Orientalist British Historiography Still Holds Sway In India: Analysis By Rome-Based Scholar


“History begins in a barbarism of sense and ends in a barbarism of reflection,” says Italian Philosopher Giambattista Vico. Vico claimed that men ‘make’ their own history, and his claim had a different view of what ‘making’ means.  When Dr. Abdel Latif Chalikandi—a Rome-based scholar, who serves as the Cultural Advisor, Tawasul Europe Centre for Research and Dialogue—was speaking on British Raj: Orientalism, Power and Formation of Indian History, while delivering ‘Shahul Hameed Memorial Lecture-2022’ organised by Vakkom Moulavi Memorial Research Centre (VMMRC) in Kerala, the problematic concerns of colonial historiography began to get a new analytical trail. Latif himself quoted Vico to highlight how civilization developed in a recurring cycle of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human and how each age could be characterised by its distinct political and social features.

Latif raised an important question of ‘objectivity’ in the making of history, which he sought to highlight through critiquing the prism of ‘Orientalism,’ the term employed by Edward Said, for a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the East, particularly vis-à-vis the Muslim world. The significance of Said’s critique is in pointing out how, even after colonialism, the systems of thinking and representing, which formed the basis of colonial power relations, still live on.

According to Latif, the “British Raj represented one of the most overwhelming modern colonial powers. In terms of its culture and in terms of its durability, it is more overpowering than the American imperialism of the present-day world. American imperialism started dominating only in the post-war period, but the British imperialism controlled almost one-fourth of the world and lasted for more than a century and a half. The influence of the British Raj is all pervading. Modern Indian state and its institutions, such as bureaucracy, judiciary and other structures are still influenced by the British Raj, whether in a good way or bad way.”

Latif tried to show how the British Raj and its historiography still holds sway in India, even after several decades of independence. He said this “colonial historiography is deeply connected with orientalist version/projection of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It also carried within itself the ‘civilising mission’ in the locales of oriental backwardness.” Latif says that the new rulers have inherited this culture and mission of the colonial historiography.

This he tried to explain, again, through the framework set by Edward Said in his Culture and imperialism. Said quotes Basil Davidson (Africa in Modem History) saying that “History, in other words, is not a calculating machine. It unfolds in the mind and the imagination, and it takes body in the multifarious responses of a people’s culture, itself the infinitely subtle mediation of material realities.” Then Latif extracts Said: “Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present.” And “what animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps.”

Latif went on explaining how the Malabar rebellion in Kerala (1921-22) has been depicted by radical nationalists in India, in recent decades, as an instance of projecting ‘Muslim atrocities’ on the majority community, in the way Said argued, obviously with a view to serving the political objectives of the present. He further noted that even characters in films and novels are subjected to such gross misrepresentation and distortions.

According to Latif, ideology and identity continued to be challenging forces in the making of history, as they were during the colonial period through the prism of Orientalism. He said “radical nationalists in India today, inspired by the divisive British Raj historiography and the negative orientalist projections of Islam and Muslims, are causing further divisiveness and religious violence in India.” He said “many British historians and colonial administrators, like Mill and Lord Macaulay, were not only contemptuous of India’s ancient culture but also created a discourse of Hindu-Muslim rivalries by dividing India’s history on religious basis.”  Latif also said that “radical identity politics championed by certain minority groups further erodes the communal peace and harmony in the country. In spite of all opportunities to come together, humanity is at a critical juncture with religious neurosis, and imperialist neurosis. And amidst this, we must stress the pluralistic ethos of India, upholding a refined humanism that cut across all religions, cultural and ethnic divisions,” he added. He also noted that “research should be conducted into roots of the colonial historiography to make both academics and laymen aware of its perils and the way its germs continue to shape the country’s community relations in a negative way.” Latif appealed: “We must necessarily de-colonialise our approach to Indian history and re-form it in a more inclusive, humanistic terms.”

Dr Jose Abraham, faculty at the Fuller Theological Seminary at California, Dr. B. Ekbal, former vice chancellor of the University of Kerala, Dr V. Mathew Kurian, Joint Director of the KN Raj Centre, MG University, VMMRC Secretary Er. Sameer Muneer, P.M. Joshi and others spoke. Mujeeb Rahman Kinaloor chaired the session.

Dr Abdel Latif Chalikandi and his Italian wife Dr Sabrina Lei are instrumental in making Tawasul Centre at Rome an important institution of inter-faith dialogue. Dr Lei, a noted Italian philosopher, translated The Gita, The Quran, the Upanishads, Sree Narayana Guru’s Atmopadesa Satakam, and several works into Italian as part of creating better interfaith relations and cross-cultural literacy in Italy and Europe.

This commentary first appeared in Eurasia Review

The author is ICSSR Senior Fellow and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations, Mahatma Gandhi University.


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