Why Colonialism is always wrong..

I had earlier posted a link to a Guardian Article about Singapore and how it was a model for colonial & post-colonial development.

To my knowledge Singapore & Hong Kong are colonial creations and therefore their success are more anomalous than not.

I would hazard a few drawbacks of colonial rule in South Asia:

(1.) English language as the High Culture: this is a serious problem since the Urdu-Hindi divide only represents the lack of a unified elite standard. If the Brits/Europeans had never established themselves a native literary lingua franca would have eventually emerged as a South Asian unifier. Urdu for instance is the indigenous supplanter, by Hindu courtiers, of the courtly Persian spoken at Mughal courts. Not to mire this thread into another language controversy but my point being is that if South Asia had followed a normal course of development we would be writing Brown Pundits in a desi, not foreign, tongue.

(2) Time Value of Money: South Asia may have been routinely plundered (the Persians invaded a few times in the last few centuries) but most of India’s wealth stayed home. Depraved and decadent the Mughals may have been but their monuments rest on Indian Soil. The wealth of India, through unfair trade & conquest, ultimately flowed back to the Mother Country; powering England’s economic advancement. The British Empire may have been an uneconomic enterprise towards the very end (however it still helped Britain turn the tide in 2 World Wars) but the previous centuries had been enough to solidify Europe/England’s lead.

(3) Racial Inferiority: South Asia is the land of colour, caste & creed but scientific racism wasn’t endemic to it (there is some evidence caste had been dying out prior to the Brits coming but I can’t possible comment). The Brahmins and Muslim elites may not have intermarried with anyone else (though I find that hard to believe) but the racial seclusion that the Brits maintained, especially after Mutiny & in the Victorian Era, embedded a racial inferiority complex into the desi cultural stream that’s never truly been shaken off. Currying favour with the Englishman has always taken precedence over regional solidarity. The reason as to why Native Royals were forbidden from marrying white women was the genuine fear that the royal families of India would become white in a few generations (that’s already happened to a few of South Asia’s political dynasties mind you).

(4) Communal conflict: there may have been a history of uneasy tension between Muslim & Hindu in historic India but divide & rule exacerbated it towards eventual Partition.

(5) Winston Churchill: WC has a demi-god status in Britain but was shameful in his treatment and views of desis. When a man so racist is so revered there isn’t much more to say. Famine in India & Ireland under the British Empire was arguable more of a political rather than agricultural construct.

This isn’t to say that South Asians shouldn’t take agency and own their faults (how else were they conquered but for their own lack of unity) but colonialism (even more so than the Muslim conquests though that is arguably a close second) was an absolute disaster for the Subcontinent. Shashi Tharoor is entirely right; English, railroads and a few universities are no offsets. Just because the British Empire wasn’t as evil as some others (the Belgians in Congo etc) doesn’t mean that it was a just enterprise, not now not ever..

30 thoughts on “Why Colonialism is always wrong..”

  1. Thanks for a great write-up. It is a given that colonialism is bad for the ruled and good for the rulers. We are talking mainly about the Western European brand of colonialism that happened in the past 500 or so years. There can be unintended consequences though. For example the English imposed on the sub-continent had deleterious effects on the native culture as pointed above by Latif. Its presence was detrimental to the emotional integration of India in the first 35 years after independence. However, the South stuck to English education and when the computer and internet revolution came into being, they were ready to jump and take full advantage of the new technology and development to make India a software ‘giant’. A vestige of colonialism has become a springboard to riches. This is a payback that could cancel out all the plunder and atrocities perpetrated by East India Company and the British Crown. My 0.02 cents.

  2. Shashi Tharoor loves to talk about how five hundred years ago India and China were each a quarter of the world’s GDP. Does he ever mention that China managed to equal India with only half of its cultivable land? No. Why not? Because he can’t explain that away by saying that India was once a Chinese colony.

    You claim that the Mughals were better. Why? Because they kept the money here? Was there anything in Afganistan for them to spend it on? Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order states that while in China there has been a unified system of weights and measures since its first emperor over two thousand years ago, nobody in India ever thought of such a basic administrative measure except the British. You think that was a less useful thing to do than building the Taj Mahal? You are just as frivolous as the leadership you deride. And it shows:

    if South Asia had followed a normal course of development we would be writing Brown Pundits in a desi, not foreign, tongue

    Your standard for an achievement is renaming Bombay to Mumbai.

