A Demanding Relationship with History: A Conversation with Priyamvada Gopal

August 30, 2021   •   By Bhakti Shringarpure

AS AN ACADEMIC working in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge for the last two decades, Priyamvada Gopal could easily spend her days doing the usual and the expected at a posh university with freshly trimmed lawns and Gothic chapels. Instead, she has been the subject of virulent hatred, positioned at the center of media controversies, subjected to both serious slander and laughably petty accusations. Even though Gopal has published critical work on the British Empire since the start of her career, the past few years have found her involved in student protests for the decolonization of universities and, as a result, subjected to disturbing, neoconservative attacks. 


Gopal has remained firm against her detractors, resisting what she calls the “fake culture wars” being generated around her, and displaying in the process a sardonic and unsparing wit. Though the dust keeps swirling, Gopal has continued to produce important writing: her 2020 book, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, is a magisterial volume that complicates and expands our understanding of the histories of dissent during the colonial period. Her recent article “On Decolonisation and the University,” published in the journal Textual Practice, also offers clarity on many of the debates raging at American and European universities today.


When we spoke on Zoom, I had expected to meet the intimidating version of Gopal often observed on social media. But instead, I found her relaxed, charming, and easy to talk to. We covered a lot of ground in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the challenge of writing radical histories, the relentless coloniality of English departments, the current state of postcolonial studies, the relevance of decolonization discourses for India today, and the best strategies for fighting off your detractors on social media.


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BHAKTI SHRINGARPURE: Let me start with two questions about your book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, which was published by Verso last year. Your book seems to speak directly to a very precarious moment in British history, by which I mean the vigorous defense of empire going on in certain circles these days. I’m not saying this hasn’t happened before, but with Brexit and so on, there’s a real revival of imperial nostalgia, and you’ve been at the front lines of speaking and writing about it. Did these events influence you as you wrote your book?


PRIYAMVADA GOPAL: Yeah, they very much did. What feels to people outside Britain as new and in your face — that is, this energy that goes into renewed defenses of the British Empire — has actually been brewing for at least a decade or longer. It’s become very salient because of Brexit, Boris Johnson, and the Trump years. This inability to question or even understand the empire except through an attenuated historical mythology has been around for a very long time. In fact, C. L. R. James, whom I discuss in the book, talks about the mythologies of empire, and he was writing in the early 1960s. He describes this myth of a benevolent and giving empire as being in tatters, and yet that myth is still around. He talks about the ways in which the tatters are taken and stitched up to make the myth new again. And that is exactly right. So, the mythology of the benevolent empire has never gone away and is very salient for me in terms of public discussions in Britain. But I wanted to think about it and define it differently from just saying, “Well, here’s the postcolonial version of empire, right, the bad empire versus the good one of the myth.”


You use the word “precarious,” and I think that right now is indeed a precarious moment. But I think all the characters discussed in my book were operating precariously. There was never a moment when imperialism was not the dominant ideology. And the critics of empire were people who were always speaking from different levels of marginality and different levels of precariousness. Criticism of empire within Britain is a tradition. It is a tradition voiced in a minor key, but it exists. You don’t just have to buy the official state narrative of either Britain or the empire; you can think about British issues through the lens of dissidents rather than those who are speaking for the state.


Yes, and there is an embedded critique of postcolonial studies as well. In my book, I wrote about the failure of postcolonial studies. And used the term “failure” to problematize certain theoretical terms that were part of the metropolitan trend — Homi Bhabha et al. Do you feel critical of that tradition as well?


When it comes to the postcolonials, one risks a degree of generalization here, obviously, because postcolonial studies has hosted very different kinds of people, but I think the ascendant of the field certainly through the 1990s and into the 21st century was not as oppositional as it might have been. It is thought of as an oppositional field, but a great deal of work in the field was, in fact, acquiescent in tenor and did not make the necessary connections in the way that Edward Said did between literary studies and the world outside the text, and the role of critic. Not all the influential voices in the field really made those important connections, and I think that it did detract from the edge that the field could have had.


Your previous books were focused on Indian colonial and postcolonial literary studies or literary criticism, broadly speaking. What has led to the shift to this more transnational paradigm that seems to be grounded more in history than in literature?


