I have seen the enemy, and he is me…

For the person who has once had a taste of how it is to lose his freedom, maintaining his integrity of self is not an easy task. The memory of being deprived of freedom is a permanent scar on his psyche, and informs his attitude as he deals with the world.

When the issue is Colonization, this wound stretches to cover a whole people, and in India’s case, a whole civilization. After centuries of subjugation by foreign powers & ideologies, it is a wonder that anything has survived with any semblance of it’s former integrity. How much of the pre 10th century culture can we see in today’s India? Or more to the point, how much of pre 17th century India can we see in today’s India?

There is of course the external aspect of this, the socio-political and economic aspect of it. This at least can somewhat be analysed, based on visible evidence, looking at models of governance, societal norms, levels of prosperity, etc. What is much much more difficult to tease out is the changes, the effects that colonization have had on the psychology of the individuals who lived through the colonized times, and the generations that came to pass between then and now. In other words, what scars of Colonization do today’s people of Indian Heritage carry with them? Counting myself as one amongst them, this has been a question that has alternately troubled and fascinated me.

The writings of Ashis Nandy have much to do with this aspect, i.e. the psychology of the colonized, specifically the Indian/Hindu of today. While I may not agree with some of what he says, what is extremely important is his framework of analysis. He takes as his starting point the substantial difference in categories of thought of the English Colonizer versus the Indian/Hindu colonized. The battle now shifts to the inner landscape, where the victory, as much as it can be thought of as such, is of the oppressed who do not succumb by adopting and internalizing the thinking  & values of the Colonizer. i.e. in the final 'post-mortem' analysis, the ‘Civilizing Mission’ that the Colonizers so proudly, crudely, & somewhat naively foisted on the Colonized, fails. He makes it clear throughout that this pertains to the common Indian, not the Anglicized elites.

In a set of two exciting essays that form this book, published first in 1983, and enjoying a 22nd reprint in 2006, he demonstrates convincingly that in the ‘war’ between the colonizer & colonized’ what’s important is that the colonized common folk of India have kept their values, their categories of thought, i.e. working philosophy of life, intact, and what’s more, have also analyzed & critiqued the pompous & self-aggrandizing Colonizers, even as they apparently waved the abject flag of surrender, and agreed to be ruled by the ‘Company Bahadur’ & “angrez sarkaar mai-baap”.

As a taste of the book, below is a punchy excerpt from it, coming near the end. It has some dramatic element, some ‘unheroic’ feats, and many overturnings of accepted shibboleths about what it means to be ‘courageous’, to be ‘honorable’ etc etc…begging the ultimate question, by whose criteria are these 'Universal Values' measured?

Hoping to initiate some discussion, here’s the excerpt-

The Intimate Enemy – loss and recovery of Self under Colonialism

-Ashis Nandy

Publisher: OUP; ISBN-13: 978-0-19-562237-9

[Excerpt from pp. 107-112; at end of chapter V]

{sidebar id=29} The differentia of Indian culture has often been sought by social analysts, including this writer, in the uniqueness of certain cultural themes or in their configuration. This is not a false trail, but it does lead to some half-truths. One of them is the clear line drawn, on behalf of the Indian, between the past and the present, the native and exogenous, and the Hindu and the non-Hindu. But, as I have suggested, the West that is aggressive is sometimes inside; the earnest, self-declared native, too, is often an exogenous category, and the Hindu who announces himself so, is not that Hindu after all. Probably the uniqueness of Indian culture lies not so much in a unique ideology as in the society’s traditional ability to live with cultural ambiguities and to use them to build psychological defences against cultural invasions. Probably, the culture itself demands that a certain permeability of boundaries be maintained in one’s self-image and that the self be not defined too tightly or separated mechanically from the not-self. This is the other side of the strategy of survival – the clue to India’s post-colonial world view – which I have discussed above.

