What could ‘Decolonisation’ mean for South Asia? Shaurya Dev — winner of the LSE South Asia Centre Vera Anstey Essay Competition 2023 — argues that decolonisation needs to happen at three levels: in the mindset of the individual, the workings of the state, and the global order, as the world moves farther and farther away from the past, and new nation states now determine global fortunes.
Scholars of social sciences often view ‘decolonisation’ as a process relating to the past, disregarding the concept in their analysis or theorisation of modern issues.
While the process of political decolonisation in South Asia was completed by the 1950s, it did not translate into the decolonisation of other societal aspects in the region; ‘decolonisation’ remains a gradual and continual process in South Asia. More than seven decades after gaining political independence, traces of colonial mindsets, practices and legacies continue to surface in all countries of South Asia — Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. Hence, decolonisation, which was once understood merely as transfer of political instruments of governance is, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999: 98) argues, ‘now recognized as a long-term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power’.
Being caught in the stringent shackles of colonial rule for more than two centuries is enough to erase memories of the pre-colonial era, which makes decolonisation a perpetual struggle of restoring, redefining and rediscovering the lost identity and soul of a nation and its people. In this post, following Waltz (2001), I approach ‘decolonisation’ as an on-going contemporary process and examine what the process could mean for modern nation states in South Asia by classifying it into three categories of analysis — individual, state and international system.
Decolonising the Individual
Colonial mindsets continue to linger in individuals from all countries of South Asia. This is reflected in work cultures, language, societal structures, the education system and family values. The fact that the rising/affluent middle-classes in South Asia often do not consider service providers like plumbers, carpenters, craftsmen, labourers, drivers, household-helpers, etc. as equal, and treat them unfairly or with lack of dignity, reflects deeply on the colonial mentality of looking down on those who work for you. Its roots lie in the racial master–slave style of working set up by British colonialists and their native servants. Even in corporate set-ups, the perception of a ‘boss’ and their work relationship with subordinates continues to be faintly reflective of this colonial hierarchy.
Decolonising the individual in South Asia also entails defenestrating the inferiority complex that many continue to have with regard to the West and ‘Whites’. There is an ingrained notion of accepting the knowledge, intellectual and other trends, practices and scholarship of the West as superior, and scholars from South Asia who have otherwise contributed immensely in various disciplines only feel validated and accepted once they are recognised by Western scholars. Further, blind adoption and implementation of Western norms while disregarding native cultures and principles has been ineffectual as no South Asian society is homogenous enough to fit the parochial civil and societal settings of by the west (Majumdar 2022). The societies in South Asia are beyond narrow binaries and accommodate a plurality of cultures which are beyond the understanding and conceptualisation of society of the former colonial powers.
The colonial hangover in individuals is also evident in the obsession with the English language, and treating the language as a status symbol for the élite while disregarding their mother tongues (Aula 2014). Decolonisation the individual should include promotion of local/native languages, cultural exchange and celebration of diverse cultures, histories and experiences of people in the region because as Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey said:
A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
Decolonising the State
The legacy of colonialism can be found not just in the mindsets of individual but also blatantly in the workings of the state machinery and polity of South Asian countries. Government institutions are marred by corruption, poor efficiency and a culture of ‘Babudom’ — a colonial term used for excessive red tape and slow bureaucratic functioning of ‘Babus’ or civil servants. Decolonisation should aim to shun this servitude and colonialist functioning of administration in these now-vibrant emerging economies of South Asia. Not only the administration, most countries in the region continue to emulate the judicial and legal system that was enforced by the British. For instance, judges in the courts continue to be addressed as ‘Lordships’ and ‘Ladyships’, which is not reflective of the cultures of these modern nation states. The Indian Police Force continues to be guided by the 1861 Police Act, and several laws from the Indian Penal Code (which came into force from 1862) remain in use despite being made by the British with no welfare objectives or good intentions for the colonised peoples. The use of draconian laws of Preventive Detention and Sedition in some form or the other in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan is a case in point of the need to further decolonise the state and its working (Rawat 2021).
The British policy of Divide et impera (Divide and Rule) remains a part of the domestic politics of South Asian countries and continues to be used as a tool to establish certain political positions. Politicians across parties and countries in the region have adopted this divisive colonial policy to make political gains and improve their vote bank. Decolonisation of the State could mean liberating the government and all its organs from colonial practices, laws and administrative set-ups. The State and its functioning should be reflective of the needs and aspirations of the rising Asian powers of the 21st century.
Decolonising the International System
South Asian countries having gained political independence were able to join and participate in the working of the international system as sovereign states, though they were not treated fairly or given an equal say on the global stage. The international order remains heavily skewed along the lines it was formed by the winning powers of the Second World Warin 1945 who continue to dominate and dictate its functioning. But the global order shaped by erstwhile colonial powers no longer reflects the modern-day multi-polar world order.
For post-colonial South Asian countries, decolonisation should extend to the international system as there is a genuine need to reform international organisations like the United Nations to make them more relevant, inclusive and reflective of the contemporary global order. Countries from South Asia and the Global South at large represent more than half of humanity and hence deserve a greater voice and more agency in the functioning of the international system (Acharya2014).
Overall, decolonisation in contemporary South Asia is a complex and multifaceted process that involves undoing the deep-rooted structures of colonialism that have shaped the region’s history, economy, culture and politics. It requires rethinking the established power dynamics, promoting equity and justice, and embracing cultural diversity to create a more inclusive and just society. Decolonisation in South Asia should be used to reiterate the need to reform multilateralism to free the global order from the shackles of colonialism.
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