I think the odd one out is my middle book, The Indian English Novel: Nation, History and Narration (2009), which I really wrote for students. I wrote it in the spirit of thinking about this field that one is expected to teach, but it doesn’t really exist as a properly historicized field — that is, Indian writing in English or the Anglophone Indian novel. I wanted to situate it and give it a history of its own. I actually think there is a closer connection between Insurgent Empire and my first book, Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence (2005), which was on dissident writers in India. It was on the Progressive Writers Association. And again, these were people who placed themselves at a kind of angle to the Indian state project and offered critique even as the nation was coming into being. So, I’ve always been interested in dissidents and that thread got picked up again in the third book.


But you’re quite right, Insurgent Empire is unconstrained by, I think, the need to be literary, and that is a consequence, I suppose, of tenure and seniority. It frees you up. As a young scholar coming into academia, you don’t feel that freedom. I certainly felt much freer with my third book to range outside disciplinary boundaries, to be properly interdisciplinary, to not worry about ticking boxes. And therefore, I was able to tie public concerns and public debates to the actual research. What I’m saying is there is a connection between the first book and the third book in as much as they look at dissident figures.


Yes, very much so. Let me now move toward the “decolonize” debate that this LARB series is about. I think Insurgent Empire shows a commitment to revisionist radical history and dissident history, or the dissident figures left out of history. Do you believe that this is the starting point of “decolonizing” in the sense we use the term today? I’m not talking about political movements but about this broadly circulating idea. It’s everywhere these days. Does decolonizing begin with revisionist historical writing?


I interpret revisionism here to mean filling out history and tracking what actually happened. And filling out the gaps in historical understanding. So, yeah, absolutely. I’ve always thought of Jamaica Kincaid’s phrase “a demanding relationship to history” as the essence of decolonization. That is, wherever you’re situated, you have to develop a more demanding relationship to history in order to decolonize. So, the short answer to your question is yes, but it also means that decolonization is different depending on the context because contexts are shaped by specific histories. And all those gaps, those revisions, are highly specific. So, it is not a one-size-fits-all model.


Right, I guess I’m trying to move away from the cultural decolonization model. It always seems to come down to the politics of representation. And the word that has muddied that project is “diversity.” Why do you think there is an undue burden on English literature scholars to decolonize the syllabus and the curriculum? Why are we always put on the spot?


Gosh, I’ve never actually thought of it that way. It might be two things: on the one hand, it’s a consequence of the fact that English as a discipline has, in very minimal ways, hosted the question, as you said, of diversity, but also of empire, right? So, this is the first field in the humanities to actually put colonialism and empire critically on the disciplinary map. But it’s also a consequence of the relative ease of thinking that you can decolonize by teaching a handful of Black and Asian writers. Certainly, in my department, there has been a conflation of decolonizing with teaching more postcolonial studies. And I have to say, well, flattering as it is to be made more important to the way the department thinks about itself, that’s not what decolonization means. I think there is a confusion between postcolonial teaching and decolonizing, which is possibly why it’s become this thing in departments that host postcolonial studies.


Do you think English departments are among the most colonial departments existing today just given their focus on language and on English-ness? I am in a very traditional English department at the University of Connecticut, where people when they introduce their work will say, “I do 17th century,” or, “I do 15th century.” I eventually realized they only mean England during those epochs. It’s bizarre and retrograde. Maybe that’s part of why the revolt happens there, especially when more postcolonial scholars come into the mix.


It’s a weird combination of two things. So, on the one hand, yes, it’s a very colonial formation. The discipline of English literature is tied up, as we know, with empire and the imperial project. But on the other hand, it also speaks to the ways in which English has been less hide-bound than, let’s say, comparative literature or Romance languages, right? When I’ve sat on hiring committees for other humanities disciplines, it turns out that, actually, they are further behind the curve. So, it’s a weird combination because English literature can be a conservative formation, but at the same time it has people in it who are not retrograde in that way.


What would be your dream program if you had the power to decolonize the curriculum?


As you just indicated yourself, we would have to stop being limited by nation-focused disciplines. I also think we are at a point in history where something like a “global humanities” makes more sense. So, Insurgent Empire, for instance (as you say, it’s not a particularly literary book although it draws on literary ideas), required me to range across disciplines. I imagine something like a global humanities program — where, if we thought hard about what humanities mean in the present, it might offer more scope for decolonization.


In other words, we have to decolonize the university first, whatever that might mean. It seems to me that working at the university or being an academic is made up of three parts: producing knowledge (books), doing the work of service (policy-making and administration), and activism (breaking the system and building new stuff). But we are not able to bridge those roles. Do you think my division of our work is accurate? Do you want to speak about the role of the scholar or the intellectual?


