By Arjan Batth
Since independence, previously colonized countries throughout Asia and Africa have thought of the meaning and significance of their newfound freedom or azadi.
Rabindranath Tagore’s famous poem “Where the Mind is Without Fear” encapsulates the collective hopes and aspirations of Indian revolutionaries during the fight for independence. In it, Tagore dreams of the possibilities of a newly independent India liberated from the constraints of the West and of a free thinking India in which thought is “ever-widening” and “knowledge is free.” However, I can’t help but think of how India has fallen short of the ideals contained in the poem as dreams have been lost and promises broken. The revolutionaries seem to be victims of the platitude that “things are better in theory.” I wonder if thinking, not just in India, but around the world has been limited, corroded, manipulated, and weakened. I wonder if thinking is itself colonized. A tweet by Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu stated, “The last place the colonizer leaves is the mind.” The colonizers may have left their military forts and trading posts long ago, but continue to inhabit our minds, instilling in us their values and their worldview. While countries were ostensibly given freedom after the calamity of World War II, they are still not free from the chains of the West and its lucrative monopoly on thoughts. The West has done the seemingly impossible, penetrating not only the tangible, but influencing intangible, abstract thought.
The West has a tight noose around the world, ensnaring all in its grip. Almost everything, everywhere has a disturbingly distinct Westerness. It has proliferated into every country, leading all to happen in a Western context.
After British India’s victorious independence movement, it may have appeared that it won its first victory against the West. But few realized that they would never win – they were playing a Western game with Western rules. The newly independent British India would be defined by the constricting boundaries of the Western concept of a nation-state (modern day countries), where a political entity contains a homogenous group of people that collectively identifies as one. Western society is relatively homogenous and is well adapted to the idea of a nation-state. However, societies in Asia and Africa are incredibly diverse as many different ethnicities coexist in the same geographical area. So when a Western concept is applied to a non-Western place, it will not work; it will only work if there is violence and conflict on calamitous proportions.
Pakistan (a Muslim nation-state) and India (a Hindu nation-state for all practical purposes) were only created through a sanguinary, anarchic partition where more than 15 million people were uprooted from their homes in the largest mass migration in human history. The narrative is the same in many places during the last 75 years: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the innumerable ethnic conflicts in Africa, the specter of nuclear war over Kashmir, and the ongoing persecution and statelessness of the Rohingya in Burma. The West has instilled in us their values, their worldview, polluting our minds with dreams of a nation-state, leading to an increase in communal violence and ethnic conflict. More recently, it has also led to the rise of majoritarianism, which seeks to order and organize countries on Western terms, partitioning the world into smaller pieces and dividing people into ever more distinct, discrete units to impossibly remove vestiges of the “other.” The fact that even today there doesn’t seem to be an alternative to two nation theory reflects this mental manipulation. In India, originally created as a secular country, there has been the recent rise of far-right Hindu nationalism and popularization of Hindutva, or the ideology that India is a strictly Hindu nation, leading to hostility against religious minorities, primarily Muslims. It is as if the colonizers have made their moves and are waiting for us, their pawns, to destroy ourselves and eventually self-destruct. But as nationalists champion distinctly indigenous beliefs and values for an increasingly jingoistic agenda, they forget that the idea of a nation-state is actually a foreign one itself.
Each “decolonized” country is like a naive adolescent, struggling to grapple with its identity, forsaking its own traditional ways and obsequiously emulating the most influential and adulated Western peers to let them define who they are. We embrace the ideas, lifestyle, and values of the oppressor over our own, transforming us into their foot soldiers to help reconstruct the world on their terms, taking the burden of the white man on ourselves (How economically efficient! This way, the West can control its colonies without the economic burden of maintaining a continent thousands of miles away.). We follow their ideologies. Their models of economic development. Their models of government. Their models of life. We aspire to be them and become them, regarding the West as greater than ourselves, resulting in an incessant feeling of inferiority. In
South Asia, colorism is rampant, with fair-skinned European and Aryan features preferred over dark features. India has a fair skin cream market worth billions and dark skinned brides often struggle to find husbands. The entire world lugubriously watches Hollywood movies to get a glimpse of attractive actors and actresses with blonde hair and light eyes – the epitome of European sexual appeal. It is almost as if we see ourselves as they did, as a subhuman, subordinate race and them as the dominant, superior race, no longer needing Hitler and the Nazis to spread ideas of Aryan supremacy.
