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India in Transition

Decolonizing Indian International Relations: Postcolonial Populists and Ethical Quandaries

Kira Huju
March 25, 2024

Over the past few years of working as a critical scholar of International Relations (IR) toward “decolonizing” the discipline, I have learned to be careful what I wish for. To decolonize academic knowledge means interrogating the traditionally Western-centric forms of thought and inquiry that are presented as universal. It means unseating the West as the theoretical benchmark and empirical focus point and taking seriously the many ways in which imperial legacies shape contemporary international politics. However, there is growing unease in the academy about decolonial appropriation: the fashionable language of decolonial liberation is strategically mobilized to market nationalistic, nativist, and conservative ends.

In Cosmopolitan Elites: Indian Diplomats and the Social Hierarchies of Global Order (Oxford University Press, 2023), I argue that even in a formally decolonized international society, Indian diplomats continue an awkward balancing act; despite a genuine desire to strive toward a postcolonial international society founded on diversity and difference, there coexists a lingering belief in a caricature-like notion of a white, European-dominated homogenous club to which Indian diplomats feel a social imperative to belong. Even as these diplomats passionately contest Western political hegemony, they engage in social behaviors that betray a longing to be recognized as elite members of a Westernized elite club, in whose hierarchies of race and class they hope to ascend. In such a social context, we should not think of cosmopolitanism in the traditional vein of political theory which envisions cosmopolitanism as an ideological commitment to global tolerance—as an egalitarian ethic. Rather, we should think of cosmopolitanism through a sociological lens, as an elite aesthetic: a social standard that presumes cultural fluency in Anglophone elite discourses and social assimilation into upper-class Western mores. The book offers a postcolonial critique of how legacies of empire continue to shape Indian diplomacy and interrogates what a more expansive, decolonized cosmopolitanism might look like.

However, decolonizing Indian IR invites a series of ethical and epistemological quandaries. Theory is never innocent of power; political context matters. In the contemporary Indian debate, the seemingly most enthusiastic decolonizers often profess politics that run counter to the original moral foundations of decolonial scholarship.

I call these actors “postcolonial populists.” They express themselves differently from Narendra Modi’s India to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, but the basic grammar is historical narratives of victimization at the hands of the West are employed to dress up contemporary authoritarian politics as a project of decolonial liberation. The “non-Western Self” is presented as an uncontaminated and romanticized subaltern who must be liberated from Western impositions like secularism or liberal democracy.

In India, “decolonial Hindutva” marries the nativist politics of Hindutva with the formerly left-wing language of anti-imperialism. It invokes historical repertoires of resistance against the British Raj to sell the project of revanchist nationalism against imagined enemies—from “Westernized” dissident academics and journalists at home to “imperialist” human rights monitors abroad. All foreign critique is dismissed as an imperial incursion into the sovereign affairs of Bharat; all domestic critique attests to the insufficient decolonization of the Indian mind. Indian colonial subjugation is dated not to the arrival of the British East India Company in the mid-18th century, but the advent of the Mughal courts in the 16th century, allowing Hindutva historiography to subsume anti-Muslim politics under the banner of decolonial nation building.

Postcolonial populists domesticate globally circulating academic jargon in a selective fashion. An example is of such domestication is J. Sai Deepak’s India That is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, a book for which the star decolonial theorist Walter Mignolo wrote an endorsement that was retracted only after exasperated protestations from South Asian scholars. For Deepak and fellow postcolonial populists arguing in this emerging tradition of thought, the indigene of Bharat is not just any Indian (or, as one might have expected, India’s indigenous Adivasi communities) but the Hindu, who despite uncontested majority status in Indian society, is read as oppressed by religious minorities. 3,000 years of caste discrimination are announced as a colonial construct imposed by the Raj, relieving the indigenous Indian of moral agency. Employing the decolonial argot of “epistemic disobedience to the West,” Deepak explains the necessity of undermining India’s secular Constitution as a relic of colonialism and restoring the Hindu to majoritarian greatness. Hindu majoritarianism is sold to the reader as an act of indigenous emancipation.

