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Let’s Admit, Brown-Sahibs Have Defined Subcontinental History

For a while now I have been willing to write on an issue that is quite personal to me. Actually, it is not an issue at all, rather what I call a phenomenon, or more precisely a type of personality. A type that is quite prevalent in the subcontinent. The name to this personality type is not A, B or C – but has quite rightly been referred to by someone quite shrewd as ‘Brown Sahib’.

But what is meant by the term ‘Brown Sahib’? Who is a brown sahib? For those of us who are from the subcontinent and carry even an inch of social conscience, this term carries derogatory connotations and vestiges of a colonial hang-over that we are still attempting to overcome.

I am not an expert on the matter, but I however will try to paint a picture to further the argument. A brown sahib is typically a brown native person from the formerly British colonised lands. He is mostly thought of as a male who is Anglicized in his manners, behaviour and ideals that he follows. Supposedly, he is ‘alienated’ from his own culture and yet, despite his aversion to native values can’t possibly escape the trappings of his brown skin color. The term ‘brown sahib’ hence is often used as a cleverly disguised slur by many to refer to people who act quite foreign in their own native lands. However, I feel it is about time we make this term standardized into popular culture as something that should have neutral and non-judgmental connotations attached to it.

Thanks in part to my careful upbringing from my locally rooted parents and as part of some cosmic destiny, I myself just escaped becoming the perfect caricature of a brown sahib. For obviously, I have been educated in the Western philosophical canon and have unlike many brown sahibs, huddled around urban centers in the subcontinent and have studied and lived in the West. However, still there are parts of me that I feel perhaps do carry tinges of what could be perceived as a brown sahib.

I don’t want to bore you with my own personal experiences any further and would like to delve into something more engaging. Perhaps something like history of the subcontinent?  The objective truth is that the brown sahib personality type has played quite a substantial role in shaping the history and indeed the present of the subcontinent. For instance, when the Indians eventually became aware of the ideological embarrassment that was their British colonized existence, it was the ‘Brown Sahib’ type personalities that led the struggle for an independent existence of India.

I’m not saying that all of the independence leaders were ‘brown sahibs’, but many of them were, with some being too close to fitting the description that despite their thinly veiled attempts to embrace native values to gain political leverage, the truth is too hard to be missed by those who write objective history.

And on second thought, it makes sense why these figures were often at the forefront of the independence struggle. Most of them were educated in the Western canon and yet despite the liberal claims of the Raj, these figures knew the hypocritical ways of the colonists. No matter how educated, groomed and articulate they could get, they would still be lesser than the colonists on the basis of their skin color and the land to which they were born.

Politically speaking, it was perhaps their personal inner frustrations that played out in the public domain through their longing to score one over the colonists and gain independence to free themselves of the perpetual sense of belittlement.

In such a milieu, it was the best of the brown sahib type that came forward. And perhaps there are no two better examples of it than Mr. Jinnah and Mr. Nehru themselves.

Nehru for instance was privately tutored by a British tutor before going first to schooling in England and then to University at Cambridge. Throughout his life he carried himself in a very immaculately perfect British mannerism. Having said that, he was from the beginning a nationalist and longed for an Indian existence that was free of European imperialism.

Mr. Jinnah’s story is a little more complicated yet follows a similar theme – educated in western schools mostly in India, he would be forced into a marriage with his cousin before leaving to study law in London. There he would become the youngest Indian to be called to bar, aged just 19. Brilliant as he was, he also acquired a taste for wearing swanky suits and in historical folklore is remembered for taking pride in not wearing the same tie twice. Despite his British personal preferences, Mr. Jinnah was a staunch nationalist throughout his life and carried himself with a strong sense of pride bordering on arrogance; traits that enabled him to navigate the complex world of British-Indian politics and to deal with clever leaders like Jinnah and Gandhi.

Coming back to point, it could be argued that both Nehru and Jinnah were examples of Brown Sahibs – yet there is no escaping the fact they were brilliant minds who carried a strong sense of nationalism and self-esteem in being from the subcontinent.

Perhaps it is this nuanced point that makes all the difference. While many brown sahibs might in their acting westernized also comprise their sense of belonging to their birth-lands and get trapped in a perpetual sense of inadequacy, people like Mr. Jinnah were able to use their westernized training to further the cause of the colonised world without losing one inch of their self-esteem. Maybe it is because of this unyielding demand of Jinnah for respect that Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy to India, called him a ‘psychopath’ – to which I am sure Mr. Jinnah himself would have smirked.

We have for too long used the word ‘Brown Sahib’ pejoratively in the subcontinent. I believe it is about time we revisit our preconceived notions and judge each brown sahib personality on what they have to say rather than on what we believe that they will say. Like all personality types – there are good ones and bad ones. And then there is the odd one that is so charmingly brilliant that they end up defining history. Mr. Jinnah was one such man.


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