colonialism or imperialism, there is no corresponding sense of a national consciousness either. To come to our own so called “post”-colonial times, I would suggest that that consciousness is still lacking because of the fragmentation and decentering of the body politic that is intellectually underwritten by the newly emerged “postal” discourses. In other words, just as a lack of self-awareness delayed our coming into being as a nation, a lack of self-awareness will also delay our emergence as true post-colonials. On the other hand, because colonialism was a complex phenomenon, it did not develop in a uniform or unilinear fashion. It did not merely dominate everywhere; it also engendered pockets of resistance. Similarly, just as its advancement was complex, its retreat will also be multiform and diverse. While some of us will be more staunchly anti-colonial, a number of us will persist in our neo-colonial ways of thinking and being. The progress of the post-colonial will also be complex, with advance and rear guard actions and interventions.
That is why it is crucial for us to fracture the imagined wholeness or availability of any universal discourse of post-colonialism. From our own sense of independent collectivity, which is separate from the enterprises of the West, we shall have to argue that what emanates from the metropolis and goes by the name of post-colonialism is not the only kind of discourse or stance. We will have, I think, to distinguish between the “ism” that is post-colonial and our condition or reality as post-colonized people. The “ism,” the discourse, is what is gradually coming to an end; the condition, which is mutating before our eyes, will continue. If we are unable to make this distinction, the theoretical articulation of our own condition would come to be the exclusive preserve of those located in the metropolitan centers. So in a peculiar sense, as I said in my 1994 essay, the “real” post-colonial is one who is not part of the post-colonial discourse. Notwithstanding the active collaboration of scholars from the colonized world, post-colonial theory as it has come to be canonized, was generated in the metropolitan academy, and then exported to us. As such, post-colonialism, as an academic discipline, is essentially (neo)-colonialist. Our job as the “real” post-colonials is to expose this fact, to cry foul, and finally to create our own discourse. I am well aware that any such enterprise cannot exist in a realm that is autonomous or untouched by the larger forces of global capital, but it is vital to develop our own indigenous market rather than not exist at all except as raw data in the processing units of the metropolitan mills of theory. This will entail some radical changes in the way we conduct ourselves in India. We must end our relationship of subservience with the Western academy. One way to do this is by reading and citing each other rather than being locked into a one-way traffic with the West.
I think Arif Durlik in his essay “The Aura of the Post-colonial” has a very interesting way of putting it. He says post-colonialism as a discourse begins when Third World intellectuals arrive in First World academies. This is a very intelligent essay from a writer whose own position is complex. Durlik is from Turkey, works on China and teaches in the United States. The implication of Durlik’s essay is that post-colonialism is a form is a form of contained opposition. This means that its opposition is itself a form of compromise. At worst, it is nothing more than a career move. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot of the left-leaning academics sought refuge under the umbrella of post-colonialism. That is why, post-colonial critics get absorbed into the Western academy; the purpose of the opposition is actually assimilation. It is sort of as if you oppose someone only to join him or her. The flip side is that barring a few exceptions, which serve as tokens, like Spivak and Bhabha, post-colonials exist under a sort of glass ceiling. While mainstream areas of Western culture continue under the control of the “white folk” peripheral subjects like post-colonialism are handed over to the “brown folk” to cultivate. So while post-colonialism allows a kind of academic upward mobility, from the “third world” to the “first world,” it also entails a different kind of stereotyping whereby persons of colour are expected to confine themselves to post-colonial issues. Post-colonialism, in other words, is a mixed bag. In terms of real gains it does produce a presence for people of colour, for people of the third world in the first world academy. But in terms of the power of discourse I think it reinforces Western hegemony.
Being aware of these complexities, having a clear sense of our own self-interest, locating ourselves in our own narratives, if we were to evaluate post-colonialism, we should be able to come up with a clearer idea of its utility. While it has genuinely contributed in opening up spaces within the West not just for matters non-Western, but also for non-Western academics, it cannot serve the non-West beyond a point in the latter’s own self-realization and self-assertion. For that we shall have to strengthen our own creative and critical traditions. It is not the post-colonialism is useless, but it is not useful enough for our purposes. It does not take us far enough on the path to our own self-recovery as a civilization. We may continue to participate in a limited, critical way, using it perhaps as a way to engage the West, but the major portion of our energies should be invested in Indian Studies, in studying and celebrating our own narrative and aesthetic traditions. This Indian Studies, the study of our self, our sva, will not be like the older pattern of Indological or Orientalist studies. Those were conducted by Westerners upon us. When we study ourselves, we shall do so differently, keeping our own perceptions and needs in mind. Likewise, we should also systematically embark on “Occidental” studies, “white” studies, “superpower” studies, “Western” studies, and other similar way of trying to understand the para, the Other. Of course, we can only do so if we understand that these are neither binary opposites nor identical selves, but different entities with varying degrees of similarity and involvement. Without dismissing post-colonialism, making judicious use of the opportunities it presents, we must nevertheless embark upon a programme of svadhyaya or self-study and the study of others or paradhyaya because these two types of cultural inquiries will be the bedrock of lasting svaraj or self-rule.
