Monday, March 27, 2017

Churchill Vs Hitler: Rhetoric and Resurrection of the Raj

Shashi Tharoor, Author and Indian Politician, has touched a number of raw nerves when he compared Churchill and Hitler, maintaining “Churchill has as much blood on his hands as Hitler does” (See story) in an interview with UK-Asian, an Asian community interest website in Britain, launching his new book, Inglorious Empire  (a catchy title with a whiff of Quentin Tarantino).

While this has now drawn several angry responses (for example, see this one from Zareer Masani), there is little new here. Churchill did preside over a genocide, intentionally diverting food from India and causing a famine to punish insolent Bengalis in 1943, a forgotten affair in Britain (like all other atrocities of the empire), but subject to detailed exploration in Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War, and even more famously and dispassionately, in Amartya Sen's Poverty and Famine. Churchill, the arch-colonialist, had actively participated in various colonial atrocities, starting with Boer War in 1902 right down to the various British mischiefs in Suez, Kenya and Iran in the mid-fifties. His role in the World Wars, however glorified in Britain, was questioned variously (see this New York Review of Books article), and his hand was all too visible in crafting the Cold War ('Iron Curtain', Churchill's gift to post-war politics, is a piece of rhetoric he stole from Dr Joseph Goebbels, obviously without attribution).  Dr Tharoor made this point several times before writing the book, most popularly in his Oxford Union address in 2015.



The book idea originated from this debate, and maintained much of its polemical flavour. However, Dr Tharoor's broad point is to problematize British Empire, and unfortunately, the rhetoric, such as Churchill versus Hitler comparison, somewhat distracts attention. While this makes great headlines - as it did in the British Press - there is never too much to learn, as Foucault would say, from polemics. What is important is to debate Dr Tharoor's key point - that Britain has chosen to hide its imperial atrocities and never atoned for them - and see his comparisons with other imperial and militarist nations in context. This is, in fact, not necessary to soothe Indian sentiments, but for the sake of sanity in Britain. The supposed glories of British Empires, alongwith the stories of 'civilizing missions', have been kept alive in British textbooks, and has come back to bite as the country, and its elite, hurls itself into a self-destructive path of Brexit and beyond. The good-country-bad-country tone of British history, the over-the-board coverage of Nazi Germany along with obscuration of the cold-blooded massacres of Amritsar and Mau-Mau,  makes the British live in the wonderland of Historical Amnesia. Dr Tharoor sought to challenge this, but the Churchill-vs-Hitler rhetorical device isn't very helpful here.

I shall argue that such rhetoric in fact helps a resurrection of the Raj, as in the tone of argument, in Mr Masani, that Natives don't do History! This has happened before: Pat Buchanan's exploration of Churchill's role in World Wars was met with same derision - that this is not history! History, of a certain authentic variety, seems to be a monopoly of those who wants to project a narrative of progress, a discipline practised by Lord Macaulay to Niall Ferguson and Michael Dobbs! No amount of scrubbing the 'Whig mindset' can get us to asking uncomfortable questions, and all attempts at Colonial History, no matter how lofty and unambiguously political, are by definition 'sub-altern' and to be dutifully excluded from the canon. That Mr Masani can invoke an unashamed apology for the Raj even in the 21st century points to the folly of rhetoric.

One final point: Is this debate important at all? It is, as we seem to be standing at an inflection point of the long arc of History. For all the hysteria of 2016, the politics is changing, and a shift of geopolitical power from the Atlantic world to the Eurasian plan may already be underway. Churchill vs Hitler competition, outside its moral complications, was, at its core, about this geopolitics. Today, the  configurations are different - with America at the pinnacle of its power and Britain, unmoored from its imperial possessions, adrift in its identity and unsure of its friends - but still faced with the challenge of the land empires of Central Eurasia, Russia and China. A sensible reassessment of history, shorn of rhetoric, is an essential tool living in end times such as this, and Britain's historical myth-making, useful in the last half-century, has now outlived its significance.


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