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Truth, Knowledge, Power

Aditya Verghese revisits the talk given by Dr. Budd L. Hall, Professor of Community Development, School of Public Administration, University of Victoria on ‘Epistemicide & Decolonization of Knowledge’ in PRIA on 16th November 2017. We need to reimagine who we are and where we belong, question the status quo in some fundamental ways. The result will determine the kind of world we and future generations will live in.


The role of power and politics has played throughout history in hegemonizing certain knowledge systems over others. The starting point was in Europe with the advent of the voyages of exploration and trade that were undertaken from the Iberian Peninsula. A particular driving force for these endeavours was the peculiar but potent idea of there being one truth. It is this idea that then drives the wars of expansion, colonization and enslavement in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Each of these conflicts was accompanied side by side with the destruction and marginalization of knowledge systems of the cultures which became the victims of the period of colonial expansion. This war on knowledge is referred to as ‘Epistemicide’ ensuring the spread of a particular type of discourse and the perpetuation of a particular type of power relations between the rulers and those they rule.

It is interesting to note that the European powers were given license by the Holy Roman Catholic Church to unleash these forces on the people of the new world if they were not Christian and refused to covert to the ‘true faith’. The examples of the destruction of the Inca codicils in South America as well as the suppression of the language and culture of slaves caught in Africa in order to perpetuate the idea of their existence being sub-human in nature and therefore deserving slavery are notable here. The burning of witches at various points in medieval Europe’s history where women’s knowledge was viewed as a threat to the status quo and thus had to be tackled by uprooting the threat root and stem. This is also the period where universities turn inward and erect walls between themselves and society and spread the idea that they alone are the sources of knowledge worth coveting.

It is thus evident that the spread of colonization and after that capitalism which are part of the modernization project involved not just appropriation of capital but also devaluing of knowledge that could act as a counter and the build-up of certain forms of knowledge that could further that agenda. The value placed on rationality; on scientific temper which act in opposition to traditional knowledge or irrational beliefs (terms developed to devalue their contribution to the world); and on certain forms of rote learning as opposed to the kinds of experiential learning that took place in communities across regions that experienced the degradation of colonialism. Classic examples include the process of the fencing of the commons in England in the early stages of the industrial revolution and the wholesale displacement of rural populations toward the cities. This was a process of devaluation of a type of production-knowledge system that centres on the use of the commons for sustaining communities and the triumph of a system that places central importance on the maximization of gain for the few political influential at the cost of marginalized masses.

Medieval Europe may have been the starting point of this discussion, but one could see similar patterns through history. The rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire led to the violent suppression of all forms of knowledge not relevant to the faith. The Protestant Reformation again saw this process happening where places of worship and scholarship were targeted by opposite sides. The one was and path to truth becomes an integral part of this process for even martyrdom is defined by Augustine of Hippo as ‘One who dies for the truth’ rather than the more conventional present day view of one who dies for a cause. Therefore in the effort to establish the primacy of their truth, massive levels of violence was unleashed on perceived enemies. The Mongol destruction of the library of Baghdad or closer home the destruction of Nalanda University and its library point to the forces of epistemicide letting rip.

The question that naturally occurs is what can be done about this? Epistemicide as a process never takes place unchallenged. The history of contestation of ideas between different groups is as old as our species itself. But this contestation also points to the answer to the above question. Understanding the process and paying attention again to difference sources of knowledge as well as preventing the use of shields of science & rationality as well as the walls like those of universities to prevent this engagement would be a first step. It can be encapsulated by the idea of ‘Epistemic Justice’ or simply as ‘Knowledge Democracy’. It calls for a wholesale reassessment of what is and isn’t valued and a clear-eyed mapping and valuing of the different sources of knowledge in society.

The founding and operation of the UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education is one such attempt at the rebalancing of scales. The work of civil society organizations across the world on Participatory Research methodology in order to give a voice to those who have none can be viewed as another front in this effort. The spread of the caste system in the Indian sub-continent and the resistance put up by the subaltern sections also point to this dynamic. It is in this space that the struggle for a better and just world is being fought.

The scale and the ambition of building a knowledge democracy are impressive and the challenges sobering. It involves the wholesale reimagining of who we are and where we belong. It would disrupt the status quo in some fundamental ways by forcing the powerful to cede some of that power to those who have contested it. The result will determine the kind of world we and future generations will live in.

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