Legislation and Government Policy

Decolonization of the Indian University, Language and more: In Conversation with Dr Atreyee Majumder

Niveditha K Prasad

In the latest episode of our flagship podcast, Arbitrary, Niveditha K Prasad (Deputy Managing Editor, LSPR) sits down with Prof Atreyee Majumder of NLSIU to discuss the Indian University as a site of decolonization. They discuss the history of decolonization of the mind and the loss of one’s language as a source of fragmentation of self. They also touch upon the course the Indian University must take in the future given this context. The conversation is based of Prof Majumder’s two-part piece on the subject.



Niveditha: Greetings to our listeners. This is Niveditha from the Law School Policy Review. The Indian English poet and writer, Vikram Seth, in his poem, Diwali, wrote about a very specific breed of Indians. Those who are not home at home and always abroad abroad, which is an expression of the acute loneliness that some Indians experience in their English-speaking worlds, never fully Indian and never fully Western. Today, we sit down with Dr. Atreyee Majumder to talk about this loneliness that is produced in the Indian University and what our response to it should be. Dr. Majumder or Atreyee ma’am, as we know her at the National Law School where she teaches Sociology, has an undergraduate law degree from NLSIU and a Ph.D. in Socio-cultural Anthropology from Yale University. Her book Time, Space and Capital in India: Longing and Belonging in an Urban-Industrial Hinterland was published by Routledge in 2018. It is great to have you here, Professor.

Prof. Majumder: Thank you. I am delighted.

Niveditha: Professor Atreyee recently published a two-part write-up on Decolonization and the Indian University, which will be linked to the podcast episode, and this forms the subject of our discussion today. Professor, let me begin with a very basic question to really set the terms of the conversation that we will have today. You do not see decolonization as political decolonization. It is not repatriation of lands, as is the case of several indigenous movements in North America. Your engagement is specifically with the decolonization of mind and with the decolonization of knowledge. Could you enlighten our listeners about what de/colonization of the mind is, and perhaps on a more personal note, when did you realize that your way of processing knowledge or accessing knowledge itself is colonized?

Prof. Majumder: Wow, those are difficult questions, but let me give them a try. The term decolonization of the mind, I borrow from the Kenyan Marxist literary scholar, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote a book called ‘Decolonizing the Mind’ in which there is an essay called ‘The Language of African Literature’ and he said, much like me, how he grew up reading English with a certain kind of deference, with a certain kind of feeling that this is a valuable and precious language that is going to hold him up in the world, open up opportunities for him, make him famous, make him something big in the world, and those of his peers who did not know English, had this kind of difficult relationship with him. So, growing up in Kenya and going to an English school, usually run by the church, he began to have a difficult relationship and a fraught relationship, I might add, with his own language, which I believe is a language called Gikuyu.  Later in his life, once he had come out of prison, he was imprisoned by the Kenyan Government for some time and he chose to write only in Gikuyu. He also writes in English and we read his books and his materials in English too, but I think his fiction started to be written entirely in his native language.

This choice came out of this kind of decolonization of the mind, a kind of process. Language, I think, is a major fundamental site on which the mind gets colonized. You begin to think in another’s metaphors and I will give you an example here. There is a sonnet. I think it is a Shakespearean sonnet. Imagine telling your boyfriend or girlfriend in India, especially, in parts of India where in March, April, May June, the temperatures are particularly high, you know, over 40 degrees Celsius, that I am going to compare you to a summer’s day. But for those people who are literature students, stomaching and absorbing these lines in an Indian Summer imagining an English summer where a girlfriend, compared to the English summer, would come across as beautiful, it would just be some sort of a slur or a gaali here if you compare your lover to a summer’s day in Delhi, in June. That is the place of distance, of fraughtness, of broken connections in which education in the English language begins where we begin with a context that does not translate on to the palette of literary or theoretical, philosophical, and historical texts that we read.

I am remembering that all of us by the time we were in class seven, and now, coming to your question about how I internalized this kind of colonization of the mind, by the time I was in class seven, I think I knew most things about European history, but I knew almost nothing about the history of Bengal. I knew Indian history, yes. I knew something about the Indian national land movement, the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, etc. but the fact that Bengal, when I was growing up, had a rich Buddhist history, and a rich history of interacting with various kinds of outsiders who are Arabs, and Sufis, and the Portuguese and the Dutch and the French, I had pretty much no idea about because these things did not feature in our syllabi, and that is where I think colonization of the mind begins very, very young, in a country like India in a post-colonial kind of context.

