News | Drawing lines

Colonialism and the creation of borders

The keynote panel at Culture Shock 2009 was presented yesterday by Radha D’Souza, who discussed the rise of border conflicts in the wake of British colonialism. Hosted by SSMU and QPIRG, Culture Shock’s week-long events deconstruct the myths surrounding Canada’s immigrant communities. D’Souza, an Indian lawyer, social activist, and a current reader for law at Westminster University in London, shed light on the impact of the border conflicts that followed Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947. The Daily sat down with her to discuss the emergence of border conflicts in the post-colonial era.

McGill Daily: What role has colonialism played in the contemporary border conflicts that afflict ex-colonial states?
Radha D’Souza: The past 500 years of modernity have shown that capitalism intrinsically is linked to forms of colonialism. As capitalism has changed, so have forms of colonialism – from a mercantile form of capitalism which created colonies in South America to large-scale imperialism perpetrated by industrializing nations. By forcibly bringing different communities together, colonialism created the pretext for contemporary conflicts. Look at the Malaysian example: different ethnicities were brought into Malaysia to work in different economic sectors – the Tamils to work on rubber plantations, the Malays to till the soil, et cetera. As soon as one of these sectors experienced a downturn, the issue became one of ethnicities. So, you see how colonialism, albeit in a different form than the British imperialism, still has a continued influence.

MD: Do national or international governments have an obligation to resolve these conflicts?
RDS: The idea of legal obligations suggests an assumed notion of legal objectives, a certain normative order that obliges people to act. Instead, we need to step back from these kinds of assumptions. We tend to look at conflicts at an empirical level; we perceive them as conflicts between Hindus and Muslims killing each other. With any social phenomenon, it is never that one-dimensional. We should start looking at what lies behind the forces that make people suddenly take up violence, particularly people who, centuries before, managed to live peacefully next to one another.

MD: Do you think that the way border conflicts are portrayed in the media can be seen as a form of ongoing colonialism? What do you think of Angela Davis’ notion of a “racialization of the media”?
RDS: Eisenhower spoke of a “military industrial complex” when in fact it is a “military industrial media complex”. We should not forget that the media is intrinsically bound to and evolved with the development of technology for warfare. Huge amounts of money have been put into psychological research by the government; the results are equally used by the military and the media. Furthermore, it is important not to forget that it is the victors who write history. The notion that the UN still is a truly “international” body – although the Security Council to this day is dominated by the victors of the Second World War – demonstrates the power of this discourse. Who is the “international community”? The UN was created without the consent of the colonies. Can it be seen as truly representative?
We have to understand that the coverage of conflicts that we see is very much projected in a specific way by this “international community” and the same goes for the democracy discourse. There are a lot of myths about democracy which show a prevalent distaste for analytical thinking. We do not ask why certain conflicts are happening. Never before has so much money been around as today. A large part of this is bound to be channelled into sustaining conflict due to the power of the media as well as states. Although we talk about the importance of putting democratic systems in place in Afghanistan, we neglect the people on the ground. Instead, we focus on individuals such as [Hamid] Karzai and [Abdullah] Abdullah. This demonstrates the power of discourse, as we have stopped questioning such representations and do not recognize the disconnect between not acknowledging the people and wanting to see “democracy”.

MD: To what extent does colonialism still live on in countries such as India and Pakistan? Do you find that elements of it have been appropriated by the respective governments and continue to be perpetrated with a new face?
RDS: What we forget, however, is that although the modalities of colonialism may change, the substance has remained the same. Colonialism is a living thing; the governments [of India, Pakistan]may have changed. However, the bureaucracy and the rulers essentially have remained the same. The notion of “legacies” is a powerful one, especially because we like to think that former colonies now are independent. This, however, is not necessarily the case. With the transformation of the character of capitalism to finance monopolies, the character of colonialism and therefore all the nuts and bolts which hold it together have changed as well.

—compiled by Sweta Kanna


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