Their Academic Research, Our Lived Reality: Coloniality And The Etic View Of Cultures

by Pratyasha Rath - Sep 18, 2020 05:42 PM +05:30 IST
Their Academic Research, Our Lived Reality: Coloniality And The Etic View Of CulturesAudrey Truschke (Twitter)
Snapshot
  • The casual dismissal of a native Hindu who stood up in a hostile crowd to reclaim his history, reeks of a profound lack of ethics in social research.

    Training in documenting history is at no point going to compensate for the lived experiences of people who are still bearing the repercussions of multiple transgressions on their identity.

What is the legacy of colonisation?

Depending on who you ask the answers might vary. For the Left lite ‘in work’ scholars, it could be the emancipation provided by a global language like English, the access provided by a network of Railways and maybe a critical lens on social evils on the lower castes and women.

For the more mature scholars, the answer would be the creation of India itself, which according to them would never have been an entity without the benevolent gaze of the coloniser.

But there is a third answer and the only correct one. The project of colonisation ends with the embedding of coloniality in people.

While colonisation is a political reality which is temporal in nature, coloniality is an internalised form of power structure that pervades the way we experience our own culture and produce knowledge. We experience this coloniality every single day, not just in the way we define and experience our subjective realities but also on how we project them on to others.

It is at most times, not even visible and seems benign, primarily because our experience of colonisation and its legacy has not been decoded enough to allow us to make those critical observations.

But what is important is that, this coloniality is not just manifested in the people who have been through years of subjugation and have with force been re-wired to make sense of it. The power structure also extends to the erstwhile colonisers and their descendents who had taken it on themselves to civilise a people, by using their authority to define native histories and cultures.

Political power may have changed hands decades ago, but the social recognition of the skewed power structure continues to be visible in the way the West engages with their erstwhile colonies.

Portugese scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos coined the word ‘epistemicide’ and it has since been used by numerous African scholars when talking of the European project of colonisation and the nature of evangelical zeal. Epistemicide can be translated into a systematic war on native knowledge systems by either taking away the authority of natives to comment on their lives or to deride that authority that they have by reminding the natives of the darkness in which they operate.

Epistemicide basically takes away the right of the native to not just articulate her own history but also to define what new knowledge for her and her people would look like. And the other side of this plays in, when the erstwhile coloniser from the point of privilege (ranging from violence in the earlier days to access in the present day) enters the discussion, establishes authority and fills in the knowledge gap. This knowledge then is tweaked to fit in the value frame of the coloniser and is often at complete odds with that of the native.

So even though you try using the same language and attempt to hear, you never listen and you rarely speak what the native would have wanted the space to articulate.

A recent clip in circulation of the historian and what can be considered, secular activist, Audrey Truschke, talking down to a Hindu man (Dr. K.V Murali) on the white-washing of his native history, is a classic example of coloniality induced epistemicide.

To the pointed and emotional questions of the man about the position from which Truschke makes her comments around the sanitisation of Aurangzeb Alamgir’s dehumanising reign and its impact on Hindus, Truschke, a Western scholar, uses two responses. The first is her authority as a trained historian and the second, her apparent lack of privilege as a woman.

The second response does not even merit a discussion because there was nothing in the comments of the man in question, to bring in the gender aspect. But the first issue certainly demands a better discussion.

The Ethics of the Etic view

Any social science research ranging from history to anthropology has two distinct type of lenses which a scholar could apply. The Emic view is one of the insider, the in-group participant like Dr. Murali who tried to speak of his history and the Etic view was one like Truschke who is an outsider to the cultural context and is trying to interpret it using constructs that are far away from the experiences of the people.

Both these views are valid, because Truschke had a point when she said that she could study whichever historical setting she wanted to, because she had the authority to do it.

But if she had the training like she said she did, then she should have had the knowledge of ethics of doing Etic research. When you are entering a cultural setting as an outsider, you need to employ that lens of self-evaluation and assess the value systems with which you have entered the study. Your gender, age, race and other ascribed identities play a critical role in bringing in differences in the way the same event is understood.

Clearly, while she may consider her reading of history to be objective, the chronicling and interpretation of history has never been that. Particularly, in geographies ravaged by invasions and colonialism where even sharing your story is an act of power. So, the reflexivity that is demanded in anthropology also extends to interpretation of history.