I haven’t thought about it specifically in relation to decolonization, partly because I don’t think individuals can be decolonizers. I take your point about public-facing work and doing policy work, and that there are these silos. But when I think about decolonization, I don’t think about individual projects. I do think about universities on the one hand as communities and on the other hand as being in dialogue with the world. I slightly worry about making public engagement an aspect of decolonization because, despite your or my best intention, that can also become corporatized quite quickly. In Britain, we have the “Impact” agenda — where the “practical” effect of research is apparently measured within a short space of time — and it’s a piece of nonsense. It rewards people, ostensibly, for what you and I might call relevance. But it’s become corporatized. So, I always hesitate to think about decolonization in terms of specific roles and individual functions. It’s more of a collective question.


In debates going on today, there is a kind of division between Global North and Global South scholarship when it comes to thinking about decolonization. For example, there is the complaint that decolonial work does not include Global South thinkers and that it has become co-opted by moneyed institutions in the Global North. This is also personal for me and many like me because this rage emerges when you are made into a racialized, gendered, and marginalized subject in those privileged institutions, and so it makes sense that people like me would get on the “decolonize” wagon.


I’ve heard versions of this. If we are in Global North institutions, or if you’re in a metropolitan university in Delhi or Kolkata (and I’ve made this point to scholars in India), it does behoove us to think about our situations, our structural positions, which as you say are fairly privileged despite the issues you end up dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Decolonization is precisely about centering marginalized perspectives, but it’s also about undoing boundaries. And therefore, voices from the Global South have to be brought to a position of equality, but equally, one would need to be attentive to hierarchies within the Global South. It is not then a simple matter of saying, “Well, we will bring in a South African or a Brazilian or an Indian intellectual.” Yes, those voices need to be brought in, but other kinds of hierarchies also need to be thought of.


You spoke about how your daily anger is shaped or inflected by being racialized in a particular way in the Global North, but I think it’s an obligation to take that lens and apply it to ourselves as well. So, the minute you are racialized and you rightly feel anger and a degree of epistemic privilege, you should also, from that position, understand the ways in which you are part of oppressive systems in turn. And to me, they’re not separate. So, decolonization necessarily means talking about race, but then it means talking about caste. And they’re not oppositional projects; they are combined projects, which is why decolonization is demanding because it’s not just about seeing yourself as a victim but also looking at the ways in which you participate in turn in oppressive structures. That’s not easy.


My experience living and teaching in Kenya is that this type of thing is not a priority, there are many other more immediate battles that people are fighting. I was also thinking about the zero imperative in India toward these agendas. There was some conference on decolonization in India where it was majority Bengali and upper-caste academics, basically the elite, participating. So, it was imitative of Western conferences and did not connect with any activism or real political concerns.


You are right that decolonization isn’t picked up in the ways that you and I might be talking about it in Global North institutions. But it is actually being picked up by a very dangerous strand in India: the Hindu right-wing. And their argument is that the Hindu nation is the ultimate vehicle of decolonization. So, actually, I would say that, in India, it is imperative to pick up decolonization and to think about it not just as something that the Global North is doing but actually something that is vital to a country in a state of arrested decolonization, where decolonization, as some predicted, did not unfold. And we are living with the consequences of that now, which is rampant neoliberalism, the colonial state apparatus combined with an ideology of racial supremacism. It just happens to be Brahminical and upper-caste supremacism rather than whiteness.


Well, that’s the other thing people will say, that you cannot apply this to caste. Decolonization paradigms do not apply to caste because caste is much older than European colonialism.


Decolonization is actually relevant to everybody. The globe is in a state of arrested decolonization, or rather, non-decolonization, and you have to bring in caste. The great decolonizers, the great anti-colonialists understood that. I’m thinking of Fanon and Césaire, who told us that colonization always involved the collaboration of colonial elites and native elites, and that so-called indigenous tyrannies and native tyrannies have to be brought into the frame of decolonization as much as whiteness or Britishness. So, not thinking about caste in the frame of decolonization is not an option. You have to, because you can’t understand the British Empire in India without thinking about caste.


This doesn’t mean that caste is reducible to empire, but it is a very fundamental part of how empire operated. It’s quite important to distinguish between what I am saying here and the false claim that caste is a colonial construct. It’s not. It precedes colonialism by millennia, but it works alongside colonial oppression, and that’s something to be thought about. I want to undo these boundaries and keep raising these questions about caste, capitalism, and race because capitalism in India is a caste capitalism, just as it is a racial capitalism elsewhere. It’s not an option not to put all these things in dialogue.


