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Thursday, 26 July 2018

The standard postcolonial narrative inhibits development

This blogpost delves back into the distant past to make its points. Or the relatively distant past, I should say. Memory takes me back to a Jane Austen conference that was held in Melbourne in November 2007 that was organised by La Trobe University. Germaine Greer made an appearance at the event, but there was also a man named Harish Trivedi, a professor at the University of New Delhi, who gave a talk that really annoyed me. The complaints about colonialism were heavy with learned purpose but I found the experience alienating and left the lecture hall he was talking in before he had finished addressing the gathered delegates.

Outside on the walkway, I told one of the other delegates what had happened and she and I talked about Trivedi’s talk a bit. I couldn’t square the content of his talk with what I had learned as a result of my readings around Austen. The thing is that she had a family connection with India. Her cousin Eliza Hancock was also her sister-in-law, marrying Henry Austen in 1797. Eliza was the goddaughter of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.

The British had been trading in India since around 1600 when the East India Company was first established in London. By the middle of the 18th century (or 150 years after trading began) there was a need felt in London that relations between Britain and the local potentates who rules different parts of the subcontinent, should be rationalised because of the complexities inherent in conducting and protecting trade with Europe. Hence the step to appoint Hastings as GG, which took place in 1773. He had already served as the governor of the presidency of Fort William (Bengal).

Hastings was an interesting man who had risen up through the ranks in the East India Company from being a trader at a factory (what they called the trading depots that the company maintained in these locations), assessing the quality of cloth and making sure it was safely stored and despatched to England by ship. He spoke Hindi and made the decision as GG to use local laws as the basis for legislation that was passed through Parliament in London to regulate the conduct of people living in areas under his dominion. This was the first time that such laws based on Hindu texts had been codified for use in India.

The first British monarch to be labelled “emperor” of India was Victoria, who ascended the throne in 1837 but didn’t take this additional title until 1876. So it took another 100 years from the time a governor-general was appointed for India until the country was even formed as a part of the British empire. In the meantime, trading that benefited the locals as well as employees of the East India Company continued unobstructed.

The history of the British in India is a long and varied one, and aggressive condemnations of things that happened over the centuries based on the jottings of latecomers with a partial understanding of the truth such as Mahatma Gandhi are simply not helpful. But India now has tens of thousands of intelligent academics who are busy teaching their students about the ravages of colonialism and politicians there borrow strength from the debates that result in order to continue to conduct themselves corruptly while in office, to the ultimate detriment of the Indian people. Those academics are also used to provide guidance for politicians as they go about their official business, further compounding the problem.

Trivedi and I had an occasion to talk about the things that separated us, however. One day near the end of the conference, there was a dinner organised as part of it at a restaurant far out in the suburbs to the east of the city. I drove my car to get there, and some of the people at the conference made sure that the Indian academic got a lift back to the city with me in my car. I dropped him off at his Ormond College lodgings later, but I also told him about the non-fiction of Orhan Pamuk who, I felt, had a more nuanced understanding of the significance for the developed world of western civilisation.

The conference's tagline was, ironically, '"I dearly love a laugh": Jane Austen and comedy'.

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