Colonial Consciousness: The Background, The Important Narratives — Part 1

Colonial Consciousness: The Background, The Important Narratives — Part 1
Image courtesy of:

Disclaimer: This essay is mostly based on the works of Dr. S.N. Balagangadhara Rao and the Ghent School of Scholars. This is a compilation that includes many previous articles by the author to understand the phenomenon of “colonial consciousness” in more detail and in one place. There might be a possibility of direct quoting from previous articles, from other authors, and from Dr. Balagangadhara without direct indications in each case, despite all efforts to acknowledge the primary source at all times. The author claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter, and the article is from the perspective of an ordinary, concerned citizen of India. The goal here is to bring these ideas to a wider audience and hopefully stimulate the readers to explore further. The reference section is at the end of Part 3.   

Read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here

We can best understand the many intellectual discourses today in the framework of “colonial consciousness” provided by Dr. Balagangadhara Rao. Colonial consciousness works not only at the time of colonization but continues to make its impact much after the colonials have left by permanently altering the intellectual frameworks of the previously colonized. It makes us think and act by simply assuming the truth of whatever the colonials said about us. We fail to develop indigenous narratives about ourselves and view both ourselves and the West too with the lenses (the social sciences) provided by the latter.

Where does this colonial consciousness work? The Aryan story; the conversion of Indian traditions into religions and then accepting secularism as the best solution for harmony; the superimposition of caste, a western idea, into the varna and jatis of India; our disdainful view of traditional medicine; the blanking out of Indian philosophy from all learning in schools by calling it “religion”; the need of English language to prosper and also as a national language; a historical reading of our texts and scriptures which was never an indigenous idea; accepting the idea of one dharmashastra (Manu) as prescriptive and authoritative for all eternity to come; making the western clash between “science and religion” our own; understanding our practices and rituals from a scientific perspective and making them superstitious and irrational; our singularly linear narratives of freedom struggle obliterating the more uncomfortable dissenting voices like Sri Aurobindo or Subash Bose; accepting the political ideologies of the left-right-center; the story of revolt of Buddhism; the disbelief in a golden period of India which attracted plunderers from across the world; the story that we were never a nation and the British united us; the discourse on corruption which makes most of Indians immoral because of a faulty religion, ad infinitum.

The colonials and missionaries provided a narrative that Hinduism equals the caste system which in turn equals untouchability. The solution for untouchability and the caste system thus remained to disband Hinduism altogether and adopt another religion. For the colonials it was Christianity, and for Dr. Ambedkar, with the same understanding, it was Buddhism.  Today, every single topic of discussion like caste, religion, ecology, feminism, political administration, nationalism, law, and the judiciary has heavy doses of Western cultural superimpositions leading to distortions. The examples exist everywhere and it is easy to see that past and present Indian intellectuals do not transcend the terms of any debate set by the colonials.

The result is, of course, a detachment of the Indian citizen from their own cultural roots and sometimes even becoming a staunch critic. There is thus an urgent need to decolonize the most vital instrument in building the country—the social sciences—the unchanged methodology of the post-colonials and simply reflections of colonialism and Orientalism.


Sita Ram Goel (Hindu Society Under Siege) defined Macaulayism (from Thomas Babington Macaulay) as the successful educational policy of British India producing a class of Indians trapped in colonial ideas about India. These ideas included, among others, no worthwhile pre-British education and Brahminical denial of education. Dharampal, using old British archival records, shattered this idea of a primitive, caste-based educational system without any achievements. One of his myth-busting findings was that there was a higher percentage of “lower” class students as compared to the “upper” class students in Indian schools and colleges before the replacement with the English system. English education meant sweeping most of the ancient and highly cultured people off their feet.

Macaulayism, a residue of colonial rule, is a diffuse cultural-intellectual attitude without any specific doctrines. It has many paralyzing consequences:

  1. A skeptical attitude towards Hindu spirituality, cultural creations, and social institutions unless approved by Western authority.
  2. Western culture represents progress, reason, and science.
  3. There is an inclination to compare Hindu ideals and institutions from the past not with their contemporaneous ideas in the West but with what the West has achieved in its recent history.
  4. Judging the West by the ideals it proclaims from time to time while judging Hindus with a reference to the present Hindu society emerging from a long struggle.
  5. Evaluating Hindu traditions using ever-changing Western contemporary tools. Any indigenous tools to weigh Western heritage become unscientific.

