The ruse of development

Published: August 20, 2019


PHOTO: REUTERS The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British colonial power in Africa was motivated by the three C’s: Christianity, commerce and civilisation. Africa, in their minds, was this vast savage and dark continent that needed to be brought forward to the contemporary times. And who else was better suited to do that than the White man from Europe. Anyone who resisted this “development” was a terrorist and needed to be dealt with real force. The White man’s burden of colonialism still continues to create inequality, poverty and intergenerational grief in the lands that were supposedly civilised. Certainly, the British in Africa were not the only one who pushed their development agenda down the throats of the natives. The colonists in America and the crown soldiers in Australia played by the same playbook — one that devastated communities while simultaneously ensuring the powers felt good about their kindness to the future generations. Apartheid was the most recent gift given to the “ungrateful” Blacks.

Two hundred years later, we are living at a time when the same development argument is finding eager supporters in the capitals of the world. This time, it is the ethnic minorities, historically marginalised and poor that are on the receiving end of this gift of development and civilisation. The argument by the BJP government in India surrounding Kashmir’s development comes straight from the colonial school of thought. It is shrouded in a message of benevolence for the local masses, it paints a picture of a brighter future for the historically marginalised people, and like the British colonial masters, offers the locals no room for discussion or dissent. Like the fraud of development carried out by the colonists a century or two ago, it is designed by people not from the region, but instead by those who are sitting at a distance and view the region with binoculars clouded by a strict ideological worldview. This view from the distance is shaped by suspicion and this grand gift of development is created without any input by the locals. Of course, it is enforced by a disproportionate, non-local, heavily armed force.

New Delhi is certainly not the only capital that has embraced this model. Ethnic minorities, with their own rich culture, tradition and heritage are increasingly being brought to the “mainstream” citizenship through force. The argument from the capital, and its regressive force that is at its disposal, is that the policies crafted by them are good for the people, only if they knew. The incarceration centres, we are told, are actually re-education institutions and not concentration camps. These re-education institutions are heavily guarded and unlike a typical educational institution, are off-limits for visits or discussion. The choice given to the locals is simple — leave your heritage, culture, lifestyle, language, accept that your way of life is inferior — and there would be no problem whatsoever. There would be peace, tranquillity and bright flowers everywhere. Who wouldn’t want that?

The right response to this increasingly common rhetoric that is both dangerous and disingenuous, is not to argue against development, for access to resources and opportunities is a right to all citizens; but to argue for inclusion and to stand up against any policy that marginalises people, their heritage, culture and their right for self-determination. The lessons from history are clear — colonialism destroyed people, communities and culture. As humans, we are worse off because of the idea of the three C’s. The modern incarnation is just as problematic. The situation in Kashmir or anywhere else ought to be looked from the lens of basic human rights of the native people and their ability to create a future that they choose for themselves. Human development is not about roads or tall buildings. It is about restoring human dignity and giving people the right to speak, share and shape their future.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2019.

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