The Book of Shame and Righteous Anger

May 18, 2010 § 2 Comments

The Wretched of the Earth (Fanon, Frantz)

Robert Clive and family, with their Ayah (Sir Joshua Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons)

Have the courage to read this book, for in the first place it will make you ashamed
Jean Paul Sartre, Preface to The Wretched of the Earth

Frantz Fanon died of leukemia in 1961, at the age of 36. In an abbreviated but brilliant life, he blazed like a furious flash of lightning across the stormiest night sky in Africa’s history, illuminating, in the process, the murky conscience of the world for all to see. His Wikipedia entry says he “is perhaps the pre-eminent thinker of the 20th century on the issue of de-colonization and the psychopathology of colonization“. Having read The Wretched of the Earth, I have reason to believe the truth in that statement, and can now comprehend how Steve Biko, or Malcolm X, or Che Guevera, all spiritual sons of Fanon, must have felt as they read this book, how they must have burned with anger and bellowed in defiance against injustice and oppression. Theirs were the claps of thunder that we heard immediately after, and the ferocious forest fires that raged for years thereafter, the smoking embers of which we call the world we walk on today.

What Franz Fanon documents is not merely the misery and indignity of a colonized people, but how being colonized affects a nation for generations after the colonizing power leaves. Now I usually distrust narratives that talk of events as historical inevitabilities (because human matters are far too complex) but this was different. I appeared, quite improbably, to be reading an accurate history of post-Independence India, in a book where India is hardly mentioned once or twice in passing, written by a man who died several years ago, in faraway Algeria.  Judge for yourself – this is how post-colonialism plays out, according to Fanon.

  • The colonial powers hand over power to moderate parties, whose leaders belong to elite urban classes – lawyers, traders, civil servants, the western educated bourgeoisie, the people who were actually doing pretty well, thank you, under the colonial establishment. They had made calm, reasonable demands of the colonial overlords, in a peaceful fashion, through stoppages of work, mass demonstrations, and boycotting of imports – and thereby they won independence for the nation. Readers with even a cursory knowledge of Indian history should hear all sorts of bells ringing at this point
  • Having come into power, these parties show a deep distrust towards the people of the rural areas. They proceed to systematically disregard the peasantry for the most part.  In Fanon’s words, they “make no use at all of the opportunity which is offered to them to integrate the people of the countryside, to educate them politically and to raise the level of their struggle
  • And what does the bureaucracy do meanwhile? They form a clique, “a dictatorship of civil servants“,  “who have been set in the mould of the former mother country“. They prove “incapable of thinking in terms of the nation as a whole“, says Fanon; “under them, corruption, prevarication, the diversion of stocks, and the black market” will come to stay. More bells ring.
  • The “Nationalist” parties are summarily dismissed in a similar fashion: “A bourgeoisie that provides nationalism alone as food for the masses fails in its mission and gets caught up in a whole series of mishaps. But if nationalism …is not enriched …into a consciousness of social and political needs, … it leads up a blind alley.”
  • And what of us, the Great Indian Middle Class, the ones lusted after and lured by every multinational in the world? It appears we are the worst scum of all – the scum that allowed all this to happen as a result of  our intellectual laziness.  The middle class will be completely ignorant of the economy of their own country, Fanon predicts correctly, and to them, independence only meant the transfer into native (i.e., their own) hands of those unfair advantages and privileges which had been the prerogative of the colonial power
  • Listen to Fanon. The middle class “is only a sort of little greedy class, avid and voracious, with the mind of a huckster, only too glad to accept the dividends that the former colonial power hands out to it. This get-rich-quick middle class shows itself incapable of great ideas or of inventiveness…imperceptibly it becomes not even the replica of Europe, but its caricature.” Replace “Europe” with “America”, and this is true even today, of the class to which I belong
  • So what about the Communists, the so-called “Revolutionary Parties” that were supposed to protect the common people – surely he must love them? No so. Most of them, Fanon sneers, learnt their revolutionary thoughts from European textbooks, not from any love for the people or an understanding of their problems. The ones that consciously stayed away from government posts, in order to stay close to the masses, are quickly disregarded and cast aside by the leadership; it is this fringe, disillusioned and dangerous, that forms underground parties. Ignored in towns, they go to the villages – and here, Fanon says, “their ears hear the true voice of the country, and their eyes take in the great and infinite poverty of their people“. They realize that political action in the cities has done nothing for the villages, and they decide to take up arms. “Then it is that they will realize, bewilderedly, that the peasant masses catch on to what they have to say immediately, and without delay, ask them the question to which they have not yet prepared the answer: ‘When do we start?’
    For a colonized people, the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.
    “It is clear that in the colonial countries, the peasants alone are revolutionary, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. The starving peasant, outside the class system, is the first among the exploited to discover that only violence pays.”

How can postcolonial effects be in existence 63 years after colonialism went away? And I have thought long and hard about this, and this, unhappily, is what I believe: colonialism has not really gone away.

Colonialism is not merely about White Sahibs strutting around, fanned by local Coolies and Ayahs. Colonialism is about a set of unequal relationships – unequal in political, economic, social and cultural power – between two groups of people, one consistently advantaged in every sphere, and the other consistently disadvantaged, over several generations; where the superior group systematically uses services and raw materials from the other group, but makes no effort, beyond lip service, to integrate with them as a single people. The lot of the starving farm laborers of Telengana, or of the Santhal tribals of Chhotanagpur, to pick names at random from newspaper articles, has probably not changed by much over the last century, except that the babus who oversee the exploitation of their land have a darker skin these last sixty years.

This may not be the narrative I normally use, or was ever taught to use, to describe post-independence Indian history; but what if it is the one THEY choose to employ? Who will we send to argue the matter with them – the Central Reserve Police Force?

I write this, with anguish, the day after Naxalites killed another 40 people in Dantewada. I do not condone violence, but I think it would be irresponsible not to seek to understand it.

Fanon is not an armchair anarchist, nor a Maoist theorist. He neither condemns nor condones revolutionary crime, he merely predicts its inevitability. He appreciates the need to allow for the accumulation of capital in the hands of those who help build the country – just as long as the standard of life is brought to a minimally acceptable level for the nation as a whole, and there are no fundamental inequalities based on one’s identity within the country. He is warmly appreciative, for instance, of Europe’s achievements on this front.

The words that haunt me as I move on from this book, are the ones that I will close the blog with.

No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers. We all have dirty hands; we are all soiling them in the swamps of our country and in our terrifying emptiness of our brains. Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.

I personally think I am a coward, but sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference.


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