Friday, September 12, 2008

Should Britain Apologise?

Italy recently apologised to Libya for its occupation of the country between 1911 and the Second Word War and offered an investment deal of $5 Billion over next 25 years towards reparation. This is largely symbolic, and investment deals could have been done without adding this moral halo. But the apology itself is an important step. The key question is one of principle, indeed. It is about whether the occupying countries do accept that their colonial exploits did enormous harm to the occupied, and whether they are ready to accept the responsibility.


As the world becomes more sensitive towards the wrongness of occupation [even George Bush was heard saying that occupation of Georgia by Russia is unthinkable in the 21st century!!], and the world justice system gears up to try the leaders causing genocide and violence, paying for past crimes - including occupation - becomes ever more relevant and important. There are several issues which are still hotly debated - slavery, for example, wherein the European colonialists displaced and dehumanized millions of Africans, needs to be answered for. Japanese have denied an apology to 'comfort women', thousands of Chinese and Korean women forced into prostitution under the Japanese occupation during the war, and Pakistan never acknowledged their genocidal practises unleashed on pre-liberation Bangladesh. However, such apologies are needed - to remind the current generations of the wrongness and futility of such practises.



On the same note, one can ask whether it is appropriate to expect Britain to apologise to India for its two hundred year long colonial rule. Given that colonial occupation is wrong, and British occupation caused untold miseries to Indians, and destroyed its economic and social structures, an apology is clearly due. However, it seems that the British believe that such apology is not necessary, because British occupation actually helped India, helped it to do away with its social evils. They further argue that the twin gifts of the empire - English Language and Democracy - are what is powering India to prosperity and prominence today.

Some of this is actually true. English Language and Democracy are both helpful, and some British colonialists played their part in reforming India's social practises and ushering in modern thinking. In all fairness, the interactions with the British changed Indians - or at least a section of India's population - and this, so far, played a prominent role in post-independence India.

However, the assertion that the effect of empire was beneficial is naive, one-sided and clearly not true. First of all, British empire destroyed India's economy. It is hilarious that some of empire's apologists claim that it is because of the British empire, India has started becoming prosperous today. India was a prosperous country - one of richest in the world - when the British set up their trading posts. The empire ruined India - of not just its jewels, but also of its industry and enterprise. The empire systematically destroyed India's village system and its agriculture. It created an unequal, unfair, favour-based system to buy off the urban gentry. While India's raw materials powered Britain's industrial revolution, India itself was left devoid of industry, through a clever mixture of trade laws, tariffs and local administrative policies.

Second, the British empire destroyed India's system of education. Elsewhere, I wrote about Lord Macaulay, and talked about his role in spreading English education. I maintained that he did Indians a favour by introducing English, though his intent was to create a subservient class of government servants, and not universal education. In the process, indeed, he destroyed universal education. Thinking on his lines, subsequent generations of Indian administrators even gave up thinking of the possibility of universal education, and channelled limited government resources towards funding expensive tertiary education. However, Indian languages, knowledge and tradition were irretrievably lost in the process. The British empire is largely responsible for limiting the scope of education in India, and creating a 'babu' class taught in the Master's language. Any effect that may have on our prosperity is purely accidental, but the damage it has caused to India is beyond doubt and limitless.

Third, though some of the leading British thinkers played a significant part in creating modern India, they were not representatives of the empire. In fact, they had to confront the empire in achieving their liberal, humanitarian goals. The overall legacy of the empire itself, on the Indian society, was one of division, strife and violence. One must not forget the most visible sign of the empire was observed in its parting - they entered the land of a mighty, unified empire and left a land divided, with millions of refugees, in the middle of the most violent communal strife in modern history. Empire's social effects must be observed with this in perspective.

Fourth, while it is true that Indian administrators learnt the art of Parliamentary democracy from the British, it isn't a gift from the empire, but an invention of the post-independence Indian leaders. They demonstrated courage and determination in allowing universal suffrage from the word go. At that time in history, the coloured did not have a vote in the United States. The Indian democracy was an act of imagination from Nehru and co., it was not a 'gift' the empire wanted to leave behind.

In summary, it is time that the British come in term with the truth - that the empire was an ugly, exploitative and unfair burden they had put on other peoples. They need to apologise and they should pay a reparation. Hiding behind the united voices of English language textbooks and biased media stories have gone on for too long. A true apology will hurt no one; but the absence of one will leave Britain a country in denial, unable to come in terms with the modern world, and surely, one day, history will overtake its vanity and it will fail its moral claim of attempting to create a better world.

