When the late Edward Said’s pathbreaking book, Orientalism, came out in 1976 (coinciding with the conclusion of my doctoral work in America), the academic world was taken by storm; unsurprisingly, less in the Western world, more among us in the erstwhile colonies.
And, justly enough.
The book detailed how the colonising West had first succeeded in “constructing” a view of the Arabs, especially as a wild, sexually overcharged, violent species of the human race, all on one stroke of an uncritical, sectarian, theoretical brush, and then proceeded to justify the predatory “civilising mission” of the white race.
That this was a ruse in large part to expropriate the oil and other resource-rich regions of the Middle East in an imperialist pattern since made sentient by sheaves of progressive scholarship, was thus demonstrated by Said, a Palestinian Christian professor at Columbia University with more than an interest merely in English literary studies.
One recalls how the thesis sent many of us here in the Indian academe into a tizzy of conferencing (to use the American word for seminar). Suddenly, to be intellectually avant-garde was to be familiar with Orientalism and to know how to get back “in theory” at the wicked West.
Always a ditherer away from the trend of the day, I recall suggesting in one or two seminars how one of the things this book could make possible for us was to examine our own Orientalisms within our own national history.
For example, we could begin to explore how upper caste elites, had in this country similarly “constructed” in venerated cultural-theological texts congenial views of the downtrodden castes and tribal communities – indeed of other social segments of the populace as well, including religious minorities – and used those constructions to keep in place the propertied hegemony of minority rule.
Such constructions had for centuries deemed the vast majority, women included, as unsuited for intellectual pursuits, and thus useful only in subordinate situations to aid the glory of the land, which resided chiefly in the attainments of the twice-born.
Alas, in the frenzy set in motion by Said’s book, only a laggard handful seemed to find these ruminations worthy of foregrounding by linking our own explorations to Said’s theoretical contribution.
I am of course here referring primarily to scholarship from within the literary studies fraternity.
Now, as we write, news comes that a Gladstone scion has proclaimed their resolve to apologise for slavery, and, presumably, for the riches made off slave labour.
That Western capitalism had its first roots in the expropriation of slave labour is of course by now an established fact of history.
Just to remind ourselves, there are other (not just the Gladstone clan), very distinguished families in England, America and Europe whose pelf owes massively to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Besides, hallowed academic institutions like Oxford and Yale, and prized scholarships to their halls and classrooms likewise owe their grandeur to moneys made by “gentlemen” like Mr. Rhodes and Mr. Yale from the very same trade.
Clearly, Mr Gladsone’s conscientious lead is admirable, one that many others could emulate.
Internalising the lesson
But, again, the point remains: Are we in the erstwhile colonies who are gratified by such gestures willing to internalise a lesson from such historic initiatives?
Are we willing likewise to apologise to our Bahujan Indians (set down in Brahminical texts as Shudras and Untouchables and rated below some choice animals in significance) for the atrocities vented on them over unconscionable millennia?
If it be argued that modern India has, after all, constitutionally outlawed untouchability, so has the Western world abolished slavery and racial discrimination in the books.
Yet, some there are coming forward to apologise, perhaps in the hope that such an initiative might aid those who fight the continuance in practice of racial discrimination in the West.
And who says untouchability has in practice ended in India?
Think of the honourable judge who had the entire court premises “purified” with waters from the holy Ganges because his predecessor had been a Dalit.
If that is about an officer of a court, we may well imagine what transpires among local communities; indeed, sections of the so-nationalist media still, thankfully, make bold to report occurrences of that sort.
Are we willing to apologise to legions of our widowed women for the unconscionable collective crime of having sat them on burning pyres on the authority of fake and mischievous knowledge so that their claim to family property could be erased?
Are we willing to apologise to a wide segment of our minorities for constantly “othering” them so that they are “constructed” as inauthentic nationals undeserving of full and non-discriminatory citizenship rights, and of full and perceived equality before the law?
Are we willing to apologise to millions of our children who remain doomed to labour over interminable hours in shops, dhabas, dinghies and airless factories in sidelanes in town after town, even as the constitution outlaws such labour, robbing them of their fundamental right to education and health?
Are we willing to apologise to the vast majority of our population for blaming them for their so-called infirmities which actually result from the path of “development” we have chosen to pursue in contravention of the provisions of Article 39 of the constitution which enjoins that there be no monopolisation of wealth, minimal inequality of incomes, and which denotes “we the people” as the true owners of national resources?
And so on.
Edward Said and Gladstone have done nobly by their own people.
Any takers in India, that is Bharat?
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