Mum’s Not the Word


A thought on the western-centric view of the world and the contemporary narratives of economics and neocolonialism 

History and historical geography as it is taught, written, and thought by Europeans today, lies, as it were, in a tunnel of time. The walls of this tunnel are, figuratively, the spatial boundaries of Greater Europe. History is a matter of looking back or down in this European tunnel of time and trying to decide what happened where, when, and why....Non-Europe (Africa, Asia east of the Bible Lands, Latin America, Oceania) receive significant notice only as the venue of European colonial activities, and most of what was said about this region was essentially the history of empire.
— JM Blaut, The Colonizer's Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History 

Postmodernism has brought about a sweeping change in how we understand the world. In the good and the bad olden days what we saw was what the West saw and in most cases we gladly surrender to the image that we were shown. Now the time has changed, as people belonging to the supposedly lower echelon of the global society have started asserting their rights. The situation has given rise to the issues of neocolonialism as experienced in a place like Manipur. Much more significant than postmodernism or anything else, the trend is noteworthy on many counts.

One of the most important aspects of this change is the recounting of authentic narratives unlike those with biases and ignorance of the past and foreign narrators about the natives, which in most of the cases, live in the underdeveloped and developing world. It also implies the recognition of rights that naturally belong to the people. Briefly, it shows the reality of the people, not the perceptions of reality created by the likes of Western anthropologists, ethnographers and historians. These are the days of indigenous awakening across the world too. It is important to note down in a postmodernist world the ideas of resistance and critique are not one sided, even if it seems paradoxical that we always trace the origin of the ideas on resistance back to the West.

The economic rise of China and India is an example that western-centric thoughts are waiting for the last nail on its coffin. This will be clearer if we consider a few words, terms and expressions that are a product of the Western-centric notions of the world. Their newer substitutes explain the shifting equations in contemporary political and economic scenarios.

Far East, Near East and Middle East + East Asia, Central Asia and West Asia 

‘Far East’ is a relatively old term having its origin in the heydays of British imperialism around the 17th and 18th centuries. The term describes all the countries that are located east to India. Now we use Asia, South Asia, the Southeast and the likes for the same geographical entities.  A similar term ‘Near East’ comprises those are set closely west to India. Now it is Southwest Asia or Central Asia.

The most common term that has almost become a brand is the Middle East—just like Colgate stands for toothpaste and Tata for trucks. Geographically it is West Asia, which has gained ground in its usage in the post-colonial days but it is still used interchangeably with the ‘Middle East’. Ironically, we use only English language but somehow that’s inevitable in today’s globalised world.

For that matter, even the native armed organisations waging war against the union of India for sovereignty take their inspiration from the 100% Western-centric ideologies of Marx and various socialists. Actually, Marx was of the opinion that the Western countries should take up the responsibility to educate and develop the eastern countries—a phenomenon which years later Rudyard Kipling came up with a fancy term called the ‘white man’s burden’.

It has been the sheer economy might that has catapulted the West to become a general manager of the world. This acceptance is just a space spared for practicality.

Mongoloid + Oriental

‘Mongoloid’ is a generic term for the slit eyes! Researchers are of two minds on its classification. For instance, everybody has different opinions on whether to include the Native Americans as Mongoloid or not. This term is another Western conception but the problems are multi-pronged. Western scholars studying race were carried away, so to say, after classifying the people broadly into the three races of Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid.

Now the usage of ‘Mongoloid’ has been criticised from racist perspectives because the term connotes an error-ridden typological model of classifying people and it is used ignorantly while equating the term with people suffering from Down syndrome, genetic disorders and other intellectual disabilities. Just like how Australia differentiates Asia—according to the ground-zero perspective for instance, the Southeast and Central Asia—the classification as ‘Orient’ or its adjectival ‘Oriental’ is more valid. ‘Orient’ means the east so it goes fine with the straightforward ‘West’. It is a more etymologically and politically correct term but it is no surprise that some people still consider it as a demeaning term laced with racist pejoratives. The politics of language is sometimes too hot to handle.

As a sub for both the terms we can play safe by simply using the nationalities and getting rid of stereotypes. This is quite a suggestion from someone who consider himself an anarchist. But such a change of perspective is indispensable today. In several countries, the citizens would proudly describe their societies as multicultural as a sort of tourism and call-for-investment ad, while in their backyard there are rampant crime and issues related to racism. Just like PM Modi has been doing these days.

