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75 years after decolonisation of India, now the need of the hour is decolonisation of the individual

We must own our traditions and heritage, and not be enslaved by any way of thinking that is shallower than that which our civilisation has provided us with.

Decolonisation is the removal of domination by a nation on foreign territories. While it was historically a territorial process, it has over time acquired subtler elements, particularly around the development and promotion of indigenous knowledge. Back in 1945, when the United Nations was established, there were around 75 crore people (about a third of the world population) that lived in colonised territories. Today, we have only 17 non-self-governing territories, including Anguilla, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Gibraltar, Guam, Pitcairn and Tokelau, among others.

In India, the process of decolonisation has been a gradual but sure-footed one. Sri Aurobindo started advocating for Poorna Swaraj in 1907, going against the proposal of colonial self-government given by Dadabhai Naoroji. Hasrat Mohani, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Maghfoor Ahmad Ajazi and  Bipin Chandra Pal reinforced this call for complete independence, and after the INA trials in Delhi, the entire country was electrified with such a spirit of liberation and emancipation that Clement Attlee had to constitute the Cabinet Mission and initiate specific policy-steps to get the ball rolling for Indian independence from the colonial yoke.

But the key question is whether India was truly liberated, beyond the political dimension, in the years following 1947. Have we truly been decolonised, when it comes to socio-political orientations, but more importantly mental constructs and individual state of being? Possibly not.

While the Constitution-making exercise in India was inspired by western systems of governance and yet independent in its drive under Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the laws of India were largely handed down by the Britishers. The Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860 was introduced during English colonial rule on the recommendations of a Law Commission headed by Thomas Babbington Macaulay.

Article 372 of the Indian constitution talks of the adaptation and modification of laws taken from before the establishment of the Constitution by the President, but more importantly clause (2) of the said Article says that nothing stops ‘a competent Legislature or other competent authority from repealing or amending any law adapted or modified by the President under the said clause’. From official dress codes to the Common Law, we see how the British Raj moulded the contemporary Court system of India.

This is even seen in the administration of justice, wherein there is a certain pre-eminence of Hobbes’ philosophy of sovereign absolutism, whereby justice is allowed by the state as a matter of concession. In sharp contrast, we have had a historical Indian ethos of justice, where justice was above class disparities or the ruler-subject dynamics. For instance, King Samaneedhi Cholan is said to have executed his own son to grant justice to a cow whose calf he had killed!

And yet today, we see the colonial mindset in the manner in which salutation, reference and accessibility of Courts is rather contradictory to the Indian ethos and still somewhat along the lines of the British Raj’s ethos that we should have rid ourselves of. In a country where judges continue to be addressed as Lordships and Ladyships, we must fundamentally rethink some of the key nuances of our judicial and legal system.

Socially, there are still lingering effects of colonial ways of thinking. A major example is land tenure and class disparities in rural India. Land distribution and ownership of land, as done initially in modern times by the British Raj, still affect voting patterns of various cross-sections and strata of rural Indian society. Mobilisation of peasants in insurgency movements like Maoism and the Naxalbari movement owe their roots to the inherent hegemony entrenched in the tenure system. Exploitation of peasants by the landed gentry has historically led to class-based resentment and formations of political fora by the peasants to voice their demands.

Even though the Government of India abolished the landlord regime in the 1950s, the landed class continue to hold a certain sway and this imbalance impacts electoral dynamics even today. Interestingly, studies have shown that the legacy of the colonial rule influence our political institutions by modulating the voter-response to interventions that seek to either reduce or terminate existing differences.

I believe land reform and distribution are major policy-steps that must be looked at, as a priority, besides an institutionalised thrust to negate and remove existing differences. The British Raj also affected our understanding of religious and social structures, with interpolations and even impositions in their cruel census exercises, besides civil codes and family laws. India is a country of immense diversity on religious, ethnic and cultural lines, and the boundaries between different communities was not always clear.

Several scholars have argued that the modern politicised communities in India found their definite socio-political boundaries through the census enumeration that the British Raj initiated. There were even instances where new caste demarcations arose. David Washbrook, in his seminal book ‘South India: Political Institutions and Political Change’ (1975), spoke of how the dominant agricultural castes of South India such as Kamma and Reddy are of recent origin and were formed mainly through political reasons by numerous sub-castes coalescing in the early 20th century.

Similarly, as per John Henry Hutton, Yadavas were formed by combining castes such as Idaiyans and Ahirs, while Jangidas were formed by bringing together several artisan castes such as smiths, carpenters and goldsmiths. The existence of classifications or even divisions in Indian society before census enumeration is not questioned but rather the utilitarian and politicised way in which it was entrenched and used for political purposes is something that one saw in the era of the British Raj.