The decolonization move, I disagree that it is not a political move. For me, it is a political move. It just takes place on the palette or the canvas of the university, or the knowledge project, or the book or the poem, or the film, or the art. But it is very much a political project and it takes place through a conscious move, to not deny English or not to deny our colonial past or to deny the European influences on our thinking, but to distance ourselves and start looking inward a little bit to find other voices, which have been shut down, which have been suppressed in the course of our own education, from say, age 13, or 14, to, you know, age 40, or 50, or whatever.

Niveditha: I think that was very instructive to go in-depth into the conversation. You mentioned how we, much like scholars in Africa, we do tend to read English with some kind of deference. If we tried to trace this historically, one very obvious or intuitive answer would be the fact that the middle class during the British era used this to get higher in the rungs of the bureaucracy. But is it all that intuitive that they would internalize it to the extent that they began to displace their local worlds? Do we know how and why that happened, and has it always been the case that there has been no dissent towards that?

Prof. Majumder: There has definitely been dissent that I am thinking of the Bengali poet, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, who was a wonderful poet and novelist in English. He had converted to Christianity and he was one of the members of the young Bengal movement, headed by the British officer and an educationist, Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, and he chose to start writing in Bengali, halfway, or maybe sometime in his literary career, and he never went back to writing in English. That kind of a choice where you are very well capable of writing in French or in English but you choose to write, like Ngugi, in your native language, that is a move that I would think is in the ballpark of thinking, not with a counter modernity, but with a sudden pushback against the ideas that are trying to colonize your mind. Does it completely entail decolonization of the mind at that stage? I do not know. But it is a start. It is somewhere to start.

Niveditha: My other question was, sure, many people, many Indians as in the past, and as it happens now, do regard English as a way to gain material progress. But why is it that it has come to displace our regional languages, or any of the philosophical traditions that were earlier a part of our canvas as you say?

Prof. Majumder: Yeah, that is the nature of colonization. Colonization does not only occur at the level of economic colonization or wars or military acquisitions of territory, and so on and so forth. Colonization occurs deeply at the level of the psyche and it is about telling and conveying a strong message to a whole population, that your philosophy, your language, your art, your literature is worth nothing, your science is definitely deficient. We all know that famous comment from Macaulay’s Education Minutes, where he is saying that one shelf of British literature is worth a whole library of Indian books, or something like that. It is that idea that gets mass amplification and we have internalized, all of us have internalized this, that anything that is written in French or German or English is necessarily of a higher status on the pedestal of knowledge, a higher position on the pedestal of knowledge, than something that might be written in an Adivasi language in India, or in Punjabi, or you know, like Bangla and Marathi and Tamil, and Malayalam. Some of these languages have also grown in their kind of regional fame and regional honour, so to speak, and that has happened with interaction with colonial forms of knowledge. But if you want to pick any kind of Adivasi dialect, spoken in middle India, central India, or in eastern India, and say, let us study Adivasi philosophy, people will be like that is bunkum, let us study the French and the Germans. So, there is this kind of devaluing of our things that we come from, things that we are surrounded by, and, that devaluing has led to a sense of the self, that only finds validation in embracing certain kinds of Western knowledge products.

Niveditha: In your essay, you note how the Indian University was once a site for response to this sort of colonization. You talk about Vishwabharti, a bunch of other colleges that were set up by freedom fighters, we know that and this is the case in pre-independence India. But you also point out to the fact that that is not the case now mostly because of the proliferation of these single-discipline universities. It could be IITs, it could be NLUs. The question is, why has this happened? Because one might think that considering the very strong tradition, in pre-independence India, with universities being a way of going, not necessarily going back, but reclaiming and accessing our own philosophies, our own traditions, one might think that after independence, this would be strengthened, but the history that you give out, seems to be exactly the other way around. So, why do you think that this has happened? Is it merely because we also began to aspire to that kind of liberalism that we saw in other places? Or is it simply because people felt that the project of decolonization ended with the kind of political decolonization that we saw in, say, 1947?

