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Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The current talk of decolonisation is about an exclusionary political agenda

“Decolonise!” This imperative seems to be the ideological flavour of the moment. It is behind the calls to restructure education, to rewrite laws, reconceptualise history, reimagine public spaces, reclaim Indic consciousness, and even junk the Constitution. It is a loose intellectual movement, captured in big and widely circulated books such as J Sai Deepak’s India that is Bharat or shorter polemics like Ambika Dutt Sharma’s recent Bharatiya Manas ka Vi-Upniveshikaran (The Decolonising of Indian Consciousness).

It frames intellectual discourse in many vernacular languages, especially Hindi. It is increasingly the scaffolding that frames fundamental changes to policy and is freely deployed, most recently in the debate over the Criminal Law Code. From home minister to chief economic advisor — we are all decolonialists now.

The rhetorical power of decolonise lies in the fiendish appropriation of attractiveness of the term “decolonial.” Who could possibly be against decolonisation? But one should be under no illusion that, in its current form, decolonial talk is about consolidating a deeply exclusionary political agenda.

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The project of decolonisation sought to preserve India’s political self-determination and expand development. It sought to create an international system where global asymmetries of power would never again make India vulnerable. This is the modern Indian project, on which contemporary decolonialists have very little that is original to say. The divisive politics they have hitched their star to threatens to make India in the long run more, not less, fragile.

But the punch in the “decolonial” project comes from its promise of decolonising the mind. It recognises, rightly, that colonialism worked through intellectual domination of the colonised. It claims this domination has been furthered not reversed by the Indian state. It draws on something that is undoubtedly true: Vast swathes of extraordinary knowledge, in philosophy, aesthetics, nature of consciousness, mathematics, logic, ends of life, were made inaccessible by our dominant forms of education. Worse, it inculcated the hubris that such knowledge did not exist. Its emotional resonance draws on the question of language: Will knowledge generated in Sanskrit or the vernaculars be condemned to a second rate status, or can they be sites of the production of future knowledge? The gesture of renaming laws, for example, is a clumsy marker that only English cannot be a language of the future.

But the decolonial project is misdirected towards insidious intellectual and political ends. The current literature is varied, and individual authors have their nuances. But broadly, these deep intellectual closures stand out. The first is the use of an over-determined binary: The West versus Indic, two monumental blobs confronting each other, in which both time and space are collapsed. It forgets the fact that western modernity can be as much a revolt against the West’s own history. But more importantly, that the evolution of Indian thought is itself characterised by not just debate, but deep rupture. It too can disenchant the cosmos, as much as sacralise it. It has its own modernity. The second is the narcissism. Ambika Dutt Sharma for example, asks the question, why despite extolling pluralism, did the Indian tradition not deeply intellectually engage with other traditions (given the sophistication of Indian traditions, this engagement is thin).

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His answer in Bharat Manas is characteristic. He writes that Indian society was atma nirbhar (self-reliant) and atmapurit (self complete). It never needed an Other to engage with or define itself. The breathtaking hubris and self satisfaction of this claim is symptomatic. The third is the language of blood and identity in intellectual life: What makes an intellectual tradition Indian is origin or descent. Fourth is the use of “Indic” as a metaphysical sledgehammer, as if merely putting this appellation in front of an argument is sufficient for its acceptance. It encourages a deeply anti-intellectual reading of the Indian tradition itself.

But there is also a darker political edge. The current decolonial project drips with resentment. Its only mode of explanation is conspiratorial. For instance, the question of why so many Indian traditions ran out of intellectual steam cannot simply be answered by invoking a vast conspiracy of colonialists. It needs deeper self-examination. In fact pre-independence India is just astonishing in the range of credible “Indic” knowledge it produces. The exhaustion of that energy, in many fields, is a far more complex story, and its answers may lie more in the internal organisation of these traditions than in external conspiracies.

There is no self-awareness of why similar previous calls to “decolonise” and produce an “Indian” science, or sociology or political science, often ended up producing things that were neither Indian nor science or sociology or political science. In the past, “culture” was used as an over-determined explanation of everything. These days it is colonialism. And when actual colonialism does not serve the purpose, invent another agent of colonialism — in this case, Jawaharlal Nehru. But the purpose of this invocation is not a real diagnosis of “Indic knowledge” or even a programme for its regeneration: It is to mark out the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion.

Second, Islam and Christianity are explicit targets of this decolonial project. Not just because they are foreign, but because it is explicitly labelled as a project with permanent imperial ambitions of its own. The only conditions under which Muslims are acceptable is that they acknowledge the primacy of what is called “Indic” — whose terms are set in such a way that they will always fall short.

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And finally, there is the discomfort with talk of social and epistemic injustice. The decolonial project is correct that there is often a deep misrepresentation of Indian knowledge forms. Postcolonial theory, in the wake of Said’s Orientalism, was powerful in making this obvious point about misrepresentation. But that project ended up in parochial theoretical self-obsessions of parts of the western academy.

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But the decolonial project is deeply wary of an account of Indian history done through the lens of social justice, our home grown and deeply entrenched forms of oppression. It may grudgingly acknowledge confronting the caste and gender question, but in the end seeks to sanitise it in the name of this “self complete” tradition. Its fundamental impulse is for a history and intellectual engagement without any discomfort, especially for the privileged. It is for this reason that this “decolonial” project genuinely mischaracterises modernity.

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It conflates modernity merely with colonialism, not with the impulse to subject the collective rules we live under to practices of justification. To see the insidiousness of this project, just ask this question: What should be the terms on which citizens relate to each other? Can the answer to that simply be “whatever is Indic”?

The writer is contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express

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