Imperial ideology

Published September 16, 2022
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

AT its zenith, the British Empire was celebrated by its ideologues as the dominion upon which the sun never set. When it came, however, the end was eye-catchingly inglorious — the chaotic departure from the crown jewel of India shortly after World War II triggering a rapid decline.

In the eight decades since the British be­­g­an relinquishing colonial possessions everywh­e­­re, the American Empire has asserted itself as the world’s policeman and fought off the challenge of global communism. But we no longer live in a world in which western hegemony can be taken for granted.

Yet the death of Queen Elizabeth II has reminded us of the profound legacy of British colonialism; India and Pakistan even formally observing days of mourning.

Rafia Zakaria on these pages highlighted the eruption of anti-imperialist sentiment on many social media platforms to counter cringeworthy imperial apologists in Britain and the world, but my sense is that large numbers of young people in Pakistan and other former colonies remain blissfully unaware of how they continue to reproduce the discursive and material interests of Empire.

Take, for example, the wide-ranging ref­rain of many otherwise educated Pakistanis to the devastating floods that have inundated large parts of Sindh and Balochistan: we need more dams! Our obsession with mega infrastructure such as dams, canals, barrages and more can be traced to the profound transformations of nature inaugurated under British rule in the late 19th century.

The conquest of nature is a colonial legacy.

Millions of acres of previously non-arable land were literally colonised under the Brit­i­­s­­h Raj by manipulating the flow of water acr­oss the Indus plains. Huge migrations took place from regions in what today comprises In­­d­ian Punjab to the west, with indigenous nomadic populations pushed to the margins of the new colonial society. The so-called ca­­nal colonies in western Punjab — and similar offshoots in northern Sindh — were not only celebrated as a great achievement of British engineering science but also served as a captive market of raw materials to motor British industrialisation.

Europe, of course, has long depicted itself as the cradle of modern civilisation and rationality. During the heyday of colonialism, natural resources were exploited without end in the interests of Empire; Nature was quite literally conquered. Natural irrigation and drainage systems that had sustained local communities for centuries were destroyed at the altar of what was uncritically called ‘improvement’, and later, ‘development’.

Read: Man-made catastrophes

This myopic outlook was adopted wholesale by generals, political leaders, bureaucrats, planners and engineers in the post-colonial period. This summer’s flooding is partly explained by unprecedented rains. But we can­not sweep under the carpet the role of me­­­ga infrastructure in impeding natural dra­ins and thereby creating otherwise avoidable flooding.

In DG Khan and Rajanpur, for example, hill torrents cascading down the Koh-e-Suleyman hill tracts metamorphosed into massive flash floods in part because of the disastrous effect of the Asian Development Bank-funded Chashma Right Bank Canal which local communities and intellectuals resisted in the early 2000s. Aside from flood-specific triggers, the World Bank-funded Taunsa Barrage rehabilitation project has also had deleterious effects on local livelihoods, homes and ecologies.

In Sindh, the Left Bank Outfall Drain and Right Bank Outfall Drain, both of which badly affected natural drains, exacerbated salination and waterlogging long before this summer’s floods. In fact, design flaws were identified as having contributed to flooding in both 2010 and 2011.

Unfortunately, those who would pur­port to challenge western hege­mony in the years and decades to come have yet to demonstrate they are able and willing to transcend the arch-modernist logic of conquering nature that animated European colonial empires and their postcolonial successors. China, for example, has major interests in dam-building, construction and other forms of mega development within Pakistan.

To refuse to mourn a colonial monarch like the British queen certainly reflects a proud tradition of anti-imperialism that progressives must uphold. But let us not forget that many young people in Pakistan today follow Imran Khan in celebrating the Afghan Taliban as anti-colonial freedom fighters whilst also reducing anti-imperialism to a vague and opportunistic anti-Americanism.

The legacy of Empire is manifest in the brazen class privilege within Pakistani society, alongside ethnic-national oppression and colonial statecraft. More than ever, however, imperialism lives on through developmental ideologies and practices that emphasise the conquest of nature. The tens of millions who are suffering now are paying the price of the unbridled urge to profit from nature’s despoilation. It is those who claim themselves to be the most rational, both at home and abroad, that will push us all to the point of no return unless we change tack.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2022

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