“India That is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilization, Constitution” – A Review
While Independence for India represented a tangible and symbolic disengagement from the tyrannical yoke of colonization, a free India found herself (and even after seven decades of freedom continues to find herself) inextricably, interminably, and innately wedded to the constructs of colonialism. Hence, the urgent and indispensable need for India as a nation imbued by a decolonial conscience rather than being misled by the smug and false comfort offered by post-colonial philosophies.
We are, putting it mildly, living in interesting times. A mere acknowledgment (leave alone appreciation or assertion) of our indigenous Indic roots therefore seems to trigger a full-scale assault on the nature of the Indic civilizational state by people who are viscerally opposed to real diversity, and to acknowledging the importance of the Indian civilizational culture for the world. Commencing with stereotyping, the allegations include illiberalism, intolerance, before alleging affiliation with fascist, nationalist, extremist ideologies of the West. Thus, we have conferences and symposiums demanding the “dismantling” of “Hindutva,” which speakers at the conference conflated with Hinduism. Pseudo-scholars with shallow credentials and suspect motives ascend the Bully Pulpit from where they issue thunderous proclamations which are mostly manufactured social science garbage.
Hence Supreme Court Advocate and practicing lawyer, J. Sai Deepak’s “India That is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution” comes as a timely and refreshing antidote to the garbled and curdled thinking of entrenched academics and their political enablers. The book lays out in an objective and lucid manner the impact of colonialism on Bharat and some potential ways which such impact may be minimized, if not altogether eliminated.
The book is divided into three sections and forms the first installment in a trilogy. The first section, titled, “Coloniality,” dwells on the rapacious nature of settler colonialism. At the heart of this section lies the theory of Onto-Epistemology and Theology (OET). OET refers to a critical enquiry of a knowledge that is based on philosophy, and examination of theories constructed using theology. In the process of colonizing a nation, the colonizer, by taking recourse to deliberate means and careful methods, seeks to displace the indigenous OET, by substituting it with his own set of beliefs. A carefully orchestrated substitution of the colonizer’s own values and belief system ensures more or less a total obliteration of the identity of the colonized. This substitution ensures that even after unshackling itself from colonialism, a colonized nation charts its future economic, social, and cultural trajectory based on the very values and beliefs which it has spent an agonizingly long time getting rid of. The colonial mindset unconsciously remains etched in the consciousness of the colonized. This is where the key tenet of “decolonization” comes into play. The author in alluding to decolonization relies on a number of works written by decolonization scholars such as Anibal Quijano, Walter D. Mignolo, Sylvia Wynter, Ramon Grosfoguel, and others.
The colonizer, by labeling the colonized as heathen, soulless, and of a lower stock, completely fails to comprehend the faith system and culture that is the prerogative of the colonized. A key failing of the colonizer is to totally disregard the land-ontology or the pristine and almost sacred relationship that exists between the native and her land: a relationship based on a symbiotic reciprocity. The normative Western mindset, incapable of both deciphering and respecting such a relationship proceeds to mercilessly pillage the land and enslave the native. As Sai Deepak, paraphrasing the book, “The Spiritual Legacy of the American Indian” by Joseph Epes Brown, writes, “their relationship with the earth was one of ‘reciprocal appropriation’, that is to give and receive, in which humans participated in the landscape while at the same time they incorporated the landscape and its inhabitants into the most fundamental human experience and understanding”. The invaders, nursing and reliant on a Judeo-Christian OET that places man at the pinnacle of animate and inanimate existence, not just dehumanized humanity but also objectified nature. This, in addition to a forced displacement of the indigenous education systems, also resulted in a top-down imposition of Christianity, and in some cases, even a subtle and covert “Christianizing” of the native faith.
The process of substituting Western OET for indigenous OET was rendered convenient due to a paucity of written records maintained by the native. A destruction of places of worship by the colonizer enabled him to manipulate the original belief system of the colonized so as to be malleable with the colonizer’s own motives. This also accorded an opportunity for the colonizer to mock the OET of the colonized as abstruse and apocryphal flights of fancy. When it came to “Bharat” such attempts at obfuscation assumed menacing proportions. Drawing on the theology birthed by the Protestant Reformist Movement, the British placed all the civic and societal problems plaguing Bharat firmly at the doorstep of “Brahminism,” for example. Brahminism thus became a convenient and unwitting scapegoat against which many axes could be ground. This tendency, unfortunately, to heap blame on Brahmins and Brahminism prevails even to this day and in an increasingly pernicious manner on social media and in academic journals and papers that demand the “smashing” of “Brahminical patriarchy”.
With a view to ameliorating the malevolent effects of colonialism, decolonization attempts to “release production of knowledge from the stranglehold of the West, which could lead to greater diversity of thought and subjectivity, in particular, resurgence and re-existence of indigenous perspective”. The primary goals of decolonization, as articulated by Sai Deepak, include an untethering from the moorings of identity politics and a conclusive escape from the entrenched dogmas of exclusionary ethnocentrism (race politics in short).
