How Colonialism Lives On

Featured Artwork: Hildibrand

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Colonial hangover is an extensively discussed subject in the subcontinent, with many of its educated elite openly denouncing it, and many calls for a replenished identity. There are overt manifestations of the British legacy — in clothing, the burden of a necessary “English-medium”, the fan-mangled accents, the “settler abroad” aspiration. All of this is a thick layer of cemented tradition that took us years to realize and attempt to dissolve — but in other implicit ways, the dark colonial cloud still hangs resolutely over the Kashmir Himalayan valley, post the British exit.

Much has been said about how the politics of colonization persists in economic and educational structures, but do they just persist, or do we actively replenish and sustain them?

On the outset there are few that abjectly endorse the superiority of whiteness; in fact, many leading academics will rubbish the notion — but one tragedy with the call to decolonize is that it has, like most things, become an accessory of performativity. The rhetoric that the local should be valued over the foreign is cited often and applied rarely.

For too long, colonies have aspired to produce a set of elite that will veneer their entirely colonial institutions and incentives with a fairly expendable set of “values.” That over-achieving child we all knew that wrote speech after speech on Facebook against colonialism? He would probably have sold a kidney to the British headmaster for a prefect gown. The girl with the placard asking for universal income, the photo-op with the impoverished, brown-skinned Sindhi woman? She used to demand her house-help tie her shoelaces for her. Mostly, “decolonization” is presented as an end, not a means — it is always an obscure destination parroted by the private school educated elite, whose journeys otherwise reek of cultural and economic servitude to the so-said “free world.” Sometimes, the “decolonization” activism is in fact to tacitly gain traction with, and approval of, the brown re-incarnations of the past century’s British imperialists. It is not conviction — often it is only performance.

This becomes fairly easy to expose, too. Many avid campaigners against the “white” complex will show disproportionate defensiveness in the face of any call to dismantle a British-left system. To entirely replace the education system with a local board makes people uneasy. The suggestion to introduce Iqbal (Urdu Poet, Allama Muhammad Iqbal) into school curricula was met with disdain and outrage — it was called a conduit of “hyper-nationalism”, yet another way to ingrain state-sponsored agendas in young people. The misgivings may have merit, but it is important to note that such venomous dissent is rarely seen with respect to the prolific teaching of Shakespeare in some schools — tedious, difficult to read, from another time and world, and by extrapolation, also a tool of British imperialism? If the latter assertion is laughable, why isn’t the first?

What colonies have done is that they have produced a set of brown elite and wired them to run their countries and communities exactly like the British.

The strongest colonial vestige that pervades all that this set of ruling rich do and say is the “better-than-them” supposition, where by virtue of their British-styled education they assume a sense of moral and intellectual superiority over the vast majority. Power in social and economic spaces remains concentrated with a handful of families; if it is no longer whiteness that is a ticket to supremacy, it is a surname. Many “anti-colonials” thrive in spaces dominated by local feudals and dynasties, exalt them, continue to justify their hijacking of systems social, economic, and political. We continue to strengthen and benefit from colonial structures, even when their functional principle remains the exclusion of the majority. The status quo persists because subservience is still to power — even if that power has changed residence.

This year, a prominent literature festival in Karachi ran a panel discussing the “schizophrenia” of the middle class — once again, a set of posh, English speaking activists and academics asserting their transcendence over the faceless body they call “the masses.” This is a two-fold problem: no such superiority exists, and that such instances permit a small, well-ensconced population to erase the “middle class”, which is as much, if not more of, a stakeholder. This is also why there is a fanatic urgency among the people that dominate local academic and cultural spaces to necessarily align populism with evil fascism — the only fascism that is acceptable is that of the exorbitantly wealthy and well-connected.

This is almost too common now — hot takes dispatched here and there on social media claim to unveil the “truth” — that elusive plane of thought that can not possibly be achieved by most of the population. The population “herds”, the elite “campaign.” Elite capture in discourse and policy-making is classic and creative colonialism, complete with the insistence that this is so because progressive values can only be understood and embodied by this one group of people — that the hallmark of such is the world of their past colonizers, and that only these people possess a window into it.