The Empire strikes back

August 10, 2010

A version of the following appeared in DN&A on Aug 10th, 2010 at

A pdf of the page is at

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’

This was printed in the New Indian Express dated 10th Jun 08:

Here’s my original copy.

The fallout from the Olympic torch relay

By Rajeev Srinivasan

The Olympic torch relay was completed in China recently. and this was followed by the horrendous earthquake that leveled parts of Szechuan province. Apart from the human tragedies associated with both (including the protests that dogged the torch relay based on the genocide of Tibetans), the way the Chinese State has responded to both show some inklings of the way things work behind the Bamboo Curtain.

First, the Communists in charge of China pay enormous attention to symbols and pride, what East Asians call “face”. The Olympics are clearly their coming-out party, and they intend to impress the entire world with their new-found wealth and their march towards super-power-dom. Just as their neighbors in Japan and Korea announced their arrival on the world stage by staging the Olympics, China wants to host a perfect event, and they will stop at nothing to ensure this.

This is why the Chinese were so keen on ensuring that the torch relays went perfectly everywhere, and this explains their anger at disruptions in France and Britain. Interestingly, the only stop in the US, in San Francisco, was stage-managed through subterfuge: the torch took an unannounced path, so that protesters were fooled.

The Chinese State views the torch relay as the equivalent of an aswamedha yaga, wherein the emperor’s horse is free to wander as it pleases, and anyone who hinders it does so at the peril of facing his wrath. The vassal kings naturally pay obeisance. Thus, all the nations where the torch relay took place without incident are vassals of the Chinese King Emperor.

It is not surprising that the Indian government chose to bend over and kowtow to Chinese imperiousness. But the right thing for India to do once the violence in Tibet had commenced would have been to cancel the torch’s arrival in India altogether, citing security reasons. This would have been a painful snub to China, and quite appropriate to India’s role as the home of the Tibetan nation in exile. That would have got India respect.

Similarly, San Francisco was chosen – not New York, not Los Angeles – for the US appearance for good reason. It is because San Francisco was where the majority of Chinese coolies arrived. They built the railroads, and were discriminated against via the Asian Exclusion Act, which prevented them from owning property, marrying white women, or bringing Chinese brides. Thus the parading of China’s might where they were humiliated once upon a time.

Those who monitor the Chinese newsgroups on the net, or callers to talk shows, know how ultra-jingoistic Chinese people are. They are brought up on a steady diet of myths about great glory and great humiliation (by white imperialists) in the past. They cannot tolerate even the mildest criticism of their State or their country. The Communists are betting that by creating this new idol of nationalism they can stitch a large nation – well, actually an empire – together.

In this mythology, the Chinese State is remarkably similar to the German State between the two world wars. That too had memories of great Prussian glory, and the reality of great humiliation (by the victors in World War I). This led to a national psychosis, especially when mixed up with the idea of the Master Race. The same seems to be happening with China as well, with their vanity of being the Master Race (or Middle Kingdom) and their racist derision for all gwailo, foreign devils.

That brings up an interesting historical parallel: the Berlin Olympiad of 1936, which was intended to be the celebration of the ‘Aryan’ Master Race. Which it didn’t quite turn out to be, thanks to the black American runner Jesse Owens and others. Unless the Chinese win all the gold medals in Beijing, some ultra-nationalists will be upset.

But what is even more interesting is the parallels with both Berlin 1936 and Moscow 1980. Both were held when their respective empires were at their zenith. But by 1945, the Nazi empire was defeated; by 1990, the Russian empire had imploded. One possible future for China’s empire, then, may well be its collapse within the next ten years. After all, 60% of the land currently held in their iron grip by the Han Chinese belongs to Tibetans, Mongols, Uighurs, Manchus et al, who are not enamored of being second-class citizens in a Han-dominated land.

Of course, the other comparison is with Japan and Korea, both of which thrived. But there is a major difference: those other East Asian States had moved much further towards openness and democracy by the time they held their Olympics. China, as a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship is inherently unstable: they are playing a dangerous game encouraging ultra-jingoism, because that may well turn against the dictatorship itself.

But there are encouraging signs of realism on the part of the Chinese Communists. Although they have railed against His Holiness the Dalai Lama, using their customary unparliamentary language against him, nevertheless they are continuing a dialog with him. This is because they realize that there is considerable world opinion in support of the Tibetan cause. China’s modus operandi is to constantly test the limits; as soon as they get some push-back, they withdraw. China is not immune to world pressure.

Similarly, after the earthquake, China been remarkably open about the damage as well as the casualties. They have admitted that 10,000 have died. This is in marked contrast to their past behavior: in the 1970’s a dam burst and killed 100,000 people; the news was suppressed for thirty years. Similarly, they pretended that SARS and avian flu did not exist. There might be two reasons for this new-found candor: the demand for accountability from a more demanding population; and the darker possibility that this is an “Olympics Special”, and they intend to return to regularly scheduled opaqueness later.

If the Chinese State is on the way to becoming a more normal entity, and not a pathological misfit bent on imperialism, then that would be a good thing for all of Asia.

990 words, May 13, 2008

War criminals

December 30, 2006

Why some war criminals are more equal than others

Rajeev Srinivasan on show trials and victors’ justice

Tower of Skulls, Killing Fields, CambodiaTower of Skulls, Killing Fields, Cambodia

The precipitate hanging of former President Saddam Hussein of Iraq on 30th December was probably inappropriate, illegal, and counter-productive. This is for several reasons: one, that there were several other cases against Hussein that should have been heard; two, that this punishment is likely to increase the level of violence in Iraq; but three, and most of all, because it is hard to escape the feeling that the proceedings were stage-managed.

The crime for which Hussein has been hanged was that of killing 148 people in Dujail. But there are far bigger crimes for which he could and should have been tried, for instance, the campaign against Kurds in which 100,000 may have been killed. And to get a sense of proportion, let us remember that one million (15% of the entire population) were killed by the ghastly Marxist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during their heyday.

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The end of the NPT

October 11, 2006

The North Korean nuclear test: the end of the NPT

Rajeev Srinivasan on that hoax called non-proliferation

The North Korean test of a nuclear device – and I use that phrase advisedly, given that it is rather clear it is a test of a Chinese device proliferated to the Hermit Kingdom – has demonstrated at least two things. First, that despite all their bluster and gnashing of teeth, the Americans are essentially powerless to make their writ run in many places. Second, that the Chinese are prepared to gamble that there will no fallout from their mischief.

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