Thu, Mar 14, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Colonial legacy fuels disorder

To understand the roots of the crises and conflicts in India, Zimbabwe, the Middle East and many other places, it pays to look back to the colonial era

By Shashi Tharoor

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

Zimbabwe's crisis has incited an unsettling feeling of deja vu. The reason is clear: it is, thankfully, no longer fashionable to decry colonialism's evils in assigning blame for every national misfortune. The imperial statues are toppled, cities and streets renamed, the vestiges of foreign rule either abandoned or adapted. With the sole exception of Zimbabwe, no leading politician in any post-imperial country has made a notable speech in recent years attacking colonialism. That great staple of political rhetoric appears to have been buried across the developing world.

Once, the votaries of one kind of new international order or another decried the evils of imperialism (sometimes, but not always, prefixed with a "neo-") in justifying demands for a more just dispensation. That theme has died out in diplomatic discourse. Yet followers of world affairs would be unwise to consign colonialism to the proverbial dustbin of history, for it remains a factor in understanding our world's problems and dangers.

To begin, residual problems from the end of the earlier era of colonization, usually the result of untidy exits by the colonial power, still remain dangerously stalemated. The events in East Timor in 1999 remain fresh in memory, and difficulties linger. But at least closure seems in sight, unlike those messy legacies of European colonialism: Western Sahara, Cyprus and Palestine.

Moreover, fuses lit in the colonial era could re-ignite, as they have done, to everyone's surprise, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where war broke out over a colonial border that Italy's occupiers had failed to define with precision. In Zimbabwe, colonial land-ownership patterns that gave most of the viable farmland to white settlers are at least one root of the country's current crisis.

But not only the direct results of colonialism remain relevant: the indirect ones also matter. The intellectual history of colonialism is littered with many a willful cause of recent conflict. One is careless anthropology: Belgium's classification of Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi, which reified a distinction that had not existed before, still haunts Africa's Great Lakes region.

A related problem arises from sociology: how much bloodshed do we owe, for instance, to the British invention of "martial races" in India? One can never overlook the old colonial administrative habit of "divide and rule," exemplified, again, by British policy in the subcontinent after 1857, which led almost inexorably to the tragedy of Partition. Such distinctions were not merely pernicious; they were often characterized by an unequal distribution of the resources of the state within a colonial society. Belgian colonialists favored Tutsis, leading to Hutu rejection of them as alien interlopers; Sinhalese resentment of Tamil privileges in colonial-era Sri Lanka prompted the discriminatory policies after independence that fueled the Tamil revolt.

A "mixed" colonial history within one modern state is also a potential source of danger. When a state has more than one colonial past, its future is vulnerable. Ethnicity or language hardly seem to be a factor in the secessions (one recognized, the other not) of Eritrea from Ethiopia and the "Republic of Somaliland" from Somalia. Rather, it was different colonial experiences (Italian rule in Eritrea, British rule in Somaliland) that set them off, at least in their own self-perceptions, from the rest of their ethnic compatriots.

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