    1. “Was there anything in Afghanistan for [the Mughals] to spend money on?”– This comment shows a flawed understanding of colonialism. The Mughals cannot be compared to the British. During the era in which Babur came to India, it was normal for invaders from various places to try to establish new kingdoms for themselves. Babur himself displaced a previously existing Muslim kingdom. The Mughals settled down and Indianized themselves. They did not think about extracting India’s resources to the “mother country”. In contrast, the British had a very strong sense of themselves as separate from the “natives”. This is evidenced by the fact that that as soon as they got a chance they built new neighborhoods called Civil Lines where the natives were not allowed to live. Their whole model was based on extracting India’s resources for use in England.

      There is a qualitative difference between modern colonialism and what was happening in medieval Hindustan. It is better not to confuse the two (despite your dislike for the Mughal dynasty).

      1. They did not think about extracting India’s resources to the mother country

        In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche has an aphorism which he wanted inscribed on the door of every anti-Semite: “Virtue is the renunciation of advantages.” What did the Mughals, or any of their predecessors including the Aryans, renounce by not sending anything back to the wastelands they came from?

        your dislike for the Mughal dynasty

        Why would I dislike them? For being stronger than what came before? A few months ago the BBC published an essay about the famed efficiency of the Germans:

        http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20170903-why-people-think-germans-are-so-efficient

        It went on and on about how German efficiency was a myth, that it did not exist, and the post-war German economic miracle was simply a result of the United States spending money to defend against the Soviet Union. Yet a glance at the Wikipedia article on the Marshall plan shows that Britain received two and a half times as much money as Germany did. My reason for bringing this up is the following quote:

        Their whole model was based on extracting India’s resources for use in England.

        Have you ever heard the expression “Spain had the cow but could not drink the milk?” It refers to the fact that Spain had an enormous empire in the Americas all the gold and silver from which was insufficient to keep Spain at the top of the European pecking order. Britain did not just teach you English, it also taught you your resentment of your superiors.

        1. // Britain did not just teach you English, it also taught you your resentment of your superiors. //

          Ho ho! Jolly good show 🙂

          Indians have been pathetic for a very long time (and, no, this has nothing to do with Islam etc) for a reason. We only begun to realize how pathetic we were (and why!) when we came into contact with the Brits, who, unlike Moghals, refused to be as pathetic as us. For this reason alone, colonialism – though carried out for selfish British reasons – was a boon to India. Modern Britain is a friend of India’s and Indians still need to learn a lot more from her.

        2. I prefer Bombay and I’m a proud subject of HM the Queen.

          You are trying to justify a great evil by pointing to smaller virtues.

          Also while the British brought many advantages on the whole it was deeply exploitative enterprise.

        3. I was making the fairly limited point that there is a difference between modern European colonialism and the creation of empires in medieval Hindustan. Any definition of colonialism will refer to the creation of colonies and the extraction of resources from those colonies for use in the mother country. Hindustan under the Mughals was not a colony. Resources were not extracted for use in Samarkand and Bukhara. Babur had in fact lost his kingdom and came to Hindustan to create a new one. The Mughals extracted India’s resources yes, but they used them to govern India (and for personal aggrandizement). Thus, they cannot be referred to as an example of colonialism.

          Whether the Mughals were good or bad is another debate. Frankly, they gave you all your high culture. Whatever India is famous for in the outside world, it is mostly from the Mughals: The Taj Mahal, Lal Qila, Hindustani classical music, kathak. The whole composite Ganga-Jamuni culture of India would not exist without the Muslim influence.

  3. It is a historical truth that England developed sophisticated instruments of rule of law (the English king has been appointing an attorney general since 1243, they have had regular, organized elections since the 1300s and an elected Parliament has had the final word on state expenditure since the 1600s), which struck the delicate balance between maintaining cohesion while evolving based on continuous feedback from the governed. There simply is no other premodern political entity which both discovered and practically implemented all these features of a society based on rule of law rather than king/religion.

