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The mind as colony

How colonised people feel indebted to their ‘benevolent’ rulers and how they become torchbearers of a new, reformed, modernised cognition

The mind as colony

Colonialism is a hydra-headed phenomenon. It dreams of establishing its rule over land, body, mind and imagination of distant regions. It conceives the world in categories of outside and inside and wishes to colonise both at the same time. It resorts to lethal arsenal power and power of knowledge alike. (You may say it is Janus-faced too by nature.) The inside world of colonies—mind and imagination—is colonised by the strategic use of power of knowledge.

In simple terms, colonialism means a rule over a distant land inhabited by people of a distinct culture, a different language and different social and technological setting. ‘Distance’ and ‘difference’ play a vital role in the establishment and persistence of colonialism. Cultural, social, linguistic, and other kinds of differences are not only kept intact and reinforced but are transformed into a norm, an ideology. Rudyard Kipling’s oft-repeated line of his Ballad “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” keeps resonating all along.

Surely East cannot meet West because only things of equal status can meet. But this difference (which has always been imaginary) is made to engender a hierarchy. The West is put at a heightened position, to be sought after. As distinct and august features of West/White Europe become a norm to be followed, a metaphor to be devoured and an ideology to be swallowed uncritically by East/Black Africa and Asia, the process of self-colonisation begin.

In other words, the White metaphor sneaks into the very cognitive process of Black Africa and Asia, and West/ White Europe succeeds in colonising.

Colonial rulers soon come to recognise the hazards ensuing from dominance over the Black lands and bodies. Colonisers are continuously afraid of rebellion from colonised people. In order to minimise the possibilities of insurgence or revolution, colonial rulers begin ambitious projects of reform.

Colonial rulers soon come to recognise the hazards ensuing from dominance over the Black lands and bodies. Colonisers are continuously afraid of rebellion from colonised people. In order to minimise the possibilities of insurgence or revolution, colonial rulers begin ambitious projects of reform.

The concept of reform from a colonial perspective is problematic. Apparently it intends to improve and modernise the educational, economic, social and political systems of pre-colonial periods but essentially it aims at restructuring the very cognitive ways of colonial subjects. The colonial concept of reform is synced with fascinating ideas of modernisation and development.

It is generally thought that progenies of colonial English medium institutions were the ones who first acquired ‘modernised cognition’ in line with Lord Macaulay’s notorious Minutes which aimed at creating a new hybrid class whose members would be Indian by birth but European by taste.


But in actuality Indian reformers were the forerunners of ‘modernised cognition’. Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s (1836-1912) novel Ibnulwaqt (initially it meant ‘son of time’, a man who identifies the obligations of his age, but now it has acquired a derogatory sense of being selfish) offers an immense insight into the process of the birth of ‘modernised cognition’ that consequently succumbs to self-colonisation.

Ibnulwaqt, a Delhi-based sharif musalman, saves the life of Mr Noble, an English colonial officer, during the 1857 war of independence. He is awarded the office of Extra Assistant Commissioner as well as a Jagir. Thus he is qualified for assuming the role of a reformer. The next, mandatory step is to acquire an English appearance by wearing English attire and learning English etiquette. When Ibnulwaqt pledges to abandon Indian Waza Qata (appearance and etiquette), he wins Mr Noble’s appreciation. Mr Noble exclaims, “Well I’ll be then too much delighted to see a wholly reformed and reformer gentleman.”

In the novel, Ibnulwaqt is shown delivering a speech at a dinner hosted in his honour by Mr Noble. This speech might be taken as a classic example of how colonised people feel indebted to their ‘benevolent’ rulers and how they become torchbearers of a new, reformed, modernised cognition. We can locate in this speech the very moment where the said cognition is all set to customise colonised people to self-colonised ones.  In his long speech a moment comes when Ibnulwaqt admits that he has submitted his heart to the British Government:

[So in the presence of you all worthy people I admit that I have proffered my heart to the Government. God willing, I throughout my life will keep doing my best for the welfare of the Government, for the stability and prevalence of the Government, for the popularity of the Government.]

Ibnulwaqt’s submission of  heart not only signifies his unfeigned commitment —resonating the voice of classical Urdu Ghazal’s Ashiq and mystic alike who unconditionally stays loyal to the beloved — but also marks the birth of his new consciousness or a new hybrid soul. The birth of a new consciousness is directly proportional to the death of old associations and modes of cognition. Remorselessly proclaiming the death of past traditions and values is inscribed in the newly acquired modernised consciousness.

That has been the strongest and most effective argument to suppress the itching reality of self-colonisation.

[Across India there was not a single human being who possessed the capability to rule and keep the country united.] [Indians are ignorant and idler to the extent that they cannot improve their conditions. God has not blessed them with the quality of improving themselves on their own.]

The natives’ claim of ignorance generates room not only for educational reforms, but for reforming and restructuring their cognition as well. The coloniser’s foray into the mind and imagination of the colonised is captured well by Akbar Allahabadi (1845-1922).

[As cannon moves aside, Professors arrive. When hatchet is put aside, plane appears.]

The cannon symbolises military power while the professors represent the power of the mind. The first kind of power produces an external kind of colonialism using brutal and barbarian methods. Brutality always needs to be justified and legitimatised. Otherwise, another kind of brutality would ensue. Professors arrive at the colony not only to justify and legitimatise external colonialism but to inculcate internal colonialism in the native consciousness. They instil into the native minds new, European cognitive ways to reason their own oppressed condition.

The undying belief in the death of one’s past and in one’s own incapacity necessitates dependence on a foreign other and in this case on Europe/West/White. Europe or White turns into a metaphor, and grows to become an invincible constituent of modernised/self-colonised cognition. We know metaphors are more fascinating and stronger than the thing they represent. In technical terms, the vehicle attracts more than the tenor. (In common parlance moon (the vehicle) is considered more captivating than the beloved (the tenor) for whom beauty of moon is borrowed).

Interestingly, metaphor makes the actuality of the thing recede into dementia and assumes the role of imaginary representation of that thing according to its own law of association. ‘Europe as the vehicle’ captivates more than the ‘Europe as the tenor’. The imagination of Europe mesmerises more than Europe itself. Love for Europe exceeds making her the object of objective study.

In all metaphors, the tenor or the object slowly diminishes and the vehicle, concept or image of the object shines. Image and spectre have been more catchy and attractive for the imagination. Image or spectre musters an array of imaginary characteristics of the real object.

In simple terms, the perception of Europe/West/White made by non-Europeans is rarely based on the critical study of the real, historical conditions that gave birth to the modern West. The imagined modern West is always larger than the actual West.

Self-colonisation ultimately gives rise to self-denial. A self-colonised person, community (i.e., academics, intellectuals, politicians etc) or society continuously denies their local roots of identity. Local, true, authentic origin always remain absent and missing in the perception of a self-colonised person. Imaginary-but-claiming-to-be-authentic European origin infiltrates their cognition as a substitute for the absence of local origin.

Self-colonised persons or communities have the firm belief that their political past was ‘despotic’; their cultural past had been decadent since antiquity and that is why they have abandoned it; their languages are not developed enough to communicate in the new contemporary world or unpack modern science; and their emancipation solely depends on following the path the West and Europe adopted during her renaissance.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Dr-Nasir-Abbas-Nayyar copy
The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel e Jadid (criticism) and Farishta Nahi Aya (short stories).

One comment

  • Fantastic article. Will begin to search out and read the indigenous critics of colonialism, especially European colonialism of the East and South. That form of colonialism seemed to be a progressive reach for efficiency by the framers of the colonial regime.

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