This is the opportune moment to introduce the idea of the svaraj parampara. To me the approach that we have trying to explore in our study of post-colonialism may best be placed in the tradition of independent thinking that we may call the svaraj parampara. Svaraj is the rule of the self, both at the personal and collective levels. It thus embraces both the individual and society. It does not mean the desire to rule others, but it means the desire not to be ruled by others. Svaraj is a word with ancient resonances, refamiliarised to all of us by its crucial reincarnation in the freedom struggle. Post-colonialism may have things in common with this svaraj parampara; indeed, at its best, it may merge with the svaraj parampara. But in so far as it hides a neo-colonialist agenda, it is really opposed to and inimical to the svaraj parampara. The aims of the svaraj parampara may thus overlap with those of post-colonialism, but this overlap must be examined closely, on a case-to-case basis. It may be necessary at times to oppose post-colonialism as it is to support it. All along, for our own sakes, we shall have to investigate our selves, our literature, culture, and society, on our own, with or without the aid of post-colonialism. This, at any rate is my contention.
Now let me come to the latter part of my talk by taking up the word “end” in the topic. It is obvious that when I say the end of post-colonialism, I mean its fall, termination, death. That is one obvious sense. But “end” also means goal, purpose, objective, ultimate aim. So while “end” means finish, termination, closing, it also means purpose, fruition, desideratum. Let us consider this other meaning—the end as prayojan or objective. I would like to suggest that the ultimate end, that is purpose or fruition or post-colonialism will, paradoxically, be best served by its early end or termination. To put it differently, I would suggest that the end of post-colonialism as a discourse will serve the true purpose or fulfillment of post-colonialism. Why do I say this? That is because the true culmination of post-colonialism is actually full or complete decolonization. Because post-colonialism as a discourse postpones or stalls decolonization, we should exit from it and frame our own alternative discourse.
While colonialism was an important, even defining interlude in our history, it cannot be the sole determinant of our destiny for all times to come. When we grow into ourselves again, gaining in might and self-confidence, becoming truly independent both materially and spiritually, we shall be able to conceive of a different kind of world. Such a world, indeed, is taking shape before our eyes. To take our rightful place in such a world, we shall have to increase our competitiveness, efficiency, and productivity. Rather than harping on past wrongs we shall have to think of future gains. Post-colonialism is backward looking. It is a form of lamentation, a chest-beating which is actually a demand for greater attention, even charity from our erstwhile masters. Decolonization or svaraj, on the other hand, looks ahead, staking its claims on the world to be. If we are svarajist instead of post-colonial, we shall think of ourselves as strong, resourceful survivors, a billion strong, making rapid strides towards the new dawn.
I can see the possibility of a world no longer ruled or controlled by the West, a world after Western hegemony. In such a world, China, India, and other countries of the East will have major roles to play. A new world system will emerge in place of the present one. After 500 years of Western ascendancy, we will see a shift of power back to the East. That, I think, is the argument in Andre Gunder Frank’s ReOrient. Even in the next twenty years, whether in our economic or cultural relations, we will need to think more about our Eastern neighbours than of the distant West. All this is not as strange as it may sound. After all not too long back, Central Asia was very much a part of our mental horizons. Even earlier, Indian culture extended seamlessly to what was once called Indo-China, the whole region East of where we are today—Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, through the great Chinese plains, all the way to Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. All these countries were a part of our cultural sphere of contact and influence. The bear hug of the West is only a 200 year old phenomenon. The end of post-colonialism will produce not only a new kind of Indian studies but also a new kind of Asian Studies. Among other things, this will entail Indians studying Asia and Asians studying India. This is because India is a kind of crossroads for many of the major political, economic, cultural, intellectual trends of Asia. India is thus a very interesting crossover site within the Asian imaginary.
