Third World Quarterly row: Why some western intellectuals are trying to debrutalise colonialism

by VIJAY PRASHAD

The ugliness of colonial power in India emerged at its end with the Bengal Famine and the Partition PHOTO/Wikimedia Commons

The author explains why he resigned from the editorial board of the journal after it published an apologia for colonialism.


Ek tarz-e-taghaful hai so vo unko mubarak;
Ek ‘arz-e-tamanna hai so ham karte-rahenge.

[There is a style of indifference to which they are welcome;
But our wishes, we will continue to list.]

— Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Dast-e-Saba, 1952

In 1950, Aimé Césaire, one of the clearest voices of the 20th century, looked back at the long history of colonialism that was coming to an end. He wanted to judge colonialism from the ashes of Nazism, an ideology that surprised the innocent in Europe but which had been fostered slowly in Europe’s colonial experience. After all, the instruments of Nazism – racial superiority as well as brutal, genocidal violence – had been cultivated in the colonial worlds of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Césaire, the effervescent poet and communist, had no problem with the encounter between cultures. The entanglements of Europe’s culture with that of Africa and Asia had forged the best of human history across the Mediterranean Sea. But colonialism was not cultural contact. It was brutality.


“Between colonialization and civilization there is an infinite distance; that out of all the colonial expeditions that have been undertaken, out of all the colonial statutes that have been drawn up, out of all the memoranda that have been dispatched by all the ministries, there could not come a single human value.”

Discourse on Colonialism

Césaire was adamant: colonialism had produced nothing that would earn it respect in the scales of history. This was in 1950, when a few nations has just emerged out of the scar of colonialism and when many societies fought pitched battles to extricate themselves from colonial power.

The ugliness of colonial power in India emerged at its end, with callous policy by the British engendering the millions dead in the Bengal Famine of 1943, and the million dead and millions displaced in the Partition of 1947-’48. It was harsh too when one considers that after centuries of rule, the British left behind a region with a literacy rate of merely 12%. Indian historians had looked back at the record of British rule in India to find economic and political policies designed to impoverish the country at the expense of Britain, with massive surpluses from India sucked into Britain to underwrite the industrial revolution and to build a British military force capable of ruling the sprawling British Empire. “India is to be bled,” said the Marquees of Salisbury in the 1870s. So it was.

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