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Reinventing the Third World: A Rejoinder

This response to "Reinventing the Third World" by Aswini K Ray (EPW, 17 March 2012) is channelled towards contesting two core points of Ray's essay: that the third world bears a distinct and special responsibility in today's world and that the possession of a conscience is a possibility in international politics.


Reinventing the Third World

A Rejoinder

Priya Naik

rejoinder argues that the analogy that the third world bears the burden of possessing a conscience is a distorted argument of Paul Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2007). Freire argues powerfully in his magisterial work that the oppressed carry the responsibility of not

This response to “Reinventing the Third World” by Aswini K Ray (EPW, 17 March 2012) is channelled towards contesting two core points of Ray’s essay: that the third world bears a distinct and special responsibility in today’s world and that the possession of a conscience is a possibility in international politics.

Priya Naik ( is with the department of political science, Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi, Delhi.

t is with great interest that I read A swini K Ray’s essay “Reinventing the Third World” (EPW, 17 March 2012) and this is a response to it. The c uriosity stemmed from the desire to see how the epistemological category of the “Third World” is viewed and situated in a time and frame when it is ideologically irrelevant. At a time when there exists an underlying Washington consensus on how the world is to be run and operated, it is impossible to conceive of a sovereign world not perforated by the American empire. Ray’s core argument that the third world is capable of generating a distinct set of moral values, method and style makes one ponder over the possibilities of resistance and reinvention, and whether the consciousness of the third world is the appropriate one for the enormous task of being conscientious in the domain of international politics.

In brief, Ray argues that the third world, the notion, category and context is one which is first, generated by the cold war and this historicity must continue to define it. Second, the third world must reinvent itself by reclaiming its conscientious position it once possessed during the cold war and the moral legitimacy it garnered by taking strong stands on the issues of economic justice, apartheid and decolonisation. This response is channelled towards contesting two core points of Ray’s essay. First, that the third world bears a distinct and special responsibility. Second, that the possession of a conscience is a possibility in international politics.

Burden of Conscience

One cannot reinvent the third world. That is like fixing the cracking ceiling of an oppressive structure, but allowing the structure to continue standing untouched. Using postcolonial idioms, this

may 19, 2012

only untying and unshackling themselves, but their oppressors as well. In the act of liberation, the oppressed liberate the oppressors and undo the knots of violence which bind them together. Freire’s way out of this libidinous affair is education, the pedagogy, which can set the oppressed free. For Ray, however, this is possible in the third world by having a conscience. Accor ding to Ray, during the cold war the non-alignment movement (NAM) embodied this conscience. With the end of the cold war and the dissipation of the communist alternative, the need for the third world to reaffirm and redesign its social position in international politics is imperative.

In the context of international relations (IR), however, such a perspective is oddly ahistorical and indifferent to the genesis and nemesis of the third world. “How” the world has come to be this way, best described as a world with separate, sovereign spaces, has not been the preoccupation of the discipline of IR, as much as to “why” it operates in this manner. Focusing on the “why” permits an unhindered focus on the anarchical aspect of IR. Perhaps then, it is not oddly ahistorical that Ray chooses to focus on the divisions among states only from the 20th century onwards, without pausing to consider how it got here, as IR is genetically agnostic about the genealogical history of the modern Westphalian state. It is more accurate to say instead that Ray’s perspective is typically ahistorical of the roots of the modern, European, Westphalian state where the particular of the European province, has become universal.

The birth of Italy from the Papal States and others in 1861 and that Germany from the Prussian Confederation in 1872 are signifi cant reminders that the growth of nationalism has preceded

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the formation of a state which can clearly define its people, its belongings and its territory. The export of this notion of the nation state through colonialism, or rather Europeanisation of the world, was a prolonged period of cultural terrorism, and sublimation of Europe over the rest, the West over the East, the whites over the coloured. The rupture of the colonies from the colonisers, the disentangling of the two has been frequently bloody and viscous. Consider the prolonged battle between Algeria and France, Malaya and Britain, the armed movements for freedom in the Portuguese colonies and Portugal. The recent killing of French Jews by a Muslim A lgerian needs to be contextualised within this bloody background, rather than being seen as yet another case of “Islamic terrorism”.

