Looking at the Civilising Mission in the Mirror


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.

Comments

  1. Rohit Mehra says

    I think the government’s stand (probably thought up belatedly, after the knee-jerk reaction of an outright ban) as espoused by Ms. Meenakshi Lekhi (definitely not a fan of this MP, but what she says in this case has some merit) in the beloved rag called TOI is a reasonably cogently argued stand.
    There is nothing wrong with the documentary though some more focus on the revulsion and protests that the incident led to would have portrayed reality somewhat better.

    It is comical that the vast pseudo intellectual diaspora in India talks about rejecting a “civilizing mission” from abroad while they themselves think there is a lot of civilizing that needs to be done (and they think they bear the burden of and engage in this civilizing- which is a farcical belief).

    Its very simple – its not a civilizing mission – its a clash of modern vs. medieval ideas and patterns of thinking and belief and the upheaval that results due to unfortunate but real mis-beliefs and misguided actions.
    And medieval ideas related to women, rights of LGBTs, role of religion etc. are to be found in abundance all over the world ,,, not just in India.

  2. says

    I’d rather not talk about it here. I would also like to go beyond the whole “why don’t you like the film?”. It has been argued far better by others and I don’t think I can add anything new to it.

  3. mmghosh says

    Your prerogative, on your blog surely. I’m a little puzzled why you think members of a historically privileged societal group cannot create or be part of a collective culture of societal change. There is plenty of historical and current evidence that people of this class can and do perform exactly such a function, from the antislavery, pro civil rights, industrial, labour and environmental legislation pro universal suffrage movements etc. This criticism was much made by the British against the nascent Independence movement – I’m a little suprised that this view still retains validity.

  4. says

    I think the historically privileged can be meaningfully part of a social movement or revolution only if we be mindful of the fact that we are part of the problem. Privilege is not accidental and neither are the systems and structures that maintain it.

    There is plenty of historical and current evidence that people of this class can and do perform exactly such a function, from the antislavery, pro civil rights, industrial, labour and environmental legislation pro universal suffrage movements etc.

    As I said, it’s not that the privileged do not, but we do it in ways that fit us best. Social and political movements in India have this very common pattern. Narmada, Chipko, Telangana, Naxalbari, and many more have a common trend of movements taken up by the extremely underprivileged at great risks and with little resources, and later hijacked by the privileged. The privileged have this tendency of swooping down, appropriating revolutions, and becoming messiahs. And this usually happens because the messiahs have little idea about the fact that their privilege is more often than not is not a choice. There are very few social movements in India and world over where participation of the privileged wasn’t followed with the domination of the privileged. The anti-slavery movement can be considered an example, where the pioneering and the leadership was almost entirely white but we also know for a fact that significant section among the Abolitionists were mindful of the fact that they were the beneficiaries of the oppressive system and hence the oppressors.

    This criticism was much made by the British against the nascent Independence movement – I’m a little suprised that this view still retains validity.

    And there is some amount of truth to this argument. Dalit and lower caste anti-caste activists of India have always kept their distance from the nationalist movement, until the late 30s. Be it Phule, Ayankali, and to a great extent even Ambedkar. People who worked for the anti-caste movements have long held the fear of Brahmin-Savarna dominance in Independence India, and yet those like Gandhi and Nehru were arrogant enough to think that they represented all.

  5. the eddy says

    I was just curious & had some doubts , maybe you can clarify
    Who exactly are being referred to as , Suvarnas ?? Does it refer to all non-Dalits & non-adivasis ?? If yes,are the so-called “Shudras” [ eg. Jats ,Marathas , Yadavs ,Patels, Gujjars etc.] also Suvarnas ?? Further , if one does not follow Brahminical/Vedic shastras etc , is he/she still a Suvarna?? If yes , are Atheists also Suvarnas & Dalits ?? Are upper caste Muslims , caste Sikhs & caste Christians also Suvarnas??

  6. says

    @the eddy;

    First of all it’s Sa-varna (ones with a ‘Varna’) and not Su-varna (the good ‘Varna’). Technically it should include any Hindu non-Dalit and non-Adivasi, but in practice it is only certain Savarnas that get to be treated as one. For instance, going by Varna both Marathas and Kunbis are Shudras, but Marathas were never treated as Shudras while Kunbis were. So a Shahu Maharaj is a Savarna and a Phule is not. Shudras are not treated the same everywhere, and especially so in regions where Brahmins maintained that Kshatriyas are an extinct Varna (like South India, Maharashtra, etc). An Ezhava will not be treated as equal to a Nair, nor will a Yadav be treated the same as a Jat.

    Faith, or the lack of one, doesn’t fundamentally affect caste in the South Asian systems. While dynamics might change for castes that fall within the Varna system, things are pretty much similar in almost all religions. But as long as caste exists as a social reality, a Dalit/Adivasi will remain a Dalit/Adivasi, regardlesss of the religion they choose to follow.

  7. mmghosh says

    Whether hijacked or no, the independence movement, and its aftermath – launched and guided largely by upper caste, historically privileged groups – brought with it so many obvious benefits that came with independence to the people of the country.

    This is not to say that every problem has been solved, or even that the major fraction of societal problems have been solved. But I cannot see why, from the evidence provided, why the heirs and followers of these historically privileged groups cannot continue to play an extremely meaningful role, even a guiding role, in societal change.

    What’s wrong with playing a guiding role, anyway? Those who become conscious of societal evils, and have the necessary information about how these evils have been changed in the past , and possess the ability to influence events can (as has been seen historically) be a huge influence to bring about the change. Why should we want to downplay, or minimise the role of such people?

  8. says

    @mmghosh; The very notion of the privileged leading a movement for social change is in itself a paradox. One of the key aspects of privilege is that one gets to be the “leader” of the underprivileged.

    In a scenario where the privileged supposedly “leads” the underprivilege, it is very common to find that such privilege doesn’t establish any sense of fraternity or camaraderie. Instead it creates a relationship marked with paternalism and patronisation, not to mention the saviour complex many such leaders acquire when they become such leaders. Gandhi is a perfect example of such. His notions on caste, his invention of the term Harijan, and also his declaration that he singly represented all lower castes in India at the Round Table Conference, in an attempt to sideline Ambedkar.

    If a movement does not address this very subtle and very harmful aspect of privilege and also oppression, then what kind of change is possible? Imagine a movement fighting for gender justice, but led almost entirely by men and try making sense of it. It you feel that such a movement is absurd to the core, then why is it any less absurd to imagine the Whites leading PoCs and Savarnas leading Dalits and Adivasis in their respective struggle.

  9. says

    //Those who become conscious of societal evils, and have the necessary information about how these evils have been changed in the past , and possess the ability to influence events can (as has been seen historically) be a huge influence to bring about the change.// Do you any particular example in mind?

  10. mmghosh says

    The “saviour” complex is a problem for any leader, be it Savarna, or Dalit. Birsa Munda allowed himself to be literally deified. Baba Amte, on the other hand, did not. What is the problem with men leading gender issues? Ram Mohun Roy, or Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar or EMS were men from the highest castes. Today we, as Hindus (or Sikhs) do not practice polygamy, openly engage in child marriage or prohibit widow remarriages. As for change, the first Indian General Election was a huge societal change, led largely by upper caste men. Why shouldn’t we acknowledge it?

    http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mag/2002/01/27/stories/2002012700550100.htm

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