    In many senses, the English discovered political modernity, which set the stage for economic modernity. Almost everyone else has tried to go backwards.

    But it is also a fact that despite having established rule of law in its metropolitan centre (England), the British Empire wasnt really keen on doing so elsewhere. It is easy to blame the colonized populations, but democracy and Constitutional government (rather than rule of the Viceroy/Cabinet) was something Indians had to struggle for.

    The leaders of the Indian Independence Movement deserve a lot of credit for not mixing up the demand for independence with a judgement of the British as a nationality/race. Perhaps as they were engaged in dueling with the British Empire, they could understand the deep roots of its power, influence and success. That 1/6th of humanity accepted these powerful ideas without much consternation is a tremendous achievement.

    Even the close Germanic cousins of the British had to be literally burnt to the ground, and told by the Anglo-Americans ‘this is how you will govern yourself from now on’, to accept democracy and rule of law. Wish Tharoor would write more about how India can move forward with the Constitutional morality project rather than keep looking backwards to score some points.

  4. @Zachary Latif

    Also while the British brought many advantages on the whole it was deeply exploitative enterprise.

    Many men feel the same way about their wives.

    @Vikram Garg

    Even the close Germanic cousins of the British had to be literally burnt to the ground, and told by the Anglo-Americans ‘this is how you will govern yourself from now on’, to accept democracy and rule of law.

    Nehru’s hagiographers have created an image of him as some sort of brain trust. Yet it is obvious from his quixotic attempt to impose Hindi on the entire country that he knew nothing of Prussia’s failure to Germanise its Polish minority in the decades before World War I. If those who ran the most efficient administration in Europe for two centuries could not do it, how could he? Or for that matter Jinnah with Urdu? Since India’s greatest leaders are this ignorant, I cannot blame you for not knowing about the Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch. The country that for centuries produced Math PhDs at four times the per capita rate of England has no problem with rule of law. Nor is it stupid enough to think that democracy is actually a good idea.

    Wish Tharoor would write more about how India can move forward with the Constitutional morality project rather than keep looking backwards to score some points.

    Tharoor could have asked England to not partake in the brain drain. Comparisions to the slave trade would have been easy to make. It would have been a more useful form of reparations than one pound a year. And more politically feasible for England. He did not. Why?

  5. What is colonialism? I would perhaps define colonialism as:
    1) being deeply structurally dependent on others over the long term (Haiti)
    2) any system of harsh autocracy which lacks slight amounts of classically liberal freedoms. Local or foreign harsh dictators are much the same for locals. For example North Korea is both almost completely dependent on international aid and a harsh dictatorship with almost no freedom. North Korea is also colonial in the sense that it is forcibly governed by a harsh foreign European imperialist ideology (post modernism and marxism). Fortunately freedom in increasing all over the world and harsh autocracies are becoming rarer.

    Colonialism isn’t always wrong. It is just mostly wrong. Examples of potentially justifiable colonialism:

    1) Genocide
    2) Countries such as Haiti which are long term welfare recipients of the international community. (But here too the international community should consider tough love to facilitate self reliance over the very long term.)
    3) Special circumstances where the needs of the many outway the needs of the few or the one. For example if the international community occupied the holy shrines in Jerusalem as part of an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement.

    This said, whether colonialism is right or wrong doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether colonialism benefits the people colonized.

  6. “English language as the High Culture”

    I see nothing wrong with Indians learning english during the British Raj. Chinese learn english too. What was wrong during the British Raj was that Indians became ashamed of their own ancient languages and their own ancient literature. There is a value to Indians both knowing good english and being good at their native languages. I for one bemoan to collapse of Pharsi in India after 1858. I like Pharsi and wish I knew Pharsi well enough to read and analyze ancient Pharsi literature. This despite the fact that Pharsi was imposed on India by force.

    The collapse of respect for native languages and literature is a good example of how British “colonialism of the mind” has harmed India.

    “Racial Inferiority” I couldn’t agree more. Wanted to elaborate on this under “colonialism of the mind”. This is a terrible wrong the Anglos committed against India . . . and it still lives in the Indian mind.

