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Colonisation, Colonialism,Coloniality and Decoloniality: Language Matters

in July 2018, the arguments I submitted on behalf of the female devotees of Swami Ayyappa before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, supporting the religious practice of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, were widely reported by the national media.

Based on the tone and tenor of the reportage, it seemed to me that the reason the arguments received nationwide traction was due to my emphasis on the fundamental rights of the Deity as:

a ‘person’ within the meaning of Article 25(1) of the Constitution; and the very front of the religious practices observed by and in the Sabarimala Temple, which lent the temple a denominational/‘sampradayic’2 character within the Dharmic fold under Article 26.

In my view, I presented a fairly clear, reasonable, and constitutionally rooted argument in support of the temple’s practice, especially on the rights of the Deity, which was the product of the creative and untiring efforts of a dedicated team that blended the religious with the constitutional. Till date, I stand by my legal submissions and see no reason to change my position whatsoever.

I say this from a position of clarity and conviction, especially in light of the subsequent endorsement of the juristic character of a Deity by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi verdict delivered on 9 November 2019.

Not surprisingly, given the breathless nature of the news cycle and the terminal decline of facts and nuance in public discourse, very few media outlets made an honest attempt to understand or unbundle that multilayered argument. Instead, sensationalism defined the headlines as well as the contents of news reports with few honourable exceptions.

Public reactions to the arguments too were mostly in the extreme with almost no room for a middle ground, which perhaps says a lot about the times we live in than my own arguments.

The more predictable jibes like ‘patriarchal’ and the like did not pique my attention much given the nature of the matter and the dramatis personae involved, apart from the sloganeering hue such words have acquired over the years instead of standing for the genuine concerns and issues they were meant to represent in the first place.

What I found most interesting was that those who disagreed with me used words, such as ‘orthodox’, ‘traditional’, ‘anti-rational’, and ‘anti-modern’, to caricature my position.

To be clear, I was intrigued not by the criticism itself, which was expected, but by the use of such words as pejoratives to criticise a position that supported a religious institution.

After all, I asked myself, was not a religious institution’s commitment first and foremost to the object of its establishment, and in the case of a temple to the object of its consecration and worship, namely the Deity and the associated practices and traditions? If yes, why was ‘traditional’ being hurled as a pejorative if adherence to tradition was hardly surprising given the religious nature of the institution?

Did that mean that the word had acquired a secondary significance that needed to be unpacked and understood better? During the course of several public debates after my arguments, I attempted to pull this particular thread based on my intuitive understanding of the colonial assumptions underlying the use of such words as pejoratives.

In fact, in a public debate on the topic ‘A Tug of War between Constitution and Faith’ held at the Chennai International Centre on 7 September 2018, I specifically spoke of the need to remove the colonial lens while trying to assess and evaluate the constitutionality of indigenous and Indic religious practices, such as the one followed by the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple.

That said, it was only after I started reading the literature on coloniality/colonial consciousness that I understood the root cause better from the standpoint of an articulable and articulated framework which underscored the relationship between coloniality, modernity and rationality.

For the first time, I understood, based on the literature on the subject that terms, such as ‘modern’ and ‘rational’, which we use casually and, dare I say, unthinkingly in our daily conversations about the contemporary relevance of Indic social and religious practices as well as in relation to the societal structures of Bharat—had deeper meanings that could be traced to their European colonial origins.

The judgement and sanctimony inherent in the use of such terms became apparent to me after my exposure to coloniality. But then, what exactly is coloniality, and how is it different from or related to colonialism and colonisation? What is the specific historical context in which these terms must be located, and is their use limited by and to such context?

Colonisation, as understood by scholars, refers to a process or phenomenon by which people belonging to a nation establish colonies in other societies while retaining their bonds with the parent nation, and exploit the colonised societies to benefit the parent nation and themselves.

Simply put, the process of establishing colonies is called colonisation and the policy of using colonisation to increase One's footprint is called colonialism.