A passage from S.L Bhyrappa’s book Avarana comes to mind, where he talks of how some historians look at reading history from some established ‘goal of history’. In his book, the goal established by his fictional characters was the establishment of a secular India where the past is sanitised in order for the present to look forward. Setting that goal or similar goals, emanates from a value system that maybe at complete odds with the people that she is claiming to study.

In this clip itself, she casually mentions, that the goal is not to be correct but to move the ball forward! That may be acceptable to people like her who come in as outsiders with no stake, but it is certainly not so for the larger population who still bear the repercussions of those historical events and the subsequent white-washing of it.

So, the casual dismissal of a native Hindu who stood up in a hostile crowd to reclaim his history, reeks of not just embedded coloniality where you want control over native knowledge systems but also of a profound lack of ethics in social research.

Training in documenting history is at no point going to compensate for the lived experiences of people who are still bearing the repercussions of multiple transgressions on their identity.

So, Ms. Truschke’s goal may be to move the ball forward but for the man who stood up to speak, his goal was that of speaking against erasure of native oral histories like his which do not pass the benchmark of authority.

So, does an untrained native have the right to comment on history? What could be the lowest benchmark then for people like Ms. Truschke to make some concessions on authority?

Aurangzeb Alamgir is not a benign figure in the history of India and his onslaught on the native population has not just been well documented but continues being extremely tangible to the indigenous population to date.

Any visit to Kashi would show you the hideous sight of the Gyan Vaapi mosque constructed on the remains of the glorious Vishwanath temple which was razed down. Any devotee who enters the temple, can live that history by seeing the Nandi murti facing not the deity he reveres, but the opposite direction. The intent to humiliate and break people by stripping away their most personal identity, by erasing their roots and profaning their culture might have been done by a medieval invader but the repercussions of that humiliation are felt till date as the relics of those period stand. As do attempts to sanitise the dehumanisation in all of that.

Every time an outsider tries to whitewash that history, find nuance in it or worse take away even the right to air out the pain, it is a reminder of the humiliation again. So yes, he does have the right to comment because it is his life being talked about.

It was nothing but the experience of coloniality that played out on that theatre when a white scholar tried running down the experiences of a native and other natives sat and cheered the humiliation. To many, the source of true knowledge is still one that flows from the pen of the white wo(man) and authority to even speak of your own past, flows not from experience but from access. This is the exact way in which epistemicide plays out. When people who are like you choose to identify with those who are far removed from a shared reality because that seems more appealing than a native knowledge system.

Of resisting and retorting

Let me end this by digressing a bit and not making it all about an outsider like Ms Truschke. Because coloniality pervades space and identities.

As a young researcher, one of my first projects was understanding the people’s perspective on biodiversity conservation in the Western Ghats. I remember a 10-day long trip which started from Murbad in Maharashtra and ended in Bhimashankar, where I as rookie climbed hills and went to forests and sat at sacred groves (called Devrai in those areas), trying to talk to people.

During the last leg of that trip, I was in Bhimashankar and visited a village which if my memory serves me right was called Aghane. The Sarpanch had won an award recently and I was excited to talk to him about the deity in their Devrai and the conservation of the Indian Giant squirrel (called shekhru in Marathi) which is abundantly found in the national park.

As I sat with the Sarpanch, I somehow found myself talking to him about the history of national parks and the justification behind it and all that people could do to save the flora and fauna associated with it. The Sarpanch kept listening to me in silence and finally said, ‘You think all these people who come from cities and teach us about conservation know more about forests and animals than people like us, who worship these forests. Will the government conserve this forest by keeping us, the people who have been conserving this forest for centuries, away from it'. He then went on to give me a long talk on the regenerative properties of the forest and how the local communities navigate usage and conservation.

The important learning for me through this interaction early on in my career, was the way in which coloniality is deeply embedded in us, even though we would like to consider ourselves better.

Like in this case, two years of chasing a degree and a couple of books made me feel like I am qualified to frame a discussion with someone who has the lived experience of conserving the forests in which his deities reside. Through the course of my work with multiple indigenous communities in India and Africa, I have faced this dilemma multiple times and the attempt to unlearn is ongoing.

But, while coloniality has deep roots in us, there are points which make us realise that it is still not complete. Till the time we have people like the Sarpanch that I met or the man who stood up in front of a hostile crowd, resist a flawed narrative and assert their authority, coloniality is being challenged.

Till there are people who believe that it is not just their right but also their moral duty to resist and retort, the project of coloniality cannot be complete. Hope that moral certitude persists.

Pratyasha Rath is a consultant working in the social development and political sector.

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