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Lessons From Ngugi Wa Thiong’o For Us

Amnesty International declared Ngugi Wa Thiong’o as ‘the Prisoner of Conscience’.1 He is an intellectual who firmly took a stand against his own governing system which was working in the interest of imperial capital . It is monopolistic in nature. In 20th century, when most of the developed capitalist countries accumulated immense surplus and advanced towards colonies to invest their surplus through finance capital while extracting greater surplus, capitalism moved firmly into the stage of imperialism. Economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly.2 A few months before Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s arrest, on the eve of the release of his book, Kenyan ministers made strongly worded support towards the free voice of intellectuals and a free flow of ideas. During the turbulent decades that followed after the onset of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China, various pro-liberation and progressive intellectuals like Ngugi were incarcerated or executed. Notable novelist Shahidullah Kaisar and Munier Chaudhary were assassinated by the Pakistani right wing armed militia Al-Badr. Chilean progressive songwriter Víctor Jara, was executed during the dictatorship of Pinochet. These decades were the rising period of the neo-liberal economic model, which largely derives its base from the market based neo-colonial tactic.3 The new model of market based economy was coming to replace the less violent welfare state model, which exposed itself incapable of serving the growing appetite of imperial capital.

Petals of Blood

In the days when the political sphere of Kenya was in turmoil, Wa Thiong’o intervened as an anti-colonial intellectual. He was young when the Kenyan people were fighting against the brutal British colonial rule. The effects of the Mau Mau rebellion was deeply entrenched in his heart, a rebellion in which many native people gave their blood to win freedom. The armed rebellion had a clear vision to topple the British rule, to establish self-rule and free their land from the hands of foreigners. But the dreams of Kenyan people was tarnished when the ruling class of ‘New Kenya’ started serving the imperial capital open handedly. They gave their land and minerals to foreign investors and furthered the destitution of their own people, a process which continued from the period of British rule. The aspirations of self-rule were quickly replaced by this neo-colonial betrayal. Ngugi never tried to procrastinate his personal pain which he felt for his homeland. Imprisonment was the turning point in his life, when he decided that he would never write in English. He realized that language of the colonizers in itself was a powerful tool in the colonization of his people so he started writing in Gikuyu (native language of the Gikuyu tribe). The agony which he suffered in his childhood was described in two famous plays: Weep Not, Child (1964) and The River Between (1965). His most famous work, The Petals of Blood, was published in 1977. In dialectics, nothing comes in suddenly and in a vacuum. The science of historical dialectical materialism gives us a vision to see the world through its historicity. Petals of Blood exposes the reality of Kenya through the same method, highlighting the ongoing transition in Kenya from a colonial to neo-colonial world. The defeat of the actual anti-imperialist anti-colonial struggle in Kenya materialized in a world that sold its masses an idea of liberation, while in reality, the new ruling classes had sold the masses themselves to the service of imperial capital. The contemporary ruling class showed its real nature and worked with the imperial capital. The start of the novel was the dramatic story of four murderers who were trying to hide themselves and had reached a village named Elmorog. They saw an upside down change in village life and the infrastructure. Roads and markets deeply penetrated inside the villages with dual intention. Their first aim was to create a market based economy and the second aim was to displace the native people to exploit the resources. Common farmers and workers who fought against the colonial rule were suffering from destitution and acute indebtedness. Penetration of roads was the demand of imperial capital to spread its foothold into new markets. Often, the creation of these footholds and garrisons of imperial capital comes at the cost of the displacement of the native population, as was observed in the book.

Wa Thiong’o on English Language and Christianity

Wa Thiong’o has seen the English language as a weapon of imperial cultural penetration. Language is the essential component for the self-determination of any nation because one cannot separate the development of language from its social context. Multiple languages coupled with cultural diversity hindered the proliferation of the market based economy since culture as a superstructure works along with the base of economic production relation. Therefore, different cultural practices actually hamper the interest of free flow of the market. English was the carrier of imperial culture to sideline and destroy the native culture and Gikuyu language. He presented Gikuyu as the resistance force which Kenyan people have against imperial rule. After the end of direct rule of British imperialism the language was directly adopted by the ruling elites of Kenya and big landlords. Most of the administrative works were done with the help of English, which made services inaccessible for the peasants and working class. Similarly, Thiong’o had a critical perspective on Christianity. It is very evident in the colonial world that Christianity also has a dual function. First, it is the religion projected and propagated with the help of ruling elites against the will of natives and second, is that the religion had a close nexus with the imperial capital and its penetration. Through schools and missionaries, they tried to create a popular consciousness and divided the local masses on the basis of a sharp class line. On this class line, the ruling class was on the gaining side which had land and resources to occupy the key positions in the government. Reality is much more about speculation and gut feelings. People in India are living in an abstract reality that, in the next five years, will change our destiny. There are often hopes pinned on ahistorical conclusions, such as the hope that electoral change in government would resolve the current contradictions in a society. In light of this, the concern Wa Thiong’o’s raised was not limited to Africa. Most third world countries are now facing the similar double repression and onslaught of imperialism. These two giants in our country are the imperial capital and comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie. The nature of comprador bureaucratic bourgeoisie is exploitative in multiple ways. First, they are starching their arms along with imperial capital. They have a serious tendency to control the native market through monopoly. The nature of monopoly capital is against the interest of small-capital based national bourgeoisie, which hinders the ability of the country to be competent of self-rule and developing infrastructure for its own internal needs. The Government of India is also supporting this kind of exploitative capital through economic, cultural and military means.

