With full disclosure, I am against the proposed ban on Leslee Udwin’s film; at the same time not a big fan of the film myself. But, I am not here to talk about the film. I am here to say why the positions taken by many of the Indian detractors of the film, um well, annoys me.
A few days ago, Kavita Krishnan wrote an open letter declaring that “we” don’t need a civilising mission. Reading the very title two questions came to my mind. 1. What does she mean when she says we, and 2. who or what does she think is the civilising mission? The answer to the first is quite clear. By using “we” in her statement, she has constructed an identity that clubs herself with the nation’s most underprivileged and everyone in between, and at the same time makes herself and her company at AIPWA (and by extension the larger liberal and left intellectual and activist class of India) representatives of the entirety of India. This leads us to the second question: who does she think constitutes the civilising mission? Reading the opinion piece, the impression one gets is that the BBC, Udwin, and the entire neo-imperial West form and drive the civilising mission, as an extension of the colonial “white man’s burden”. So to put it simply, Krishnan thinks of herself as part of the Third World India standing up against the First World cultural hegemony.
There is a big irony here, illustrated by the fact that she is one of the activists featured (that too very prominently as compared to the rest) in the film. I can’t help but wonder, if the civilising thing ever occurred to her when she agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers, knowing that it’s a British production primarily supported by none other than the BBC. This irony in the film is representative of the delusional stand that is taken by many post-colonial intellectuals and activists, including Krishnan. The delusion being that they believe themselves to be different or rather outside the colonial/neo-colonial system they so vehemently oppose. And it is this delusion that leads Krishnan and her comrades to distance themselves from the civilising mission, not realising the fact that they are very much the part of it. Let us not forget that this is the same Kavita Krishnan who admonished the many Dalit activists of the country, for speaking up against the appropriation of Ambedkar by Arundhati Roy and S. Anand’s Navayana, by conflating their discourse with the rabid nationalists and Hindutvavadis. She always acted like the missionary of civilisation, and continues to do so with her use of “we”.
But she is part of the larger class of urban bourgeois Savarnas, who are beneficiaries of the neo-colonial system, who speak, write and think in the colonial language, and who have no problem with dissecting, studying and judging the spaces of the “subaltern” (while leaving the spaces that they occupy untouched and pristine). They are the ones who go around the West talking about the problems ‘back home’, they are the ones who get featured in newspapers and documentaries of the West, and they are the ones who have the gall to represent the many subalterns of this country and fight for them (Note: And there should be no doubt that I belong to this class).
The Savarna bourgeois of this country very clearly needs to snap out of our delusions and need to wake up to the harsh reality that we are part and parcel of the same colonial and capitalist systems and institutions. Like a male feminist fighting against patriarchy, there is nothing wrong in attacking the system that is essentially ours. But the bare least we must do is to start acknowledging the privileges we acquire from it and contextualise our ideological and normative positions with the relational positions of our self. For that, our class as a collective needs to reflect.