She created a furore last year when she refused to teach at King’s College, Cambridge in protest against the racial profiling she experienced from the porters and staff there. Now, Dr Priyamvada Gopal, University Reader in Anglophone and Related Literatures in the Faculty of English and Fellow, Churchill College, University of Cambridge has her new book out, titled Insurgent Empire, which shows how Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were active agents in their own liberation. The book also examines how they shaped British ideas of freedom and emancipation back in the United Kingdom. Dr Gopal has also authored Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence and The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration.
SheThePeople.TV spoke with her about her book, her stand against racial profiling at King’s College and how postcolonialism still impacts most of the former colonies and the erstwhile colonial powers themselves.
As a young girl growing up in India, did you think that academia would be your career eventually? What made you veer towards it and what influenced you to take colonial and postcolonial literature and theory as an area of focus?
I’ve always wanted to teach though I toyed with both journalism and law. It was studying in JNU, however, and really enjoying a brilliant campus life where thinking and debating went on all the time, and where connections were constantly made between the world, the text and the scholar cemented the aspiration to end up in academia. Those were, of course, better times for that university and the country. Colonial and postcolonial literature, similarly, allowed us to make connections between history, culture and society, between books and urgent political questions. In my case, it enabled me to study South Asian literature and write a doctoral dissertation on the Progressive Writers Association and to think about questions like nation-formation and the meaning of national culture when India and Pakistan were emerging out of colonial rule.
A great deal of implicit Western superiority manifested in the classroom and general culture. We didn’t really study empire or colonialism, so I didn’t really understand the extent of its power or influence at the time but I picked up on something that was in the air.
Did your childhood, which did see you live across cities and continents, have an impact on your early understanding of colonialism and the politics of empire and racism?
Yes, it did. My first real contact with racism was in Austria where people who were not visibly European were subjected to virulent forms of racism. I also studied in an international school which, despite being excellent in many ways, had a Eurocentric curriculum that did not really embrace the plurality of its student body. A great deal of implicit Western superiority manifested in the classroom and general culture. We didn’t really study empire or colonialism, so I didn’t really understand the extent of its power or influence at the time but I picked up on something that was in the air. I remember writing an indignant essay about representations of India in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s fiction when I was about 15. I do also think that spending portions of my childhood in Sri Lanka and in Bhutan has given me a broader sense of South Asia as a diverse and expansive formation than living in India alone might have.
You caused quite a furore in June last year when you announced you would not be teaching at King’s College, Cambridge due to the racial profiling you experienced by porters and staff there. Has that issue been resolved to your satisfaction? What have been the outcomes and learning from this protest?
Well, there has been some acknowledgment from the college that there is a problem with profiling that extended well beyond me. I’ve received private apologies from some college officers and my colleagues there; subsequently I—and other colleagues who joined me—rescinded the boycott. I do think that that episode encouraged people to come out and talk about their experiences at Cambridge –I received scores of emails and letters expressing appreciation that the issue was out in the open; people still come up to me to say thanks. I think that some efforts are being made now by the central University to address race and racism although there is a still a long way to go. What I did learn though from the concerted tabloid and right-wing press attack on me is that speaking up about race in Britain today is a risky proposition.
As a woman of colour in a position of academic eminence, have you been made to feel you constantly need to justify yourself in a world skewed heavily towards the white male academic stereotype?
Not constantly, no, but certainly the structures of the institution heavily advantage white men as indeed they do upper-caste men in India. So to some extent, there is always a need to push against that norm and there’s certainly the sense that one has to work much harder for recognition and respect. Having said that, I think that Indian-origin and Indian academics in the West, most of whom are, of course, upper-caste and benefited from caste privilege in their upbringings, have made a fair bit of progress and have a reasonably significant presence in many institutions. There is a more concerning representation gap when it comes to black academics, people of the Caribbean and African origin and also the other South Asian countries, particularly Bangladesh and that is what needs to be addressed in places like Cambridge. We have no black professors and hardly any black academics at all which is quite scandalous for a world-class institution.
When you did speak up about the racial profiling you experienced at King’s College, you were faced with a barrage of trolling on social media. Why do you think you became the focus of trolls rather than having your issue taken as a matter of serious concern?
In both contexts, the status quo is so intent on maintaining supremacy than any criticism is taken as a threat and has to be dealt with violently.
I had a fair bit of trolling and hate mail when I spoke up then but, in fact, my first experience with vicious and concerted trolling took place in 2014 when supporters of the present Indian government and votaries of Hindutva took issue with some of my writing in the Guardian newspaper. They included including rape and death threats; I still periodically get abusive and sexually explicit messages from them, including one recently from a criminal defense lawyer. Racists in the West operate in very similar ways—no criticism or dissent is allowed and should you raise concerns, you will be met with a barrage of abuse and threats intended to shut you up. In both contexts, the status quo is so intent on maintaining supremacy than any criticism is taken as a threat and has to be dealt with violently. Ethnonationalists tend to also be misogynist which is why women get targeted disproportionately; this is as true of white nationalists as it is of Sanghis.
