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By Nasir Abbas Nayyar

Any virtuoso in the art of poetry will confirm that words in poetry tend to overrun their common, ordinary meanings into a surfeit of nuances and significance. And it is the nuances and significance that let poetry traverse the blurred paths of the future. So, this couplet taken from a poem by Altaf Hussain Hali, written in the late 19th century, seems to outdo its own obvious meaning, which may be summed up as: “Come and join hands in the noble cause of spreading knowledge in every nook and corner that will turn Hind into England.” Its nuances feature two themes: dissemination and transformation. The efficacy of these themes can be realised the moment we refer to the historical (colonial) context that inspired Hali and his contemporaries into forging modern-national-moral-realistic literature in Urdu in line with the canons of European literature.

Dissemination and transformation being major, underlying and primal themes of early colonial Urdu literature — which have not ceased to influence our thinking patterns regarding modernity even in the 21st century — cannot be fully grasped without considering some inevitable additives. Dissemination was unrestrictive and uncritical while transformation was total and redemptive and both were passionately desired by the people of the subcontinent.

The dissemination of European knowledge was a project conceived and initiated by the English colonial administrators, but its successful realisation hinged upon the voluntary yet zealous participation of the natives. This sort of dissemination was, in a sense, a play of need and desire. The need for new European knowledge was initially instilled by the introduction of a new, colonial administrative system that not only replaced the old system, but relegated it to redundancy. However, the desire for new knowledge could not have been aroused without having infused a lionising image of it into the hearts of the natives.

Once a lionised image of something is ensconced in your imagination, you are bound to become uncritical — at least about that image. Then, an insatiable desire to materialise that image into reality is aroused, which in turn sparks off the whole process of dissemination: making objects of desire available in an unrestrictive manner. As the process of dissemination kicks off, transformation is expected to begin. As European knowledge was disseminated into every nook and corner of India, it was anticipated that India would be transformed into England. The naiveté of the project of modernising and transforming was overlooked by the colonised people simply because of the selective-dreamy-unhistorical notion of the colonisers’ country.

Hali’s notion of England was conjectured out of the lionised image that the colonial masters of the 19th century were broadcasting through architecture, institutions, the press, speeches and textbooks and it was all about concealing coloniality under the garb of modernity. Hali, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and other reformers of the 19th century seemed to believe that embracing modernity — modern European knowledge, canons of English literature etc — was a panacea for all kinds of afflictions their countrymen were suffering from. It was very rare to single out what brought about that affliction, iecoloniality.

This fact is evident from the criticism from Hali’s mentor, Sir Syed, when the idea of establishing an oriental university in Lahore in the 1870s was being discussed. Sir Syed said, “We must erase our own language(s) from our memory (he used the Arabic phrase ‘nasianmansian’ meaning ‘forgotten’) and English or French be levelled as our own languages.” Sir Syed was of the view that oriental knowledge and oriental languages had lost their place and significance in the colonial administrative system, so their teaching, as well as research and dissemination, at the university level would be an absolute waste of time, energy and resources. No doubt he was pragmatic and blunt in his approach, but he had succumbed to the lionised image of Europe and consequently acceded to the idea of a total and redemptive transformation.

Have a look at the following lines that overtly delineate Sir Syed’s desire for the total transformation of Hindustani society, and not simply of Muslim ashraaf [elites]:

[Both lower and upper strata of society require English as per their social needs. Even the greengrocer and cobbler must know English to the extent that they could say (to their customers): take (it) if you like and don’t take (it) if you don’t like.]

English was, and continues to be, a glorified symbol of shaaistagi[civilisation], prestige, power, pride, progress and a key to unlocking doors to opportunities. This glorified image of English has not only left very little room for the development of vernaculars, but has instilled a sense of shame and inferiority among speakers of indigenous languages — a clear symptom of coloniality.

Dissemination leads to transformation. And transformation appears to be the raison d’etre of colonial modernity, not modernity. The relationship between modernity and coloniality is most problematic; a concurrence of them results in all sort of complexities.

Argentinean theorist Walter D. Mignolo, in his celebrated essay ‘The Darker Side of Western Modernity’, proposes a thesis that “The rhetoric of modernity (salvation, newness, progress, development) went hand in hand with the logic of coloniality.” Summing up his thesis, he puts that modernity and coloniality are two sides of the same coin. He has not drawn on the thin distinction between modernity and how it was practiced in colonised societies at the hands of both the colonisers and the colonised people. It is true that the notion of modernity introduced and disseminated in India and other colonial countries of the world proved to be, in most cases, a tool to ruthlessly exploit the economic and cultural resources of the colonies. In the name of salvation, progress and development, all kinds of violence — ranging from the killing of people, languages and cultures of the colonies to epistemological — was done in overt and subtle ways alike.

This notion of modernity can be termed ‘colonial modernity’, which is not only distinct from the modernity being practiced by colonisers in their own countries, but also can be differentiated from a philosophical idea that is ahistorical in nature and whose thrust is on employing individual reason to know the mundane and beyond-mundane truths.

This philosophical idea of modernity was institutionalised by the West and its specific versions helped the colonisation of Asia, Africa and Latin America. In modernity, human reason courageously — and self-sufficiently — attempts to solve all kinds of problems of life and universe. But colonial modernity assigned human reason the task to mimic a lionised image of Europe on the one hand and, on the other, to think in terms of binaries: East-West, religious-secular, modern-traditionalist, deen-dunia [spiritual-worldly] and so on. Nationalism based on the exclusivity of religion, language or race was, and is, an artefact of ‘colonial modernity’.

Much before colonial and Western modernity, the 12th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Tufail, in his philosophical story Hai bin Yaqzan [Alive, Son of Awake] put forward the idea that an individual could solve the riddle of life by employing his reason alone. The 10th century Syrian poet Abul al-Ala al-Maari, writer of Luzumiyat says:

[But some hope a divine leader with prophetic voice

Will rise amid the gazing silent ranks.

An idle thought! There’s none to lead but reason,

To point the morning and the evening ways.]

We are still imprisoned in the dark room of colonial modernity; on one side we keep thinking in the same terms of progress, development and emancipation that were disseminated in the colonial era and, on the other, we reject reason, terming it a leftover of Western-colonial construct. This ambivalent attitude toward modernity is a hallmark of our social, literary and discursive life.