In the Global North, we are very familiar with the analytic of race and gender, but what happens when one engages the analytic of caste? I do feel that, with Isabel Wilkerson’s very popular book on caste, we’re now going to enter an international arena of pontificating about the subject. But before that trend takes off, how does thinking through the lens of caste shift conversations?


I welcome the fact that caste and race have been put in dialogue. I think it’s a useful dialogue. I don’t think Wilkerson’s book does it quite right, however. In fact, it fails to see that what is most important about both race and caste is that they are specific constructs in specific historical conditions, and they change with specific historical conditions. I worry that if you naturalize caste to something all human beings do, then you’re saying, “Okay, race is specific to America, but caste is everywhere.” I don’t think we should be naturalizing either race or caste. But I do believe that, for Asian and specifically South Asian intellectuals, to think about caste at this very moment that they’re thinking about race is highly productive. And it needs to happen because it’s quite easy for you or me to say, “Oh, academia is so white.” What we don’t often say is that “academia is so Brahminical or so upper caste,” which it is. This is exactly what I mean about developing a demanding relationship to history and that the moment in which you think about race and colonialism has to also be the moment when you think about caste and community, because they’re just as powerful determinants of historical events and identities.


Does it reframe or decenter our understanding of class?


I think so, given that we have caste capitalism in India and given the ways in which caste, while separate from class, does map onto high levels of disenfranchisement in economic terms as well. I think it can bring us back to thinking about gender, race, caste, class, sexuality, and gender assignment in a shared framework because these things work together and not in isolation.


Let’s turn to some of your recent experiences. I know that you are constantly being attacked in the media, on social media, in British newspapers. The Daily Mail wrote such horrible lies about you that they even had to pay you damages. What exactly is going on? There seems to be a small group of public thinkers in the UK who are always under attack, but you more than anyone else.


Well, that’s a relatively easy question to answer. Britain is in the middle of concocted but highly effective culture wars. They’ve been stoked up around empire, nationalism, white supremacism, and Brexit. And just like in the US and other places — in fact, like in India — academics have been targeted and universities have been targeted. Which, in a way, is quite flattering because it does make you think what we do must matter at some level because otherwise why would they bother to attack universities and academics?


I think I function as a very useful abstraction, a bringing-together of a bunch of hate objects. These have nothing to do with me, the person, but all the boxes that I tick. I am an academic: hate object. I’m a woman: hate object. I am not white: hate object. I’m a migrant: hate object. And of course, I’m a lefty, the so-called woke. Someone, a well-known pundit, called me the Torquemada of the Woke Inquisition. So, that’s five for the price of one. Obviously, people like Kehinde Andrews and Corinne Fowler also get their fair share of tabloid attacks for work they do around empire and race.


The other thing that really gets up the tabloid noses is that I sit at the heart of an institution they consider their own. Cambridge is meant to be white. It is certainly not meant to be left-wing. It is certainly not meant to host multiple brown women. And this is the source of real upset. So, I tick a lot of boxes and I’m an easy figure in the ongoing and very false culture wars. I mean, I’ve seen cultural wars literally being invented around me. They took a statement I made about the royal family that no one was particularly bothered by until they turned it into a controversy. The headline read something like: “Controversial Academic Stokes Fury by Saying Royal Family Has Connections to Slavery.” This is not an especially outrageous claim, but the point is there was no controversy. The headline itself created the controversy. I have a ringside view of how culture wars are complete concoctions. They bear no resemblance to what people are actually talking about or care about.


Do you think this all started with Brexit? I mean you’ve been writing for The Guardian for some time.


I’ve been writing for The Guardian on and off for 15 years. So, yes, in the era of Brexit, it’s become more heightened. But the hate mail anytime you talk about empire or race in this country is a very old tradition here. It’s just become more salient in the ways that certain kinds of discourses became more salient in the US after Trump’s election because the enablers of white supremacy felt very emboldened.


But what is different about you is that you fight back. A lot of people will close their accounts, block as much as they can, or retreat. Do you feel that fighting back is the way to combat this?


In the face of people wanting you to be silent, if you can manage it, don’t go silent. But equally, I do understand why people feel hounded out of these spaces because the attacks are extremely nasty and you do end up feeling personally threatened. Yes, for the present, I haven’t done that. But I fully understand the impulse to not carry on because it’s very ferocious. I think if you can manage, then yes, you should fight back. But if you cannot, then don’t, and we should understand that decision.