8 comments:

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

It is called the white man's burden: something they took upon themselves to "civilize" the heathens. I agree: the British did us a world of good by introducing English which let us know beyond our boundaries. They also did good by establishing the railway network, etc. But like you said, it was all done to create another generation of babus -- never with any intentions of doing good. Through years of forcing peasants to grow indigo, inhuman tortures and rape, pillaging and the famous "divide and rule" theology, they left a boot mark on our collective minds from which we are still reeling.

Good post.

Supriyo Chaudhuri said...

Many thanks for your kind comments.

Yes, indeed - the modernization of India was carried out for the sake of administrative convenience. Besides, the route to development for India was subverted, and how can one assert that learning English was good for us, as the only advantage that English had was that it was the rulers' language.

The human costs of colonialism was enormous. It is time that the current generations accept that it was wrong, as that will help us secure the future.

sri said...

True thoughts, well written.

I agree with the author. Bharath's (don't prefer 'India') economy during Ashoka's and then Akbar's period was far greater than China and britain during pre-british period. britain's colonial exploitation reduced Bharat's economy to rubbles during their misrule.

+ I don't agree that britain united Bharat - their intent, was 'not to unite' but to divide. Several emperors successfully united Bharat before the british - It was Ashoka who united Bharath from Afganisthan from north west to down south and east!

+ moghuls & british invaded Bharath, for it's wealth & land, and didn't come for charity.

+ It's hilarious to see britain added the title 'Great' to themselves? (For all their barabarstic attempts they did to 'rule' Bharath?)

+ why don't we, Bharath start supporting irish independence from britain?

If pope in rome apologized for their sin (for punishing Galilieo) after 300+ years, why can't britain apologize to bharat for what they did?

Anonymous said...

No, Britain should not apologise, and Italy was wrong to apologist to Italy. Retroactive apologies like these are hollow and meaningless; Britain no longer rules India, and nobody in either country is either responsible for the British Raj nor still suffering from it. Britain already gives aid to India, so reparations are utterly out of the question.

"+ It's hilarious to see britain added the title 'Great' to themselves? (For all their barabarstic attempts they did to 'rule' Bharath?)"

It is hilarious to see someone who has no knowledge of geography. Hint: the 'Great' has nothing to do with any notion of self aggrandisement.

Suman said...

Very nice post. After the colonial rule in India, Britain should indeed apologize for destroying every thing. They did little good towards the country than the worst. Whatever they had done either is the introduction of the english language in the mainstream was for their own good so that the indians can serve them efficiently. There are many countries in the world who are still not using english but prospering in every field. Destroying the age old education system of India, which now many sees to be backward but at some point of time was a quite the best system available. That is the reason why many of our scriptures are still now preserved by big laboratories and research facilities abroad for proper analysis. Many great thinkers, writers, poets and great minds of older times travel to India for pursuing education. Well, learning foreign language is not bad but at the same time preserving the legacy is also important. When we can walk with the presant knowledge and pass on our past to the next generation then only we can hope for a better and secure future.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post. After the colonial rule in India, Britain should indeed apologize for destroying every thing. They did little good towards the country than the worst. Whatever they had done either is the introduction of the english language in the mainstream was for their own good so that the indians can serve them efficiently. There are many countries in the world who are still not using english but prospering in every field. Destroying the age old education system of India, which now many sees to be backward but at some point of time was a quite the best system available. That is the reason why many of our scriptures are still now preserved by big laboratories and research facilities abroad for proper analysis. Many great thinkers, writers, poets and great minds of older times travel to India for pursuing education. Well, learning foreign language is not bad but at the same time preserving the legacy is also important. When we can walk with the presant knowledge and pass on our past to the next generation then only we can hope for a better and secure future.

S♥♥d said...

British occupation definitely cannot be justified but the assertion that it was beneficial, i believe, is true. What economy are you talking about? India was not the richest country but it's ruling class was. There was no educational structure present in Indian subcontinent prior to British invasion. Could you imagine Nobel Laureates emerging from this region under Moghal rule? Could the then state carve out great minds like we witnessed in the previous century? They educated us, Let 's admit this reality.
A proper judicial system was introduced and employed successfully in subcontinent under British Rule. Nonetheless, it is also true that the natives were exploited; but their contribution to our people should be considered too.

Anonymous said...

Its easy to write a blog post in English, asking the English to apologize for their "past crimes". However, it will never happen. In fact the great butcher of Jalian wala bagh is decorated war hero. They have even failed to revoke the awards bestowed on him. So its ludicrous to think that anybody will ever apologize.

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