An interview with Dr. Dipesh Chakrabarty Historian and specialist in postcolonial theory and subaltern studies
Dipesh Chakrabarty holds a BSc (physics honors) degree from Presidency College, University of Calcutta, a postgraduate Diploma in management (considered equivalent to MBA) from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, and a PhD (history) from the Australian National University. He is currently the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the College. He is the faculty director, University of Chicago Center in Delhi, a faculty fellow of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory, an associate of the Department of English, and by courtesy, a faculty member in the Law School.
Many postcolonial writers stress the continued relevance of colonial structures and relations of power in so called post-colonial era. What is your idea? Do you think that recognizing the political independence of third world countries was a calculated plan by Western powers to continue and maintain their control and dominance in new ways?
There is no question that relations of domination between peoples and nations continue to exist even when formally colonial relationships are gone. Besides, certain legacies of imperial rule continue, though in changed forms. The state of India, for instance, is fundamentally based on the structure of government the British created. The Naga peoples were incorporated into the republic against their will, though by now they are integrated into it. The complexities of Kashmir question owe themselves primarily to structures that were put in place by the British as well as to inept handling by various governments in India of Kashmiri peoples’ aspirations. All modernizing states, in any case, end up practicing imperial/colonizing relationships with some group or another.
I don’t think that decolonization was a conspiracy on anybody’s part. If you look at the history of the Bandung Conference of 1955, you will see that even rightwing thinkers and politicians had come to feel in the nineteen fifties that imperial relationships did not offer any collective future for the world that European empires, capitalism, and technology had done much to bring together. The idea if formal empires had lost all legitimacy. That said, however, it needs to be acknowledged that the UN system was created to ensure a world-order of post-colonial and post-imperial nations where powerful countries, all Western in the beginning, would continue to dominate under the leadership of the United States. The United States, it may said, took over the mantle of imperial Britan in a post-imperial world. The age of world-dominant power began. The former Soviet Union, the US, and now China and India – they all aspired to this world-dominant status.
Many postcolonial writers argue that the return to a pristine, unspoilt precolonial culture is impossible. Do you agree with them? For example can India return to its indigenous language and culture before British colonialism?
Yes, I agree with them. Once you have been molded by ideas of modernity – a difficult and complex term, but let’s reduce it for the purpose of this conversation to Kant’s ideal of deployment of reason in public life – it is well nigh impossible to go back and construct a public or citizenly life based on relations and ideas that completely preceded the coming of modernity. Take the example of caste-based oppression in India. Caste had its critics in pre-British India but a lot of these criticisms were based on the idea of “equality of all humans in the eyes of God.” But in modern India, the most effective and powerful criticisms of the so-called caste-system are grounded in the notion of “equality of all citizens in the eyes of the law.” I don’t think anyone in their right minds would argue that the earlier premise would be sufficient today. But this is not to say that all our ideas and practices get Westernized or Europeanized to the same degree or in the same way. If you look at practices relating to bureaucratic life, Indians have mostly adopted European rules and practices (including wearing European-style clothes). But if you look at the world of music, Indians exercise much more sovereignty there. The same would go for other creative arts: films, performance and visual arts, fiction.
As an Eastern scholar who is living in the West, do you think that you have a hybrid identity? Do you embrace this hybridity or do you believe that we should resort to our local cultures and identities?
My good friend Homi Bhabha’s argument has been that we all have hybrid identities. He defined “hybrid” as the principle of “difference within.” In the same way that a language develops and strengthens its identity as “one” language only by borrowing and assimilating elements from other languages, by becoming “internally plural” that is, humans also develop claims to rich, unitary identities by becoming internally plural. My own language is Bengali, the language spoken in the Indian state of West Bengal and in the Republic of Bangladesh. I think of it as one language. Muslim Bengalis fought with Pakistan to create Bangladesh, literally the land where Bangla is spoken. But Bangla developed as a language only by borrowing heavily from Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, English, and other European languages – not just words but also idioms, phrases, and grammatical properties. I say all this to suggest that we all negotiate hybrid identities. It is only political compulsions that sometimes lead us to deny the hybrid nature of identities. Incidentally, one could be hybrid and local at the same time. That is the point of what I said above about languages.
Nandy says: ‘colonialism is first of all a matter of consciousness and needs to be defeated ultimately in the minds of men’. In your opinion, how can we make the minds of men in global South aware of postcolonial relations? Are you optimistic about the possibilities of subaltern resistance against power relations?
Whether or not colonialism happens in the mind first – for, as a historian, I find that colonial rule often has plural or uncertain origins in events that do not necessarily have to do with any conscious colonizing designs – once established, it definitely works by securing itself in the minds of people. A conscious fight against colonial rule therefore begins by questioning its legitimacy. And that is a battle for the minds of people. Nandy is certainly right in that sense.