Zomia + Ava 

Talking about racism, incidentally, we belong to a region rechristened as Zomia by Willem van Schendel, a Dutch historian and more popularised by James Scott, the American academic. I cannot negate the central premise of this region being located on a rough, elevated terrain, an appropriate anarchist dreamland and so on.

Nonetheless, Manipur—which is included in this Asian Appalachia—is an old Asiatic kingdom with its own monarchies, languages, arts, religions, philosophies, traditional customs, value systems and cultural artefacts. Then elsewhere in and around the region, there are the dynastic regimes and rules of the Ahoms and the Konbaungs (the latter which Manipuris refer to as the Ava), that are sufficient to prove the insufficiency of the Western scientific approaches.

Over the ages, the Manipuri kings in the Imphal valley did used to impose tax on the hill dwellers who considered themselves as village republics. Now the contestation is one of the burning topics in the region as the hill people are forcing the other natives to respect their unique histories and fighting for a separate polity against both the union and provincial authorities. In this context, it is interesting to note that some native historians believed we had a highly developed system of cartography though it is an open secret how the colonial mapmakers still rule the roost. But truth be told the sense of boundary and territory is like chalk and cheese in the erstwhile kingdoms and the modern nation-states.

Postcolonialism + Neocolonialism

Since becoming a republic in 1950, the Indian map has been changing though unofficially. National borders are anyway imaginary lines drawn by, as they say in history, the winners of war. Some of the pressing issues more urgent than the fluid borders and maps are listed below:

One, it is a fact that India draws a bulk of its administrative and governance concepts from the British colonialists—making it obvious why it is easy to state that the nation was founded on neo-colonialist ideologies

Two, the Indians are torchbearers in subaltern studies because the mainland scholars never expected that India with its indivisible sovereignty will be once questioned

Three, the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 is a law that allows even the army to kill people on the basis of mere suspicion in the purportedly largest democracy of the world; and this law is itself a carbon-copy of the British’s Armed Forces Special Power Ordinance, which was imposed to quell the Indian fight for freedom during those days of Quit India Movement in the early Forties

Four, PM Narendra Modi, who was recently in London, spoke that diversity is India’s pride and strength while racist crimes continue unabated in the country and as if he had no hand in the Gujarat genocide in the early 2000s

Five, there are armed movements in Kashmir, the Northeast and the Red Corridor affected by Maoist insurgency; rumour has it that the joke is on the mainland Indian experts on postcolonial and subaltern studies

Six, while India claims to be the postcolonial big brother, there are several parts in its territory that has started redefining the meaning of neocolonialism

Seven, in contemporary politics, several European and East Asian countries have been accused of spreading the germs of neocolonialism. Yet India is on a much lower level, so it is still below anyone’s gaze. Coincidentally, the neocolonial low-profile maintenance is similar in how it describes the armed movement as domestic low-intensity conflicts arising out of bad law-and-order situation. On the other hand, Marxists would say neocolonialism is the last stage of imperialism while India contends that it will be the first step in which China will successfully lay its ever-spreading trap across Southeast Asia.
Eight, just like Marxism is alien to specific local problems outside Europe, critics of international relations theory contest that the deliberations in this field is not constant across the world; in fact its details are embedded in the soil of western countries. Particularly, the issues of security and economics, howsoever they are essential for each respective country, are elucidated from an insular western vantage point. No wonder, in modern history the study on international relations/affairs germinated as a product of the Westphalian narratives around the 17th century.

Nine, one certain thing when it comes to postcolonialism and neocolonialism in India is a proverbial lesson: Every time it points a finger, four of its fingers point toward itself. Call it double standards or whatever, all the claims of being the largest democracy, the leader in spreading the ideals of unity in diversity and the initiator in ‘alleged’ ethos of multiculturalism are just a hokum. Period.

[(a) The only ‘thing’ I like about the postcolonial/subaltern studies in the Indian mainland is Gayatri Spivak. Read Who Sings the Nation-State, a book out of her conversation with Judith Butler. (b) As I typed the authors’ names on MS Word, G Spivak’s name is underlined in red apparently to show spelling errors, while J Butler’s does not. Even MS Word is West-centric! The answer to the Shakespearian What’s in a Name is ‘an underlined text in red’.]

From the east to the west

Five years ago, HSBC, the English banking and financial service provider started a trend when it shifted its head office from London to Hong Kong. Its chief executive reasoned that it is the most rational decision considering ‘the world’s centre of gravity is steadily shifting east and south.’

