By Gavinda Jayasinghe –
The Subcontinent’s Independence: Aristotle, utilitarian perspectives, and context from the ‘Scramble for Africa’
What does it mean to gain independence?
I urge each of you to leave patriotism and human disposition aside for one brief moment in the formulation of your answers to the simple question presented above.
As I see it, it is a notion that is possibly a social construct, with its greatest utility residing in its capacity to rouse sentiments of loyalty and nationalism. The idea is sustained and propagated by the shared beliefs and principles that a particular sovereignty were established on. With no end in sight though, independence in and of itself is neither advantageous nor harmful; however, if objective truth and compelling logic were to be engaged in, we stand to gain much from this idea that elicits so much emotion. The endearing traits of independence and other unifiers prompt us to partake in the collective. Once its utilitarian appeal is recognised and its motives are deemed creditable, we adopt these attributes in a more cohesive effort toward the end of progress. In Aristotelian terms, this may be equated to conviction founded on an indistinct mix of ethos, pathos and logos.
Then there is independence that is purely emotional in nature. The basis for this is the romanticised ideal of perceived freedom from unjust subjugation. At its heart lies the persuasion of pathos. It is this motivation that most of our feelings converge to, as we commemorate the defeat of colonising influences in the varied nations of the subcontinent. We are only human; and so it is beautiful. Yet, it is dangerous, for its foundation is fragile and volatile. Without any foreseeable objectives, independence amounts to little more than a receptacle of human emotion and energy waiting to be harnessed. If its potency is not capitalised on, we can continue to expect distasteful manifestations of the price of unity and freedom. As we have witnessed plentifully over the past few years, this moral instability and confusion creates an opening for incendiary rhetoric and subsequent discord among the nation’s people.
It is time to reassess what implications independence holds.
The current juncture is timely, to reassess the validity and relevance of independence days and such. This carries with it the risk of appearing unpatriotic, but there are far greater things at stake. Never should we place patriotism and other social phenomena before the individuals’ right to live and be treated equally. Beyond the general nature of this schema that we adhere to, what significance does such a date bear in the modern context, except in harkening back to an epoch and the ensuing struggle? What is it that we fundamentally observe? The remembrance of dates attached to various transition points and watershed moments is an integral aspect of human evolution and it reinforces our ability to chronicle important passages along the way; to blindly immortalise days and heroes though does little to further the human cause in the world we currently occupy. It does more harm than good, for the broad subjective inferences that independence and its memorial carries also harbours the danger of it being misconstrued and used for agendas that are divisive.
Let us consider the independence of Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. I have excluded Bangladesh and Bhutan from this list, as their fates were closely linked to the Dominion of Pakistan and Dominion of India, although the constituents of each sacrificed much in lessening the clutch of the colonisers.
It is true that we suffered much in the past, and that the multifaceted effects of colonialism are vibrant and transforming even today. Yet, the nations of the subcontinent have adequately moved past the resource drain that was imposed on us. We have recovered rather well from the situation resultant of the tangible resources withheld from us. I agree though that the psychosocial impacts of colonialism are manifold, complex, and may not be comprehended fully. In the Subcontinent, the vestiges of colonialism visible today are primarily of the mental variety. Today, they are not wholly representative of opportunities forgone due to the mutually exclusive nature of the finite resources the colonisers plundered.
To put this into perspective, let us consider the ‘Scramble for Africa’ briefly, where European colonial powers carved up the diverse nations of the African continent. Those at the helm in Belgium, Italy, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain and Britain, swindled and funneled to their empire centers the natural riches of this ancient land mass. Tribes that did not belong together were forcibly relocated and asked to live in each other’s midst. This is responsible in some way for the fissures that are evident to this day. Their sense of self-worth was reduced to extra-species levels. The racial connotations of the inhumane treatment meted out to these people were far worse than most of what was endured by the nations of the subcontinent. On the world stage, certain African nations still struggle to emerge from the rut they were forcibly placed in by the colonisers and the prior Arab conquest. Some of the deep seated implications of the colonisers’ enforcements have become commonplace now. Reflect on the fact that the language prevalent in government and media in nearly all African countries is one that they have absorbed through their respective colonisers.
To drive home the point of how the subcontinent had it somewhat better, in a rhetorical sense, contemplate how South Asians were likened to uncivilised beings, as opposed to many in Africa being classified and labelled as animals. This stemmed from the incapability of Europeans at the time to comprehend such vastly beautiful differences in the physical appearance-spectrum of our species, or perhaps it was due to pure malice and ignorance. How cruel and calculating the human animal can be!
And, what of the natural resources the African continent was stripped of? Let us not even go there.
Therefore, the subcontinent’s lament ought not to be as melancholic and painful, at present. It isn’t, but then what are we essentially honouring with our nation’s ‘Independence Day’? This is not an attempt to detract from the importance of the massive push across the subcontinent in ensuring sovereignty once again, or to denounce some of the true visionaries who partook in the process. Such efforts culminated in the quelling of colonial influence and a shift in their agenda and policies, and for that we should be thankful. But, the independence we gained was more symbolic in comparison to the African continent’s malaise. It amounted less to a physical emancipation from our masters. Perhaps it had to do with the manner in which South Asian society was set up at the time, and also due to the centers of culture, liturgy and education that were thriving and offering continued resistance to the whims of the masters.
The subcontinent was colonised; Africa was left broken and impoverished.
Or maybe this is simply crass and hasty dissection, when in actuality it is what I am inclined to believe based on the sum of my experience through what I have heard, observed or read on the matter.
I believe it is time to reread the relevance, intrinsic purpose and significance of the subcontinent’s and the world’s independence days. To peg one’s progress against a seminal event necessitated by the forceful nature of the colonisers is ineffective. It is what we can do now that should matter, and not what was forced on us. Let us set an alternate benchmark against which our advancement may be measured; one that is more pertinent and contemporary. It matters not how our nation’s past may have victimised us, but only how we utilise this very moment. Post-independence, we have contended with further oppression by an assortment of parties and elected officials. We managed to evade imminent doom, just last month. Let us learn from such pivotal moments, to avoid such irresponsibility in the future and to mark our progress against era-specific decisive points in time and not the State established Independence Day. A long shot maybe, but such things have only as much power as we assign them.
May the power of emotion guide our intentions, but not our objectives.
If nothing else, we can use our independence and the decades of suppression preceding it to claim reparations from the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. We could certainly use the money, going by the bareness of our nation’s coffers after the merriment engaged in over the past few years. As I suggested to Dr. Harsha de Silva during a discussion with him a while ago, we can take a leaf out of Libya’s book in this regard. It is said that Colonel Gaddafi pressed the Italians into paying $5 Billion in reparations to Libya, for the colonial polices they enforced on the North African nation. Whether this actually went through, or if it was simply a guise for an alternate bilateral agreement, will probably not be known unless Muammar Gaddafi emerges – once again – from the dead. In any case, money is always welcome and it may help redress the balance somewhat.
*Gavinda Jayasinghe is an independent writer and singer-songwriter. He is of the view that both these forms of expression segue into each other unobtrusively. It is his purpose to instill in himself and promote among others, through the aforementioned vehicles, virtues such as compassion and equality. He commenced his tertiary education in Perth, Australia and completed his Bachelor’s degree in Missouri, USA. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook (Gavinda Jayasinghe).