Independence Day reflection: should Britain apologise?

 

The following essay has been copied with permission from the ‘Space’ of Jehangir Pocha,  Chief editor of NewsX TV,  formerly editor of Businessworld.

It expresses many of the reactions of CHS-Sachetan’s co-founder,  the late Winin Pereira.

 

I think it is time that we demanded an apology from Britain

 

 

Oh,  how things turn. 64 years ago when the British left India,  many of them betted our nation would soon devolve into chaos and collapse. 

The supercilious superiority inherent in the stiff upper lip automatically assumed India would stay a festering sore of a country,  with its impoverished and emaciated people destined to beg for the visas that would allow them the fantastic opportunity of sweeping English loos. 

So,  it’s almost poetic that while India is seeing its economy swell and its roots of nationhood strengthen,  Britain is basically bankrupt and facing a downgrade from Moodys and S&P.  It is also socially imploding under the weight of corrupt and intellectually vapid politicians,  as we can see from the rioting and looting rocking London, Birmingham and other cities. 

Of course,  India still has a long way to go in fulfilling its own dream and vision of itself,  as Anna Hazare’s movement underlines.  But the fact is that there is a decisive turn taking place in the world and India is on the right side of the curve.  Britain is not.

I call it divine correction. 

Since I am not normally one who smiles at the misfortune of others,  Britain’s slide doesn’t please me. But it does have the ring of natural justice. 

Forgive me if I think of this every Independence Day.  But my grandfather,  like many,  spent some of the best years of his life in jail so I could have this day. It is his,  that generation’s,  gift to me, to all of us. 

So,  it irks me that many Indians have been a little too quick to forget their struggle and strive and to shrug off the colonisation that gutted our economy,  our social structures,  self-respect, our dignity,  our pride.

Maybe it is a complicated result of the insidious manner in which the British mentally and psychologically handicapped us into believing that we deserved to be colonised.  Either way,  I think it is time for a little more indignation and realisation. 

I think it is time that we demanded an apology from Britain. 

For 200 years,  British colonisation looted,  disrupted,  mangled and devastated half the world. The same British academics who meticulously summed up the deaths caused by Hitler,  Mao and Stalin mostly never bothered to calculate the death toll of colonisation. 

Here’s just one instance: in just one year,  1942,  over 3 million people died in Bengal of slow starvation simply because Winston Churchill didn’t think it worth the trouble to send them any food. 

Beyond the bodies,  Britain brutalised nations’ sense of themselves. This was essential to colonisation.  As Lord Macaulay observed,  given how profound,  evolved and refined civilisations like India were,  how could the British rule them unless they got the locals to hate themselves?! 

Arnold Toynbee called this the worst form of colonisation,  worse even than the brutality of the Conquistadors,  because it created enduring problems of identity and inferiority. 

The legacy of this is clear – most of the places in the world that still burn with violence and division are those where Britain intervened – India/Pakistan,  Israel/Palestine,  Burma,  Sri Lanka, Malaysia/Singapore,  South Africa,  Cyprus,  Iraq,  Afghanistan and more. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron recently admitted as much. But he stopped short of the apology that Britain has extracted from its own foes. 

If the Japanese and Germans are rightfully made to apologise for WWII,  why shouldn’t we Indians and other colonised people demand an apology for the much longer,  much more insidious and much more damaging experience of colonisation?

There are always a clutch of Anglophiles who say Britain brought the colonies modernisation. 

This is both expected and puerile. Britain made it a matter of state policy to create a class that would reflect British concerns and views instead of their own.  But these ‘brown sahibs’ cannot explain why modernisation couldn’t have come to India by itself,  through the process of trade and exchange,  as has happened through the ages and is still happening today. 

I also don’t want to get lost in the didactic argument of how it wasn’t the British who were bad but the British Empire. I don’t see this same concept being used with the Germans and Japanese. And in any case,  the apology I seek needs to come from the perpetrators of the British Empire, i.e. British government,  not from the British people (though that would also be nice too). 

There are also those that ask why an apology is important. The wise and the philosophical say, “I have forgiven Britain even without them having to make an apology.” I respect such magnanimity of spirit. It’s a bit like India’s cricket captain Dhoni calling Ian Bell back to the field. 

But I believe an apology matters because it is crucial to India’s self-identification,  to its self-image and to its reading of history. 

To apologise is to acknowledge the person and the wrong done to them. This is precisely why an apology sticks in Britain’s throat and precisely why it is essential.

