Pedestrian Postcolonialism

I walk. My mode of familiarising myself to any new space is on foot and London is a pedestrian-friendly city filled with ample footpaths and maps to help my flaneur emerge with a vengeance. There has been however, an inadvertent result of this very nuanced engagement with the city – the opening of ‘colonial wounds’. While Mignolo (2005) spoke of this wound as the an outcome of racism or of experiences of those who are considered subpar to the standards of traditional bastions of hegemonic power in the global north, my wounds, though linked to these experiences, are different. I do not experience a deep lessening of my being or a sense of reduced worthiness. I do, however have to routinely engage with statues, plaques, squares all created in the honour of people, institutions and wars that were active agents in ensuring that the region now earmarked as South Asia was retained and utilised as colony. These physical markers of people and events have moral and normative values in my imagination and in the imagination of the people and institutions who created and preserve them, however our values may be at odds with each other. Walking through Trafalgar Square I see a statue of Henry Havelock  who was critical in quashing, what the plinth describes as, the ‘Indian Mutiny’ and what I was taught was one of the earliest movements of ‘freedom’ from colonial rule. The disjunction between these two readings is to be expected, and it reminds me of Achebe’s quote (1958), “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Can I begrudge the British for glorifying their history? Can I grouse them the fact that their victories were so deeply linked to the losses of life and personhood of a people? I am not sure.

The #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa was based on similar readings, as is the question of what must be done with confederate statues in the United States. Roy encourages us to move forward from the position of the ‘colonial wound’ when engaging with urban theory for she views it as a limiting lens, one that does not allow for ‘worlding’ to unfold (2011). While I agree, at this point I encounter these physical markers on a daily basis, and it is necessary for me to engage with this wound to heal it and ultimately be able to move like a progressive postcolonialist into the realm of ordinary cities (Robinson, 2006) and notions of more democratic cities. Ironically it is these very statues and plaques that have helped me engage with wound. Two particular occasions have lead me to this process of reconciling the fact that I currently live in a city that also celebrates the people who were also vital parts of creating the political boundaries of my nation-state and the violent histories of oppression that was meted out for over two centuries. I use the adverb ‘also’ purposefully to ensure that I acknowledge that London also has statues and plaques of postcolonial leaders who actively worked towards the emancipation of their people and the subsequent fall of the British Empire; furthermore the adverb helps me remember that south asians had and have processes of oppression that we mete out to each other and were involved in supporting the systems of the British Empire. The ‘also’ helps me remember our agency, our compliancy and role in the violence. However, to return to the process of healing, I look to the roads between Westminster and Trafalgar Square.

The first occasion was just days before the London Pride where the streets and government buildings were filled with Pride Flags. The most important for me was when  I saw a rather large and severe statue of Churchill, and above him in the sky, at full mast on a government building was the Rainbow flag flying beautifully in the sky. In the same week, India was hearing a petition to overturn Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that currently criminalises ‘unnatural sex’ and is widely viewed as a means of outlawing homosexuality. It is important to note that it was introduced in 1861 and was a derivative of the 1533 Buggary Act in England. The moment of walking past Churchill, seeing the flag and hoping that this attempt to overturn section 377 is successful, I felt a sense of power and optimism. The UK decriminalised homosexuality only in 1967, India had gained Independence only 20 years earlier and had retained this law. In 2009, after much litigation Article 377 was declared ‘unconstitutional’ by the Delhi High Court as it offended fundamental rights pertaining to equality, however a few years later in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned this ruling by stating that Article 377 was not unconstitutional, did not target any particular community and finally that the LGBTQ community represented only a ‘miniscule fraction’ of the Indian population and could not push for a change in legislation through the courts. This change, the Supreme Court stated, needed to be made in Parliament. In 2017 however, on the back of a heated debate on biometric data and security in India, the Supreme Court stated that Privacy was a right in India. In 2018, a new petition was submitted that combined the rights to equality with this newly declared right to privacy and that section 377 be scrapped. This ‘everyday life’ of the courts and the agency of people from the margins (De, 2018) consistently affect the notions and legal understandings of citizenship in India, and I look forward to the day when Pride Flags fly high above Indian government buildings!

The second event occurred within a few days of my meeting with Churchill, at Trafalgar Square. There was a gigantic Anti-Trump and pro-human rights agitation in the square. People spoke of immigration, of occupation, of family separation, of LGBTQ rights and the giant balloon of an agitated and truant Trump in a nappy hovered over and around these pillars and statues of colonisers. People and children, of South Asian and Caribbean origin whose families perhaps had colonial ties with the state climbed the statues (including Havelock’s!) in order to get a better view or to be better viewed! And these statues which for me represented a time of tyranny became the physical foundations of people attempting to speak of human rights and equality. And in that moment I thought of Roy’s urging to go beyond the colonial wound, and perhaps it is time now to acknowledge that the past has clearly affected the present but there are also much more current ‘hunters’ within the Indian subcontinent and without, and by fixating on the older statues, I will not be working towards the postcolonial imperative of moving towards greater equality. So can I view London as an ordinary city? Can these markers of painful narratives that exist in London allow me to gaze back at my own cities and the processes of valorising the ‘hunters’ in the Indian context that our history might glorify? Can I look back with greater empathy in a city where I feel significantly represented and imagine that there are communities and people for whom the major memorials may bring about processes of unease? The answers to these questions will only emerge over time, but I must thank the dissonance for creating cracks for me to explore, and apply my current academic life into my lived reality.

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