The topic of colonialism in South Asia has resurfaced in social discourse recently; specifically in Pakistan, and this is partly driven by fears raised by China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC. But another aspect that has recently gained momentum across the region is how to look at the past and understand the colonial experience that permanently reshaped South Asia, especially in ways that have been less obvious. There is a pressing need to reclaim the discourse on colonialism and to formulate a narrative that counters the Western hegemony on knowledge. A piece published earlier on these very pages titled “How to look at our colonial past” by Yasser Hamdani offered some hope in this direction, but fell prey to the same misconceptions that have plagued this conversation for over a century.The argument posited by the author reacts to the claims made by India’s beloved politician-cum-historian Shashi Tharoor that have recently attacked British rule in India. Using a fiery speech delivered at the Oxford Union as the spark for a book and countless talks, Dr Tharoor has popularised revisionist narratives that criticise the British presence in India and hold it accountable for robbing South Asia of its wealth. Mr Hamdani’s column attacks Dr Tharoor’s arguments on several accounts. One of them is the much too often heard trope about the failure of India to modernise under the Mughals, which then provided the space for a handful of traders to come and take over such a vast region. To a complete outsider, this would seem almost inconceivable, and rightly so.This reductionist story is simply not grounded in facts. Under the Mughals, India had a bustling economy, all of which is well documented by the historian CA Bayly in his book Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire. There was large scale investment in infrastructure and setting up of small towns along trade routes to facilitate merchants. Towards the 17th and 18th centuries, the region became increasingly decentralised as the merchant class grew in wealth and influence, which brought about socio-political changes that were somewhat comparable to the changes happening in Europe, and elsewhere, at the time.However, unlike the breaking off of Europe into nation-states, South Asia remained under Mughal rule. Through a European lens, this seemed as a strong, centralised empire — though the truth was far from it. Along with the economic prosperity that has been well-established in the research on this period, there was tremendous cultural and religious richness and diversity. Non-Muslims could be tried based on their own religious laws regarding certain matters such as marriage.Literature flourished in regional languages and pluralism was celebrated. It was with the advent of British rule that these realities were distorted because they did not fit the cookie-cutter mould of modernity and progress that they came with.For them, there had to be a set identity of Hindus and Muslims, with one rigid set of doctrines, laws and customs. This, then, facilitated the divide and rule policy that the British vociferously adopted and relied upon till the very end.Most of our systems, legally, politically and socially, are drawn from our colonial heritage, and simply having South Asian faces operating these entities does not make them organic or effectiveThe claim that British rule gave us a legal system which continues till today, while on the other says we are free citizens of self-governing republics, seems to me a contradiction, because that legal system, as argued above, was built for a specific context of divide and rule and to impose British ideals of modernity.This legal system sought to centralise the region and stamp out any legal and eventually ideological diversity that had been characteristic of the subcontinent. This thirst for homogeneity, which has taken on the veil of nationalism today, is the perennial problem that continues to plague South Asia.The struggle between trying to impose the colonial laws that we have internalised, while making sense of our identity and culture plays out in sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and provincial conflicts across the region.So how should we look at our colonial past? The most important aspect is that South Asia is not rid of its colonial past. Most of our systems, legally, politically and socially, are drawn from our colonial heritage, and simply having South Asian faces operating these entities does not make them organic or effective.It is not that we did not have a thriving education, agrarian, taxation, legal and administrative system before; rather, we allowed ourselves to fall for the British narratives of modernity, and now deem those to be natural.Let’s not forget that even something like feudalism was imposed by the British, while the Mughals had a much more effective jagirdar system. This is not meant to romanticise that era and allow it to be appropriated by religious right-wingers, but the first step has to be removing the colonial tint when viewing our own history.As prolific historians Sugata Bose and Aysha Jalal argue in their book Modern South Asia, “Few polities have been subjected to greater misinterpretation by Western comparativists than the Mughal Empire…” The writer is a freelance columnist. He tweets @mtaa324 and can be reached at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, July 6th , 2017.