This evolves into a mindset where Western models are preferable like a secular and socialist state, a planned economy, a casteless society, scientific culture, parliamentary institutions, and in planning health and educational policies. Finally, entertainment, dress, fashion, food, furniture, crockery, and table manners—even the way we gesticulate, grin, and smile—must mirror the West. Some rituals and festivities do add color but religion is ultimately obscurantism, primitive superstition, and the creator of communal riots.

Macaulayism also denounces the need for Hindu self-defense as alarmist, chauvinist, and fascist. The aggressor becomes a downtrodden minority whom the Hindus refuse to recognize as equal citizens. The focus is on the cruel and unjust social systems (caste) and the need for Hindus to put their own houses in order. The result is a secular-progressive nature which implies abusing the majority but appeasing the minority.

Macaulayism affords to take this hostile stance because they no longer consider Hindu society an indispensable benefactor as they have monopolized most of the political, administrative, business, professional, and media jobs in this country. Thus, Macaulayism detaches the Hindu from traditional Hindu society.

Colonial Consciousness: Summarizing the Thesis of S.N. Balagangadhara Rao

Colonialism appears as a self-explaining phenomenon of evil and immorality; but it is not clear how or why that should be the case, says SN Balagangadhara in his writings. The British successfully criticized Indian religions, the caste system, the education system, Sati, the dowry system, untouchability, the revolt of Buddhism against Hinduism, its Brahmanism, and so on. Surprisingly, past and present Indian intellectuals do not transcend the terms of the debate making British criticisms their own.

Balagangadhara writes: Colonization was not merely a process of occupying lands and extracting revenues. It was not a question of us aping Western people and trying to be like them. It was not even about colonizing the imagination of a people by making them ‘dream’ that they, too, would become ‘modern’, developed, and sophisticated. It goes deeper than any of these. It is about denying peoples and cultures their own experiences; of rendering them aliens to themselves; of actively preventing any description of their own experiences except in terms defined by the colonizers.

The colonizer actively initiates the process that prevents the colonized from accessing their own experiences, in setting their own narratives, and in viewing other cultures from their indigenous lenses. The colonized becomes equally responsible for the evil of colonialism as he propagates the same process but in a different period. This perception is only from the rhetorical force of another statement: colonization expressed the weakness of Indian society and the strength of British society. The causes of this weakness were many: a weak Mughal rule; no single nation-state; the caste-ridden society; constantly fighting small kingdoms; all of which allowed the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British. The scientific, technological, and the military strengths of the West are obvious. This remains implicit in contemporary discourses.

An example of colonial consciousness thesis is the discourse on corruption in India. The widespread corruption does not involve the deviant actions of some individuals but as a widespread social phenomenon. Corruption appears to be a rational and a successful social strategy in India. Now social systems are synonymous to the caste system which in turn equals the Indian ethical values. That the Indians are intellectually weak and/or immoral has been the consistent message from times colonial to contemporary period; and this is an example of persisting colonial consciousness. The discourse on corruption in India ends up in an extensively corrupt social, caste, and ethical systems.

Travellers and missionaries provided the earliest descriptions of India within a specific theological framework of Christianity. Indian religions were ‘heathen’ religions; the people worshipped the devil; and the Brahmin priests had degenerated a religion. This description became a common-sense view over periods of centuries. Centuries of ethnographic descriptions of India ensured that the civilizational superiority of Western culture became an empirical truth and a premise for further conclusions. These also became facts of our political and social sciences. The civilizational inferiority of India was not on any scientific or academic study but were presuppositions of either a religious or a secular background.

As Balagangadhara writes, Colonialism prevents descriptions of their own culture except in terms defined by the colonizers. Hence, colonialism is immoral because it creates an immoral consciousness. Colonialism is also a supreme educational project because the belief of civilizational superiority contains the messages of the ignorance and the immorality of the colonized generating shame, the conviction of backwardness, and the desire to learn from the colonizer. The differences between different cultures now become lacunae and a deficiency of human achievement in the colonized culture. Post-colonial thinkers go further on the colonial consciousness: colonized people are immoral creatures; but what is immoral about the colonizer is the regime but not the individuals. 

