The Empire strikes back

August 10, 2010

A version of the following appeared in DN&A on Aug 10th, 2010 at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/comment_britain-needs-to-show-contrition-about-the-raj-s-depredations_1421101.

A pdf of the page is at http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/10082010/9main%20edition-pg10-0.pdf

The Empire strikes back

The Cameron visit reflected realities, but we must not forget imperial barbarity: never again!

The recent India visit of UK’s prime minister David Cameron got less attention than it deserved. Cameron was clear that his intent was to build up business ties, reflecting the relative importance of the UK and India in the global economy. Cameron was explicit that he was speaking to India on equal terms; some might even say, to be dramatic, that he was a supplicant with a begging-bowl.

Cameron also made a statement about Pakistan’s role in terrorism in the Indian subcontinent, which, to any impartial observer, was justified by the evidence, especially the recent uncovering of 92,000 secret US Army documents. Cameron merely observed that Pakistan must be not be allowed to, well, speak with forked tongue, and export terror, which it seems to do quite happily today.

Besides, India refused to even talk of British poverty-reduction aid. But what was more interesting was the reaction of the British media to what they perceived as the humiliation of the British nation when it has to beseech India to increase trade with it.

India is waxing, and the UK waning. India’s economy will overtake the British economy even in nominal (it already has in PPP) terms soon. I have asked a number of Britons what exactly their core competence is – and the inevitable answer is “financial services”. Yes, that makes sense, because after all Britain manufactures practically nothing anybody else wants.

Britain has come full circle in that regard. When they appeared at the imperial Chinese court circa 1750, seeking trade, the Chinese told them they needed nothing of British origin. Of course, thereupon clever Brits introduced opium, which did make the addicted Chinese open up their purse-strings. Which opium (or in Marx’s terminology, opiate), I wonder, do the Brits have in mind now for India?

Intriguingly “financial services” is a euphemism for “the interest earned on the money we looted from your country”. I did a little accounting of the systematic loot by Britain, based on estimates by contemporary scholars such as William Digby and  Dadabhai Navroji, and later historians. The number is astronomical, not less than $1 trillion, and possibly as much as $10 trillion in today’s money. For comparison, US GDP is about $13 trillion. They don’t have much else: they have even pawned the East India Company and other family jewels. Hard times, indeed.

Not surprisingly, there was an outburst in the UK Daily Mail titled “Stop saying sorry for our history: For too long our leaders have been crippled by a post-imperial cringe”. This was from an obvious Blimp-type named Dominic Sandbrook who clearly felt peeved that Indians preferred independence.

What apologies? The British have never apologized for empire, nor have they given any reparations. Compare this to the decent Japanese, who, the Chinese have learned, can be made to cough up billions just by jumping up and down and screaming “Rape of Nanking”.

Even if there were no apology, an acknowledgment of mala fide would help. Instead, the visit of the British Queen and her husband a few years ago produced the black comedy of their insensitivity to the horrors of imperial rule. It appears the husband, Prince Phillip, is one of those upper-class people immortalized by PG Wodehouse (think Bertie Wooster, Gussie Fink-Nottle).

Phillip had the audacity to go to Jallianwallah Bagh and declare that there were really not that many casualties there. When asked to substantiate this startling statement, he airily said General Dyer’s son had told him. And who is General Dyer? Why, merely the guy who had ordered the firing at Jallianwallah Bagh. Talk of conflict of interest!

Sandbook’s broadside was followed by another by Nirpal Dhaliwal titled “Britain has no need to make an apology for Empire…”. I beg to differ. Britain, at the very least, needs to apologize for Jallianwallah Bagh – you know, defenseless crowd in a walled garden with no access, 1675 bullets, 1579 casualties?

And how about the horrifying famines circa 1890, which left upto 20 million Indians dead? The classic account of this, “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World” by Mike Davis should be made compulsory reading in Indian schools. So should “The Raj Syndrome: A Study in Imperial Perceptions” by Suhash Choudhary, a brilliant expose of the belly of the beast.

We need to know that under British rule there were 31 major famines in 200 years, as opposed to 17 in the preceding 2000 years.

We need to know history so the healing can begin. Those wronged deserve apologies. The West is pretty bad at contrition. Every year, on August 5th and August 9th, there is no American repentance about the atomic bombs it dropped. I have been to Nagasaki’s peace park, close to Ground Zero. There are solemn memorials there from many countries, but not the US.

825 words, Aug 8, 2010

Errata: It is Suhash Chakravarti, not Suhash Choudhary, who wrote the outstandingly brilliant ‘The Raj Syndrome’

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