Hegemony and Hindu Dharma in the West Indies – Part 2

Symbolic Force

The hegemon imposes the new paradigm of hegemony by utilizing the traditional methods of imparting information. In modern societies these include schools, bureaucracies, armies, printing presses, radio, TV, satellites, internet etc. The population, especially the elite or a segment which aspires to become the elite, is taken into the schools and bombarded with books, magazines, and other media which pass on information about the new or approved world view. Just as importantly, any information received or transmitted through other channels than the approved ones are not given legitimacy or credibility. Of great importance is the language of the hegemon, which is now defined as the standard for communication. The use of language with its embedded information is called “symbolic force”: it hones and shapes the mental chains to capture the minds of the populace and replaces the more familiar physical coercive forces.

Whatever the instrument of symbolic force that the hegemon uses to impose its paradigm, its function is a constant – to impose meaning to the consciousness of the subjugated populace. In all its workings, the symbolic force universalizes and mystifies every element in the new paradigm. For instance, “Christianity” is not just a religion, but becomes “Religion” and is the standard for all other religions. “Eating” becomes a ritual with specific implements, at specific times, in a specific manner, in specific clothes. The successfully imparted or imbibed paradigm creates an identity system for all those within it – including both the ruler and the ruled. Within this system, the identity of the dominated is the negative mirror image of the dominator, of which the latter is akin to perfection, if not perfection itself. The identity-set of the hegemon is the ideal while that of the hegemonised is deficient in all respects. In accepting this inferior identity, the hegemonised individual automatically assumes a low self-conception – and self esteem – and of his group vis a vis the hegemony.

Necessary Conditions

While many groups can, and have, conquered other larger groups because of their superior arms or military prowess, not all of them were successful in imposing a hegemony over their foes. The successful hegemon firstly, will have to possess a complete worldview and the organizational capacity to transmit to their target group. Unlike the Romans, who did a fairly good job of creating a hegemony over most of their subjects (many of the Gauls were more “Roman” than the Romans –to the amusement of the latter), the Huns who eventually overran the Roman Empire did not have the apparatus to hegemonise the Romans and were eventually hegemonised by the conquered Romans who had, not coincidentally, accepted Christianity as their paradigm.

As conquered peoples, the subject groups had to deal with the fact of their conquest: they had to accept that in some way they had proven themselves inferior to their overlords. It was not that difficult for the conquerors to parlay that acceptance of inferiority to other areas of life – especially if the conquest extends over an extended period. Groups that seek to impose a hegemony without physical conquests or demonstrated preemptive superior military power will have an almost impossible task to demonstrate the superiority of their worldview to other societies.

Gramsci saw the distinction and differentiation of the modern polity into a state and civil society as crucial in its strategic implications for confronting a hegemony. Unlike many Marxists, he held that the state was not automatically an arm of the “ruling class” and could be relatively autonomous from civil society, which is always differentiated into any number of self-defined groups. Civil Society, as the location of much of the hegemonising apparatus, is therefore a reservoir of hegemonic power, which could possibly be captured – either in part or in totality – and even mobilized against the state. Gramsci thus distinguished strategically between a “war of maneuver” to capture the state and a “war of position” to capture civil society. The two movements are not mutually exclusive. In those instances where the state moves to control all the institutions in civil society, the group that is in charge can establish a totalitarian arrangement (the Integral State) of which the colonial state was a precursor.

Modifying the Paradigm

As hegemonised populations continue to experience privations and humiliations, but yet accept the legitimacy of the hegemon’s paradigm, they attempt to ameliorate their conditions by struggling, often strenuously, but within the system. These efforts are almost inevitably doomed to failure since the hegemon always has control over the hegemonic forces – both symbolic and material – to interpret or even modify the paradigm and put down the rebellions of the dominated.