Tell us about the germination and the writing of Insurgent Empire. What was it that made you realise the need for a book that examined freedom from the perspective of colonies and how it influenced the Empire?
The idea for this book took hold after I participated in a BBC debate which included a face-off with Niall Ferguson, the influential right-wing historian and advocate of Western civilizational superiority. I was working on my Indian novel book at the time but got involved with discussions around the British Empire and its legacies. I knew a book on the empire that was less dishonest and facile than these discussions tended to be was needed, and various people urged me to write one. I thought it was really a job for a historian but in due course, came up with an idea that would enable me to write something that addressed the question of empire and the problem with colonialism but in a more wide-ranging way. My first book had been on the Progressive Writers Association in India who were dissidents and critical interrogators of the nationalist status quo during the transition to independence. It has always been my belief, one I share with Edward Said, that all cultures and nations have dissident strands and people who challenge tyrannical and oppressive systems as well as violence undertaken in their name—so why would it be different for Britain? And sure enough, as a small body of historical works shows, within Britain itself there is a fairly long tradition of criticism of empire and refusal to endorse its evils. As I researched this tradition more, I found that it was not just a home-grown tradition but that many British critics of empire developed their arguments against empire after witnessing and learning from anticolonial rebellions and campaigners—in India, in the West Indies, in parts of Africa. This then challenges the myth that ideas of freedom came from Britain to the colonies; my argument is that it is a two-way process.
What were your own realisations and realignments that happened in the course of the research and the writing of this book?
One of the realisations that the book consolidated for me was the vital importance of dissidence in any context. If there had not been dissidence on the question of empire in Britain, many things would not have happened and decolonization might have been a much more protracted affair. The Britons who said ‘Not in My Name’ about what the empire was inflicting on black and Asian peoples were a vital part of the battle against the Empire.
Equally important is the importance of dialogue and alliances across national, religious and racial boundaries. Writing the book really clarified the sense that it is our obligation to witness resistance to oppression, learn from it and speak up against it no matter where it takes place, within or without the boundaries of nation-states.
How do you think the Empire continues to shape us, decades after it has left us, in South Asia? What are the remnants of being colonised that we continue to carry with us?
The truth is that we have largely failed to decolonize. The nation-state as we experience it is itself very much a legacy of Europe and European empires. Before colonialism, there was no ‘India’ in the sense of a “nation-state,” and that is self-evidently true for Bangladesh and Pakistan too. To a large extent, both in India and other postcolonial contexts, independence often just involved transferring power and resources from white rulers to native power- brokers. In many cases, the latter chose to leave administrative and legal structures largely unchanged. This is why so many colonial-era laws are still with us including those on sedition and censorship. A democratic nation-state should not be keeping sedition laws on the books—that was intended to crush anti-colonial resistance. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act which helps cover up so much impunity in Kashmir was also first conceived of by the British colonial government. Colonialism also involved creating and consolidating cultural hierarchies and we can see this now in the dominance of aggressive ‘Hindu nationalism’ which asserts the supremacy of some cultural and religious traditions over others. It’s almost a parodic copy of the white European superiority that undergirded colonialism. Making claims for ‘development’ and ‘women’s emancipation’ was another aspect of British colonialism which the Indian state is using to justify its own authoritarian practices in places like Kashmir. Finally, worth remembering that the profit motive and concentration of wealth in a few hands was an integral part of colonial rule and it is also a feature of our present.
Writing the book really clarified the sense that it is our obligation to witness resistance to oppression, learn from it and speak up against it no matter where it takes place, within or without the boundaries of nation-states.
And finally, in a world scenario where immigrants, the other, Brexit and rising xenophobia seems to be the new normal, what lessons do you think we need to keep in mind from the age of colonial imperialism? And what would you say is the new form imperialism has taken in the new world order?
There are two things to say. Certain assumptions about the West’s right to lead the world still shape British and American foreign policy particularly in the Middle East, very similar claims to those made in the heyday of British imperialism—that they will ‘conquer in order to free.’
The other legacy of colonialism that needs to be talked about much more is the way in which formerly colonized states have started to behave very much like colonizers themselves in dealing with resistance and agitation. There is the same use of repressive violence and the same talk of bringing development to backward peoples. The concept of self-determination, which so vital to India’s own independence struggle is decried, for instance, in relation to Kashmiris. How can you be in favour of something for yourself but not for others? I think that India, like other postcolonial entities, has to undertake some soul-searching about its engagement in colonial practices. Xenophobia is rife in Brexit Britain and Trump’s America but as we have seen in relation to both the NRC and the treatment of minorities in India (that includes several lynchings of both Muslims and Dalits), it is not exclusive a Western practice. Colonialism and its lethal hierarchies are everywhere; my book makes a case for the values of anticolonialism to prevail.