Colonial Alienation and the Making of Docile Bodies
Why do Indians display cultural and historical amnesia regarding their own past? What historical processes have led to the situation where we must constantly feel stunted by a “deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority"?

This piece is inspired by various social media exchanges with numerous individuals. One participant in such a discussion vehemently rejected the notion that Indians could have had scientific and engineering traditions in the past, given that the terms “science and engineering” are themselves European inventions. The denial persists despite the fact that, if true, the Indians could not have constructed the Kallanai Dam, which was built in the second century by King Karikalan of the Chola Dynasty and is one of the world’s oldest irrigation systems that is still in use.

If Indians did not excel in engineering, then how could there be so many magnificent temples dotted across the sacred geography of India? The largest single rock cut structure like Kailāśa temple, which is considered one of the most remarkable cave temples in the world due to its size, architecture, and sculptural treatment, would not have been possible if Indians had not developed deep engineering insights and perfected them through sādhanā.

The question is not whether India lacks such knowledge, as there is ample evidence to the contrary, but rather why Indians display such cultural and historical amnesia regarding their own past. What historical processes have led to the situation where we must constantly feel stunted by a “deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority1“?

Even postcolonial academics, who are presumably the torchbearers of how a people’s collective psyche manifests, demonstrate a similar sense of doubt and self-loathing, with their reference points invariably being European or Western. So accepted has been the positional superiority of the West among the postcolonial writers and intellectuals in India that to read any history produced by them is like, using Woodruff’s words, “reading of a land periodically devastated by hordes of lemmings or locusts; it is like turning from the history of a coral reef, in which every act and every death is a foundation, to the depressing chronicles of a succession of castles built on the waste sand of the sea-shores.2” Examining this as a phenomenon and diagnosing it would require an unravelling of two phases of colonization that India underwent and how they transformed a significant portion of our collective consciousness.

The first colonization, which was comprised of a series of Islamic invasions, devastated a significant part of the land. Millions were murdered, their places of worship were desecrated and pillaged, and the majority of the population became second-class citizens in their own land, relying solely on the mercy of their rulers. The medieval despotism, which was the hallmark of the first phase of colonization, turned the majority of Indians into docile bodies through uninterrupted, constant violence against the targeted population.

The second colonization by the British came in quick succession, India had not yet recovered from the generational trauma it endured during the first colonization.

Though less visibly violent, the colonization by the British was more intense and pervasive, as it deployed, along with religion, other ideological apparatuses such as language, law, and education to subjugate a population.

The British pillaged the country thoroughly; during their rule, manufactures and crafts declined substantially. Utsa Patnaik estimates that between 1765 and 1938, the British Raj took about $45 trillion from India3.

More significant than the economic loss was the cultural and psychological loss. The colonial government actively shaped the Indian polity through its interventions in the areas of language, law, and education. These interventions had a far-reaching impact. It led to the loss of memory and the dismemberment of the traditional elite from their social body, as well as constructing a new elite class who would then carry the weight of the colonizer’s memory and become the means by which the elite’s parents would be made to/ forced to lose cultural memory.

The role of colonial education must not be forgotten in maintaining the status-quo by normalizing a certain gaze and reproducing docile bodies. The continuation of such an education, rooted in racial superiority and civilizing tendencies, ensures that Indians keep perceiving themselves as naturally naive, poor, and weak. Education, used as a disciplinary power, helped the colonial masters, and their successors in the post-colonial polity, to entrench the masses in the institutional logics of colonization. In a discussion on education, in “The Subject and Power”, Foucault argues4;

“the disposal of its space, the meticulous regulations that govern its internal life, the different activities that are organized there . . . constitute a block of capacity communication power. Activity to ensure learning and the acquisition of aptitudes for types of behavior works via a whole ensemble of regulated communications—and by means of a whole series of power processes.”

The centrality of education to the colonial scheme of creating a well-behaved, docile population is brilliantly explained by Cheikh Hamidou Kane in his celebrated novel, “Ambiguous Adventure”. He observes that the cannon and the colonial school worked together to subjugate the colonized. In fact, he attributes more power to the school than to the cannon, stating, “better than the cannon, it made the conquest permanent. The cannon simply compels the body, whereas education enchants the soul.”

Recognizing colonialism as the interplay between power, knowledge (epistemology), and being (ontology), V. Y. Mudimbe, a historian of philosophy, writes of it as “a confrontation of two types of societies, each with its own memory.” A coherent colonial system, ostensibly monolithic and supported by expansionist practices, competes with a variety of indigenous social formations with distinct and frequently particularist memories and attempts to bind them together through its own hegemonic narrative. It offers and imposes the desirability of its own memory on the colonized, which is located within a vision of supposedly progressive enrichment. Here, Mudimbe is describing the process by which the products of colonial educational factories may come to perceive the illusory promises of European memory as the beginning of their own history, a process which, of course, results in the loss of their own past. It is precisely this internalization of colonial oppression and the resultant emerging colonial consciousness that makes people give credit to the Mughals and British for everything that they feel might have some symbolic value.

This dismemberment of the natives from their culture and ethos is intensified when colonial education is delivered through an imposed language, which is mostly the language of the colonial masters.

The resultant process is the double cultural decapitation: of a fraction of that dismemberment from social memory coming through education and the remaining through language. This dislodgement of the natives from their civilizational memory by the languages of their education and storage of knowledge results in the destruction of the base from which people launch themselves into the world. This ‘colonial alienation’, when fully imbibed, turns natives against their own names, history, systems of belief, languages, lore, art, dance, song, sculpture, even the colour of their skin, effectively producing ‘a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies’.5

Hence, for any civilizational state which wants to survive on its own strength and dignity, it has to negate these colonial acts, which intend to produce people without a consciousness of their being in the world and who can easily be guided by another to wherever the guide wants to take them, even to their own extinction. These tendencies can only be countered by making people take pride in their own origins and cultures and by giving them tools to access their past. Frantz Fanon, a philosopher born on the island of Martinique under French colonial rule, too, saw pride in the national culture as a dialectical negation of the perverted logic of colonialism, which, according to him,

“is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content,” but “turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.”

Therefore, there is a need to delve deep into the past to find its joys, by approaching it not from a hermeneutic of shame or suspicion but a hermeneutic of respect. Reclaiming the past and triggering a change in the colonized’s “psycho-affective equilibrium” seems to be one way to free someone from their “captive state”. To regain civilizational consciousness and unwavering pride in it, it is also necessary to design an education system that not only teaches people the truth about their relationships with nature and other people, but also imparts a culture that is a complete negation of colonialist/imperialist culture in terms of consciousness, worldview, and value systems.


1. Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961)

2. Quoted by VS Naipaul in his book, An Area of Darkness (1964).

3. British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India: Utsa Patnaik

4. Dreyfus, Hubert L. and Paul Rabinow. Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1983.

5. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature
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Anurag Shukla

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Anurag is a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. He is a recipient of prestigious fellowships such as JPAL and Star Scholars’ Program. His research interests include the discourse technology in education, history of education, decolonizing education, arts and culture, and the civilizational heritage of India.

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