    “Communal conflict” Another great example of colonialism of the mind that to this day the British do not apologize for or acknowledge. I hope they do. This did and continues to do enormous harm to South Asia and the whole world.

    “(5) Winston Churchill: WC has a demi-god status in Britain but was shameful in his treatment and views of desis. When a man so racist is so revered there isn’t much more to say. Famine in India & Ireland under the British Empire was arguable more of a political rather than agricultural construct.”

    Agree completely. I never understood the deification of Churchill when I was a kid. Still don’t. Glad you mentioned it. While acknowledging Churchill is one man and by himself didn’t cause great harm to India as a whole; still, would it have hurt Churchill to fall on his knees and thank Indians with gratitude from the bottom of his heart for saving the UK and allies from near certain defeat?

    If not for the British Indian Army (paid for by Indian taxpayers), the UK would have been occupied by the Nazis. Hitler and Tojo would have won WWII. The entire world owes India and Bharatiyas (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and their historic allies such as St. Thomas Christians, Sufis, Ahmedias, sixer Ishmaelis, twelvers) enormous gratitude for saving the world from the Nazis. It is the Hindus (or “right wing Hindus” if someone wants to put a pejorative on it) who demanded that India fight and defeat Nazism. One of the reasons why is because Nazis and inappropriately used German Indology and Eastern spirituality to harm the world.

    Without understanding this, and the great pain Hindus/Buddhists feel because of the way post modernist Indologists and the global intelligentsia has blamed Hindus/Buddhists for Nazism; and how to this day Hindu/Buddhists are sometimes pejoratively called “Nazis”, “facists”, “right wing”; it is impossible to understand what some call “Hindutvva” today.

    I have seen numerous articles from post modernists in recent months blaming “right wing” “Nazi” “Fascist” Buddhists for the Rohingya tragedy. This serves a dark sinister post modernist orientalist colonial imperialist agenda with roots in 1800s English academia. I differentiate these articles from articles written by muslims with a desire to help Rohingya; which I respect.

    “Time Value of Money” We don’t completely agree on this. Yes India saved the British in both world wars. However, excluding these world wars there were not large transfers from British India to the UK. Rather the horrible UK misrule of India through license raj and a deliberate policy to damage the self confidence of Indians (“colonization of the mind”) resulted in virtually no real GDP per capita growth between 1858 and 1947. This was terrible for Indian material living standards. And reduced UK living standards as well. The UK would have been far better off with a booming Indian private sector. The UK hurt herself enormously through her stupidity.

    Racism hurts the racist person worse than the person racism is directed against.

    1. Oppression hurts the oppressor worse than the oppressed most of the time. Racism hurts the racist person worse than the person racism is directed against most of the time.

    2. Two comments:

      1) How was Farsi imposed on India by force? My understanding (and I could be wrong) is that Farsi was the language of the Mughal administration (though it was not their mother tongue) and that those people who aspired to work in that administration learned Farsi–many of them Hindu. The vast majority of native Indians went on speaking their mother tongues. Urdu (or Rektha) developed from a synthesis of Hindavi with Farsi and Arabic. Again, Urdu was not imposed on anyone. It was the British I believe who later dropped Farsi and substituted it with Urdu, which led to the Hindi-Urdu controversy.

      2) Who blames Hindus and Buddhists for Nazism? I don’t think I’ve ever come across any serious person who has made this claim. Nazism was a German problem which had its roots in the treatment of Germany after WWI and the collapse of the Wiemar Republic (at least that is what I was taught in school). What Burma is doing to the Rohingya right now is a different issue and I think it just shows that even the most “peaceful” religions such as Buddhism have extremists. It has more to do with the self-definition of the Burmese state and ethnic majority than with religion per se.

      1. India was conquered by Islamist conquerors (by Islamist I mean those who want to impose their interpretation of the Koran and Hadiths over society as opposed to muslims who don’t want to impose their views on society) who imposed Pharsi on India by the point of the sword. This said, I think Indians benefited from learning Pharsi. I would love to read Pharsi classics.