Prof. Majumder: Let me tentatively say it is neither. It is not that people saw that political decolonization was enough and now we just needed to get on with life, nor is it the fact that we are copying other forms of liberalism. All of those things are somewhat true, but the fundamental kind of an explanatory factor here is that there is a certain kind of anxiety about getting on in the world system. Immanuel Wallerstein has this term called the world system, which means that the nations of the world are connected through an economic system of domination where there is a core and a periphery, and we are very much, especially in the 1950s and 60s, we are very much in the periphery.

Even now, we are sort of in the periphery, you could say, semi-periphery, where our economy and our economic and financial well-being were very much dependent on generating a certain grade and group of very well-equipped, skilled professionals. This is where the obsession with professional education begins, with the IITs and later the IIMs and now the NLUs. There is an imagination that these engineers and these management professionals will lift our economy and our nation out of this peripheral location. They are the ones who are going to, you know what Nehru called the temples of modernity, they are the ones who are going to build the dams and the factories, and whatnot. That has happened to some extent, yes. But today, I mean, although most successful IIT students find themselves in consulting jobs with McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group or whatever, I think there is a strong trend within the NLUs of that sort of thing as well. So, whether they are making things or innovating, finding new technology, and things like that is suspect, the matter is up for debate. But that was the anxiety – that we needed skilled professionals from the middle classes, who did not have the time or the resources or luxury to read poetry. They had to kind of build the nation and build the economy. I think our post-independence obsession with professional education and skill education, stems from there.

Niveditha: If I could just ask, perhaps a more fundamental question in your essay, but even more generally, why are we specifically focusing on the Indian University? Right, I understand that universities are production spaces for knowledge and it is important that these places allow us to learn more about ourselves. But maybe that in itself is limiting in some ways. Why should not we instead try to access this in our schools, in our homes, and in our places of worship? What would be your response to that?

Prof. Majumder: The Indian university is a place where a lot of elitism or elite social capital is traded. I do not mean to diss elitism, just for the sake of it. The elite does some important work in terms of, you know, spreading of ideas and like, in terms of also spreading progressive ideas, participating in progressive social movements and things like that. So, I do not want to say that just because it is elite, it is wrong. There are various things wrong about it, but it is not per se wrong. But a certain kind of elite social capital is traded between this kind of alliance between poor foremost thinking within Indian vocabularies and married with Western vocabularies of thought. So, I do not think that if I teach an Ashis Nandy and do not teach, say, Étienne Balibar, I will be necessarily decolonizing my syllabus because Ashis Nandy is as much a product of the West as your Gambian or Etienne Balibar art, and because Ashish Nandi is based in Delhi, there is no reason to assume that his mind is not Western. They are all children of the West. As a colleague of mine constantly says, we are all children of the West and we may come in all shapes and sizes, and colours.

This is where the university becomes the key site in which this modality of dealing with knowledge through elite domains becomes the most prominent and it is like an elite marketplace of ideas and then, ideas are traded in a way as to make you believe that these are the only ideas possible. For instance, the idea of the nation-state, the modern nation-state, we live in universities that will not allow us to for once imagine a world that is not organized in the nation-state logic. 400 years ago, the world was like that. There were no nation-states. Nation-states are a fairly recent phenomenon in the political organization of power and sovereignty. But now we find that our imagination is incarcerated enough that in universities we come to get an entry point into these traps, in these idea traps and these idea traps will not let you then get disentangled from them. They will not let you imagine an idea that is not the idea that you have been told are good ideas. So, what are good ideas in the current world where we are facing a huge amount of violence – ethnic, religious, gendered, and so on, huge amounts of environmental destruction, and so on and so forth? What are good ideas in today’s world, no one will encourage you to think outside of, you know, the popular good ideas, the go-to textbook, progressive ideas like sustainability, or liberalism or democracy. That is not to say that these are necessarily bad ideas, but we are not allowed to experiment outside of this ballpark.

