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Apology For Colonialism ! Impossible?

By Vineet Thakur

16 December, 2009

A small news item tucked somewhere in the middle pages of The Times of India, a few days ago, had an interesting information. It read that recently a tribe in the Pacific island of Vanatu issued a personal apology to the descendants of Reverend John Williams, a British Missionary, who was killed and eaten by their ancestors 170 years ago. The missionary, much like the civilizing zeal of the times which the West had taken upon itself to mask the brutal imperial order it was establishing, was trying to convert pagans into Christianity.

Contrast it with what the former foreign minister of France Hubert Vedrine has to say in his recent book History Strikes Back: How States, Nations, and Conflicts are Shaping the 21st Century. Castigating the French for excessive self-criticism regarding their history Vedrine says, “Discussions of the past have started to become rather masochistic. People are constantly ‘rediscovering’ tragic episodes of French history as if they had somehow been hidden, which has generally not been the case. In this case the goal…seems to be to level accusations as part of some atonement process, to obtain apologies or reparations, or to create new legal obligations. What is the purpose of asking an apology for acts undertaken by others in the past? To what degree is one responsible for crimes committed by one’s ancestors? Is there such a thing, contrary to legal principles, as collective responsibility, and can this be transmitted over time?”

The less said the better, for the West has never sought official apology for colonialism from the colonized. Colonialism after all always rode on the back of Christian missionaries wanting to civilize the barbaric non-west. What is interesting however is the fact that the erstwhile colonized is ready to apologise even for a single act of brutality, while the erstwhile colonizer is not even ready to acknowledge the insanity of the rapine colonial order. For the questions that Vedrine raises about the culpability of the current generation for acts committed by their ancestors, the only reply is ‘ask the right question’. Apology for the past is required not because the current generation is responsible for whatever was done, but because the current order in which the West is developed and non-west is still developing is itself a result of what was done in the past. The current generation also enjoys the fruits of imperialism. The modernity in the West was acquired through primitivising the rest, and thus the benefits of modernity reaped by the current crop have to be acknowledged accordingly. The whole criminal architecture of colonialism is the founding logic of the legal principles of modern times. Thus, it is not a questioning of owning up a crime, as Vedrine puts it, but expressing at least a minimal acknowledgement of the fact that the current order does not put everyone on the same footing. It is a question of acknowledging the in-built inequalities that colonialism has passed on to the current system.

Even if, all that doesn’t convince Vedrine, someone at least tell him to re-read his own title more carefully. ‘History Strikes Back’ – that perhaps would tell him more about the power of history and the rationale as well as morality of acknowledging it.

Vineet Thakur
Research Scholar
Jawaharlal Nehru University


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