Aryans and Dravidians

The strongest example of colonial consciousness is tightly retaining the ideas of Aryans and Dravidians. We refuse to reject or even question this narrative, the fountainhead of all other divisive narratives, despite evidence to the contrary. The Aryan Invasion/Migration theory regarding ancient Indian civilization postulates horse-riding Aryans from Central Asia invading North India around 1500 BCE. These “fair-skinned” Aryans defeated the “dark” racially different indigenous natives of the Harappan Civilization by either subjugating or driving them away to forests. The indigenous Harappans (Dasas and Dasyus) were the ancestors of today’s tribals (the forest-driven), Sudras and Dalits (those who stayed behind and occupied the bottom of the Varna scale), and Dravidians (those driven south).

The Aryan theory was a construction of racist German Indologists. Max Mueller speculated on the British descendants of the same Aryan race returning to accomplish the “glorious work of civilization”. The British justifications portrayed their rule as one more Aryan wave. Adluri and Bagchee (The Nay Science) show that racism started with linguistic studies and Indology in German universities. The Aryan settlers, in a remarkably brief time, first created the near-perfect language of Sanskrit and then composed the Rig Veda around 1200 BCE. This story, with a two-century history of propagation, started off by noting linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and many European languages. This led to the speculation of a common ancestral language (PIE, or the Proto-Indo-European language) arising from a specific geographical area and then spreading to different places.

Unfortunately, archaeology and textual/inscriptional data, especially from the Vedic corpus, categorically reject the invading Aryans scenario. If at all there is evidence of an out-of-India migration. Yet, post-independent Marxist historians continued with the Aryan-Dravidian story fitting well with their exploiter-exploited paradigm. Genetics, a new weapon for Aryan proponents, remains ambiguous.

The major repercussion has been a near-permanent fissure in relations between the North and the South, with political movements based on a ‘pure’ Dravidian sentiment. All “Breaking India” narratives finally root in the Aryan invasions which probably never happened in the first place. At the heart of all AIT arguments is the injection of a foreign non-existent Aryans into an existing culture implying a discontinuity and denial of the longest civilizational continuity. Instead of accepting our common and great civilizational past, the Aryan proponents are keen to show that the Brahmins (especially), Kshatriyas, and Vysyas are foreigners who perennially exploit the Sudras (and the recently added Dalits).

Selective and convenient application of archaeological and genetic findings; torturing Vedic texts to find racially themed discourses on Aryans and Dravidians; selective linguistic analyses; a closed circle of academic scholarships disallowing alternative voices; ad-hominem attacks; and prominent power positions have all helped in perpetuating this account of the Aryans across centuries. The political uses of the Aryan scenario are illegitimate and divisive; they are an extension of the colonial agenda. But our intelligentsia stays rigidly fixed on this theory.

Colonial Rule and its Advantages

It is an effort even today to convince many intellectuals and apologists that the colonial rule was a disaster for India. Angus Maddison in his research on world economics shows clearly that India was an economic powerhouse of the world till the colonials landed. Yet, his research and findings have not been able to permeate into the general conscience of the country.

In 1750, India and China were contributing 75% of the world GDP. In 1600, Britain was contributing to 1.8% of the world GDP. When Britain left India in 1947 after 200 years of rule, Britain was contributing 10% of the world GDP and India reduced to a pathetic 1.8%. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27 years, and over 90% living below the poverty line. India’s rich maritime trade, banking systems, agriculture, cloth and steel industry, and the traditional handicrafts had brutal assaults under the colonial rule. The high taxation system continued despite the famines. Huge lands cultivated opium which further impacted the agrarian systems.

The British could subvert all the state machinery (armies, censuses, bureaucracies, railroads, hospitals, telegrams, and scientific institutions) and liberal norms (individual rights, freedom of thought and speech, artistic and political expression, equality under the law and political democracy) to its own advantage. Educated Indians became clerks, interpreters, or maximally lawyers with a destruction of the entire indigenous educational system. The backbone of British army during the two world wars was in fact the Indian soldiers. In the entire 107 years from 1793 to 1900, an estimated 5 million people died the world over in all the wars combined. But, in just ten years (1891-1900), 19 million people died in India due to famines alone arguably the biggest colonial holocausts. The regular famines of Bengal were the result of careless planning, Malthusian ideas, and highly racist leaders (like Churchill) sitting in England looking the other way.

