VIEW: Colonial confluence — Saleem H Ali
No matter how much the colonialists may have tried to wall themselves within the sanctuary of clubs and salons, contact with the colonised was inevitable. In some cases, the contact revealed how human beings have a remarkable propensity for connections — often through the collection of objects
Was the harm caused by colonialism outweighed by its benefits to the colonised? This historical question has polarised researchers, politicians and activists and each side has used colonialism as the ‘ultimate’ causal connection for good and evil in current geopolitics.
The oppression and discrimination of the colonials was indefensible, as were many of the justifications offered by the putridly patronising notion of ‘white man’s burden’. On the other hand, the development of educational institutions and infrastructure by some colonialists, such as the British, goes beyond a merely exploitative narrative that comes forth in other cases such as the Belgians in Congo.
Debates on culpability can go on ad infinitum and seek confrontation rather than resolution. While at one level recognising past injustices is essential to move towards better relations between the oppressor and the oppressed, languishing in such matters leads to sterility of purpose and conflict escalation. What is perhaps more useful to consider is how colonialism changed both the colonised and the coloniser.
If there was ever a ‘clash of civilisations’ it was arguably during the age of colonies where cultures, values, religions and industries convulsed together. The interactions were mostly fractious but occasionally there were some constructive paths that got paved along the way. Compulsive wealth seeking on the part of the colonialists made interactions with the ‘other’ compulsory at one level. No matter how much they may have tried to wall themselves within the sanctuary of clubs and salons, contact with the colonised was inevitable.
In some cases, the contact was alluring and left its mark in strange ways that revealed how human beings have a remarkable propensity for connections — often through the collection of objects. The resplendent museums that we savour in many Western capitals today are a result of this urge, which in some cases was outright theft, but in others was a more nuanced acquisitive process. In a remarkable new book about the early years of British colonialism, titled Edge of Empire, Maya Jasanoff has provided a humanising history of this time that addresses the process of mutual change during colonisation through the eyes of these collectors.
Spanning the period of British colonisation of the Indian subcontinent and Egypt from 1750 -1850, Jasanoff has uncovered a fascinating world where British aristocrats try to take on Eastern traditions and cultures. The mere act of collecting art may seem like a self-centred proposition to many but it shows how an ability ‘cross borders’ in multiple ways. As the daughter of an Indian mother and an American father (both of whom are now professors at Harvard), Jasanoff has a somewhat personal connection to this narrative.
Collectors tried to understand the stories behind the objects that they collected. Focusing on the seductive city of Lucknow, Jasanoff shows how Muslim and Hindu traditions were embraced with equal fervour under the banner of cultural curiosity. Each side tried to co-opt the other in subtle ways, leading to a more nuanced portrayal of East-meets-West than earlier works such as Edward Said’s Orientalism have done.
South Asia in particular is a region that has been at the fulcrum of world trade and colonisation for millennia. Aryans who brought Hinduism colonised the Dravidians. Waves of Muslim dynasties in turn colonised the region as well and forged their own alliances and avenues for cultural exchange.
Indigenous institutions such as madrassas, that are now being revered and reviled by opposite ends of the political spectrum, were once patronised by the British elite. Warren Hastings, the governor general of Bengal, was instrumental in establishing the Calcutta madrassa. This madrassa has had a fascinating history including several European non-Muslim principals, such as Aloys Sprenger and AH Harley, that supervised a largely orthodox Muslim curriculum. Following partition, part of the madrassa was moved to Dhaka. The madrassa is now known as Kolkatta Madrassah College in India and the Bangladeshi institution is known as the Dhaka Aaliya madrassah.
Pakistanis need to consider this fluidity of colonial exchanges if we are to effectively reconcile with our past and move forward constructively. As Jasanoff aptly states: “Empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are good or bad but what they do, whom they affect, and how.”
We must also be quite conscious of how government actions in remote parts of the country might be perceived through the same lens of ‘empire-building’ that we so frequently accuse the classical colonialists of undertaking. How might these interactions change our fabric as a nation with multiple identities that cross borders? Just as the confluence of the Kabul and Indus rivers at Attock is so famously heralded in our tourist brochures, so too is it the scene of fabled battles. Let’s hope that the confluence of colours that the waters of these rivers so pleasantly provide to visitors can also be imbibed across the land.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com