By Rafia Zakaria
May 27th, 2015
“IT was painful to see the state chair of gold of late lion of the Punjab ... with a mere picture upon it, shawls without babes, musical instruments without a Hindu player, jezails and swords without sipahis and sowars; and above all hookahs without the fume of fantastic shapes.” These words, spoken by student Rakhal Das Halder in 1862, are quoted by scholar Bernard Cohn in his book Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge.
Halder had just been to see an exhibit at Fife House in London, where objects from his native land were now shut up behind glass cases and edified into relics. As Cohn argues, the valuation of Indian objects — as art, as antiquity or as everyday objects — changed with the arrival of the British in the subcontinent, first as traders then as administrators and conquerors. Changing the metric of worth in the subcontinent was crucial to the success of the British Empire.
In this particular postcolonial moment, whose own losses weigh so large and heavy, it can seem futile to reflect on the ravages of empires past. With the forces of Daesh, as the self-styled Islamic State is also known, rolling into Palmyra and the announcement of the world’s largest hotel to be constructed in the holy city of Makkah, there seems to be plenty in the present to save from the ravages of capitalism or conquest. These present threats of looming destruction are, however, the very reasons for reflection — an analysis of wounds past can in rare cases prevent future injury.
Whether it is the Taliban in Bamiyan or IS in Palmyra, the wilful destruction of history has become a self-destructive form of anti-colonial resistance.
The British arrived in the subcontinent to trade and to extract goods. Unsurprisingly, crucial to this venture was the commodification of what could be found in the subcontinent. In simple terms, then, early in the colonial endeavour, the classification of objects from what could be taken away as raw material to what could not was a central part of the project of empire. After the fall of Seringapatam in 1799, when Tipu Sultan was defeated and the pretence of only trade over actual occupation was exposed, the project expanded to include mementoes of conquest that could be taken back as tokens of power. The items that Halder recounts were of this second kind.
If the development of the supply chain was crucial to the initial success of setting India up as the producer of raw material for the Industrial Revolution in England, the recording of ‘history’ and consequently ‘antiquity’ was crucial to establishing the status of the British as the ‘conquerors’ of India. Interestingly, the records and recollections of the British officials who undertook the task of categorising Indian history and historical objects betray little guilt about this. One recounted in Cohn’s book is typical: it details a British officer arriving to rescue a statue of the Buddha in the nick of time. A few days more and it would have been melted by the corrupt priests of a local temple who, after melting the gold that was on the statue, were about to melt the copper statue itself, just so they could use it to make copper pots.
Taking away bits and pieces of the subcontinent from its uncivilised natives, who would melt it to make cooking pots or sell it for a pittance, then, was all out of benevolence. The act of colonisation, along with its looting tendencies, was to save the subcontinent and its inhabitants from themselves. The history that would be preserved in the British Museum or Windsor Castle was the only history that would survive such vagaries, a valiant attempt at a civilising mission that would impress on the ignorant natives the value of what they refused to value.
The ‘saving India from Indians’ was of course the sort of gloss necessary to package the vast project of plunder that was under way. In the guise of knowledge collection and creation, the codification of Hindu religious texts, the categorisation of objects, and ultimately the commodification of all that is Indian, the British were able to fuel their own dominion for nearly two long centuries.
Over half a century after its culmination, however, its ideas are being replicated in equally grotesque ways. Whether it is the Taliban in Bamiyan or Daesh in Palmyra, the wilful destruction of history has become a stunted and self-destructive form of anti-colonial resistance. The ironies abound: not only are both of these groups reproducing the vilest caricatures of the ignorant native, they are proving correct the thesis that the only way to preserve the past of former colonised territories is to extricate it. If the intent of these destructive gestures, however marginally, is to reclaim an authentic history untouched by colonialism, it does exactly the opposite by ensuring its destruction.
It isn’t just extremist groups that are participating in the reincarnation of colonialism’s technologies of control and commodification. Saudi Arabia’s transformation of sites of religious pilgrimage into sites of conspicuous consumption is also a neo-imperial recasting of history. In making the religious experience synonymous with the consumer experience, it trivialises the historical as incidental.
The religious experience, then, is imagined as an ahistorical one, unconnected to any particular context save the monetary, an eagerness to maximise the sales of malls and hotels attached to its value.
The tragedy of history is that it is unchangeable, and for postcolonial societies the truth of foreign conquest and past humiliation can be painful enough to engender a denial that is just as corrosive. The deliberate destruction and disavowal of history, however, cannot free societies from either the reality of that past or the tenuousness of their future. If colonialism enabled the first estrangement from the historical, this denial and its attendant destruction cause a second one. The worst consequences of empire, thus, may not be what they took away, but the methods of subjugation that they left behind and that continue to be replicated and renewed.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.