Words Mean Things: ‘Decolonization’
In Words Mean Things, we unpack weighty words whose meanings have been sacrificed to hot takes.
In the few weeks since the Queen of England died, discourse around the British monarchy has included calling her the “queen of decolonization” because her reign happened to oversee former colonies decolonizing. “Holding Queen Elizabeth personally responsible for colonialism when her reign oversaw basically the entirety of decolonization is… certainly a take,” as one Twitter user said.
Almost at the same time, the newly christened “Kartavyapath” (formerly “Rajpath” in the national capital) was hailed as a sign of India decolonizing from the legacy of British rulers.
Take another Tweet in response to someone asking why younger feminists have begun to believe in astrology and tarot: “Science is a colonial construct. Astrology, tarot, voodoo… were outlawed, feminized and ridiculed as unreal and unnatural by the Christian church during the middle ages, along with divorce and homosexuality. Decolonize your minds. Believe in the stars again.”
We seem to have reached a stage of “decolonization” discourse where the word is being used to defend a colonizer, which begs the question: does this word even mean anything anymore?
The short answer: it should. Decolonization is important for sociology – without any import to its name, there’s no way to succinctly describe the political and cultural upheavals that formerly colonized societies go through to heal from the violence of colonialism.
Some reports suggest that the word was first coined by a German economist Moritz Julius Bonn in the early 1900s, describing newly independent territories achieving self-governance. Over time, the word gained powerful currency in anti-colonial struggles. Frantz Fanon, an Algerian revolutionary and psychiatrist, looked at decolonization as a way of dismantling hierarchical ways of thinking and (violently) ousting settlers from places they hold dominion over. In India, decolonization has had a complicated history, with nationalist leaders using it to perpetuate homogenizing narratives of who and what India is, while anti-caste revolutionaries saw decolonization as intertwined with de-Brahminization.
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“Decolonization can mean a variety of things to a variety of people. In common vocabulary, it marks the end of colonial rule. To postcolonialist academics, it is a process of challenging (Western) colonialist discourses. When taken simplistically, it can mean the rejection of Western approaches and/or methodologies of scholarship, science, history and politics,” notes one anti-caste critic of the term’s loosely defined meaning today.
The word picking up steam on social media – especially on Twitter – in the wake of social justice movements has made it a compelling buzzword. It has just the right amount of revolutionary oomph and, at the same time, an uncomplicated call to action. Its appeal is undeniable, and it certainly is freeing to reclaim identity and culture by rejecting another. But here is where things get complicated. Take for instance when a travel blogger began using the word to support the Citizen Amendment Act (2019), calling it an act of decolonization. Her argument was that it is a legislation that’s fundamentally decolonial in nature – as it restores India back to its “rightful” inhabitants – a dogwhistle to imply that Muslims don’t belong to India. Slowly, the word’s malleability allowed right-wing ideologues to use it to justify defining who an “insider” is, and who is “outside.”
A strange confluence of academic gatekeeping, Internet social justice culture, and nationalism has led to the word’s distortion. Take another example of nationalist figures “reclaiming” Indian culture by extolling “indic” science: making claims like the Hindu god Ganesha undergoing the first head transplant or Ravana’s flying chariot being the first example of aerodynamics in ancient India. It’s a rhetoric that, in trying to inculcate a Hindu nationalist pride, denounces science as “Western” and, importantly, colonial.
Decolonization, then, became a way to uncritically dismiss rationality as a western or colonial construct – even as rationalism remains one of the most important tenets of anti-caste philosophy, as espoused by the Phules. It signals how the word can mask oppression within a nation, even championing said oppression in the name of reclaiming a culture.
In blandly celebrating the renaming of colonial signifiers – and simultaneously upholding pseudoscience, superstition, and religious dogma as “indigenous” – we might be doing the opposite of decolonizing. We’re orientalizing. That’s another word for another day, but the TL;DR of it is that (according to scholar Edward Said) knowledge of the East isn’t based on fact but one that’s made up by a Eurocentric gaze. In this context, it essentially means that we still see ourselves how the West may see us, but we mistake it for our own, authentic identity. Actually decolonizing, then, would require pausing to ask the more fundamental questions: who, from whom, and why?
If we don’t, we stand to lose an essential word to articulate not just a past, but a future itself for people for whom colonization still dictates the course of their lives – which is to say, almost everyone. If decolonizing is a rhetorical tool to bring sarees back into vogue or glorify an ancient past that was violent and oppressive to many, it stops being a tool to undo structures of power, hierarchy, and a psychological inferiority complex.