We have come up with a kind of Proust questionnaire for this final section. We will be asking these same questions of everyone we interview for the series. So, first, what would you DECOLONIZE?


I would decolonize “political economy,” which is another way of saying that I would make the question of capitalism very central to the question of decolonization. One of the things that I have to emphasize in my engagement with decolonization is that there is no colonization without capitalism. So, thinking about decolonization in purely cultural terms makes no sense and any modernization has to engage frontally with the complete overlap of the rise of capitalism and the rise of empires. And that is, in fact, the legacy of colonialism that the entire world lives with, which is global capitalism. Decolonizing means taking on the rule of political economy and the rule of capitalism as the fundamental system.


What would you DEFUND?


I would actually defund the military-industrial complex, on which all countries I’m familiar with spend far too large a chunk of public money. In England, Trident, the so-called nuclear deterrent, takes up a large chunk of the defense budget. It’s something that all political parties are required to commit to if they want to have a political life. This is at the expense of public goods like education and health. Defunding the military-industrial complex, taking that money back, and putting it toward actual public goals can go a long way in decolonization.


A side question: Is the term “defund” circulating in the UK? I know it’s circulating a lot in the US, especially with regards to the police.


It’s not as visible or audible as it is in the US. There isn’t really a big “defund the police” movement. What there is, for instance, right now is resistance to the new policing powers bill. I think that the resistance here takes much more a form of criticizing police powers than outright defunding. And “defunding” per se is probably a very American term because of the local budgets that go into policing.


Yeah, billions. It’s crazy. Next, what would you ABOLISH?


At this point in history, the most important thing to abolish immediately is fossil fuels. We have to take climate change as the global emergency that it is. Those global concerns have to overlap with decolonization. Abolishing fossil fuels is very doable, given where science is right now.


There is a price on everything in our capitalist society. What must be FREE for all?


That is such an easy question to answer right now because it is so obvious in the present. We need free universal health care. What we see in India right now, as Vidya Krishnan noted in The Atlantic, is “medical apartheid.” We’ve seen it in the US, we see it in India. And what we now know is that, even from a selfish, neoliberal perspective, if you don’t have free universal health care, it will affect your health. If there are people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus, it doesn’t stop with them. For example, the Indian rich can take jets to fly out of the country. But if people are infected everywhere, the infection is coming for you. So even a self-interested capitalist might want to rethink not having universal health care. We see the body count across countries where there isn’t health care. We see it in Britain, where health care is under attack. All of this is a consequence of not having free, affordable, and accessible health care.


We also want to know the soundtrack to your struggle. You can pick three songs.


First, Paul Robeson’s “Joe Hill.” This is because Robeson singing “Joe Hill” to Scottish and Welsh miners speaks to the moment Insurgent Empire really draws on, the moment of the oppositional Black and Asian presence in Britain, articulating antiracism and anti-colonialism but also making transnational, cross-racial solidarities visible. Paul Robeson completely enraptured the audience of Scottish miners. I think it’s a beautiful song and it’s a song of hope. It’s where the phrase “Don’t mourn, Organize” comes from.


Second, Shailendra’s “Tu Zinda Hai.” I sang this song as a young student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. You’re laughing at me, but I grew up singing this song. It was written by communist poet and songwriter Shailendra and it basically translates to: “You are alive and you must believe in the triumph of life.” Believe in the victory of life. It’s also an important song for me because it goes back to the moment of the Progressive Writers Association of India. I think generations of activists have sung it, I sang it as a student, and today students at JNU protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill sing it. So, it gets passed on. It’s a live tradition.


Finally, Abida Parveen and Rajat Phabaliha’s “Chaapa Tilak.” This is a song taken from the poetry of Amir Khusrau, who was better known as Amir Khusrau Dehlavī. He was an Indian Sufi singer and musician, one of the founding figures of the genre that is the “qawwali,” and this is sung by Abida Parveen and Rajat Phabaliha for Pakistan’s Coke studio. It’s a song of yearning for something beyond this world. I feel very connected to this Sufi tradition on the subcontinent, which kind of breaks down boundaries between religions with a capital “R.” There needs to be music that goes beyond the physical and the worldly, and the Sufi tradition has always been a great exponent of that.


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Bhakti Shringarpure is associate professor jointly appointed in English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. She is the co-founder of the Radical Books Collective.