The pro-British groups argue that the British gave us political unity, democracy, a free press, a parliamentary system, and the rule of law. This was along with the railways, tea, telegraph, and the English language. But many would have just evolved without the need of colonization as has happened in many countries because of globalization and the internal needs of trade. The railways were more for the British exploitation of Indian resources rather than for Indians. The unity which they gave us is the biggest myth. They thrived on the policy of divide and rule that became more so after the 1857 mutiny. All the policies led to the partition of the country in 1947. The horrors of the partition where millions died is another sad saga by itself.

Karl Marx (1853) wrote: “Indian society has no history at all… What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society. The question, therefore, is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton. England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

However, we tend to deify Marx rather than Will Durant, (The Case for India) who wrote: “The British conquest of India was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle, careless of art and greedy of gain, over-running with fire and sword a country temporarily disordered and helpless, bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and “legal” plunder, which has now gone on ruthlessly for one hundred and seventy-three years, and goes on at this moment while in our secure comfort we write and read.”

English as a Medium of Instruction

Language in post-independent India took a peculiar form. In a linear historical view, Indian past became ‘primitive’. Sanskrit and the local languages became redundant and the state policies went for an exclusive English based education, especially in institutes of higher learning and Civil services. Now, we have a clear-cut social hierarchy placing a select few knowing English fluently above those who are not comfortable with English.

As Sankrant Sanu says (The English Medium Myth), arguing for a vernacular language would be either regressiveness or a false sense of ‘nationalism’. English language-based class separation privileges a foreign culture over the native culture; disconnects the general population from the intellectual and policy discourses; and creates a ceiling for progress in academia for those educated in the native languages. Only 4 of the top 20 richest countries have an English-based education system while 19 out of the 20 poorest countries were colonies of European powers and more than half of these countries do not even recognize the common spoken language as an official language.

About its role in facilitating communication, there is no problem for any language. However alien language can be destructive as a carrier of culture. English, as a medium of instruction, destroys culture and deracinates its citizens. A Kenyan writer calls English a “culture bomb” for other cultures which annihilate a people’s belief in their names, languages, environment, heritage of struggle, unity, and ultimately in themselves.

In a crucial parliamentary debate, Sanskrit lost to English as a medium of instruction by only one deciding vote. A near perfect language carrying all our intellectual, academic, cultural, and artistic heritage receded into the background; with newer Indological narratives, Sanskrit has even become ‘exploitative’, ‘patriarchal’, and ‘oppressive’. The social sciences simply rehashed old colonial theories without providing a better understanding of India causing immense damage to our social fabric. In its English policies, instead of allowing an Indian to reach the highest levels of arts and sciences in any vernacular language, our state policies are only hastening the demise of the great Indian culture, something which even our colonials could not do.

Political Ideologies

The hard right-left divide of the West is confusing, as we are a mix of both. Hyrum Lewis (The Myth of Left and Right) shows that “left” and “right” are the biggest false narratives embedded in our collective minds. There is no “essence” in the terms, but it is simply a social (or “tribal”) phenomenon where one is simply identifying with a group of people. The political positions of both have flipped many times to radical opposites. In India, the Marxists, even more imaginative, appropriated the name “left” to themselves and clumped everybody else not agreeing with them as “right,” which necessarily became bad. Their peculiar language continued the previous Islamic, missionary, and colonial attacks on Indian culture and heritage.

“Right-wing” conjures up images of extremely conservative US Republicans and xenophobic European right-wing parties, which is hardly describing traditional India. “Left or liberal” in India, sticking to the image of atheism and state control, developed a brand of secularism and liberalism that meant appeasing the minorities and abusing the majorities, respectively. The best “conservative” and “liberal” ideals evolved over centuries into a unique Indic thought, and the tragedy came with independence when we rejected our past.

