Sunday, March 2, 2014

Centre versus Periphery




Centre versus Periphery


Manprasad Subba



In conflict with each other are Centre and Margin from time immemorial. We hear the noises of such conflicts galore in history; we see them enacted in religious scriptures and mythologies. Gods and goddesses stand as the centre of power while demons and human beings are seen driven to the periphery and controlled and governed by the centre. An act of divine trick that deprived the demons of ambrosia of immortality churned out with the combined force of gods and demons is a symbolic example of exploitation and marginalization at the hands of those at the centre of power. Biting of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge by Eve and Adam, (although incited by Satan), may be interpreted as a subconscious act of rebellion against the centralization of knowledge (power).


There was a time in history of our country when the so-called upper-most caste of the Brahmin had absolute control over the scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the like. These Scriptures, if touched by the so-called untouchables, used to be said to have become ‘defiled’. Thus, for centuries, the knowledge and wisdom contained in these scriptures remained exclusively centralized with some privileged class. Similarly, the art of war and statesmanship were also made to be the exclusive domain of none other than the Kshatriya caste. The story of Eklavya, a young enthusiastic forest dweller with no class of distinction, who, when approaching Guru Drona for himself to be initiated as his disciple, was scoffed at and rejected by the latter and years later when Eklavya, placing an image of Drona in his forest shrine to draw inspiration from, attained the great art of bow-and-arrow, how he was guilefully robbed of his hard-earned mastery of shooting by the elitist Drona, is a story that never loses its relevance.


By confining the knowledge -- a main source of power -- and wielding it as a unique weapon, a play of driving others to the fringe used to be openly played earlier while the same play is executed today in some covert manner.



Against the centuries old marginalization in the name of religion and caste, those trampled under the feet of superstitious tradition came up with ‘Dalit Panther Movement’ in Maharashtra in 1972. It may be said that the Movement was inspired by the Afro-American ‘Black Panther Party’ that emerged in the 60s of the last century. However, the Dalit Panther Movement was developed with its own typical concepts in the Indian context. Now the word Dalit, literally meaning oppressed, began to be interpreted to denote not only those placed at the lowest rung of the Vedic caste-system or the indigenous tribal and aboriginals who are outside the caste system, but suggested entire sections of the people being oppressed, deprived and marginalized. Dalit Panther Movement gave them a formidable theoretical ground to stand on protesting consciously and courageously dismissing the belief in gods and goddesses, previous birth and re-birth, Holy Scriptures, fate and heaven and hell for these beliefs and concepts, for ages, did nothing to the oppressed but devalued and dehumanized their lives, tortured them with never-ending deprivation and humiliation. Out of such bold conceptual ideas emerged the Dalit literary theory. It is quite likely that it was influenced by and drew inspiration from American Black literature of the 60s. Martin Luther King who stood tall against the marginalization of the coloured people in the USA and legendary Nelson Mandela who fought for decades against the draconian apartheid policy in South Africa also might have been the symbolic source of inspiration to Dalit creative writings.



Man yearns to be in the centre of power on various levels – individual, social, gender-based, ethnic, national, global. The power centering round the individual in a family may go expanding towards the social institutions and further towards the nation. And from there roars the autocracy whose centralized power may create a wide periphery and the consequential wide chasms to which autocracy’s vision may turn completely myopic.


Power-centralization in a society is often seen with those who are hard-core traditionalist or so-called moralists. There was a time when lepers were driven out of the human settlements. Segregated far away from the societies, they were believed to have been inflicted with divine curse. Discriminating dark traditional customs created by the so-called upper-lower caste system has not been, even today, fully eradicated in the Indian sub-continent. We are still not free from the haunts of evil spirits of heartless judgments meted out by the likes of ‘moralist’ Khap-panchayats in the north-west parts of the country.