The hegemony/social maya is not a fossilised static structure but a dynamic process that is constantly being monitored and modified by the hegemon as conditions – internal or external – demand, and the rules can be altered at will to manoeuvre the hegemonised back into a position of inferiority. The dominated returns to the task of removing the new “disabilities”, which the hegemony assures him are the only barriers to his success.

Additionally, once the purpose of the hegemony has been achieved – acceptance of the identity system of the hegemony by the hegemonised – the hegemony will make innocuous, inconsequential “compromising” gestures. These moves, however, are only meant to reinforce the magnanimous aspect of his image and as palliatives to the privations of the hegemonised. These gestures never go towards altering the core of the relationship – the unequal power relations between the two in the roles of dominated and dominator.

The hegemony has to maintain consistency within the paradigm he is creating to ensnare and enslave his victims or the whole game may be uncovered as the dominated otherwise encounters the dissonances. This consistency is maintained even if it means a complete rewriting of history as is frequently required.

British Colonial Hegemony
British Conquest of Bharat

The hegemony/social maya in Bharat

Britain conquered Bharat between 1757 – when the adventurer Clive at the battle of Plassey, seized the richest province of the moribund Mughal Empire, Bengal, for the British East India Company – and 1818 when it defeated the Marathas in Western Bharat. Between these two events occurring at the two extreme East-west points of Bharat, lies litany of “fighting, tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics and the Lord knows what.” (Clive’s letter to Orme, History of the Freedom Movement in India. P.221). In all the battles in the conquest of Bharat, the British used native troops to conquer their fellow Bharatiyas. They achieved this by exploiting the divisions existing at the time in Bharat, and displaying superior discipline, tactics and willpower.

Prior Conditions

Even before the British conquest was complete, the hegemonic paradigm was being introduced into the minds of Hindus. The process was facilitated by several factors. The Hindus of North and Central Bharat had been conquered and ruled by the Muslims, first by the Delhi Sultanate and then by the Mughals, for over five hundred years. Much of the elite strata had been forced into a subservient, secondary role. Some members of this class saw the British as a force of liberation from the Mughals, in that by collaborating with them they could hurdle over their former Muslim overlords. The composition of this collaborating strata is very critical for they became the beachhead from which the British firmed up their rule all over Bharat.

It is also of significance that this collaboration by elite Hindus is in contrast to the behaviour of the Muslim upper classes who retained their image of themselves as a ruling class and refused to be drawn into the British hegemonising apparatus until much later. The consequences are still apparent in the more coherent identity Muslims of Bharat have of themselves vis a vis their Hindu counterparts. Muslims have been less hegemonised.

The Marathas who had defeated the Mughal empire after a lengthy struggle started by their great leader Shivaji, kept the British at bay during the 18th century, before internal relations between the Maratha Peshwas and their sardars (army commanders) deteriorated, provoking its gradual downfall. Their divisions mirrored the division of the Rajputs centuries before against the Muslim invaders. The results were predictable.

Many groups have conquered other groups of superior military arms or prowess but not all have been able to translate such conquered into stable rule for an extended period. In fact many conquerors were actually assimilated into the ‘conquered’ group because the latter possessed a more coherent and integrated paradigm. The experience of Huns and the Roman Empire is a case in point.

British expansionism throughout the world, which resulted in the formation of their Empire, coincided with a very vibrant period of intellectual activity in all spheres of human endeavour in Britain and thus at the time of the conquest of Bharat, they were in possession of a very coherent world view. This worldview was grounded in a positivistic view of science, the Manichean view of the Christian Church in evaluating all reality, and the individualistic premises of liberalism, all of which informed their theories of society, politics and human rights.

(Other parts of this series – 1, 3, 45)

About the Author

Ravi Dev
Shri Ravi Dev is the Sanghachalak of Hindu Swamyamsevak Sangh (Guyana). He has been a Hindu activist for the past 27 years in Guyana, after 21 years in New York where he was a corporate executive and a member of the New York Bar.