Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, professor of comparative literature, asked a famous question thirty years ago, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" From the perspective of colonialism, I think he recently did.
At the Oxford Union (a famous and long-standing debating society) in the British city of Oxford, several intelligentsia from the erstwhile British colonies and several from Britain met two months ago to debate whether Britain owes reparations to her former colonies. As part of the side supporting reparations, Shashi Tharoor gave a funny, biting, fact-filled, and stirring speech that is now going viral on the Internet.
Indians -- and in fact all people of ex-colonies the world over -- are right to revel in this video clip. But when the feel-good moment is over, we also need to do some navel-gazing because things are not as black and white as they seem.
Hindus, with their caste system, had their own form of institutionalized oppression long before the arrival of the British on their shores. And perhaps that's why they succumbed to colonization relatively easily; the British could be understood and accepted as another caste, at the top of an already-existing pyramid.
Now, post-colonially, Indians have a somewhat schizophrenic relationship with the British. In spite of the patriotic fervour over Tharoor's speech, we still worship and strive for white skin, as shown by the requests for 'fair' brides and the seemingly unsaturable market for skin-whitening products for both sexes. While the government may have Indianized city names like Bombay to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai and street names like Queensway to Janpath and Curzon Road to Kasturbha Gandhi Marg, new developers are calling highrises Hamilton Court, Mayfield Gardens, Manchester Towers, and Windermere to lure residents. Many think being educated means being able to speak fluent English, and that too with a plummy accent; the Queen's English, don't you know.
And while India may have thrown off the yoke of colonialism over 60 years ago, we continue our own oppression. Our treatment of various marginalized groups is no source of pride. There are numerous crimes against women, beginning with feticide and continuing through infanticide, anemia among teenage girls, maternal mortality, dowry-related abuse/death, rape, and abandonment of widows. Apart from the issue of child labour, some one million children under the age of five die of causes related to malnutrition. The rural poor and tribals of regions with little economic opportunity -- such Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana -- are joining the persistent Naxalite movement to protest their oppression and exploitation by government. It's easier to point the finger, or show the finger, when the 'other' is distinctly different in terms of geography, skin colour, language, and culture. It's more difficult, and perhaps more shameful, to accept ourselves as the oppressor and the exploiter.
At one pound a year, Tharoor was not asking for financial reparations but rather moral reparations. And that may be okay when mistreatment and exploitation are situated in the past and where you know reparations are unrealistic. But how about when they are situated in the present? We may want to reflect on our own oppressed, think about what reparations -- moral and financial -- are needed to effectively make them participating members of our society, and actually act on it. Unlike the British, we can actually make amends and it's in our best interest to do so.
The subaltern did speak -- only he's not a subaltern anymore. To use the same analogy, Tharoor is at least a general. As former Undersecretary General of the UN and former Minister of External Affairs in India, he has the profile, the position, the language, and therefore the voice to be heard. Educated largely in India and the United States but sounding more British than the British, he is able to participate in the debate using their own words and culture, including jokes about Henry the VIII and references to Churchill. The label of subaltern is transitory; it has moved from all people of a colonized country to more specific marginalized peoples within a country. And while it would seem logical that those who were once marginalized would be poised to better understand and help those who are marginalized now, that's not always the case. As Edward Said explained, when speaking of different countries but still of a relationship between colonizer and colonized, it's difficult to be the victim of the victim; It's difficult to be the oppressed of the oppressed.
And most interestingly, this 'subaltern' spoke at the invitation of the British. It takes a hefty dose of maturity and confidence to invite your ex-colonial subjects to debate the decidedly very prickly subject of reparations. How soon will India have the ability to have our own oppressors and oppressed sit across the aisle, debate reparations, and post the happenings on YouTube?
While debating with the British in the hallowed halls of Oxford may be an interesting, fun, and relishing academic exercise, debating with our own subalterns will be the more tough, productive, and necessary task. By definition, no subaltern can speak. The true mark of our emancipation would be to recognize that, invite them to the debate, and give them a voice.
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