Such a traditional moral-policing power in a society or a community plays a static role of resistance to the moves that ask questions to the former. They want the society (community) to remain tightly tied under their ‘moral’ dominance. However, along the peripheral line the accusing questions keep growing with their heads held high. By standing fearlessly against the blind centralist force the periphery draws sustenance of life.



Almost in every society or community we see the male hegemony established. As the male folks gave themselves place higher than their female counterparts in the families and in the societies, practice of gender-based marginalization started, history of which is as old as human civilization. Stories of female voice choked by male-dominant societies are ample in the religious scriptures and histories. Mythological stories such as innocent Sita’s exile by God-incarnate Ram, Draupadi’s compulsion of accepting all five brothers (Pandava) as her husbands, her physical existence being gambled away as a bet and Duhshashana’s attempt of stripping her in the royal assemblage that witnessed the scene of outrage absolutely mutely, are a sort of the base of male hegemony over the Indian women. More than that, worshipping of Lord Shiva’s Phallus may also be taken as a symbol of mystified and spiritualized foundation of male dominance. At one side of the famous Pashupatinath temple complex in Kathmandu there is a life-size metal image of Bhairava with a male genital organ in full erection which is believed to have the divine power making barren women pregnant if they lean their belly on it. This act may also be considered as Hindu women’s psychological submission to the male supremacy.


On the basis of domineeringly gender bias, men have projected themselves as active, strong, intelligent, bold and creative while women are commonly introduced as coward, weak, sentimental, receptive and conventional. In the context of his mother, Prince Hamlet putting forward the human quality of frailty as synonymous with the whole of women community, cried, “Frailty, thy name is woman!”


In Oriental mythologies woman is presented as very ideal, utmost loyal to her husband, extremely tolerant, helpless and dependent; or, above human being such as goddesses (Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Kaali), fairy ( Menaka, Urvasi) or demoniac characters like Suparnakha , Holika etc. In Occidental mythologies too female character is often seen as idealized, submissive and helpless or the source of evil elements in the forms of Eve and Pandora and also as negative characters of Circe and Delilah. Poet Bhanubhakta Acharya, father of Nepali literature, his colossal contribution apart, advised Hindu Nepali women- “Drink water that has washed your husband’s feet” and warned women who merrily laughed- “Refrain from laugh, for only prostitute laughs.” Not content with that he translated from Sanskrit the verses of Prashnottarmala (Catechism) a couple of lines of which run thus: “Which is the main door to Hell? Woman / Who charms and leads to Hell.” Proverbs like ‘To be born as girl is to lose one’s destiny’ and ‘Girls are but to wash other’s wall’ used to be heard in Nepali-speaking societies for a long period. When a woman put forth an intelligent argument, male ego would sarcastically comment: ‘Hen crowing!’ There is a devotional song in Hindi that says ‘Barren woman be blessed with a baby-boy’ which the God-fearing Hindu women listen to with great devotion. All these are the expressions of patriarchal tradition. It is quite common that woman, after marriage, loses her surname and has to adopt her husband’s family name; the baby born of them is given its father’s surname in spite of the fact that husband and wife both have equal roles to play in bringing the baby into its physical existence. Moreover, mother has played greater role since it is she who conceives and develops it in her womb for nine long months and gives birth to it. Should she not have greater right to the baby? But the culture built up in patriarchal line has shorn the women of their fundamental right. Will they ever be able to retrieve this right?


Mythical story of Krishna and hundreds of Gopinis, if put under the feministic view point, may also be seen as a form with centre (Krishna) and periphery (Gopinis).


Despite the publication of a few books of women’s movement claiming equal rights in the West in the 19th century, feminism as a discourse made its strong presence felt in literature only in the ’70s of the last century. Since then the reality as to how women have incessantly been treated as ‘other’ or as ‘objects’ in relation to men for ages, began to be seriously studied. Defying the male presence at the centre, the social and cultural relevance of gender discrimination began to be questioned. Celebrated feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born but rather becomes, a woman… It is civilization as a whole that produces this creature… which is described as feminine.” In other words, one, be it son or daughter, is born a human being, but later a number of customs, manners and taboos are thrust on the basis of gender. And robbed of her humanity she becomes a woman who is considered as a subordinate to a man or a supplementary to man’s desire. This is how her place in the society is rendered marginal. Standing against this marginality the Feminism resists every form of gender bias.