Section two of the book, titled “Civilisation,” strives to demonstrate how Bharat’s consciousness was impacted during the nation’s prolonged tryst with colonialism, coloniality, and colonization. Sai Deepak draws liberally from the works of Dr. Balagangadhara, Professor Emeritus at Ghent University in Belgium, and Dr. Jakob De Roover, an Assistant Professor at Ghent University. Sai Deepak, disagreeing with the Marxian claims that colonialism aided development (building roads, establishing rail links, etc.) does not devote much space to rebut the reformist claims of Marxists/socialists/progressives. In his book “Inglorious Empire,” Shashi Tharoor offers some illuminating discussion/facts on the subject. Instead, Sai Deepak concentrates on the tools employed by the British to create divisions and fissures in the indigenous subconsciousness. Collectively, these apparatuses are termed, “subalternalism”. Sai Deepak also strives to nullify the proposition that India did not possess an identity as a nation state prior to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. This antiquated fallacy has received amplification from many Western scholars such as the likes of John Strachey who averred that “there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical or political,” but which is countered by Vincent Arthur Smith and George Chisholm who argue that “India, encircled as she is by seas and mountains, is indisputably a geographical unit, and as such is rightly designated by one name….”
The British, Sai Deepak argues, proceeded to systematically promulgate a series of statutes and laws, which while outwardly had a veneer of liberalism, were in fact devious mechanisms to strip the last vestiges of indigeneity characterizing the fabric of pre-colonial India. Even after independence, the burnished language of colonial-era liberalism remained intact. Justifying the encroachment into Indian land and usurpation of sacred Indian territory by the adventurous Chinese, the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, incredulously remarked that the land annexed by the Chinese was where not a single blade of grass grew and constituted territory that was useless and uninhabitable. There cannot be a more searing example of the sacred land ontology being elided out of Indian consciousness.
Clergymen and zealots in the garb of missionaries also played their bit exemplarily well in their endeavor to eviscerate Indic OET. Claudius Buchanan, a Scottish clergyman credited with corruption of the word “Jagannath” to “juggernaut,” portrayed Hinduism as a “bloody, violent, superstitious and backward religious system,” which required immediate “social reform”. Brahmins again were the favorite whipping boys against whom cudgels could be wielded with gay abandon. Conflating the Devadasi tradition with prostitution, the Britishers equated temples with sites of prostitution and hence advocated a state takeover of the management of temple affairs. This debauched caricature of Brahminism and Brahmins was even categorized under an esoteric term – “priestcraft”.
The sad and unfortunate precedent of unwarranted interference with Hindu religious practices continues to this day with many state governments such as in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. These statutes provide unfettered powers to the concerned state government to assume the control, management, affairs, and assets of Hindu temples. Interestingly, Sai Deepak himself is at the forefront of a litigation against these draconian measures and the matter currently is pending adjudication by the Apex Court.
The dangerous lengths to which even the colonized embraced an OET representative of a normative Western framework is highlighted in chilling fashion by Sai Deepak by reproducing a letter issued by the founder of the Brahmo Samaj, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, to the then Governor-General in Council, bemoaning the British intent to establish a Sanskrit educational institution. While the abuse of a venerable language such as Sanskrit by an ignorant and condescending elitist such as Thomas Babington Macaulay should come as no surprise to anyone, it is downright lamentable that a person of the stature of Mohun Roy protested and railed against the dissemination of Sanskrit. “The Sangscrit language, so difficult that almost a lifetime is necessary for its perfect acquisition, is well known to have been for ages, a lamentable check for the diffusion of knowledge; and the learning concealed under this almost impervious veil is far from sufficient to reward the labour for acquiring it… Again, no essential benefit can be derived by the student of Meemangsa from knowledge what it is that makes the killer of a goat sinless on pronouncing certain passages of the Veds, and what is the real nature and operative influence of passages of the Ved, etc”.
The introduction of the Bible as a compulsory part of the curricula in schools and colleges in the nineteenth century bears ample testimony to the fact that these institutions of learning also furthered the objectives of proselytization and conversion by not only warning against the allure of a native language but also to the innocence of an unsuspecting populace.
The final part of the book traces the events leading to the establishment of the Government of India Act, 1919, the first concrete legislation that mulled the drafting of a Constitution for India with the objective of paving the way for self-governance. Even this exertion had at its underpinning a universalized Western standard of civilization that deemed Indic OET as mainly rooted in bias, prejudices, and superstitions. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms in fact had the temerity to propose that unless and until India confirmed to a set of universalized tenets (assumed to be a vital pre-requisite for a “civilized” nation), it would be deemed “unready” for self-governance. This preposterous notion received a stinging rebuke from the feisty freedom fighter, Lala Lajpat Rai.
Part three of the book is particularly relevant in the context of recent developments such as the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, enactment of the CAA/NRC legislation, etc. The reactions to the passing of these Bills have ranged from the sublime to the silly and from the asinine to the alarming. But they have all signified one unmistakable truth – that the attribute of colonialism is not just as detritus or residue left behind in the nation but that it is a powerful, pulsating, and possessive force exercising and exerting its influence in a myriad of ways, overt and covert.
Sai Deepak has done impressive and commendable research for this book. The sources mined are diverse and the notes appended at the end are capable of constituting a stand-alone block of precious resources for future students. The fact that Sai Deepak is an autodidact in so far as this sphere of knowledge goes, makes it all the more fascinating. Sai Deepak also brings to bear upon this book his enviable experience in the field of Constitutional Law as well as his involvement with some of the most controversial and path breaking cases that have warranted the attention of the Apex Court in recent times, such as the Sabarimala Case and the HRCE Rulings.
“India That is Bharat” is grand in its sweep, and its bestseller status is evidence of the interest among Indians to rid themselves of the dangerous and lingering colonial hangover.