Ray’s advocacy of a “conscience” for the third world countries is therefore alarming. It is imperative to pitch Ray’s call for the third world to bear a conscience against the historical trajectory, which has generated the third world. To define the third world by its conscience is demonstrative of Ray’s agnosticism of not only colonialism and imperialism, but also the processes which have significantly shaped the social construction of the modern sovereign state. Further, it is alarming not only for its clear ahistoricity, but also for the unawareness of the logic of statehood.

A Fractured Conscience

Even if one ignores the process of colonialism, which has resulted in the procreation of modern sovereign states, it is necessary to weigh the feasibility of what Ray calls a state having a “conscience”. According to Ray, NAM refl ected the aspirations of the “wretched of the Earth”, by supporting the anti-colonial movements, pushing for the establishment of just institutions such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and thereby, gained moral legitimacy. To state that this demonstrated a commitment to moving to a moral plane is only to be gullible to the normative language articulated by the NAM states of peaceful coexistence, non-aggression and the international peace. Instead, the normative language of NAM was the language the oppressed learnt, rather quickly, from the oppressor. Apart from the English, Spanish, Portuguese and French the oppressed now speak, they also speak the language of couching their realist ideas in idealistic idioms. The notion that NAM, led by India, China, Indonesia and Egypt was a successful attempt at being Kantian in a Hobbesian world is to overlook how these states operated from inside, rather than focus on the outside. Each of these states has only perpetuated the logic of statehood, which is the use of violence to fix its boundaries, coercion to pursue development, and fi nally, perpetuate the Weberian notion of the monopoly of the State over violence. The third world states have been no less violent, unjust and deaf to the cries of freedom and justice from within the state. What Tibet has been to China, East Timor has been to Indonesia. The wretched of the Earth is no less wretched to the weaker wretches! This invocation of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (2004) is not to supplicate his argument for the colonised to seek liberation by committing acts of violence against the coloniser. That is not the chosen path for the third world countries. The cleansing of the inferiority complex Fanon discusses is sought not by turning against the Other, but against one’s Own. Again, Fanon’s argument that the colonised must construct their own set of values, method and style is as conditioning as Ray’s, for it does not concede the inescapable ontological logic of statehood. And that is repression. The formation of the “subject” is almost always at the price of the subsumation of other liminal identities.

As for India, to claim its moral standing in the world is to be oblivious to the chains with which it binds its population. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, applied in Arunachal Pradesh, A ssam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and later Jammu and Kashmir is a terrible but illuminating e xample of the terror the Indian state had wreaked on its population, through the very legitimacy of the democratic, sovereign, secular republic of India. This, to put it in Arundhati Roy’s words (2008), is like the tiger which turns to devour its own limbs.


The objective of this critique is not to dismiss the possibilities of emancipation. It is to question the suggested route of doing, specifically Ray’s advocacy of the third world states reclaiming their conscience. This imagined role for the third world only reifies the Europeanisation of the world, rather than provincialising it. By drawing a cleavage between the first world and the third world on the grounds of morality is only to perpetuate a distinction between the two, even if it is on the ground of the moral and the immoral. Such an argument deflects attention from the criminal, violent and dark history of the third world states, which have propounded a vision of the world with justice and equality. Ray’s argument is forgetful of the fact that every modern, sovereign state bears and recreates the violence inflicted on it, by inflicting the same on “other people”. NAM needs to be recognised as a normative language employed by decolonised states, who were trained to speak that language. Colonialism, it must not be forgotten, was also legitimised on the moral grounds of the “White Man’s B urden”. To place the moral burden of a conscience on third world states is a classic example of the colony mimicking the coloniser.


Freire, P (2007): The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum).

Fanon, F (2004): The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press).

Roy, Arundhati (2008): The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy (New Delhi: Penguin Books).

available at

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3/4, 2 Link Street Jaffarkhanpet, Ragavan Colony Chennai 600 083 Tamil Nadu Ph: 24747538

Economic & Political Weekly

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