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OP-ED: Stuck in our colonial minds

  • Published at 04:22 am June 23rd, 2021
Dhaka during Monsoon
The colonizers have left, but the mindset hasn't SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

We still think of progress largely in Western terms

For former colonies, contemporary times are sometimes referred to as the post-colonial era -- the period after the end of colonialism -- but we commonly tend to forget that it may also refer to the aftermath of colonialism. In a post-colonial state, we continue to experience diverse forms of social discrimination in our everyday life that have their roots in colonialism, but have gradually become integrated in the social order, outliving formal colonialism.

Colonialism was not only about the imposition of authoritarian racial rule -- it was also a state of mind. Colonialism created a sense of who they -- the colonizers/Westerners -- were and who they were not. Thus, the “Others” -- the colonized people -- were positioned as inferior in comparison with the colonizing Westerners in terms of bio-social features. Thereby, in every colony, there were separate schools, housing quarters, social clubs, etc. All these served a dual purpose: Firstly, they portrayed colonizers’ superiority, and secondly, they forced the colonized people to reform themselves and accept the rational worldviews of the colonizers, while letting go of local lifestyles.

Colonialism drew a division across geographical and cultural lines, and also in terms of capability for controlling the future. Colonized people were perceived to have little power of their own, and deemed fit only to borrow from the West. The ideas of social evolution and the West’s perceived position ahead of everyone, in turn, rendered them responsible for changing/altering the course of human history.

For instance, “The White Man’s Burden” -- a poem by Rudyard Kipling was published in 1899 -- though mentioned the sufferings of building an empire, it justified imperial conquest as a mission of civilization. The colonizers had to take the burden of helping humankind through planned change. Unfortunately, what appears to be “ideal” today -- despite being insensitive to the local context -- could be traced back to colonialism and its agendas of “development” for the human race. 

One of the major areas where the impact of colonialism has sustained is the education system of the world. A popular belief among the colonizers was: To develop a colonized nation, it must be introduced to a modern education system. For instance, the Native Americans were forced to send their children to government-run boarding schools in the 19th century. Today, across the world, schools are built in “traditional” societies, in a pursuit to provide a “better life” for the “disadvantaged” rural and indigenous children.

However, Schooling the World -- a film by Carol Black, explains what happens when a culture’s knowledge repertoire is replaced by another. The movie exposes the negative impact of Western education and shows the ways it has been destructing the world’s last sustainable land-based cultures, ecological knowledge, and ancient spiritual traditions -- which could have stored vital knowledge for the Earth’s future.

While establishing a post-colonial state, rather than overcoming the colonial legacy of subjection and exploitation, we remain entangled within colonial discourses. This is a tendency that KC Bhattacharya termed as the “enslavement of minds.” Our colonial minds are represented by our tendency to use conceptual perspectives and our efforts in becoming like the dominant colonizers and treating the rest as lagging and inferior. Thereby, new divisions have emerged in our society. 

The influences of colonialism manifest themselves in the post-colonial countries across the world. Despite many differences, development/progress/modernization and Westernization have become the same thing. Everyone is seeking to Westernize society, hoping that they could replicate the success of the West.

In our country, when politicians talk about Dhaka, most commonly we can identify a form of inter-referencing where future Dhaka is dubbed as New York or Paris. In 2020, the responsibility of canal maintenance of Dhaka city was handed over to the city corporation from Dhaka Wasa. At this event, the mayor of both city corporations of Dhaka claimed they would transform the city canals, and Dhaka would be no less than Venice in the future. When people suffer from flooded roads of Dhaka or traffic congestion -- we find the same kind of inter-referencing -- though many do so sarcastically, there appears to be a desire of becoming something like the “West.”

To “develop” our cities like a Western city, urban planners propose to renovate or replace the less developed parts. Public and private initiatives are taken to build new roads, shops, gated communities, industrial complexes, hotels, restaurants, and public buildings or commercial spaces for greater economic returns. From the state officials’ or developers’ perspectives, low-income groups or slum-dwellers cause all sorts of problems in the city, like crime and congestion. As such, many of us also prefer slum evictions to build a clean and green city.

All upscale areas in Dhaka have gradually been trying to mark their boundaries -- they have placed barricades or large metal gates on entrances, and vehicles can pass if they have required permits. The entrances of these new enclosures are usually secured by guards, and the inside often patrolled by security personnel, to ensure “restricted access” to residents’ homes. Even roads and parks within the enclosures are exclusive for the residents. Thereby, we face new forms of neighbourhood segregation and a “fear of others” -- more like the former colonial enclaves.

Though there was a surge of post-colonial nations in the world -- especially after the Second World War -- the newly independent countries began to be ruled by elites who could not imagine a future except leading to Westernization. We continue to replicate the West as much as possible. Post-colonial time -- the aftermath is much more colonial than we think. So, we must continue our struggle to overcome an unequal world that colonialism has made seem natural. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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