That is where the university becomes a key site in which not just to decolonize but to decode, liberate, so to speak, if I can use that strong word. To liberate our minds, in a way that we can begin to think, not encumbered, in a way that is not encumbered by what the colonial and the post-colonial template or palette of ideas is taught us to think with. It is like all your life, you have dealt with four colours and then there comes a time when you are 35 years old and you cannot imagine that there can be colours beyond those four colours. That is what has happened to our minds. And universities are the first places where this liberation is possible. You are right, it is possible in our temples, in our churches, our clubs and bars and our restaurants and our Facebook pages and other places as well. But I think the universities are a key site, where this liberation of the mind, can and should take place.

Niveditha: One thing that you touched upon in this answer, as well as the previous one, is that this is somehow also linked to – I would not call it a class problem but I am really not able to come up with any other term for it – when you say that, we do not have the luxury to sit and think about poetry in Bengali or Tamil for that matter. Often, when I talk to friends from, say, engineering colleges or anything of that sort, one thing that they keep saying when I bring about something like decolonization, or any of the social sciences is that ‘oh, this is just woohoo stuff’, you know.

Prof. Majumder: Yeah, ‘why should I care about it if it cannot get me a job?’.

Niveditha: Yeah, exactly. So, this is something that we can call the challenge of technical education when it comes to decolonization. Sure, you can decolonize language, you know, in your English literature courses. You can learn about Raja Rao and Nissim Ezekiel. Perhaps you can do it to an extent even in the law. But what about technical education and the fact that so many of our Indian middle class, so many of the people who will go on to occupy the elite spaces in the country, do not necessarily buy into this idea of decolonization and simply believe that this is something that we humanities walas do all the time.

Prof. Majumder: As much as one berates America, what the American education system does well is that you would study as much science or engineering or biotechnology or whatever it is that you want to. But if you want to go get a university degree, you have to compulsorily get some courses, some credits, in literature and philosophy and they are not afraid or ashamed of saying ‘this is the Western canon’. It has come from the Greeks and the Romans, through Jesus and the Christian tradition, through Hegel and Kant, up until us. They are not afraid of saying that. Why are we afraid of teaching a certain kind of Indic canon or an Indic tradition, however, syncretic, however, hybrid to a person who is going to engineering school. Let them compulsorily take courses, which are in the humanities. Here I’ll make a crucial difference within the humanities and social sciences, because the social sciences necessarily teach you to see society as a laundry list of problems. I have a big problem with that. The way the social sciences are increasingly being considered in India and across the world, is that they’re interpreted as a second order law, like something that feeds into law or policy to correct problems of the world. As much as problems of the world require correcting and understanding, I think there’s some value in contemplating a summer’s day or a daffodil or whatever and that time and the energy and the capacity to take pause, to consider the world to go slow, to think slow, to read, slow to write slow, to not be perpetually thinking, and calculating your next move towards the grand kind of consulting career. Most engineers these days, don’t go into manufacture, which means that they actually don’t know much engineering and they just quickly pick up some kind of finance skills, and econ skills, and they’re out into the consulting world. I want to say that skill education is really important. But skill education, which doesn’t deliver the skill: suppose you were all becoming lawyers, and you didn’t end up learning anything meaningful about how to apply the law in a courtroom or in a tribunal, it would be of no use. So, if you’re learning engineering, and finally, as a conduit to a consulting firm in Boston, what good is it? So, I would say that engineering schools or technical schools or skill education schools are very right in delivering good skill education, but for the right reasons in the right way, and coupled with enough capacity for thought, for taking pause, which is what we do not manage to do in our higher education system at all these days. This is something that you all are familiar with since you’re constantly on the run in the law school, writing this or that and publishing and doing 1000 different things. 1000 different things at one go, and just constantly running around like headless chickens. Where is the time to think? I tell my students constantly, like just take time to think. And the university is the best place, you will not get this time ever in your life to think.

Niveditha: Yes, there’s a lot that can be said about what you just talked about the National Law School, which is a conversation probably for another day. But now since we are on the question of subjects, you write in your piece, and if I can just read out from that:

We don’t become standard former children of the Western enlightenment, we become hybrids. We inhabit the public sphere in English and our private genes and nightmares in Hindi or Tamil, we become double and yet fragmented

I thought this was very beautiful. So, one impact that you just talked about, was that us running around like headless chickens, that we do not have enough time to pause and think what other impact you see not just perhaps something that you experienced as a student yourself, or something that you see in students that you teach currently? Is there some sort of an alienation, some kind of loneliness that we’re probably not able to articulate as well?