What was and is a larger malaise in the populace, however, is the existing and increasingly dominant predilection for dogmatic and rigid constructs and trends, a development that is at odds with the Indic and Dharmic inclination towards acceptance, cosmopolitanism and encouraging multiplicities and even paradoxes. The Nāsadīya Sūkta of the Rig Veda is a beautiful reminder of the broad thinking and inherent profoundness of the Indic way of thinking:

नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत्|
किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम्॥

Wherein the seers of the past spoke of transcending even the binary of existence and non-existence! Beyond and besides systemic reform, which without evolution of individual psyche and cultural perception remains just a surface-level restructuring, we must realise the ways in which the colonial and western orientations have seeped into our very way of thinking and being.

The proclivity to polarisation in society and politics arises from a certain gravitation towards binaries and dogged alignment with and around them. The word dichotomy itself arises from the Greek term διχοτομία dichotomía – “dividing in two”.  Western thinking, as per Jacques Derrida, has been founded upon the ‘logic’ of binary oppositions, such as rational/emotional and freedom/determinism, and one of the two is always given a more privileged position than the opposite.

This is in sharp contrast to the thinking of Indian luminaries like Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who famously said, “যত মত তত পথ” – “As many opinions so many ways”. The Dharmic way of life and thinking has historically had the most vibrant and dynamic flux and interaction of disparate philosophical traditions, ontological and epistemological points-of-debate and socio-cultural diversity.

This was the land that hosted the Śramaṇic traditions of Ājīvika and Ajñanas on one hand and the elements of Smarta traditions such as Pañcāyatana pūjā on the other. This was the land where philosophical skeptics like Cārvākas thrived, as did Āstika schools of tradition such as the Vaiśeṣika with seminals works such as Praśastapāda’s Padārthadharmasaṁgraha. This was the land where we saw wave-after-wave of foreign invasions and yet a curious assimilation and acceptance of cultural and civilisational elements from abroad into the very fabric of the Indic society, in a seamless way.

Why then must we be slaves to a limited and parochial way of opting for binaries, of rejecting the broadness of thought that our civilisation heritage endows us with? Why must we act like sheep in following ideologies, cults, figures, political parties or `fads’, without ratiocination and introspection? The final frontier of colonisation (and the struggle against, thereof) is of the mind, of the individual, and this is the colonisation that spiritual, social and cultural luminaries have fought against since times immemorial. This is the colonisation that is the easiest to fall victim to, given that we grow and develop as individuals in specific socio-cultural, political and philosophical settings.

Based on the same, we are often quick to undertake ‘othering’ of people who may not align with us. When that develops further into dogmatic thinking, hatred may arise, in a rather regressive manner. Ours is the culture and civilisation that spoke of the oneness of all beings, nay the entirety of the Universe itself. Ours is the civilisation that had expositions of universal unity since before it came to be written in seminal works such as the Upashama-prakaranam of the Yoga-Vāsiṣṭha or in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita (9.15):

ज्ञानयज्ञेन चाप्यन्ये यजन्तो मामुपासते |
एकत्वेन पृथक्त्वेन बहुधा विश्वतोमुखम् ||

This was the land that gave us the Jain concept of Anekāntavāda – multifacetedness of reality and various other ancient systems of value pluralism. This was the land that gave us the Catuṣkoṭi system of logic and argumentation as well as various schools of contextualism. This was the land that gave us the Vedic wisdom of एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति (`Truth is One, it can be known variously’).

We must own our traditions and heritage, and not be enslaved by any way of thinking that is shallower than that which our civilisation has provided us with. That is the final layer of decolonisation: Ātmaviupaniveshīkaraṇ (आत्म-विउपनिवेशीकरण) or the decolonisation of the individual. It is not about the correctness (or not) of a certain way of thinking or being, but rather the active recognition that it is one of many other possible ways, and each in their own ways are `correct’ ways, as truth is inherently multifaceted and multidimensional.

Biologically, those species that ‘conform’ (to a certain set of functionalities and states-of-being) and not adapt to varying conditions have fallen prey to vagaries of nature and natural selection, and oft gone extinct. Given our human faculties and our civilizational ethos, we are equipped to be individually decolonised from rigid constructs, not only from a point of survival, but a point of realisation. And this is a profound message that India can gift the world, as it has over millennia, in the modern context. I would like to conclude this meditation with a Shloka from the Rig Veda (6.75.14): पुमान् पुमांसं परिपातु विश्वतः – ` May the man protect the other on every side’.

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Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar
Mrittunjoy is a physicist, activist, writer, social worker and philosopher.

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