‘Colonial mentality’: A misinterpreted notion that stitched together a nation

India as a country might have existed even without colonial rule, but would that have been a ‘modern nation’? There's no simple answer to this

There are those who say that without the British, India would not have been unified politically, but there was a Mughal empire before the British arrived. Pic: iStock

The term ‘colonial mentality’, often used by cultural nationalists today, especially towards their western-educated compatriots, has got one thinking. If one supposes that it applies to those Indians who do not value their own cultural past but only look to the West, it seems valid enough.

But let us first consider what the Indian nation owes to colonialism. There are, of course, those who say that without the British, India would not have been unified politically, but there was a Mughal empire before the British arrived. India might not have had its present shape if that empire had continued or evolved into other things but it could still have remained a unity of sorts.

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But while India as a country might have existed, could that India ever have been a ‘modern nation’, considering that our Constitution owes itself to western models? Independent India’s first leaders were mostly lawyers and it was their training in the western legal system that made them see the need to depend on social values defined as essential in western democracies (democracy, egalitarianism, justice) and duly have them enshrined.

Yet, many still continue to refer to the “colonial mindset” as a negative factor, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  In November last, on the occasion of Constitution Day, Modi said “the colonial mindset is giving rise to many distortions”.  On another occasion, he said “India’s growth story is being disrupted by forces with colonial mindsets”.

In writing about the origins of nationalism in colonial India, political scientist Partha Chatterjee (The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, 1993) notes that articulation of anti-colonial nationalism rested on a separation between two distinct spheres, namely, the spiritual and the material. The material realm is one of economy, statecraft, science and technology, in which the superiority of the West, represented by the colonial power, is an established fact. In the material domain, therefore, the historical task before the colonised was to reproduce for itself, the benefits of the project of colonial enlightenment and modernity.

Sovereign in the spiritual

The spiritual realm, on the other hand, represented true sovereignty for the colonised. It was a sphere of cultural distinctness from, and also superiority over, the colonisers, and hence needed to be preserved in that uncontaminated way. If the material sphere represented the superiority of the colonial rulers, it was the spiritual domain which was the main source of strength and autonomy for the colonised.

Therefore, the spiritual domain was one that needed to be preserved from colonial encroachments. This symbolised nationalism among the colonised people. Any kind of reforms or intervention in the said domain would be completely in the hands of the colonised masses.

Therefore, the essence of the ‘imagined’ nation rested in the so-called spiritual or inner domain in which the colonised masses were sovereign despite being ruled by an alien, foreign power in the material sphere. Extrapolating it to today, we could say that for a modern India to emerge, it would necessarily have to depend on the West in virtually every field that could have played a part it its ‘design’ as an independent nation – economics, political structure, and the areas of science and technology.

But I would also like to make an intervention here, which is that once the nation was constructed according to such material necessities, it would need to keep producing citizens who were well-versed in these areas. Which means that the education system would also have to be heavily western-oriented to produce them.

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Where material and spiritual meet

That brings us to the spiritual domain in which the colonised masses were said to be sovereign and where there was strong resistance to allowing the colonial state to intervene since it affected ‘national culture’. But if national culture must also be built upon, a question would be whether it would not need to be studied through methods implicating the ‘material’?

Let us take classical music, for instance, something that cultured Indians are justly proud of. Would it be enough to simply preserve it – as in a museum – or would we need to understand how it came about to be this way? A matter worthy of investigation (for instance) could be why Indian and western classical music evolved to emphasise melody and harmony, respectively.

Since it is widely believed that music owes originally to prayer, a hypothesis could be that common prayer led to harmony in music while the notion of the personal god led to melody. Voices singing in unison would need to be organised for the result to be ‘musical’.

Another key observation is that for the spiritual in culture – which would include the arts – to bloom, it would need growth, since culture should address the contemporary in some way. But once we introduce study and development, I would argue that the ‘material realm’ would naturally intrude into the spiritual one. Apart from sociological investigations, music, for instance, would need to use the technology available to the fullest to improve upon itself.

Personal goals

Chatterjee does not elaborate on this aspect but the ‘spiritual’ side of Indian culture as opposed to the ‘material’ realm that the West dominates, owes, arguably, to Indian modes of thinking that place emphasis on personal salvation rather than social transformation and progress. But, extending the argument, how are a group of individuals preoccupied with personal (spiritual) ends to come together to imagine/create a nation collectively, entirely through such personal goals? For such a collection of individuals to band together with common ‘national’ objectives, they would necessarily have to stray deep into the ‘material’ realm.

Lastly, we also need to interrogate the notion of an ‘uncontaminated’ national culture. While one may be proud of the cultural achievements of the people in a designated space or community to which one belongs (a school, a family, a village), associating that pride with the ‘modern nation’ infects the notion. It is only the construct of the nation that makes a Kannada speaker from Bengaluru see an achievement in Bengal as his or her own, but that construct came about because of exercises undertaken in the material realm, like the writing of the Constitution. We could say that unless all these aspects are duly noted, the ‘colonial mentality’ will only remain a term of abuse.

(MK Raghavendra is a writer on politics, culture and film)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)