I remember Ivan Illich once recounting how a group of fifteenth century Aztec priests who, herded together as sorcerers by their Spanish conquerors, said in response to a Christian sermon that if as alleged the Aztec gods were dead, they too would rather die. After this last act of defiance, the priests were dutifully thrown to the war dogs. I suspect I know how a group of Brahman priests would have behaved under the same circumstances. All of them would have embraced Christianity and some of them would even have co-authored an elegant prasasti to praise the alien rulers and their gods. Not that they would have become good Christians overnight. Most probably their faith in Hinduism would have remained unshaken and their Christianity would have looked after a while dangerously like a variation on Hinduism. But under the principle of apaddharma, or the way of life under perilous conditions, and the principle of Oneness of every being –  the metaphysical correlate of what a well intentioned Freudian modernist has called projective extraversion born of extreme narcissism75 – they would have felt perfectly justified in bowing down to alien gods and in overtly renouncing their culture and their past. The Hindus have traditionally felt burdened with the responsibility of protecting their civilization not by being self-conscious, but by securing a mythopoetic understanding –  and thus neutralizing – the missionary zeal of their conquerors. What looks like Westernization is often only a means of domesticating the West, sometimes by reducing the West to the level of the comic and the trivial. As the Hindu Puranas repeatedly seem to suggest, blind, straight courage is all right for individual piety and immortality, not for ensuring collective survival76. And there is also perhaps the feeling, legitimized by more canonical texts, that the Dionysian can be internalized and then contained by the wise. It need not be always fought as an outside force.


            yasti sarvaani bhuutani AatmanyevaanupaShyati

            sarvabhuuteshu Chaatmaanam tato na vijugupShate77


At a more mundane plane, our hypothetical Brahmanas would be splitting their personalities. To them the conversation and the humiliation would be happening to a self which is already seen and felt as somebody else or as somebody else’s. This is a self from whom one is already somewhat abstracted and alienated. Such splitting of one’s self, to protect one’s sanity and to ensure survival, makes the subject an object to himself, and disaffiliates the violence and humiliation he suffers from the ‘essential constituent’ of his self78. It is an attempt to survive by inducing in oneself a psychosomatic state which would render one’s immediate context partly dreamlike or unreal. Because, ‘in order to live and stay human, the survivor must be in the world but not of it’79. (In the final analysis, this has been one of the major psychological responses of Indian spiritualism to the West, whatever be its metaphysical content. Using the ancient distinction between what could be called the existential consciousness or aatman and the attribute consciousness, which modern psychologists mainly study, most schools of Indian spiritualism give meaning to a controlled inner schism which, instead of threatening mental health, contributes to a robust realism. It helps one, to use Ananda Coomaraswamy’s language in an altogether different sense, to master fate and transcend necessity and to ‘become the Spectator of all time and all things’80.) For all we know, the Indian’s alleged weak grasp on reality, his weak ego, his easy transference to political authorities and his vague presence in social situations- howsoever deeply rooted in traditional child rearing they may seem to be – are also the inescapable logic of a culture experiencing problems of survival over generations. To fit the logic to the experience of another victim at another time, these ‘personality failures’ of the Indian could be another form of developed vigilance, or sharpened instinct or faster reaction to man-made suffering81. They come not from a ‘fundamental submissiveness to authority’ which breaks through some of Kipling’s more shameless apologia for the Empire, but from a certain talent for, and faith in life82. To borrow a picturesque image from Kipling’s account of his own oppressed childhood in England, some people are fated to live long stretches of time like hunted animals and to keep their senses perpetually on the alert from the toils of the hunters83.

Ever since the modern West’s encounter with the non-Western world, the response of the Aztec priests has seemed to the Westernized world the paragon of courage and cultural pride; the hypothetical response of the Braahman priest hypocritical & cowardly. Bt the question remains why every Imperialist observer of the Indian society has loved India’s martial races, and hated and felt threatened by the rest of India’s ‘effeminate’ men willing to compromise with their victors? What is it in the latter that has aroused such antipathy? Why should they matter so much to the conquerors on India if they are so trivial? Why could they effortlessly become the antonyms of their rulers? Why have so many modern Indians shared this imperialist estimation? Why have they felt proud of those who fought out and lost, and not of those who lost out and fought?

