Perspectives on Decolonization from South Asia. Seminar 4

In the fourth talk of the ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ series, the focus turned to lessons from South Asia. The panel touched upon three different topics; scholarly traditions developed in India around decolonizing knowledge (Dr Subir Sinha), Pakistan’s particular case of dealing with violence and decolonization (Mahvish Ahmed), and questions about continuing ‘internal colonization’ in India (Ananya Mishra). The discussion brought to fore the challenge of conceptual and historical conflation in the region. Can all of South Asia be known to have the same ‘kind’ of experience with colonization? What is the history of the people within these contexts? Can the current state and its treatment of some groups of people be seen as a kind of colonization?


Dr Subir Sinha, SOAS

The panel started with Dr Subir Sinha, senior lecturer in Department of Developing Studies, SOAS. Opening the discussion, Dr Sinha deliberated on the emergence of subaltern and ‘anti-modernist’ studies in India in the 1980s as a challenge to coloniality. The subaltern studies group grew rather influential, but was not without its critics. Latin American scholar Grosfoguel argued that early subaltern studies by using European theorists often reproduced Euro-centrism even as it sought to critique it. The ‘new subaltern’ started emerging in the late 1990s, particularly in Gayatri Spivak’s (1999) work as she started writing about the impossibility of assimilating indigenous movements into Western liberal feminism. The ‘anti-modernists’, Dr Sinha said included scholars connected with environmental movements, such as Ashis Nandy and Vandana Shiva. Another field of work emerged with the works of academics S.N. Balgangadhar and Rajiv Malhotra. Dr Sinha critiqued this group of cultural nationalist scholars for appropriating notions of decolonization. For example, Prakash Shah argued that the category of caste itself was imagined by colonialists.

With this overview, Dr Sinha made two appeals; one pedagogical in nature, and the other conceptual. Pedagogically he pointed that students need to be encouraged to read this scholarship, along with those of Savarkar and Godse, to get a grasp of the work that has challenged dominant colonial thought. Finally, in conclusion to finding ways of reconciling these different strands of scholarship, he pointed to a need of developing hybrid ideas. For instance, he appealed to reclaim and reimagine ideas of enlightenment usually viewed as being European, and use them in works and movements of decolonisation. This, he claimed is a strategy often used by Dalit activists and other movements across the world. Hybrid models such as the caste-class complex in the work of Dalit Marxist scholars have been particularly useful.

Mahvish Ahmad, Cambridge

Mahvish Ahmad brought the view from Pakistan to the table. While Pakistan is usually sidelined in discussions on South Asia, she argued that there are specific perspectives that can be gained from there. She emphasised on the links between knowledge and violence that often emerge in Pakistan in the context of the war on terror, which have implications for institutions of learning. Because of the particularity of Pakistan and its simultaneous attempts of decolonisation, she called for the need to draw parallels between different movements – decolonisation alongside desecuratisation; blacks movements alongside Islamophobia. Ahmad traced the history of decolonisation to the social movements in the Global South in the 50s and 60s.  In propagation of such criticism, scholars may make unlikely bedfellows with ethno-nationalists, Islamists and the post-colonial state that denigrate Western as ‘foreign’. Despite the tension inherent in such critique in Pakistan, the need to recognise indigenous ontologies is significant. Ahmad in particular, discussed the work of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, an Islamic socialist scholar, in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). She also crucially interrogated universities as a site of critique of Western canon; emphasising Cambridge University’s potential of becoming such a node.

Ananya Misra, Cambridge

Ananya Misra offered insight into continuing ‘internal colonialism’ in the Indian education system. By taking the case of a tribal community in mineral rich Orissa, the conflicts between the state, corporates, NGOs and the ‘tribal’ people were highlighted. Her analysis of the rise of a Sanskritised Hindu education, including the insistence on using Hindi as a protest against colonisation, drew parallels with Ahmad’s discussion of the uncomfortable apparent agreement between scholars and Islamists on decolonisation. She discussed at length the attempts to ‘civilise’ Adivasi tribes. The Vedanta schools (DAV) set up for children of displaced Adivasi population completely disregard and erase Adivasi animist culture and instead force feed Sanskritised Hinduism. The same corporate forces which evict the communities then ‘educate’ the children by bringing them to mainstream ‘culture’. She also demonstrated how the ‘othering’ of these tribal people continue, as they are often showcased in museums and local research institutes continue to view them as primitive. She also cited stories of tribal resistance; such as tribal use of religion to protect their lands, emphasising the parallel traditions of empowerment within the tribal culture. 


The three different takes on decolonizing curriculum brought to question many different and conflicting views; starting from the role of history in the movement, the need to understand the ‘kind’ of colonization that took place in the different parts of the world; to the need to understand what colonization, coloniality, imperialism and decolonization means. The discussion urged us to think about the nature, categories and histories as well as the contemporary region which is South Asia.  It was thus not surprising that the talk finished with plans and promises of another series looking at other regions in Africa and around the world.



Asiya Islam is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the formations of class and gender in urban India.

Meghna Nag Chowdhuri is a PhD Candidate (Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Trust Cambridge International Scholar) in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, researching primary school mathematics education in India.

Part of the Decolonising the Curriculum in Theory and Practice Research Group at CRASSH

Posted: Wednesday 14 December 2016