LPG Reform, New Way to Penetrate in India

After the Liberalization, privatization and Globalization (LPG) reform, we have witnessed a new and different type of development model in India, which we’ll refer to as “development by dispossession.” In popular perception, development is for society and everyone is getting benefits from this current mode of development, a propaganda which was promoted by the Indian ruling class through various means. They have created a notion in people’s minds that for the development of society, we need more foreign capital. After the 1990s, there were several state backed and sponsored economists who supported this model of dispossession. Manmohan Singh, the former Prime Minister, was projected as a savior of the Indian Economy in a crisis period. At that very time, the seeds of this “development model” were sown.

For different infrastructural projects like roads, railways, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), mining, thousands of acres of land was occupied by the Indian state. There were episodes of displacement all over India with the help of change in land law, forest law, all for the purpose of national interest! The most important question we must ask the Indian state is what is this development for? Whom is this development for? More than 13 people were massacred in a targeted killing by the Tamil Nadu government during the protest against the Sterlite Project Vedanta Limited. People of Thoothukudi were against the project due to emission of gases and other substances, people were getting sick and the productivity of land was getting reduced. CDRO (Coordination for Democratic Rights Organization) conducted a detailed survey of this massacre which revealed that basic practices like establishing an SOP (Standard Operation Procedure) were omitted. Instead, people were targeted with the help of sniper guns. Activists were targeted from point blank range far from the protest sites. Against the decision of the Gram Sabha, the Indian Para- military set up a number of camps in Silger (Chattisgarh) for the possession of land by the big corporates in the name of mining. Thousands of families were displaced by the Indian State in the big Dam projects like Sardar Sarovar Dam and Tehri Dam.

Nexus of Imperial Capital and Comprador Ruling Class

Like Wa Thiong’o, thousands of activists and innocent people are facing serious charges under UAPA, NSA, and sedition laws in India. The ruling class has openly declared a war against their own people to better serve the imperial capital. Prisoners of conscience are actually not against the people’s interest. But those who are incarcerating the defender of people’s interest are the real culprit. It is not the question of complex research methodology. Oxfam International in its published report on inequality showed that in 2017, 1% of the total population holds 73 percent of the total generated wealth of this country.4 On the other side, every second, almost two people are being pushed below the poverty line because of inaccessibility to health care. When it comes to the total health expenditure, it fell to 3.2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2018-19, the last year for which the data is available, from 3.3% in the preceding year and 4% in 2013-14.

John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State once said that “there are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms; the other is to gain control of its economy by financial means.”5 The intention of the world imperial capital was very clear regarding colonial control through finance capital means. The control has never been only financial. Following years from 1947, the Indian state imported destructive weapons from these imperial countries to control their own people but never tried to change the social relations which were largely driven through caste nexus. In Kashmir, Chattisgarh, Manipur,Tamil Nadu, Nagalim, every time people rose in resistance, it has been crushed brutally by the Indian state with the help of foreign aided technology, training and weapons. The colonization of the mind is a psychological position where people link their position and drive their progressiveness from the colonial perspective and leaving behind the indigenous culture and economic model. Conclusion GN. Saibaba, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, Prashant Rahi and others are today’s ‘Prisoners of Conscience’. They are prisoners because they stood for the interest of the large oppressed and exploited people of the country. They showed a black flag of resistance against the current anti-people economic model which is taking its nourishment from the blood of this country. Standing for the right of political prisoners is somehow standing with the interest of the oppressed of this country and the betterment of the country. The current Indian state will never try to get rid of from the nexus of imperial capital and will never try to develop an independent economic structure. For the total emancipation of the whole country and other nationalities we have to understand the nature of this brutal state’s actual character and fight against it.

by Nishant Anand, Law Student at Delhi University.


  1. Ngugi Wa Thiongo: Petals of Blood, YouTube, 8 February 2018
  2. V. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,, originally published in 1917.
  3. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood, Wikipedia
  4. India: Extreme Inequalities in Number, Oxfam Report, 2022
  5. Bhattacharyya, Amit, The World Turned Upside Down: Imperialist Versus People’s Model of Development, Foreign Language Press, 2022

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