At one plane, the answer is simple. The Aztec priests after their last act of courage die and they leave the stage for those who kill them and then sing their praise; the unheroic Indian response ensures that part of the stage always remains occupied by the ‘cowardly’ and the ‘compromising’ who may at some opportune moment assert their presence. And then, there is the added advantage that the Aztec priests set a good precedent for- and endorsed the world view of-the lower classes of colonial societies which have to serve as the foot-soldiers of colonialism. There is, thus, a vested interest in the simple courage of the Aztec priests.

But another answer to the question also can be given. It is that the average Indian has always lived with the awareness and possibility of long term suffering, always seen himself as protecting his deepest faith with the passive, ‘feminine’ cunning of the weak and the victimized, and surviving outer pressures by refusing to overplay his sense of autonomy and self-respect. At his heroic best, he is a satyagrahi, one who forges a partly coercive weapon called satyagraha out of what Lannoy calls ‘perfect weakness’. In his non-heroic ordinariness, he is the archetypical survivor. Seemingly he makes all round compromises, but he refuses to be psychologically swamped, co-opted, or penetrated. Defeat, his response seems to say, is a disaster, and so is the imposed ways of the victor. But worse is the loss of one’s ‘soul’ and the internalization of one’s victor’s values, because it forces one to fight the victor according to the victor’s values, within his model of dissent. Better to be a comical dissenter than to be a powerful, serious, but acceptable opponent84. Better to be a hated enemy, declared unworthy of any respect whatsoever, than to be a proper opponent, constantly making ‘primary adjustments’ to the system85.

In order to truly live, the inviolable core of Indianness seems to affirm, it might be sometimes better to be dead in somebody else’s eyes, so as to be alive for one’s own self. In order to accept oneself, one must learn to hold in trust ‘weakness’ to which a violent, culturally barren and politically bankrupt world some day may have to return.


FOOTNOTES (for this excerpt)

75. Philip Spratt, Hindu Culture and Personality (Bombay: Manaktalas, 1966).

76. For instance, it is possible to read the political and social choices of Krishna in the Mahaabhaarata entirely along these lines. Probably the more significant clue in the traditional responsibility for the sustenance and protection of the Braahmanas and the responsibility for disjunctive, normative creativitiy given to renunciators like Aurobindo. On this see Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchius (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1970).

77. ‘He who sees every being in his own self and sees himself in every other being, he, because of this vision, abhors nothing.’ ‘Ishopanishad’, in Atulchandra Sen (ed.), Upanishad (Calcutta: Haraf, 1972), pp. 130-55; see especially p. 138.

78. Confronting a concentration camp for the first time, psychiatrist Elie Cohen found himself resorting to a similar splitting, See his Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, trans. M.H. Braaksma (New York: Norton, 1953),p. 116, quoted in Terence De Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camp (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 82. The idea of  the ‘essential constituent of the self’ is Erving Goffman’s. It has meanings similar to the more loosely defined idea of the core of Indianness used in this analysis. See Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Chicago: aldine, 1962), p.319. Goffman calls the entire process ‘secondary adjustment’. It involves the rejection of the self imposed by a total institution or situation.

79. Des Pres, The Survivor, p. 99.

80. Ananda K Coomaraswamy, ‘On the Indian and Traditional Psychology, or Rather Pneumatology’, Selected Papers, vol. 2: Metaphysics, ed. Roger Lipsey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977) pp. 333-78, see especially pp. 365, 377.

81. Halina Birenbaum, Hope is the Last to Die, trans. David Welsh (New York: Twayne, 1971) p. 103, quoted in Des Pres, The Survivor, p.87.

82. Cf. Gita Sereny, Into That Darkness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 183.

83. Stalky’s Reminiscences (London, 1928) pp. 30-1, quoted in Edmund Wilson, “The Kipling that Nobody Read’, p. 22.

84. It is interesting that organized Islam in India has always feared losing its identity. The dominant ideology of Islam in India has always been confident that it could hold its own against Hinduism in statecraft and in martial prowess; it has always feared being overwhelmed or swamped by the slow, sopoprific sedativity of everyday Hinduism. This has never been the fear of folk Islam because it shares the world view of folk Hinduism to a great extent.

85. Goffman, Asylums.

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