Prof. Majumder: Yes, it’s a very good question. Let me talk about my own alienation, which is first and foremost in the site of language. My loss of Bangla over the years has caused a certain sense of basic and very obvious kind of fragmentation and doubling simultaneously in my own life. Secondly, there was a point in my life where I should think that the West got something right. When I used to live in the US and Canada, I used to think that if they’re able to keep the humanities alive, despite doing technically, scientifically so well and achieving so much progress in the world of technology, science, biotechnology, medicine, etc. then there is something to be acknowledged. Today, looking back, it’s been 10 years since I had that thought perhaps. Today, I think differently. I think that this kind of obsession with disciplinary and domain divides are not of much use. The most fertile thinkers were not thinkers of a discipline. So, the first thing is to detach from disciplinary and colonized disciplinary, colonial disciplinary architectures, and to think beyond those divides. If you have to read sociology, you definitely have to read literature, philosophy, art history. Otherwise, there’s no way that that you can get a sense of what Durkheim is talking about when he says collective effervescence, if you have not seen some sort of Christian art that was produced in the 14th century, or the scenes of some sort of representation of the Sistine Chapel and in the Vatican, and so on, and so forth. But in my own kind of journey, I found that the loneliness and alienation is formed more by my peers who are Indian, rather than some Western professor. It’s our kind of constant rendition of this practical and theoretical logic, that I must better myself in a standard provided by a different civilization, that I don’t have a civilization of my own. I find that lots of my peers, lots of people, young people, people my age or older are incarcerated in this kind of thing that they do not articulate. They know that they can articulate it but they do not articulate it, because it would be politically incorrect to say so. But regardless of what they would say, they would think this, and I increasingly felt that in my own journey. I’m moving away from that what I said earlier that 10 years ago, I thought the West got something right. And now, I think in this kind of ramshackle wherein the Mysore Road, a flyover kind of ride where one is stuck in traffic, in that aesthetic juggernaut, something is captured of life that the utmost kind order and beauty of the West cannot encapsulate. That’s something that’s making me think that maybe we got something right, that we don’t give ourselves credit for India that has the ability like very many Middle Eastern and African countries, to unsettle your basic sensory logics, of like straight lines, or black and white or, colour and right there, you have some argument for decolonization.

Niveditha: What I’m wondering here is there, despite the fact that the Indian universities or say the political elite in the country do not necessarily care for decolonization of the mind as much, has there been some sort of process, some kind of slippage in an otherwise neutral sort of country where this sort of decolonization is taking place?

Prof. Majumder: I actually don’t think it requires much patronage or a huge kind of education policy or a policy program, or anything. It just requires small efforts, by professors, syllabi committee, university managers, leaders to invest in and to say, we will teach our students to the to the extent that we have the autonomy to do so. We will teach our students to think outside an idea trap because an idea trap is not an answer. What I used earlier, is not necessarily about this language, or that text or whatever. It’s about investing in a set of ideas that completely kind of hardwire you and to make them unlearn those hardwired ideas. It can very easily start in the classroom or, in the lawn conversation or the corridor conversation or the chai conversation. It doesn’t require too much resources, it doesn’t require a policy program. It just requires the intellectual elite to have some sort of political and pedagogical will to do that. So, I will say that the university is one place where it could begin, it shouldn’t be constrained to the university for sure. But it’s one place where it could begin.

Niveditha: Right. I think that one of the questions that I had in mind was where do we go from here? I think your response quite adequately captures that because it’s not necessarily about these grand schemes. It can be something as basic as having a conversation in a law school corridor. Within your own field of anthropology, how do you believe it can take shape?