At least four forms of colonialism are recognised, namely exploitation colonialism, settler colonialism, surrogate colonialism and internal colonialism, the first two being the most well-known. In exploitation colonialism, the colonising group treats the colonised territory primarily as a resource to further its economic growth and increase the dominion under its control without actually settling in the colony.

In settler colonialism, the colonisers not only retain their bonds with their parent nation but also settle in large numbers in the colony and take over all aspects of the colonised society, thereby reducing the natives to a secondary status.

‘Coloniality’ refers to the fundamental element or thought process that informs the policy of colonialism and advances the subtler end goal of colonisation, namely colonisation of the mind through complete domination of the culture and worldview of the colonised society. In short, coloniality is the fount of the policy of colonialism that results in colonisation, whose ultimate objective is to mould the subjugated society in the image of the coloniser. Therefore, implicit in the use of coloniality is ‘cultural coloniality’, which represents its allencompassing character.

This process of culturally dominating the colonised society may be termed ‘colonialisation’, which is different from the overt process of colonisation. Although the world has seen other forms of colonisation (and hence, coloniality) prior to the European version, which the literature on coloniality acknowledges, the use of the term ‘coloniality’ in the literature is primarily with reference to European colonisation. In other words, unless indicated otherwise, ‘coloniality’ means not just ‘cultural coloniality’ but ‘European cultural coloniality’, while the response of erstwhile colonised societies (primarily, Latin American) to European cultural coloniality in order to reclaim their agency over their consciousness and subjectivities have been termed ‘decoloniality’.

Scholars agree that every society has the right to define coloniality and, therefore, decoloniality for itself based on its own history and experience.

However, the general consensus appears to be that of all the sources and forms of colonialism and coloniality the world has witnessed, none equals the European version (specifically Western European colonialism) in its reach, omnipresence and recorded longevity, which continues to affect both erstwhile colonised societies and the rest of the world.9 To be clear, in discussing European colonialism and coloniality, the literature includes Western imperialism since the latter is seen as the descendant of and the successor to European colonialism.

Consequently, scholars have directed their energies at understanding the coloniality of European colonialism as well as its successor, Western imperialism, both of which have been collectively referred to as Eurocentrism or Western-centrism or Western-normativism or ‘North Atlantic abstract universal fictionalism’.

The Discovery of Coloniality and the Birth of Decoloniality

At the turn of the twentieth century, after close to five centuries of European colonialism, thanks to the ebb and flow of history, the native elites of colonised societies began asserting themselves.

From seeking political autonomy as dominions within colonising empires, they gradually progressed to demanding freedom as sovereign and independent ‘nation-states’ that could write their own destinies just as colonising nations could.

The aspiration of the colonised to be sovereign nation-states on European lines has been attributed to European coloniality1 owing to close to two centuries of unbroken colonialism. Scholars are of the view that coloniality was entrenched in colonised societies through the politico-legal infrastructure of European colonists as well as the education system introduced by them, which shaped the thinking of the native elites.

In fact, the early introduction of colonial education systems in colonised societies and the replacement of indigenous epistemologies and their structures ensured that coloniality informed their present, shaped their ideas of the future and, critically, coloured their vision of the past.

Depending on the inherent vitality and resilience of colonised cultures, the extent of internalisation of coloniality in the consciousness of dominated societies became truly evident when even their quests for political independence from the coloniser were based on the very framework introduced by him.

Coloniality, Indigenous Faiths, Nature and Knowledge

Most studies on European colonialism are typically centred around its impact on the political independence of colonised native societies, the immense economic harm caused to them and the consequent ‘illiteracy’ and impoverishment of these societies.

In my opinion, this in itself is proof of coloniality since quite a few native societies are yet to understand the true impact of colonialism, namely the loss of an original indigenous perspective, which does not even seem to figure in their list of things to reclaim.

To restate, if a colonised society assesses even the loss it has suffered on account of colonialism on the anvils of ‘development’ as defined by the European coloniser, it only proves the entrenchment of coloniality.

In fact, it firmly establishes the extent of internalisation of the colonial worldview deep within the native society’s consciousness, so much so that it is oblivious to the loss of its own agency over such consciousness. After all, how can one feel the loss

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