On theoretical level several aspects of feminist concept have been developed. Some of the feminist critics have put forth the subtle studies of marginalization of woman even linguistically. They have drawn their attention to the masculine words like ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ used for human beings; similarly for the words like God, inventor, creator which are above gender, are denoted with the masculine pronouns like ‘He’, ‘His’. They point out that all the languages in the West are male-centric and male-dominated. ‘Phallogocentric’ is what Jacques Lucan has called such pattern of language. Nepali language, too, is not free from being a male-centric. So, today’s feminists, with all their subtlety and sensibility, are looking deep into every perspective of the reality of their being marginalized.





There are the stories of racial / communal marginalization of minority and underdeveloped community by the majority / developed / power-wielding race / community. There are the communities struggling hard on the margin to save themselves from the constant onslaught of powerful and advanced communities who tend to oppress and push the former into deprivation. Uyghur community in the north-east of China has long been struggling to win back a free space for itself from the oppression of the powerful and privileged Han. Down south of the same country Tibetans have long been confronting the political-cultural marginalization. Bhutanese of Nepali origin were forced out of Bhutan by the ruling community two decades ago. There are countless of ethnic groups or communities who, in their own respective countries, face identity crisis, their respective language and culture being pushed to the brink of extinction, being subjected to various discriminations. These are the acts or designs of internal colonization or cultural marginalization. We hear at times the groins of agony coming across from the western province of Baluchistan suffering from internal colonization.


Movement for identity vis-à-vis Nepali speaking Indians, too, erupts from time to time from such feeling of being marginalized. In some parts of its own region this politically crippled community has lost its numerical significance falling prey to some cunning play of demographic liquidation just like hundreds of tribal groups have been rendered critically insignificant in their regions. The ethnic groups or communities thus pushed to the fringes by the centrality of internal colonialism, when at some point of time they become aware of their plight, cry protest and arise to assert themselves. Their movements may yield good results or succumb to the state repression or some sort of appeasements. Even if the movements fail, their protest, their demur will remain in their psyche like a dormant volcano which, in future, may suddenly become active and start spewing smoke and vapor, if not burst.



Internal colonialism may be defined as a developed form of domineering nature that grows like thorns out of the basic beastly nature inherent in man and the international shape of the same is called colonialism which may be explained as an expression of unrestrained ambitiousness growing out of the hegemonic nationalism. The competitive scramble to establish unchallenged power by colonizing other countries had not been seen so much as in the 18th and 19th centuries. And no other countries played so extensively the role of such colonization than the European countries. By the end of the First World War, 85% of this planet Earth was colonized by Europeans, says Edward Said.


The natives, once fallen into colonial system, become alienated in their own land like the house-cockroach flushed out by the wild cockroach. In a colonized country the colonizer stands at the centre clutching all the power while the colonized are placed at the circumference. However, the circumference while moving round strives towards the centre to redeem what is lost and the centre, using all the force at its disposal, keeps thwarting every attempt made from the fringe.


Well-thought out plans and programmes are executed to strengthen the process of colonial centralization. Constant efforts are made to sufficiently influence and affect native ideas and concepts by penetrating into not only the military and economic strength but equally the educational and cultural foundations. This is how the socio-cultural values of a colonized nation become unstable and endangered. “Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”- was Lord Macaulay’s colonial tip to British Empire. They used to idealize their colonial campaign as “white man’s burden”. The Europeans, who established colonial rule in America in the sixteenth century and over Africa and Asia in the 18th century, regarded themselves as the only civilized and supreme beings on earth. The civilizations and cultures other than theirs were ‘barbarism’ to them and they called their successful campaigns of colonization a ‘triumph of civilization over barbarism’. In this manner many cultures were destroyed in North America, Africa and Asia. Some rose to resist, a few have attempted to revive from the state of near extinction. American aboriginals lost not only their cultures but their very land. The way of life and cultural values of their one-time colonizers became the mainstream culture and the former natives have become ‘other’.