Although my use of the term “appropriation” implies a kind of forgery or illegitimate possession, the ethics of denouncing postcolonial populism are complex. First, the very urge to control the trajectory of decolonizing arguments, especially when articulated from the Global North, should itself be subject to scrutiny, looking as it does an awful lot like another attempt at re-exerting Northern theoretical hegemony. Second, the exercise of postcolonial agency must involve the right to make choices that run contrary to other people’s understanding of emancipation. In fact, the right to such agency is only really tested when it does. Nor, third, is decolonial theory in any place to critique nationalist appropriation merely for its nationalism—throughout the 20th century, Third World nationalisms were a world-shifting decolonial force that rightly secured greater sovereign equality for the formerly dispossessed. Instead, we must return to the foundational aims of decolonial theory: questioning unfair power structures in the name of greater emancipation. Ethnonationalist projects may point to old injustices, but their programs of exclusion, enforced sameness, and repression make a mockery of emancipation.

Where does this leave the academic decolonization agenda? I want to begin with two points of intellectual reform. My first plea is against a romanticized indigeneity. Postcolonial populism functions on the assumption that there is an uncontaminated pre-coloniality in which to take refuge. This escape foregrounds a morally absolved indigene, secluded from the corruptions of Western modernity and a priori virtuous by its very identity. This conception is empirically dishonest and politically perilous. For India, it paints a caricature of pre-colonial oneness for a country of remarkable diversity and hybridity. Such romanticism is en vogue across many progressive Western campuses, where it obscures the nativism and essentialism of indigeneity talk that decolonial appropriation now painfully exposes.

Romanticized notions of indigeneity also tend to assume that an individual’s ethics and politics are predetermined by their identity. Refusing the possibility of thought beyond a designated identity group tethers individuals to cultures, morals, and perspectives assigned to them at birth. Such policing of “authentic” indigeneity is not an act of liberation. It is no coincidence that decolonial Hindutva begins with arguments about decolonizing the Indian mind and arrives at a political place where Muslim citizens or dissenting students, activists, and academics are reinscribed as internal security threats, “anti-nationals,” or insufficiently Indian.

My second plea is for the recovery of some form of solidaristic universalism. Decolonial theory has been opposed to claims of universality on the grounds that colonial ideologies often preached false universality while speaking from a partial position of colonial power. Yet acknowledging the failures of universalisms past should not keep us from developing more ambitious universalisms for a postcolonial world of non-domination. Here we must rethink what Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls “deference politics”—a currently popular progressive practice which uncritically “centres the most marginalised” and defers to their “lived experience.” Since only individuals that are members of a particular community can legitimately articulate its truth claims, it is no longer possible to claim that communities could, perhaps even over many generations, be wrong about something (or indeed fundamentally disagree among themselves). This also leaves us with few resources to amplify domestic dissent or debate across cultural divides.

Additionally, a hypersensitivity to ever-shrinking identity categories renders collective action and thought virtually impossible. If shared lived experience becomes the singular criterion against which community and ethics are measured, we foreclose any potential for solidarity, which, by definition, requires practicing empathy and coalitional politics across identity differences.

In Cosmopolitan Elites, some of the Indian diplomats I interviewed meditated on the possibility that, at the dawn of a post-Western order, cosmopolitanism, too, could evolve. It made sense to unmoor old, narrow readings of worldliness from their unnecessarily Westernized, classist, exclusionary connotations. Cosmopolitanism could be reimagined. Decolonization can be part—if never the full extent—of this reimagining. And yet, it is not empirically, epistemically, or ethically obvious what decolonization should look like. Many contemporary interpretations of decolonial theory either unwittingly or purposefully narrow the room for external protest and internal dissent—a narrowing that authoritarians the world over eagerly embrace in the name of decoloniality. Theory lives in the “real world” and is always political. We should not resort to a pretense of apoliticization in the hopes of warding off such appropriation. Rather, we must imagine theoretical decolonization anew.

Kira Huju is a Fellow in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Oxford and her first monograph, Cosmopolitan Elites: Indian Diplomats and the Social Hierarchies of Global Order, was published by Oxford University Press in 2023.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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