Nation, nationality, nationalism – all have proved notoriously difficult to define, let alone analyse.
- Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
In 1947, the British Empire made its official exit from India, leaving behind a country that later evolved to become fundamentally different from what it used to be before the first Englishman ever breached its shores. And while India has been physically independent for over half a century, can the same be said of the nation’s mentality
For colonisation was as much a mental phenomenon as it was physical. The ‘colonial hangover’ that is still prevalent among us today – wherein we view the West to be the highest standard of culture and living and therefore attempt to emulate it – is just one part of the larger, much deeper effect of ideological colonisation.
Cultural hegemony is the ideological domination of a diverse society by a ruling class – this ruling class manipulates the culture of that society, from its beliefs and perceptions to its morals and values. The internalisation of cultural hegemony is what makes it far more potent and enduring than physical dominion. And this is what happened to India under British rule.
From the moment the British were able to assume positions of power and influence in India (supplemented by military strength), they steadily began seeding in the idea of the ‘superiority’ of their Empire and the subsequent ‘inferiority’ of Indians. This was done at every possible level of interaction, from education to employment options (Indians were no longer promoted to the top ranks), social hierarchy and more.
The result – even today, we wear their clothes, consume their culture, and analyse them in their own language.
Does this mean that we are still colonised? The answer is rather complex.
The popular perception about culture is that it is intrinsically linked to the nation; Culture and Nation are entities that cannot be separated. However, as both Yuval Harari in Sapiens and Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities point out, the concept of a ‘nation’ is not a tangible entity. A nation is a result of collective imagination and acceptance of that imagined concept to be the objective truth. Essentially, the idea of India as a nation exists only because multiple generations of humans (locally and globally) have accepted it to be so. In fact, the current geographical understanding of what India is was a creation of the British – before the British established dominance, India as we know it today did not exist.
However, even in this relatively short period of time, we have developed a strong, internalised understanding of what ‘pure Indian culture’ is, and this is popularly interlinked with the concept of the Indian nation (a classic example is when people are accused of being ‘anti-national’ today because of what is actually a cultural difference).
So if the accepted truth is that our culture is intrinsically connected to our nation, then how much of our culture is ‘pure’ as opposed to shaped by the influence of colonisers?
The reality is that there isn’t a single ‘pure’ culture in the world. Every nation that exists today has been influenced by a plethora of cultures, be it from invaders or migrating populations, all bringing their culture and ideology with them wherever they went.
India today is completely different from India three hundred years ago. Yet today, we find people clinging to British ideologies (especially in terms of morality), vehemently claiming them to be Indian values and refusing to accept anything even remotely different, even if those different values were in fact intrinsic to an older period of Indian history.
But if we accept that many ‘Indian’ values today are not actually Indian (being introduced to India by colonisers), then what is the ‘real’ Indian culture? Was it Indian culture under the Mughal rule? Or perhaps the culture of the Vijayanagar dynasty? Among the vast array of cultures that shaped India in the past, which of them is the true India?
The answer is all and none.
Indian culture is, was, and always will be a sum of all the cultural influences that ever shaped it. We carry elements of so many different cultures that it is impossible to pinpoint the exact nature of a ‘pure’ Indian culture. Hundreds of years from now, Indian culture might be entirely different from what it is today, yet the unwavering belief in its intrinsic nature will not change.
For better or for worse, Indian culture is whatever the Indian masses decide it to be
So my answer to the question, ‘are we still colonised?’ is no. Yes, the ideological influence of the British still remains, but it is not because of an association with them. We have absorbed, assimilated and internalised aspects of every culture that has ruled India, and what exists today is very much the ‘Indian culture’, because we have all accepted it to be so.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. United Kingdom, Verso, 2006.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Penguin Random House UK, 2015. Print.