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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The legacy of colonialism: Deconstructing the modernist narrative

Having revied the same for my university assignments, in this article I analyze two characteristics of postcolonial scholarship, namely a critique of the modernist narrative and the production of the ‘other’, based on my reading of Ratna Kapur’s New Cosmologies: Mapping the Postcolonial Feminist Legal Project’, and the film Amistad.

To discuss the characteristics of postcolonialism, I must first define it in simple terms as a critical study of colonialism and its impressions still left behind. It describes how the devices and procedures utilised by previous empires still affect our current climate.

Critique of the modernist narrative

The modernist narrative of history per the author is a narrative through which the Eurocentric account of history is actualized and validated. Per the modernists, the new world was a creation of humans collectively moving from their dark past and towards their common goal of the new world post their enlightenment. This new world was often thought of as a liberal democracy with the established rule of law, a nation-state and individual sovereignty to mark their enlightened move from their ‘uncivilized’ personalities to their modern and ‘civilized’ selves.

However, wouldn’t we be in a utopia if after suffering through the atrocities of colonialism we had borne the fruit of colonial ‘enlightenment’? The lies fed to the colonies masked under the sweet-scented flowers of the new world were the biased structure of law, the nation-state eternally compelled by the post-colonial influences and a promise of individual sovereignty with no mechanisms to enforce it. The law that was meant to be an impartial decider of truth and boost humankind towards the future ended up being the structure reinforcing and excusing the same colonial atrocities it was built to protect against.

As was also argued by Dipesh Chakrabarty, the western study of history is entirely ‘modernist’ in the sense that it excuses its colonialism as acts committed to propelling humankind towards enlightenment and a greater future. with justice and modernity meaning being European. This modernist view that served only the imperialists is also reflected in the movie Amistad where in a court of law, in the post-colonial United States of America, there were proceedings to decide the fate of free men abducted by colonial forces, not as men but as chattel.

Even when found to be free, it was the systemic subjugation by the president of the USA that surpassed the legal system by dismissing the jury system and changing the judge amidst the hearings in fear of the court’s ruling in favour of the ‘others’, in our case east African Mendese. This hypocrisy of law is also rationalized by the author who reasons that the use of law to exclude the oppressed others is a result of the manipulation of law and a result of the post-colonial reverberations.

As was in the example of Mendese, the law was used as a structure of sustaining the unequal power structures and the mere emergence of the rule of law in the post-colonial society of the US did not mean justice or individual sovereignty for the ‘othered’, as is also foreseen by postcolonial scholarship.

The hangover of such colonial pasts is seen in nearly all postcolonial societies, for as Albert Memmi identified, it takes a long-time post ‘freedom’ before a free man truly emerges, as can also be seen in Bharat with wannabe wokes copying every move of the political left in the west, for their behaviours to these Bharatiyas is the epitome of civility, culture and truly in every meaning of the word enlightened. In their quest of exposing everyone’s biases, they are yet to wake up from their colonial hangover.

Production of the ‘other’’

The other important characteristic of post-colonial scholarship is the production of the ‘other’, such that it was comprehensible to the west. The imposition of such labels not merely through the use of armies, but through textual knowledge, such that the colonial power was able to give material effect to the imperial enterprise. Such was also the presenting of ‘documents’ in the movie Amistad with the Spanish ‘names’ of the slaves and the purchase deed from a plantation in Havana as some form of proof of rightful ownership of the humans deemed to be chattel, documents created willy nilly and merely because it is in writing it is legitimate? So much so as to strip one of their liberties?

Post-colonial theories discuss the exclusion of the ‘others’ from the principles of liberalism and how these were rationalized. Despite the belief that concepts such as liberty, equality and freedom were universally applicable, they were challenged when confronted with people who were different.

These diverse individuals were categorized as ‘others’ and were subjected to disparate treatment because they were assimilated into knowledge and representation systems that justified their distinctiveness, such as by John Locke and James Mill. Through the articulation of Locke’s liberal ideas traced back to the 17th Century, the normative claims of liberalism arose from the argument that everyone is equal, free, and rational.

However, this would be used in the 19th Century to relate the ‘other’ to children who couldn’t reason and therefore cannot consent to commonalities as the basis of his exclusionary policies, Mill went the opposite route by basing his exclusionary policies on the difference of cultures being too drastic for liberalism to work for the others.

The marginalization of the Mendese in every scene of the movie by the Westerners, be it the Portuguese illegally engaging in the slave trade, keeping them in conditions worse than those endured by cattle; be it the Spanish queen who as a child cares not for what slavery and the bold claims she makes about the people she governs even entail; or the justice system of the new world in the USA, wherein despite being free men, being recognized as such by the courts too, the systemic colonization of the minds of people in power such as the president hoping for his re-election, and senators from the south are willing to subjugate their liberties for nothing else but their ambitions and capitalistic gains. Mehta’s analysis shows how the universalist claims of liberalism and the notion of a rational subject were used to justify political exclusions and set the terms for them.


Under colonial rule, the subject was viewed as different, primitive, and an Other, and therefore denied the benefits of liberalism until they were “trained” into civilization. This view was consistent with the principles of liberalism and continues to operate today, justifying exclusions of various groups based on race, culture, and civilization.

In Bharat’s context, religion, and caste too, take for example the scheduled castes and tribes, who during the colonial period were thrust further into the rigid bands of occupations that they were permitted to engage in, with little access to formal education which was furthered post-independence with restrictions to entry to educational institutions such as the means to attend such privileged areas, be it money, transportation, clothing, etc.

While this rigidity has been loosened by the way of reservation in educational institutions, job opportunities, subsidies, and welfare schemes, those in the remotest of villages have little knowledge of how to access them and those in the urban settings often end up exploiting them. While this is a conversation for another article, it can be settled that both exclusion and inclusion are based on assumptions of such self-identified criteria, and the terms of inclusion demand the erasure of difference.

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