Prof. Majumder: Given its kind of a very heavy colonial burden, I would say that doing fieldwork in faraway places, is a luxury that a certain kind of Western or elite subject used to enjoy. I increasingly tell people go to the back alley of your house, take seriously, the mundane the, the familiar and make it strange. Like anthropology’s adage is to convert the familiar to strange and the strange to unfamiliar. So, to convert the familiar into the strange is, I think far harder. I would tell my students and myself, that instead of going off to like some kind of rescue trip to solve some big problem in the world, try and visit a slum close to your house. Try and talk to a building residential Welfare Association in your building where your parents live. Try and talk to the people who work in the gardens of the NLS campus. Start there. So, through this I’m trying to flip around that fetishization of distance with a certain kind of embracing of nearness, closeness and make the thing that is close to you, strange. Thus, the colonial fetishization of distance is something we have inherited very deeply within anthropology and we have to unlearn that.

Niveditha: If I could maybe like zoom out a little bit here. You mentioned how there are several people who internally believe that there is something wrong or not necessarily wrong, there’s something inaccurate about the way they are perceiving the world, but they don’t necessarily articulate it, even though they have the capacity to do so for fear that it might be politically incorrect. I think anytime we begin to talk about, say, an Indic civilization, as you mentioned, or any kind of Indic tradition, there is always the response from certainly a lot of my peers in college along with the kind of discourse that we see on Twitter and other social media, that the fact that this is parochial or nativistic and not very universal. But very often what they refer to the universal is just some idea that some German man said. And yet, there is the idea that the kind of decolonization that we aspire to, even when it draws from our particular regional traditions or say some tradition from an Adivasi community, it still has to transcend to it has to still travel somewhere else. It has to transcend there that particular and become not necessarily a universal idea, but something that is nonspecific. So, do you think that there is any merit to the criticism that it can lead to parochialism?

Prof. Majumder: I think there’s some merit in that argument. But it should also not be overstated. Just because some people can turn into a kind of fetishization of Hindu gods or that sort of thing, in the name of decolonization doesn’t mean that everyone has to go that that route. I’m remembering Tagore whose Viswa-Bharati University opened up to Asian countries. Scholars and artists came from East Asia, and East Asia still has a big presence in Viswa-Bharati, where Japanese, Chinese and Korean artists, used to come and teach art and learn from the scholars and artists there. We never look East. When we are looking at a foreign entity, it is always the West but never the East which has this grand civilization of China, a very, very old, and very, very rich civilization that is the Chinese civilization, or the Japanese, or going down south from Indonesia, etc. There’s so much to learn from Asia, and Asia is a blind spot in our education. So, I’m all for open mindedness, but open mindedness is not unidirectional. So, if we can have a university space in India like when the law school used to get SAARC country students every year for when I was a student. It doesn’t anymore. But that’s a brilliant form of exchange. If we can have a university space built in India, where students come from China, Africa, Latin America then it would be a huge win as then we don’t have to shove Indic thought down their throats. There can be some of Western thought and they can bring with themselves, their own can historical specificity. The question is, why would an African kid come to Bangalore to study? Why would an African kid go to Heidelberg to study? If going to Heidelberg is normal, then can we build our universities up in a way that it is normal for an African kid to come to Bangalore?

Niveditha: I read from your essay where you talk about the traveling theory wherein you write

we translate all these rich concepts into English for them to start traveling out of their origin places. My question then for the case of Indian decolonization is when and how will the Indian origin concept travel beyond the sides of colonial good? When and how will we stop seeking inclusion in the western intellectual project and to meet this read as the big picture goal of decolonization? That is, we find a way to look at the world from India.”

My question is, hasn’t some sort of Indian thought actually travelled out of the world?

Prof. Majumder: If you take precolonial thought, there’s a lot of exchange between Indian and African and Middle Eastern traditions, in various eras from anywhere between the eighth century to the seventeenth century. People are translating and we have Dara Shikoh producing the first Persian translation of the Upanishads, and so on, and so forth. So, it’s not that the West is the only one that appropriated our knowledge and made it into some kind of nuggets of fetishist Eastern knowledge or that sort of thing. This exchange is much older. It’s just that in our education system, we don’t have a single sense of that long time. We only begin teaching history seriously, from the colonial era and that too, when we look at the previous pre-colonial leaders. Our categories are invented by colonization through which we interpret the precolonial like this idea of the medieval age or the dark age, or the ancient. These are all categories that were invented by colonialism. So, to say, simply, that non-western orientation, that thinking from India and thinking the world from India, and this is actually borrowed from Achille Mbembe’s phrase, “thinking the world from Africa” so this has been done but it just hasn’t been done in the last 500 years. That is it. It’s been done. It’s been suppressed in the history of modern colonialism. But it has been done. If you see the deeper histories of Christianity, it is evident that Christian thought comes from Ethiopia, or from Egypt and from various parts of Israel and Palestine, and those are not in any way Western countries or regions. So, the West is a far more recent invention. What we think of as the West today, i.e., Europe and the UK, are inventions that are standing on giant shoulders of borrowed knowledge.

