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Colonial intervention

Curse or blessing

Colonial intervention

It was indeed gratifying to read Dr Tariq Rahman’s email in response to my last week’s column, Modernity and onto-epistemic rupture. I drew motivation for that piece from Prof. Mirza Athar Baig’s speech that he had made a couple of weeks ago on the subject of ‘culture’ and its relationship with soil and local populace. Since ‘culture’ as a subject is what Dr Tariq Rahman has a profound interest in, therefore his critique offers fresh contemplation on such a tenuous theme.

Dr Rahman is the most prominent luminary who has written extensively on language, culture and literary traditions. His recent book is on Jihad, which is the most comprehensive account ever attempted in English language. Thus, I was elated that the iconic figure of Pakistani scholarship found out time to read it and then considered it worthy enough for his valuable and cogent response. His critique was three-pronged. In the following lines, I will reproduce his comments one by one and try to respond to them. The aim is to carry the debate further and push the frontiers of one’s comprehension.

Dr Rahman’s first point is as follows: “May I, however, suggest that we normally blame all disruption of presumed ‘world view’ of pre-colonial civilisations only on Western conquests. The fact is that there is no coherent, unified worldview in a society as big and diversified as India. There were belief systems based on caste, class, religion, ethnicity and so on but nothing like an coherent system of thought and values.”

It is extremely difficult to contest this point. Of course, there was no coherent worldview in a diversified society as India. The coherent system was super-imposed only by the British. Multiplicities of belief systems were standardised and those that seemed irrational to them were consigned to marginality. The process of social evolution was arbitrarily fiddled with. The likely synthesis between the wide array of beliefs and social traditions was not allowed to take place. That’s what caused the disconnect between the people and their own cultural tradition, embedded in their own soil and social organisation(s). Even communities and family structure underwent re-ordering. Previous regimes and empire did not tamper with these basic social units. The colonial subjects having no clue about their religion(s) were included in one religion or the other as Ian Talbot demonstrates in his book, Inventing the Nation: India and Pakistan. Similarly, Bernard Cohen and Nicholas Dirks have written quite extensively on the subject.

Now we come to the second point. “Moreover, and this is what surprises me, it is the Turkish invasions of the 12th century onwards which brought about paradigmatic changes in any kind of presumed worldview in India. This is glossed over in all writings because it is fashionable to blame the British but not the Turks etc.”

Turks who came to India to rule were devoid of any overarching worldview. If at all there was any paradigmatic change, it had been confined only to the vicinity in and around the Imperial capital.

That assertion needs further qualification. What were those paradigmatic changes? Turks who came to India to rule were devoid of any overarching worldview. If at all there was any paradigmatic change, it had been confined only to the vicinity in and around the Imperial capital. Undoubtedly Persian became official language and local elite was substituted with Turkish nobility. However, beneath the top socio-cultural strata, things remained the same. Various dynasties of Turks were like any other of the medieval times both in the East and the West. They conquered, ruled, collected taxes and quelled insurrections ruthlessly. That was what every other dynasty was doing in those days. Gradually however, they struck their own roots in the subcontinent. Khiljis and Tughluks had very strong local moorings. Mughals went even further. They tended to indigenise Perso-Turkish ethos. Prior to Mughals personalities like Al Beruini and Amir Khosrow, and during the reign of the Mughals Mian Tan Sen, Abul Fazal and Dara Shikoh signified the cultural synthesis, which later on provided ideological underpinning to Ganga-Jamni tahzeeb.

Last point Dr Rahman has raised is very crucial as well as controversial because one can say a lot both for and against the proposition made by him. He says: “Lastly, and here I indulge my private values so you may be as critical as you like, the colonial values — where they paid lip service to the Enlightenment values of freedom, individualism and human rights — were objectively better for humanity as a whole than the values of ‘Oriental despotism’ which still prevail in our rural areas. So, any belief or value which militated against honour killing or the bartering of women to pay for the murder committed by men are good in my eyes. Thus, I think the colonial intervention was, on the whole, a good thing.”

Now it is a matter of opinion. The general fallacy is that examples having currency in Medieval India are usually seen in juxtaposition to the Western tradition that stemmed from Enlightenment. Modernity, in fact, is the realisation of the values conjured up by Enlightenment. Those values materialised only in late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ironically, the colonised world could not experience those times on its own terms. The indigenous socio-cultural tradition was frozen in time from late 18th and early 19th centuries.

All I am saying is that the comparison is invariably drawn between what was best from the West with what had been worst and peripheral from the East. In the late 18th century the oriental despotism and the authority it once wielded was on the wane. If in the medieval age, honour killing and discrimination towards women was prevalent, similar was the state of women in the West during 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Much of Western sense of superiority rests on its colonial exploits and drain of wealth.

I really hope Dr Rahman considers my point of view and writes in detail for my own as well as other readers’ benefit. I conclude this piece by quoting his own statement and the verse of Ghalib too.

Maqte me aan pari sukhan gustarana bat/ manzur is se qata-e-muhabbat nahin mujhe (Ghalib).

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • Sir what is this Ganga-JUmani Tehseeb?

  • Mr Kamran,
    Can you tell me the name of the book by TARIQ RAHMAN on JIHAD,
    when and where it was published.

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