Although decades of sustained struggle for ‘the right of uncontrolled self-determination’ brought down the curtain to colonial rule in many countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America after the World War II ended, there began another long struggle to be free from the colonial legacy of western values and systems that has prevailed so formidably. In the psyche of all the previously colonized nations of Africa and Asia the European (White) socio-cultural value system was so well rooted that it caused not only the marginalization of indigenous or ethnic value-system but the former colonized people’s changed viewpoint had begun to look down upon their own traditional/ cultural values and this mindset still persists to some extent. There were, and still are, occidental spectacles on oriental eyes to look at everything. Due to the fact that human beauty, since the cultural invasion carried out in colonial period, is usually defined by white-skinned European looks, cosmetic products like ‘Fair & Lovely’ cream are doing very good business in Indian sub-continent. By that standard all the Africans and Asians with black and brown complexions are categorized as ugly! It is not long ago that any agricultural / livestock product big in size, strong and smooth used to be called ‘Bilayati’ (English) in Hindi and Nepali. The same name was commonly used for cement as well. And everything small, feeble, rough and unattractive was called ‘Deshi’ (native). In the widespread preference of colonizer’s life-style and attires, the native way of life and apparels have been put into the showcase to be displayed only on some special occasions.


Indigenous value to determine the beauty of an object rendered crippled under the pressure of western hegemony and the efforts to revive the lost value along with the re-discovery of indigenous / native value by demolishing the western concept of oriental countries are found to have been studied in the discourse of postcolonialism. This kind of study was developed in its theoretical shape by Edward Said in his Orientalism (1978).The conceptual system of study of oriental life and world by the prejudicial western hegemony is what Said named Orientalism.


East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet

Till earth and Sky stand presently at God’s Great judgement Seat.

-        Rudyard Kipling

Such prejudicial non-inclusive minds, by creating binary opposition between East and West, have, in a calculated manner, marginalized the oriental traditions and culture, ideas and systems. This is what is exposed in postcolonial literature which is further supported by deconstructionist as well as postmodern concepts. Defying the power fed on western value system the marginalized groups today are determined to assert their own respective cultural identities and they want their history to be written by themselves and not by mainstream historians who have always ignored them.


While discussing marginality under the study of postcolonialism, the subaltern discussion also naturally comes up. ‘Subaltern’, an army officer below the rank of captain in military term, has now acquired more than one meaning having been used in different disciplines like sociology, politics, literature etc. However, Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak confines it to a special meaning. According to her Subaltern is not ‘just a classy word for oppressed…In postcolonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern…The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern’.


With the question “Can Subaltern speak?” Spivak raised a discussion on subaltern’s being able or unable to speak and emphatically announced that subaltern cannot speak. Yet Ranajit Guha, Dipesh Chakraborty et al of Subaltern Studies Group, bringing all sorts of marginalized into the term subaltern, said that subaltern can speak for themselves.


Subject of subalternity demands a separate essay. Here we have only a passing reference of it.



Placing all the formerly colonized and other poor nations under the single umbrella of the ‘Third World’ the former colonizer and the rich countries gave themselves a collective as well as superlative name such as the First World and they, executing in a hegemonic manner their economic, political and military power, started the shadow play of neo-colonialism over the Third World countries soon after the latter, one after another, attained the independence. Today this shadow seems to have grown even darker and more expanding. Such exploited nations always find themselves on the margin of global arena. Various forms of neo-colonialism such as establishing dominance and virtually imposing decisions over the weaker nations by a powerful nation or a group of nations are often witnessed on the global scenario. The First World or the developed nations now incarnated as multinational corporate, rest taut on the head of the Third World countries with the heavy load of neo-colonialism.