Niveditha: I understand that tradition has been there and to a large extent has been suppressed over the last 500 years or so. But even when we look at say, the last 100 odd years, when we think of the revolutionaries, when you see the kind of exchange they had with Irish nationalists, for example when we think of Gandhian non-violence, and we see a Dr. King or a Mandela referring to it, in whatever limited capacity or when we think about something like the non-alignment movement, we do see that some way of looking at the world in an Indian way has travelled abroad. Is this not sufficient? Or is there some other kind of Indian origin concept that we’re talking about?

Prof. Majumder: First of all, I would argue that Gandhi is a very heterodox thinker. I wouldn’t think of him as a typical Indian thinker. He’s in fact quite a Western thinker in some senses. He’s deeply influenced by Thoreau and Bertrand Russell and of course, the Gita and other things. But his rejection of the material world or this kind of withdrawal from material excess has traces in Christian traditions like Francis of Assisi and things like that. The non-alignment movement is a strategic child of the time that I don’t see as particularly representative of Indic thought. It’s a strategic move to survive in the Cold war era. I wouldn’t say the non-alignment movement is a particularly exemplary example of Indic thought making its way out into the world. Where I do think does so is in the in the form of Buddhism and Hinduism, their popularity in the West today, sometimes bastardize popularity like Buddhism has been reduced to certain kinds of chanting or certain kinds of popular Hollywood style Buddhist chakras and Hollywood style Buddhism or whatever, Richard Gere, etc. A certain kind of Hinduism has been reduced to the yoga and yoga and Pilates are the formats that the entire big and complex tradition has now taken. This is tragic. But these religions have found themselves into other traditions and other worlds. Remember that they did not have the political carrier of colonialism to carry them across the world, to other places in the way that Christianity and market capitalism did.

Niveditha: Thank you. I think that really helped understand what kind of concepts we’re talking about when we say that Indian ways need to reach abroad. It doesn’t automatically mean that this is a way of looking at the world.

Prof. Majumder: For instance, I’ll give you an example of the Indian idea of statecraft of dharma, which is private and public, which is private and public. It’s an ethic, not a religion. It’s an ethic that you question yourself all the time as to how must I live my life? How must I conduct myself in the private and the public domain? And that can teach us a great deal about Indian politics. I mean, the polity in India is influenced by these ideas.

Niveditha: Thank you professor. I think this is very helpful. So, if I could now wrap up the conversation. Now, one thing that I still feel is perhaps a note of caution is that decolonization can become a sort of buzzword. You sort of hint towards this in your essay, when you say that Indian university students have a way of name-dropping things, name dropping scholars and we see that in Indian Universities. I’m not going to say that I’m somehow above all of this. Certain terms are used in conversation to sometimes simply stop the conversation there, not to take it any further. So, for some ideas or some law, for example, it’s very often to hear the criticism that it’s a colonial era law, without necessarily evaluating how we have come to utilize it in our own institutions. That is one concern that it might become a buzzword. Another thing is that we end up in sort of this situation, which Orwell warns about in Politics and the English language, I think, he says that once you begin to use terms more often, they tend to lose their power, that they tend to lose the vitality that they have. Would you say that these are legitimate concerns? If yes, what would you suggest to mitigate them?

Prof. Majumder: They are definitely very serious and legitimate concerns. The bastardization of theoretical vocabulary or fancy vocabulary coming from philosophy or theory is something that I am highly concerned and worried about as meanings get cheapened as people start using words casually. This has hurt the cause of decolonization. The only thing that we as professors can do is train responsible students and be responsible intellectuals.

Niveditha: Thank you, Professor. This brings us to the end of this very fruitful and engaging discussion.

(Aakriti Rikhi and Manvi Sahni provided technical and scripting assistance for this podcast)