The Contradictions in the Indian Government’s Anti-Colonial Rhetoric

In September 2022, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian Minister for External Affairs, addressed the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), saying that one of five pledges India hopes to achieve is to “liberate” itself from a “colonial mindset.” Instead of explaining what this meant for India internally, Jaishankar said this could be achieved externally through “reformed multilateralism” and more “contemporary global governance.” In January of this year, however, he signposted one internal example of this liberation when he tweeted about Prime Minister Modi’s decision to name 21 of the islands in Andaman and Nicobar after recipients of the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India’s highest military award, referring to this as “another step to fulfil the pledge of an India that overcomes the colonial mindset.”

On the same day, the 126th birth anniversary of Subhas Chandra Bose, Modi unveiled that a memorial for Bose would be constructed on the archipelago, which can also be interpreted as an anti-colonial move because Bose was one of the foremost Indian nationalists who resisted British colonialism. But he has been historically glossed over in the “Gandhi-centric” Indian independence movement, allegedly in part because of his plans for a military offensive against the British in India, for which he went to Nazi Germany for help.

Despite the significance of such symbolic anti-colonial acts of remembrance, there is a contradiction between the Indian government’s anti-colonial rhetoric and its actions as it continues to use colonially inspired laws to suppress internal dissent.

On 20 March 2023, Kashmiri freelance journalist, Irfan Mehraj, was arrested in Srinagar under provisions of both the colonial-era Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). After his arrest by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), it released a statement alleging that Mehraj was a “close associate” of Khurram Parvez in working with his organisation, the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS). The NIA claims that the JKCCS is “funding terror activities” and propagating a “secessionist agenda” in the Kashmir valley. The NIA is continuing investigations into other NGOs believed to have “developed links” with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), among other terror groups, “under cover of doing charity.”

Despite the significance of such symbolic anti-colonial acts of remembrance, there is a contradiction between the Indian government’s anti-colonial rhetoric and its actions as it continues to use colonially inspired laws to suppress internal dissent.

UAPA was passed into law on 30 December 1967 to tackle unlawful activities relating to incitement of secession, disruption of sovereignty or causing disaffection against India. The Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations (CDRO) suggests it can be traced back to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1908 (CLA). Like UAPA, the CLA was used by the British to define an ‘unlawful association’ amidst attempts to “suppress the Indian independence movement by imposing bans on several organisations. Unfortunately, Indian governments after 1947 have used these very same powers to curb dissent caused by widespread abuses of state power and the structural inequalities that plague Indian society.” Indeed, the British used the CLA to declare the All-India Congress Committee as an unlawful association, once in 1931 and again in 1942, in response to its involvement in the Indian independence movement.

The police conceded to a fact-finding committee of the Press Council of India in March 2022 that “as many as 49 journalists have been arrested and charged since 2016” under UAPA, “not a small number considering that Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has a very small press corps,” and that the purpose of harassing journalists in this is to “create a fear and intimidation to fall in with the government line.”

This year has also witnessed the Indian Ministry of External Affairs accusing the BBC of reflecting a “colonial mindset” after it released a documentary in January called ‘India: The Modi Question,’ which it dismissed as a “propaganda piece.” The documentary sheds some new light on the accusations that Modi was complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots, with a report by the United Kingdom (UK) government claiming that the violence had “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and that Modi was “directly responsible.” In response, the Indian government banned the documentary and used emergency powers to prevent it from being shared online.

Shortly after the documentary aired, Indian tax authorities undertook a ‘survey’ of the BBC offices in Delhi and Mumbai, alleging that they discovered irregularities in their accounting books. Aakar Patel, the Chair of Amnesty International India’s Board, referred to these “raids” as the weaponisation of the powers of the tax authorities to “silence dissent” and as a “blatant affront to freedom of expression. The Indian authorities are clearly trying to harass and intimidate the BBC over its critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.”

Indeed, not everyone has been persuaded by the government’s characterisation of the documentary as colonial. Shashi Tharoor, the Congress Member of Parliament and vocal critic of British colonialism, said in an interview with Mojo that it was not so much about colonialism but more about the government’s response to the documentary, which made it more topical in India. Though he suggested that the Indian people had “moved on” from the issues of the documentary, Tharoor described the government’s censorship of the two-part series as “self-defeating” and that he would have responded by arguing that the Supreme Court ruled a certain way in the case of Modi, “end of story.”

While Tharoor has rightly been criticised for trivialising a documentary that highlights Indian Muslim suffering, his explanation of the UK government’s investigation is sound. That it was not a matter of colonialism, rather it was understandable that the British government investigated the 2002 riots, given that members of the British Indian diaspora would have been concerned with how their families were affected and that the Indian government would have responded in the same way if the British Indian diaspora got caught up in anything, as it did in response to communal tensions arising between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester in September 2022. Though the point is well-made, it should be noted that these incidents are hardly comparable, given that the Gujarat riots resulted in the deaths of 1,044 people, 790 of whom were Muslim, whereas no one was killed in the unrest in Leicester.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, has also noted contradictions between the Indian government’s words and actions. In a comment he gave especially for this article, Kugelman said that there is “something profoundly contradictory about India’s government railing against the legacy of colonialism and taking steps to distance itself from that legacy, even while robustly deploying colonial-era tools to silence its critics.”

“Interestingly, it is the Indian courts that are apparently taking the first steps to change this dynamic. Last year, the Supreme Court suspended the sedition law until there was a proper review. How that process plays out will go a long way towards determining whether India is ready to make a true break from the colonial past by removing some of the most troubling legal tools of that time.”

The temporary suspension of the colonial-era sedition law has been welcomed, but while its re-examination is underway, it is important to challenge both the government’s ongoing use of other colonial-era laws and its evasion of legitimate condemnation through accusations of a colonial mindset, not only to hold guilty parties accountable but also because these practices could undermine the necessary work of anti-colonial and decolonial movements. They crucially dismantle racial hierarchies of superiority and inferiority, tear apart Europocentric narratives about Indians and raise the voices of indigenous populations and scholars who have the first claim to representing and presenting their histories and their cultures, over and above prejudicial colonialists and orientalists.

This is not to say that all accusations against modern British governments or institutions for grasping onto a colonial mindset are invalid. Quite the contrary, the UK has a long way to go before it can be considered truly ‘post-colonial,’ and Indian public figures are right to hold the country accountable for having, under the aegis of the British Empire, looting India. Looting upon which the UK’s current wealth and prosperity are fundamentally based. Not to mention how prejudices and stereotypes about Indian Muslims and Hindus, created by colonialists and orientalists, continue to affect the British South Asian diasporas of today.

But this Indian government cannot be viewed as having committed itself to anti-colonialism as long as it employs colonially inspired laws, including UAPA and the Public Safety Act, originally used by the British in different forms to crush Indian independence and freedom movements against its own population. Additionally, attempts to sidestep legitimate criticism with accusations of a colonial mindset will only hamper, not help, the anti-colonial movement.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password