Sunday, January 12, 2014

Imperial mission of civilizing India

Preet Bharara’s rather curious and contentious riposte on the media reports of his actions against the Indian diplomat facilitated by the state department brought back the arguments on asymmetric international relationships and memories of archaic colonial notions of imperialists’ burden of enforcing the rule of law.  The institutions of the Justice and State departments were hardly equipped with tools to learn and negotiate civilizational clashes as evident from their collective shock and dismay at the unexpected fury and payback from India cutting across political, social and regional divides. After all weren't they making a firm stand for a just cause for a hapless member of the underclass from these very population? Wasn't the alleged perpetrator a symbol of everything that is wrong with the country she represents?

Legitimizing Colonialism

There is nothing wrong with the questions if the context weren't complex involving independent countries, international and domestic laws, cultural differences and dissimilar government structures with the kind of history and standing in the world. The discourse on the legal premise and actions where predicated on the legitimacy of (local) rule of law and tacit suggestions of a savage nation with corrupt and vindictive society that needs to be saved from itself. That the legitimization of legal overreach and subsequent actions were instigated and cheered on by liberal intelligentsia is no accident. Relationships with India historically veered towards chaos every time Democrats wielded power. Pages of New York Times and Washington Post are replete with aspersions on stereotypes of caste ridden India which has its origins in the imperial British constructs to define social structures to support maintain its colonial rule after their theories of inferior race had failed. Democrats in the U.S resemble the Labour party of England in displaying a latent imperial attitude while vowing on higher ideals. In the post-colonial era, it’s the liberal political force that is driving the civilizing mission than the conservatives.

Here is Lord Curzon the Governor General and Viceroy of India giving a simple definition of the civilizing mission’s aim. The purpose that sustained the empire was:

…to fight for the right, to abhor the imperfect, the unjust or the mean, to swerve neither to the right hand nor to the left, to care nothing for flattery or applause or odium or abuse, but to remember that the Almighty has placed your hand on the greatest of his ploughs, to drive the blade a little forward in y our time, and to free somewhere among these millions you have left a little justice or happiness or prosperity, a sense of manliness or moral dignity, a spring of patriotism, a dawn of intellectual enlightenment, or a stirring of duty, where it did not before exist. That is enough, that is the Englishman’s justification in India.”

Internalizing the mission of civilizing

As for Preet Bharara, who was at the receiving end of many Indians’ ire and ridicule, was also lauded as the paragon of the West’s rule of law. There was a misplaced expectation from him being Indian origin. Assimilation and internalization of the Western civilization are not based on the race or culture. 

*There is a passage from George Orwell’s Burmese Days when the protagonist Mr. Flory, a British Merchant who came to Burma to exploit her timber resources, is irritated by the imperial racism of his countrymen who rudely discuss the admittance of the only Indian doctor in town, Dr. Veraswami, to the sacrosanct ‘club’.  Turning away in disgust, Flory visits his friend in the verandah and begins conversation with him. He realizes that Veraswami was well versed with English drinking habits. Flory begins to berate the British for their racist attitude, criticizes the moral pretensions masking their exploitative enterprises in India and the hypocritical talk about white man’s burden. Veraswami, who has apparently internalized the attitudes and aims of the British civilizing mission, is appalled by Flory’s defeatist utterances:

But truly, truly, Mr. Flory, you must not speak so! Why iss it that always you are abusing the pukka sahibs, as you call them? They are the salt of the earth. Consider the great things they have done - consider the great administrators who have made British India what it iss. Consider Clive, Warren Hastings, Dalhousie, and Curzon… And consider how noble a type iss the English gentleman! Their glorious loyalty to one another! Even those of them, whose manner iss unfortunate – some Englishmen are arrogant, I concede – have the great, sterling qualities that we Orientals lack.

Excerpts from the book - Colonialism As Civilizing Mission - Cultural Ideology in British India.

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