India and many other countries have completely followed the Western model of economic development, trying to industrialize and become an economic powerhouse through the implementation of laissez-faire capitalism and welcoming Western corporations to invest, blindly allowing pre-existing systems of colonial exploitation to perpetuate, with Western corporations and foreign investors simply replacing colonial regimes. But we welcome and allow this to happen, defining “development” and “wealth” in Western terms, using Western means to meet Western ends. And while the economic plight of these Eastern countries improves, foreign investors see the emerging middle class as a market for Western goods, engendering in us the West’s avarice for worldly possessions.
The main economic and political systems in place all have a Western origin – capitalism, socialism, communism. While maybe some exhibit their distinct Eastern idiosyncrasies, all derive from the West. There isn’t even an Eastern choice or alternative. But it doesn’t seem to bother anyone that we are all living Western lives dictated by Western standards and ideologies.
India has 22 languages with official status, hundreds of languages, and thousands of dialects. Yet despite the profusion of tongues, English remains one of its primary languages; in succeeding decades India is expected to have the largest English-speaking population in the world. Similarly, many other countries adopt the language of the colonizers, incorporating a large amount of Western vocabulary into native languages and using the Roman alphabet. English has especially made an impact, as it has become a global lingua franca. In psychology, it is a well-known fact that the tenses, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other features unique to a language impacts how a person thinks and perceives the world. This is known as linguistic determinism. As people increasingly adopt Western languages, they are also adopting a Western way of thinking, coating our means of perception with a Western lens – expressing our thoughts, formulating our thoughts, even thinking our thoughts in a Western way.
Africa occupies little space in the mind; it is as if it doesn’t even exist. In Rwanda, there has been mass genocide due to conflict between Hutus and Tutsis, in which 800,000 people died within 100 days. In the Darfur region of Sudan, non-Arab citizens were killed by militants supported by the government. While these are all conflicts that are very historically significant, most people have probably never heard of them. On the unlikely chance that we do think about Africa and the East, we think of them as backwards poor countries, unconsciously accepting typecast colonial narratives of the “heart of darkness.” Even the terms “developing” and “third world” imply that such countries are inherently irrelevant and rudimentary. Rather, the West is the center of the world. Many people spend time ruminating about Europe and the West and are drawn to its culture. Its architecture. Paris. London. Rome. New York. Its beauty and scenic appeal. Its chic, posh fashion. Its wealth. When American actress Meghan Markle married into the British royal family, the entire world watched, including previously colonized countries that seem to forget British colonial oppression. Despite this spatial disparity in the mind, Africa is three times bigger than Europe.
I must concede, Western culture appears new, novel, and exciting. Many perceive it as indistinguishable to modernity and progress and is the only escape from a constricting, conservative society steeped in tradition and cultural dogma. Instead, Western culture allows for the individualism and freedom that all individuals crave to feel, so that they can feel liberated in a world that finally seems to care about their personal happiness.
However, it is a false sense of freedom, and the process of Westernization seems to lack the potency to discard the things that really need to be disposed of. Western ills have been mixed with preexisting social ills, creating a sickly unique Eastern-Western mix. With the liberalization of economic markets and the introduction of foreign investment in India, economic disparities between upper and lower castes have increased and material goods have become status symbols to maintain the rigid social structure. Additionally, while women have gained many more opportunities as the East has “modernized”, the West’s promiscuity and liberal sexual attitudes reinforce the idea that they are sexual objects rather than equals.
One of the most iconic songs of Hindi cinema resounds, “Mera joota hai japani, ye patalun inglistani, sar pe lal topi rusi, phir bhi dil hai hindustani” (My shoes are Japanese, these trousers are English, the red cap on my head is Russian, but still my heart is Indian.) The heart ceases to be Indian, but rather a Western heart with Western desires and Western emotions communicating in sync with a Western brain.
Seventy-five years before us, oppressed people across Asia and Africa fought against foreign rule. But today, many of us blindly accept it. Our skyscrapered skies gleaming with foreign lights are not bright enough to illuminate the realization that we think like our oppressors, oppressing ourselves into subjugation, as the West inculcates the world with its ideologies and avarice. This is important, because not only are we still not free, but we are proving that the colonizers are correct. That their civilization is superior. That their culture is better than ours. The result is that no one has ownership of their own thoughts. But we can’t let this be. We need to emancipate our thoughts from the chains of the oppressor to truly declare our long awaited independence.
Because the noose around the world needs to be loosened to truly awaken the mind.
Arjan Batth is a student from California. He has recently written a children’s book, Dear Humans, that tackles the issue of climate change. As a young South Asian-American, he is determined to represent Asians more in the writing field and has a passion for writing and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Shaheen Bagh and the Anti-CAA Protests: The Struggle to Create New Concepts”, edited by Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi, JNU, New Delhi, India.