        Sheldon Pollack, arguably the most respected Sanskrit scholar circa 1970s-1990s, and many other post modernist scholars argued that Sanskrit/Hindu/Buddhist deep internal orientalism inspired German indology, which inspired Nazism. Post Modernist scholars argued that Nazism was applied Mimamsa (technically almost all if not all Hindus in the world are from Mimamsa Darshana).

        1. Your understanding of Indian history is seriously misplaced. Sorry I don’t have the time to educate you. Suffice it to say that the Mughals were not interested in imposing Sharia. Babur wanted a kingdom to replace the one he lost in Samarkand. It’s as simple as that. The Mughals spent a lot of time creating art, music and literature, all things not exactly preferred in Shariah. I don’t think anyone was forced to learn Farsi. Many Hindus learned it (and become prominent poets in Farsi) because they had aspirations to a higher social status. Just as many Indians of all religions learned English under the British Raj because it led to good jobs.

          If well-meaning people like you have an understanding of history which is at the level of BJP propaganda, there is a problem. You are just like the Pakistanis who think history began the day Muhammad bin Qasim showed up in Sindh. Please read some neutral and scholarly sources on the Mughals if you are really interested and not just trolling.

      2. // developed from a synthesis of Hindavi with Farsi and Arabic //

        I wouldn’t call borrowing words (nouns, qualifiers) from Farsi and Arabic into Urdu (or Hindavi etc) as synthesis – any more than “mainey aapkey liye application kar di, mummy!” is a synthesis of Urdu and English. If one had validly said “mainey aapkey liye application didi, mummy!” maybe then the claim of synthesis would hold water.

        // who imposed Pharsi on India by the point of the sword //

        Actually it wasn’t. If it were, the language would’ve had many more speakers in India. And what’s with the /ph/?

        1. Slapstik,

          What word would you use instead of “synthesis”? My point was that Urdu is a combination of Hindavi and Farsi/Arabic. Not just nouns and qualifiers were borrowed, Urdu also borrowed grammatical features such as the izaafat from Farsi.

          I don’t understand why “application kar di” is not synthesis and “application didi” is.

          1. Verbal morphemes are a much deeper part of a language than nouns. Typically nouns are derived from verbs. Though the opposite happens in some languages too, but occassionally.

            Synthesis to me is creolization. Urdu is not a creole by any means.

        2. Slapstik, should have been spelled Farsi. Misspelling. Farsi was the lingua franca of India, Indian business and Indian courts/law centuries before the birth of Babur.

          I thought Mahmud of Ghazni (early 1000s AD) and Ghurid empire 1192 AD brought Farsi to South Asia. If they didn’t bring Farsi, who did?

      3. // It was the British I believe who later dropped Farsi and substituted it with Urdu //

        That is not true! By Bahador Shah Zafar’s time, much of the business in the Moghal precincts of Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi was in zuban-e Urdu-e Mu’alla. People bilingual in Farsi and Urdu, preferred to compose poetry in latter – for its much wider appeal. There was a proper Urdu high culture that evolved organically in and around Delhi-Agra-Lucknow axis – not a British imposition at all.

        British changed the language of business in India, but initially in the East, i.e. in Bengal proper (Calcutta, Dhaka), to English and then in the West, i.e. Bombay. Anglicization of North India happened much later and picked up after 1857.

        1. Slapstik, are you aware of any period of time during the Mughal empire where legal documents, court cases and legal records were in Urdu? The only example I am aware of is when the Nizam (technically a continuation of the Mughal empire) switched from Farsi to Urdu.

          I thought that the British Raj switched the language of law from Pharsi to English (and from Sharia to English common law).

          1. Written documentation and rulings in the Moghal court were in Farsi until the dissolution of the Moghal empire.

            However, the language of communication used by appellants, by tax collectors, many government functionaries esp. in the lower rungs of the government was Urdu. By the time of Bahador Shah, even the (titular) Moghal emperor preferred Urdu.

            By the time of the British rule (after 1857) all lower courts were full-fledged Urdu speaking.