This might have been compelled by financial inevitability but it does not erase the blot on the history of the West. It is deeply embedded in the consciousness that the West is the centre of the universe and it sets the benchmark in whatsoever field we can name. Like the mainland Indians impose the history of the the Guptas and Mauryas and the Vedas in the non-Hindu regions, for the West, everything is a periphery to the European central position. For instance, a few decades of Industrial Revolution is far more important than the thousands of years in civilisational development, invention and discovery of another thousand of daily needs and items that had brought into existence over centuries in the East.

Indigenous perspectives

In a typical Asian milieu, Juliet was seemingly lost in love when she blurted out the legendary what’s-in-a-name dialogue.

“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

Now the tales of eternal love in Khamba–Thoibi or Panthoibi–Nongpokningthou are equally interesting and in fact, more identifiable to us. (Check ETERNAL LOVEBIRDS on this blog:

So much is at stake in a name. Even a simple term like West Asia can turn the world upside down. The choice of word is most inevitable in legalese, academics and diplomacy. In our case study, it presents a clear view on the East–West dichotomy. The most visible aspect of this dichotomy is that the world is separated into rich and poor, developed and backward, civilised and barbaric and so on. It was, for the sake of the repetition, all along a handiwork of the Western experts.

However, there has been a revolutionary change in looking at the situations. As exceptions, we can cite the case of Bertil Lintner, the Swedish journalist who has devoted full time to Burma. It is inessential but once in a documentary on the notorious Golden Triangle I saw him in a Burmese paso. In Hollywood too, no more is the US a saviour of the world like in those days of Harrison Fords and Bruce Willis—a sort of realisation that emerged especially after 9/11. All of these can be partially attributed to the events in the late Eighties and early Nineties such as the end of Cold War, the liberalisation of economy, deregulation of the aviation industry giving rise to low-cost flights and so on.

Locally, once upon a time, many natives were excited when they were featured obscurely in a nondescript national media. The situation is now not only national but global, as evident from folk artistes, filmmakers and cultural entertainers who are busy performing and presenting their art forms in global arena.

Also, the rise of terms such as eurocentrism is a relatively new phenomenon considering it is less than three decades old. It shows how the kind of awakening is a trend which has made its headway only recently but pretty well. In fact, there are also rising issues of feminism and LGBTQ pride, plus movements against phallagocentrism and modernisation theory of development that is a disguise for the West-develops-the-East mindset.

Life in this early part of the 21st century is, in a way, like reliving the Sixties when the entire world saw a profound cultural revolution. The hippies and the Beat Generation conquered the West while in the east there were the Hungryalists and the Ibopishak and Co.

Every time we assert, we need to take a step back because we are still under the very gamut of a Westernised world. But to take an example, there was no need for feminism when the Manipuri women launched two wars against the British in 1904 and 1939 respectively. Perhaps we need more deliberations than emphasising on foreign words and terms, depending on their thoughts to redefine ourselves and all.  

The last word

The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.
—Frantz Fannon, The Wretched of the World

The descriptions with the literal choicest of words, to describe things from the natives’ viewpoint, are a positive sign indicating a transformation in seeing things. However, in several topics relating to historiography there is no other way but to look up on the Western references. History was oral in many of these societies—though the methods of both written and oral are equally prone to the relativism of historical truth. Besides, the deficiency of records and documents makes it only pragmatic but to refer to the existing information. We have several ‘puya’ books and chronicles but these are too little and sometimes highly unreliable.

In the case of many underdeveloped provinces in Northeast India, the people are still facing an additional predicament, which first developed from the merger of their traditional economies to the modern economic system, thanks to the British Raj. In a word, we are complicatedly struck between several worlds differentiated by assorted factors such as medieval milieu, a distorted blend of modernism and postmodernism as well the lifestyle of 21st century. Further, observers maintain that a new world order is in the offing with the rise of China as a hegemonic power by 2050. A few groups are worried that a Sino-centric world will destroy the existing system.

For us, we will double-fault if we do not learn anything from history. Once peopled by egalitarian communities, nowadays, the sense of status and luxury has undergone a sea change even before the economy does in this region. On one hand, we do not have any postcolonial susceptibility but rely on neocolonial resistance; and on the other, the decline of nation state is also one of the major concepts dealt broadly in a postmodern world. To conclude, the more we study about the western adventure of conquests, the clearer we see the true colour of mainland India, which inadvertently lies to our west.

Hopefully, things will change for the best in the coming years and decades. Now mum’s not the word; it is just the right time to tell the stories and tell them ourselves.



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