A nation or a group of nations that has posed itself as a centre of power, at times, makes some policies in favour of its own interpretations relating not only to the political and economical matters but even to the scientific theories, research and inventions and carries out all sorts of campaigns for the global acceptance of its desired interpretations. The First World, while looking down on the heterogeneity of the Third World, campaigns for the uniformity or homogeneity for its own purpose. Even a right statement made by a nation standing on the margin becomes a cry in wilderness. Because of the fact that many nations in Africa and Asia find the United Nations Organisation usually influenced by the western nations, regional associations like Arab League, Pan-Africanism, SAARC, ASEAN have come up to protect their respective regional interests. To put up resistance to the European-American control over oil, the eleven oil-producing nations having come together formed OPEC. Despite the concerted efforts of such organizations to check the overriding monopoly of developed nations and help decentralize and deconstruct the power centralized by the latter, the polluting smoke has not stopped bellowing through the chimneys of neo-colonialism (neo-imperialism). And flushed out of their safe dwelling by this smoke, many have been forced to languish on the fringe of marginality.





Now, a few words on environmental marginalization. In the name of development, set-up of huge projects have, many a time, become the causes of displacement of countless of villages and villagers. Many living traditions and cultures perfectly co-existing with the Nature were, and are being, forced to disappear. Civilized and most intelligent being called man, driven by his insatiable selfishness, has been heartlessly looting the nature. As a consequence of the widespread occidental belief that everything and all the lesser beings on earth and the Earth itself are for the use and utility of man, a strong possibility of an environmental apocalypse has grown even dangerously stronger. It is rather the traditions and cultures of those animist tribal living as one with the nature that teach us to feel what nature really is. Beyond the story of marginalization of man by man, the punishment for the crime committed by man towards plant-life, animals and birds and insects may, at some point of time, be pronounced by the nature herself.



Occurrence of conflict between centre and periphery in human society is not unusual. But in recent time the study of this conflict from the perspective of marginality has developed with the postmodern concept. It may also be said that the perspective of study has shifted from centre toward periphery. Postmodern interpretation has rather changed the meaning of the word ‘centre’. Today it has lost its traditional meaning that projected ‘centre’ as protector and guardian, all-knowing Guru and source of numerous things. ‘Centre’ is now interpreted in negative words such as oppressor, non-inclusive, hegemonic, unprogressive, anti-liberal, cause of hindrance etc. And those forced to be on the periphery have been openly throwing challenge against such negative forces. Those conscious and aware of their being unjustly marginalized are speaking aloud against every type of centralism.


Centralization of anything gives rise to the binary opposition – privileged / deprived; proud / humiliated; male / female; civilized / savage; occidental / oriental etc. The more the former moves ahead, the more the latter is pushed behind to the edge. But today is the time when the sign of slash between the binary opposition is breaking and falling. All-inclusiveness is trampling the dividing line. No one wants to be confined in the cell of solitary meaning thrust by close-ended centralism. Just as the search for last particle has been proved to be ever illusive in a particle collider lab, so is the last meaning in a text, and resultantly only the meanings of a meaning are discovered.  And from here emerges the note of interrogation that stands boldly in front of the close-ended centralist interpretation.


There was a time when religious scriptures used to be interpreted by some authoritative institutions. Any attempt to liberal interpretation of the scriptures was to invite the wrath of religious authority. Such liberal minds were denounced and made subject to punishment that could be stretched to any extent. In some religious organizations there is still such extreme type of centralism.


Today’s readers and audience do not like to remain stuck to an interpretation that claims to be final. They have rather conscious courage to put forth their own viewpoints and arguments. In earlier times liberal and individual views and opinions used to be brushed aside, even punished, by the orthodox centralist. But time has changed and the static distance between the centre and margin seems to be freely moving to and fro and this movement has helped bridging the wide gap.


Now the footfalls of this movement are to be listened to and looked at in the words of creativity and in the expressions of arts.





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