We will also have to discover a new way of studying India because post-colonialism as a rubric of studying India is obviously inadequate. For one, much of post colonialism deals with literature in the English language. If we look at the plethora of Indian literature in our Indian languages, then the fabric of post-colonialism will be ripped apart because it simply does not have the width or length cover all these literatures. So just as you cannot put an elephant in a burlap sack, you cannot put the diversity/plurality of Indian literatures into this holdall called post-colonialism. If India, Indian literature, and Indian culture, in all its linguistic and creative plurality and vitality enter post-colonialism, post-colonialism will crack at its seams and come apart. On the other hand, post-colonialism, in its present form, will never accommodate much more than the English fraction of the Indian reality and is therefore not good enough for our larger purposes. Consider what post-colonialism has done to Indian literatures; it has equated a few, mainly diasporan writers, with the entirety of Indian literatures. Conveniently, Salman Rushdie has told the West that the other literatures are not even worth studying. That is why it seems to me obvious that we need a different way of studying Indian literatures/cultures. This way must be not just multilingual but trans-lingual. From such a perspective it is equally evident that the present academic structures and disciplinary formations in India, which are being perpetuated by our universities, are also grossly insufficient to handle Indian studies. If we are serious we shall have to evolve newer processes.
I am going to wind up now so I will come back to Calcutta. It seems to me that Indians have been reluctant globalizers. In journals like Economic and Political Weekly there was a frontal war against liberalization/globalization for twenty years. All kinds of disasters were being predicted for India, and they still are being predicted. I am not saying that the Cassandras have been proven entirely wrong, but I think 6% - 8% growth is a very real thing, and it is really going to change the way we are. I think real growth, real wealth it does more for globalization than all the theories that have been produced against it. If we believe that harnessing our energies and deploying them systematically is the key to social transformation, it is equally true that the application of our resources in an autonomous way will produce alternative discourses. Discourses, after all, are also material things. They are backed by institutions, universities, journals, departments of study, teachers, students, books, and so on. I have written another paper where I have talked about five levels of decolonization; the code/mentality is only one level. There is the institutional, the material level, which cannot be ignored. But real change requires not just ideas, but the will to change, backed by material resources. Furthermore, not just resources, but also the marshalling of those resources in a certain fashion is important. So even though I don’t want to say that we’ve become “happy globalizers” from reluctant globalizers, I think beneath a lot of disgruntlement, there is a genuine desire to participate in the global economy, even to win. I would say that unlike Africa or Latin America, we have not done very badly. And how much ever we may complain about call centers or outsourcing, no one is forcing these people to take these jobs. These so called cyber coolies are doing very well, thank you, and they are contributing to our economy. When we export real coolies and labourers to the Gulf, no one complains, but when it is IT workers or call center operators, there’s a hue and cry about exploitation and deculturation. I am not saying that we must not be critical, vigilant, or protective of the rights of these workers, but to condemn the industry and globalization itself is like using an axe to chop off our own feet.
In the world to come, in the economic order that will emerge in the next twenty years, I think Calcutta is going to reemerge as a very important center. This is because of the linkages between India, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and the ASEAN countries. This region is going to become economically very important and with it rise, Calcutta will ascend to new heights of economic prosperity. Calcutta was once an imperial city; it will now one of the hubs of the East because its second coming-into-prominence has to do with the ongoing processes of globalization. Though I am a not knee-jerk supporter of globalization, I believe that in some ways this is a relentless process that is going to break down all resistance and opposition. We shall see more and more how globalization itself means a variety of things in a variety of contexts. Whatever it may mean to us, I definitely think that opting out of it and closing our doors is not the way forward. What is required, instead, is a certain kind of critical engagement that will entail the management of this process. We shall have to be extremely nimble, agile and farsighted to be able to come out on the top. To come back to Calcutta, I think we can look forward to its resurgence. I think there is going to be a road link to Thailand through Burma. So goods from India and from the ASEAN countries will go back and forth. Besides, there will also be a boom in the North-Eastern states, which are isolated, underpopulated, and backward now. In these changes, I think Calcutta is going to play a key role with its knowledge base, trained manpower, and hunger for wealth. I also think that in the next few years we will see a revitalization of many of its very important institutions, including this very venerable Calcutta University, where I am standing today.