  7. please do watch

    Colonialism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLCzRqnKHnM

    Or to use arguments of samuel huntington,

    “What, however, makes culture and ideology attractive? They become attractive when they are seen as rooted in material success and influence. Soft power is power only when it rests on a foundation of hard power. Increases in hard economic and military power produce enhanced self-confidence, arrogance, and belief in the superiority of one’s own culture or soft power compared to those of other peoples and greatly increase its attractiveness to other peoples. Decreases in economic and military power lead to self-doubt, crises of identity, and efforts to find in other cultures the keys to economic, military, and political success.”

    “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

    The question begins as to where one should one begin? . As there are many axioms that one might prefer to solve a set of mathematical problems, it comes to where one might consider as the basic series of assumptions to consider where to begin.

    https://medium.com/@MarkKoyama/could-rome-have-had-an-industrial-revolution-4126717370a2

    one has to explain the efficient or the most optimal strategy for growth of one group of people as opposed to all. For example, would our knowledge of sciences have improved faster in absence of Abrahamic religions? . If so, then it would mean that the world actually had lagged behind largely due to the spread of these religions having taken precedence and thereby took the wind out of the sails of others.

  8. watch the video

    what colonialism is

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olT8v8yMUEU

    “In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”

    “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”

    https://medium.com/@MarkKoyama/could-rome-have-had-an-industrial-revolution-4126717370a2

    it comes to priors and just as in math, with axioms. There is russell conjugation even in history as it is presented, this is one of the cases i believe. There seems to be a belief that somehow the western conquest of others was following some natural trajectory and that somehow others would have done the same, but this is not true. India had not shown much intention in conquest outside, neither did china. China infact in early 15th century possessed better naval technology and made expeditions, they just never saw the need to exploit that into permanent colonial output. So the violence of the many genocides during the entire period is not something that one can move away from, also the role played by christianity too is not considered. Colonialism was a christian enterprise, the growth of christianity during this phase and later is for people to see for themselves.

    I for one think the world would have developed sooner in absence of abrahamic religions, the growth of abrahamic religions has meant the knowledge production took a back seat while spread of faith took precedence, what happened eventually was to take the winds out of sails of others. Both Islam and christianity over past 1500 yrs have shown a degree of expansion uncharacteristic any other culture anywhere in world, except for few exceptions like alexander and chingiz khan.

    And as one gained through more conquest, more turned into creation of better quality of life to the mother colonies at expense of others and later only the methods exported. The justification is flawed as it needs to be shown that this was the only way possible and was indeed efficient. otherwise one might even justify rape by declaring the kids turned out well.

    Coming back to old greek/roman worldview, I do believe that had they continued, development of scientific ideas would have grown faster, even if it was comparable to growth of knowledge that was taking place in India.

    https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/the-origins-of-chemical-industry/3008292.article

    so, the process of industrial production of zinc with improvements over centuries was taking place, also the progress in math/astronomy in areas of what would fall under calculus too.

    1. “bharat”, you are far too cynical. Hong Kong was harshly oppressed by imperialist colonial hegemonic, exploitative English occupation. Yet they became richer than their oppressor while being oppressed. Hong Kong became a global wonder; vastly admired, respected, loved and revered all over the world. Singapore has a similar story.

      Indonesian Chinese were horribly oppressed 1940s to 1960s. They were slaughtered in huge numbers, their property was confiscated/stolen; and they suffered massive systematic discrimination and bigotry. Yet today Chinese Indonesians (3% of the population) own 70% of Indonesia’s wealth.

      Oppression, exploitation, hegemony, imperialism, colonialism and occupation does not make peoples poor or less successful. In practice it is often the opposite. A good example is how Chinese Americans thrived under massive racism in America [obviously I am referring to pre 1941, Americans have loved Chinese Americans since then . . . but this is a very recent thing.]

      Jesus and Christianity thrived under oppression. So have many spiritual masters and self actualized people across time and across the world. Most philosophies, religions, spirituality, thought, intuition and faith have succeeded without “hard power”. Most entrepreneurs have succeeded despite facing unfair (even unethical) obstacles.

      What is true is that the west created and exported the most dangerous human ideologies in the history of our species (post modernism, communism, socialism, fascism, nazism). The world has no faith in western post modernist ideas of right, wrong and ethics.

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