For too long,  Indians and browns and blacks were not acknowledged and accepted as full people. 

This injustice has had a very ‘long tail’. It still lingers as an inherited feeling of inferiority in many colonised nations.  An apology will go a long way in healing this and returning a sense of recognition and equality to many communities. 

If Britain resists saying sorry,  one must ask if it still likes to hold onto its own feeling of racial and cultural superiority.  After all, I still hear Britons talking of their Empire days with chests out and I still see them swaggering around old colonies like Hong Kong and Singapore. Maybe their government wants to hold on to this past ‘glory’,  especially when the Britain of today is sliding downhill so rapidly. 

The crux of Britain’s problem is that it still tries to convince itself that it did nothing wrong by colonising Indians and others. This total denial of reality is growing stronger,  not weaker. Just read the new literature on colonisation by people like Niall Ferguson. His defense of the Empire was that it spread Protestant Christianity! And this isn’t even the most idiotic. 

Ferguson,  and others less adept at marketing their drivel,  cling to the old theory that Britain was only carrying the “white man’s burden” of civilising the world, of saving the savage colonises from themselves. 

In the old days,  this was really just a very clear way Britain’s establishment justified colonisation to its own population,  which otherwise had its own moral and economic reasons to object to the Empire’s aims. 

But the revival of the “white man’s burden” concept is disturbing,  even to right-thinking Britons. So ironically,  perhaps an apology for colonisation will also save Britain from itself and its growing band of neo-colonists. 

Most of all,  Indians should embrace that it will not be petty,  backward-looking or awkward to demand an apology for past crimes and humiliations. It was precisely this belief that led Bill Clinton to become the first U.S President to apologise to the black communities in America and Africa for slavery. Why should India accept any less? # 

 

Editor’s footnote: 

By coincidence,  a note seen today about a British MP John Bright,  born in 1811,  records that he was opposed to the British government’s aggressive foreign policy,  blamed the Indian Mutiny on British misrule and advocated that the Indian people should be allowed to elect their own government.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One response to “Independence Day reflection: should Britain apologise?

  1. Hi there

    Interesting point of view but I fundamentally disagree.

    First of all, I’m not much into apologies – especially political ones that are ceremonial and symbolic and not even offered by the actual perpetrators but some self-appointed “representatives” many generations later. It’s hollow and pointless.

    In general life as well, I feel that while there are occasions in which a “sorry” is appropriate, necessary, desirable and relieving to all, it can also just be another form of avoidance. I would much rather a wrongdoer have a realization about what they did that was wrong and what they learned from the situation. Otherwise people can, and do, say an easy “sorry” and then do the exact same thing again.

    It is also worth remembering that “Britain” is no more an entity than is “India”, so being gladdened by horrendous problems in this country means that you are experiencing “schadenfreude” at the expense of people in the identical situation to Indians of the past who were victimized by unfair political and economic policies.

    The majority of people in the UK, just like the majority of people in every other country on earth, are totally disenfranchised from the political process and do not recognize the politicians they voted for (if they bothered to vote, most don’t see the point of it) once they get into office.

    People living in Britain today have nothing to do with the governmental policies of 64 years ago. After all, they have practically nothing to do with today’s policies!

    In addition, it costs at least £40 just to get through a single day in the UK – unless you stay indoors watching TV (for which you have to buy a yearly license). This is not the case in India – another reason you can feel happy you live there and not here.

    What I’m saying is that your view of “British” is very outmoded and stuck in the past. Today’s Britain is wildly multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and bears scant resemblance to the Britain of even 30 years ago. So when you say something like “The crux of Britain’s problem is that it still tries to convince itself that it did nothing wrong by colonising Indians and others.” I just have to ask you WHO are you talking about? Who is “Britain”?

    There is not some unified mind that is “Britain” that utters such denials, and in fact, there are millions of Britons who have emigrated here from India, so what do you imagine they would say?

    As an international person, a dual USA-UK citizen with Jamaican and Irish ancestry, I don’t identify with any nation or flag. I’m an individual human on earth. It bothers me greatly when people confuse a nation with the stated policies of whoever happens to be in charge at the moment. It drives me crazy, for example, when people talk about “Americans” as if everyone in America had one mind and voice when that is as far from the truth there as it is anywhere else in the world.

    So with all due respect, I think you need to reframe your position so that it doesn’t sound like a personal attack on people who feel just as powerless to change things as you do and whose life may well be a lot harder (and is definitely more expensive) than yours.

    Cheers,
    Diana

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