To conclude, I think the end of post-colonialism is something to be celebrated, rather than lamented. Instead of harping on the guilt of the West, instead of looking backwards all the time, instead of being entirely negative in our approaches to the history of colonialism and complaining about what they did, and instead of trying to extract some concessions in return for those injustices done to us, I think we, a nation of one billion have to show what we can do with the degree of autonomy that we already have. We have to strengthen ourselves economically, politically, culturally, even militarily to compete in the new world order. We have to generate surpluses that will wipe out our poverty and backwardness, create the institutional safeguards and humane systems that will protect the interests of those who are the most wretched and marginalized. To those who say that we have little wherewithal and even less autonomy in which to operate, we have to respond that there is no absolute autonomy and no absolute subordination – there is always a tussle between the two. With the means that we have at our disposal and the will to deploy them optimally, we can change our futures. The present situation, I suppose, poses both a challenge and opportunity for us to show the world and ourselves what we can do.
Coming back to academics, we have to show ourselves and the world what kind of research we are capable of doing, what kind of departments of study we are capable of fashioning, what kind of journals and books we are capable of producing, and so on. Behind all these is a new way of thinking, a new way of being, a new way of expressing who we are. That is what I have called the svaraj parampara, which is larger and grander and more meaningful than anything post-colonialism has been able to offer. The aim of svaraj is not to dominate anybody. But it is to safeguard one’s own autonomy and selfhood. Svaraj is for all, for women and men, lower and upper castes, blacks and white; it is for muslims and hindus, for the poor and for the well off. It is not just for India or Indians, but for all the inhabitants of the planet. It is the third way that we should strive to actualize—where we are neither victims nor victimizers, neither oppressed nor oppressors, neither subordinate nor dominant. Svaraj reminds us that while we don’t wish to rule others, we are also unwilling to be subordinate to any one, to be adjuncts in somebody else’s story.
I have written about svaraj earlier, trying to understand what thinkers such as Gandhi and Aurobindo meant by it. Since the publication of my book over ten years back, I find myself coming back again and again to svaraj—svaraj in ideas, svaraj in thought, svaraj in our social, cultural, and political arrangements. For Gandhi, this ideal could be achieved by an activism that was non-violent and self-sacrificing, but it had to spread to others through a sort of communicative flow of fellow feeling if not through a Habermasian rationality. But for Aurobindo, this perfection of earthly life could never be achieved with the human race reaching a higher level of consciousness, something he tried all his life to “bring down” to earth. For less ambitious cultural critics, though, there is the way of resisting Western hegemony through nativist resistance or the modernizing agenda of those who think that there is one global discourse in which we must try to participate. I see my own contribution as trying to build a bridge between the visionaries of our freedom struggle and the post-colonial thinker of our times. Those who pass across it judge the utility of a bridge. The bridge that I am trying to build seems to have few takers today, but that does not foreclose the possibility that many more may wish to pass this way in the future. What is more, I have tried to build it because I needed to find the link between my past, present, and future.
That is why I say that while post-colonialism has its uses, it also tends to confuse and obfuscate the key issues. Svaraj, on the other hand, is a very dynamic concept because it links the personal with the political, individual with the collective. Moreover, it means not only self-rule (that is, ruling over yourself), but also rule of the self. What is this self, which should rule? This self is not our ego, our personality, our thoughts, ideas, or character, though all these are also important; this self stands for the highest virtue and capacity that is inherent in us and we born to express in our lives. The idea of this self is central to Indian psychology, which is quite different from Western psychology. In Western psychology they talk about the conscious and unconscious, but they do not have anything to say about the super conscious. The self that I speak of here is the superconscious, what Sri Aurobindo called the supermind. What rules, in other words, is the higher self, that which is the best in us; the self that embodies loving compassion for all beings, along with the values of non-violence and regard for truth.
I would simply submit to you that the aim of decolonization is not to write revenge histories, to demonize others, but to get on with our own stories, to express ourselves in a manner that fulfils us. It is to live according to our own aspirations and to allow others to live according to theirs. It is to defend one’s rights in times of conflict, but also to try to persuade others through non-coercive love that war and mutual destruction is not the only way. All this can only happen through a more positive kind of post-colonialism, not the negative backward looking, but the more affirmative future-oriented post-colonialism. But such a post-colonialism will not be post-colonialism as it exists right now. It will be something else, something rather different, which I have called svaraj. If so, then there is no need to retain the word post-colonialism at all, at least in the Indian context. That is why I have called my essay the “end” of post-colonialism. For this new order to come into being, we shall have to conceptualize a certain kind of resurgent India, which is able to leap beyond its notions of cultural inferiority so as to express truly its inner being and spirit. It is only be doing so that it can play its destined role in the world. We pray for India’s empowerment not because we are selfish or jingoistic, but because India’s rise is crucial to the equilibrium, even survival, of the human species. Whether this is true or not in an actual sense, such an ideal may as well inform our work.
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