There are two narratives. One is the colonial narrative, which says that before the colonists came, India was an unmitigated disaster. The superstitious religion of Hinduism was the cause of the evil caste system, which in turn was synonymous with exploitation, deprivation, and poverty. It was a divided nation between warring kings. Religion, caste, sect, and language divided the people without any unity as a proper nation. The primitive and unscientific India had to seek solutions from the West to improve itself. The colonials also gave India much-needed unity. Post-independent academia propagated this linear version of history: past equals primitive equals India; future equals advanced equals West. The other narrative places traditional India with its diversity, a decentralised polity, enlightened monarchy as a standard, free citizens, and absence of extreme cruelties (crusades, jihads, inquisitions, witch hunts, colonisation, the genocide of the American Indians, Nazism, and transforming a continent and culture into slaves) associated with the West. Which could be true?

The best evidence comes from Angus Madison’s research into world economics, which shows that India was one of the two largest economies in the world in the first millennium CE until the colonials landed. We had the highest philosophical insights and an impressive intellectual heritage, with a huge corpus of texts. India had contributions in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, logic, physics, metallurgy, shipbuilding, bricks, agricultural technology, dyes and pigments, civil engineering, town planning, sanitation, medical and biological sciences, and vaccination, leading to many early Europeans remarking that it was the West that needed to learn from the East.

Our indigenous systems had some worth, as their outcomes attracted thousands from Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. An inferior, poor, and barbaric individual invades and robs a superior, rich, and cultured person according to all common sense. As for individuals, the same is true for countries. All and sundry came to India to become rich; India produced its material and spiritual riches through its own efforts; India went to alien countries purely for trade and philosophical interactions and never to invade physically, rule people, or take slaves. And yet, Indian culture and ways of organizing life were “primitive” before the colonisers came. Strangely, collectively, we Indians believe the colonial story.

India had evolved as a decentralized polity, enlightened monarchy, and free citizen ages ago. The bedrock of Indian polity was the three quartets, as Sri Aurobindo explains: the four varnas, the four ashramas, and the four purusharthas. Our texts focused on qualities and duties at all levels, from the king to the ordinary citizen, unlike Western rights-based traditions. The wars fought in Europe in mediaeval times were unusual in the Indian context, which left mostly the agricultural lands and the temples intact. People across kingdoms freely moved for pilgrimages and access to knowledge without charges of treason.

Our traditions are uniquely non-dogmatic, non-predatory, evolving, and self-reforming without claims of exclusivity. The hallmark of Indic traditions has been an “indifference to differences,” and this is the solution to most social problems in a multicultural world. Hence, alternatives to western models thrived without affecting trade, agriculture, literature, or the sciences across the country. However, modern social sciences, with a great colonial hangover, have a strong antipathy for the traditional systems of India. Western traditions search for maximal individual liberty under the umbrella of minimal state interference and maximal state security and create “isms” of the most bewildering variety. Colonial consciousness allowed narratives of Western political philosophies to permeate Indian thinking, even though many of the ideas did not simply make sense.

Law and Judiciary

The collegium system and unbridled powers of judges hardly inspire an efficient legal system. Superimposing Western law on indigenous cultures with their own ways of law and justice leads to severe distortions. The rhetoric about the great British law as a ‘gift’ is false, as British society and law were corrupt to the core in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were ruling a great part of the globe. The British in India did whatever pleased them, but the judges and bureaucrats clothed these acts in legal language and many non-existent laws. There was hardly equal justice in British India.

Indians, as cultural beings, believing the British law and institutions as ideal, mixed them with their own ideas relating to justice, truth, persons, and so on. The notions of ‘truth’ and ‘falsity’, rooting in Christian theology, play a crucial role in law. In Indian culture, there is a clear semantic distinction between lies and deception. The socialization process in Indian culture involves even learning to lie. Thus, lying under oath loses its reasoning as a law. Yet, ‘perjury’ remains a punishable offense in the Indian legal system.

In western culture, it is the fair, objective, and impartial law that judges, not the person of the judge. In contrast, the Indian judiciary sees itself as the ‘embodiment’ of justice, dispensing ‘justice’, often completely independent of legal provisions. Even for many going to court, the judge represents justice personified. This attitude helps us understand the massive corruption of the judiciary in India and the arbitrary nature of pronouncements because of the culturally specific notion of the judge. The law in Western culture tries to reduce arbitrariness and capriciousness in settling disputes. But the imposition of Western institutions in India encourages precisely that arbitrariness that the law is supposed to prevent.

Read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here

Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.