Colonialism in the Context of Indian British Rule

India was initially invaded back in 1498 by the Portugese, but it was following the battle of Plassey in 1757 that the British realised their potential to Conquer India.   This combined with the development of the East India Trading Company marked the beginning of the colonial era.   ‘India’ under British rule has posed many implications for modern study of South Asia.   It is this period that we refer to as the colonial period, and clearly this major time in history has a great impact on the study of the Indian subcontinent today.   Through the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, India gained its independence and was taken over by Jawaharlal Nehru (1889- 1964) and Pakistan became under control by Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948). 

Following this period is post-colonial India.   It is within this context that I shall consider what the point of post-colonial theory actually is.  You will see that Post Colonialism is more of an academic systematic approach than simply a historical time frame.

 The Taj MahalCredit: Ruthanne Radlett

What is Post Colonialism?

Through studying South Asia post colonialism, several central questions are raised.   What are the consequences of Colonialism?   Does postcolonial theory address only the colonial periods?   How reliable are our sources from both the coloniser and the colonised?   What is the point, if any, of postcolonial theory?   The issue with which we are dealing is both an epistemological and multi-disciplinary in nature.

What is Post Colonial Theory?

Post-colonial theory should be identified as a research method, i.e. a systematic procedure, technique, or mode of inquiry employed by or proper to a particular discipline or art.  Critical theory is the analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another, general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a belief, policy or procedure proposed or followed as the basis of action or a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena.   Post colonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches to focus on specific issues such as gender, class and sexual orientation (Barry).

Post Colonial Criticism

Post colonial criticism emerged as a distinct theory only in the 1990's.   Peter Barry states that one of the significant effects of postcolonial criticism is to further undermine the universalist claims once made on behalf of literature by liberal humanist critics.   Whenever a universal signification is claimed for a work, then white, Eurocentric norms are being promoted to this elevated status, and all others are correspondingly relegated to subsidiary, marginalised roles (Barry).  In Frantz Fanons, The Wretched Earth, he voiced what could be classified as a cultural resistance to France’s African Empire.  Fanon argued that the first step for colonised people in finding their own voice was to reclaim their past.   For centuries, the European colonising power will have devalued the nations past, viewing it’s pre-colonial era as some kind of historical void.  Barry identifies that if the first stage towards a postcolonial perspective is to reclaim ones own past, the second is to begin to erode the colonialist ideology by which the past has been devalued (Barry).

What do Post Colonial Critics Actually Do?

In order to understand the point of colonialism, we need to firm up what it is that postcolonial critics actually do.   Barry identified six main points on this.   Postcolonial critics reject the claims to universalism made on behalf of canonical Western literature and seek to show it’s limitations.   Secondly, they examine the representation of other cultures in literature as a way of achieving this end.   Thirdly, they show how this literature is crucially silent on matters of imperialism and colonisation.   Fourthly, they foreground questions of cultural difference and diversity and examine their treatment in literary works.   Fifthly, they celebrate hybridity and ‘cultural polyvalency’.   Finally, they develop a perspective not just applicable to postcolonial literatures, whereby states of marginality, plurality and perceived ‘otherness’ are seen as sources of energy and potential change (Barry).

Edward Said's 'Orientalism'

A Major Development in Post Colonial Theory

A major development in the world of postcolonial criticism was Edward Said’s Orientalism, which identified the European or Western world as superior to the other, or anything that is not.   The East, or ‘other’ becomes a projection of those aspects of themselves that Westerners do not wish to acknowledge (cruelty, laziness, decadence, etc.) yet at the same time it is viewed as a fascinating realm of the exotic.   The East is also viewed as homogenous, the people as masses rather than individuals.

My argument is that the point of postcolonial theory is to consider history through the perspective of empowerer and empowered.   For Foucault, knowledge is derived from power.   It is essential that in studying the history of India we consider the impact of the colonial period and the ideology that this has created within the indigenous populations.   In order to back up my argument I shall now concentrate on the development of Subultern studies.   Guha defines the subaltern as ‘the demographic difference between the total Indian population and all of those whom we have described as the elite’ (Guha, 1982).

Indeed, all knowledge of pre-colonial era has passed through the colonial era.   Furthermore, even if the texts that we study are postcolonial, we ourselves are postcolonial readers.

Inden stated that “The history of Europe, or more specifically of England, cannot be divorced from the unfolding events beyond the ‘home-land’.   The history of the coloniser is bound up with the populations and the regions that have been conquered and colonised.”