I feel optimistic – without losing my sense of realism – about the future of subaltern resistance. But this is not an uncomplicated question. The world recognizes the claims of various “subaltern” groups – from the classic working class, indigenous peoples, minority groups to queers, disabled, and others – much more than it did a century ago. In that sense, subaltern resistance has definitely paid off in significant ways. But we cannot forget the lessons of Gayatri Spivak’s exercise in her epochal essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Subaltern resistance, even while resisting the main structures and links of power, has to work through the same structures and links that they resist. One should not think of subaltern resistance as turning the world upside down once and for all. Questions of power and hierarchy remain. This was the point that Ranajit Guha, the guru of Subaltern Studies, made in his classic 1983 book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, a foundational text of the intellectual movement that “subaltern studies,” the series, stood for. So, yes, subaltern resistance is always good and necessary but we should not delude ourselves that such resistance would result in the kind of emancipation that the Marxist idea of revolution once stood for. We can forget the hard-earned insights of Foucault and Derrida.
Do you think that postcolonialism has achieved decent status in IR theory or do you still regard it as a relatively new entrant in the discipline which remains on the margins of IR? How do you anticipate the future perspective of this theory?
I am not a specialist in IR but have been around some of the discussions that have taken place on postcolonialism and IR. I would say that this interest now forms a significant but marginal group in the world of IR. Mainstream IR, it seems to me, is still dominated by the so-called realist view of politics. That is because mainstream IR does not even try to imagine an alternative world; it simply takes all given power-relations for granted and tries to imagine the future of the world on that basis. For that reason, mainstream IR does not have the means and methods of imagining an alternative world. Tipping points, crises that can change beyond recognition the nature of the international relations – issues like these would remain outside its purview.
This is why, for instance, those IR specialists who would like to take seriously, say, the problem of planetary climate change also remain on the margins of this field. Postcolonial IR, similarly, begins from a very serious critique of the domination by the powerful nations of the world of what is called the “world order” and, however strong such an order may seem in the immediate context, postcolonial thinking simply cannot afford to go on thinking of the present as a permanent state of the world. By its own nature and thanks to its intellectual assumptions, postcolonial IR must imagine a more just and alternative future for the world of nations. For that reason, while the present US-China-dominated order exists, postcolonial IR, I am afraid, will remain on the margins. But that may not be a bad thing: being on the margin makes you intellectually vigilant and gives your critical energies a vibrancy that will always be in contrast to the smugness of the mainstream.
You coined the word “provincializing Europe” in postcolonial studies which is the title of one of your book. What do you exactly mean by it?
You asked me to explain briefly the sense in which I spoke of “provincializing Europe” and what the act of “provincializing” exactly meant. For me, to provincialize Europe was to make a deliberately self-contradictory move. I am not the first one to make such a move. Other post-colonial intellectuals before me have made self-contradictory moves to articulate their positions. Du Bois spoke of possessing “a double consciousness;” Frantz Fanon discussed how European thought had all the ingredients needed for human emancipation but colonialized people had to rearrange them; Salman Rushdie, in our time, famously proposed to speak with a “forked tongue.” Homi Bhabha, a most important postcolonial thinker of the present, made similar moves. My move was to say that European thought was indispensable in the modern world – we cannot imagine the world without ideas about citizen’s rights or human rights, for instance – but it is also at the same time inadequate. Why indispensable and inadequate? Mind you, I said “and” and not “but” because I was not against European thought as such. But such thought by itself was inadequate for non-European peoples because they, the latter that is, never encountered the thoughts coming from Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe in a state of being a “clean slate.” In other words, they encountered this Europe from within their own histories, pasts and memories, and accordingly “translated” European thought into their own contexts (just as European thinkers had translated and assimilated ideas arriving on their shores from distant origins). These acts of translation make thoughts that are otherwise indispensable, hetero-telic – aspiring towards multiple pasts and futures. The same framework would apply to Europe itself. European themselves encountered their own modernizing abstracts thoughts within their own pasts and these thoughts therefore underwent some process of translation there as well. In fact, after the book came out, many friends in Eastern Europe said to me that I should have called the book “Provincializing Western Europe”!
Another way of making the same point would be say that while abstract socio-political categories of putative European origin - such as the idea of the modern individual or that of human rights, democracy, etc. – have two necessary aspects to them: a discursive (abstract) side and a figural side (i.e. how it is visualized). One could argue then something like this: democracy as a concept may stand for certain commonly accepted by abstract and universal ideas but it will be visualized differently in different contexts, though every act of visualization will be contested by competing visions. Provincializing Europe walks a tight rope between the universal and local; it does not give up on the universal but seeks to ground it in the local everywhere including in Europe.