Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Imperialism and India

Easing myself into this recess gradually, I can comment on an article in the Guardian that is a combination of politics and history. What with the 60th anniversary of the independence of India coming up, we can expect a rash of similar articles in the Guardian, decrying the iniquities of the Raj and claiming that modern views are unacceptably forgiving. If they're all as ropy as this on matters of historical fact and interpretation then we're going to have a pretty thin time of it.
The struggle reflected a diverse milieu. There were Swarajists, Gandhians, socialists, Hindu and Muslim religious nationalists, communists, militant revolutionaries (branded "terrorists") and the Indian National Army.
Perhaps less diverse than Gopal thinks, given that Swarajists were a party that derived from the book Hind Swaraj (Home rule for India) that was written by Gandhi and summed up his political philosophy. To claim that the Indian National Army were much of anything other than a repository for prisoners of war and deserters is a bit of a stretch as well.
Even this brief display of handbills, tracts, advertisements, banners, cartoons, petitions, speeches and popular songs puts paid to the canard that "liberty" is a mainly western value.
I'm not sure I've seen this belief written anywhere since about 1930.
Many of the materials on show at the British Library were banned at the time. Despite the fond notion that the empire spread liberty (a myth US neocons have reworked), protest was heavily policed through anti-sedition and press-control legislation.
Well, there was certainly more liberty in the British Empire than outside it, and liberty was gradually extended as progress towards independence was made. That liberty was not absolute, and was indeed restricted is not to say that it was non-existent.
Though commentators frequently argue that the British tried nobly to unite an "uneducated and excitable" people, separatism was intrinsic to colonial rule and continues to inflect British politics.
It's preferable, when quoting people, to reference who they are and where they said it. Otherwise the suspicion grows that the quotation is being fabricated to fit the argument. If Gopal can find a contemporary commentator who argues (frequently presumably) that colonial rule in India was an attempt to unite an uneducated and excitable people then he should at least tell us who.
As we commemorate six decades of independence, we need to reflect, in Britain and the subcontinent, on how historical legacies shape thinking today. We need to stop believing that culture, community, religion and nation are the same entities.
This is an interesting and apposite point. The lesson that should be learned from British colonialism is not about racism, nor brutal capitalism nor liberty. What is fascinating is the way in which the British sought to understand alien cultures and societies and tried to use existing hierarchies to maintain British rule with a minimal British presence. This took many forms, relying on the Indian monarchies, the African tribal chiefs, and the religious systems throughout the Empire.
Terence Ranger, who in most respects is a thorough-going son-of-a-bachelor, wrote an important book called The Invention of Tradition in which he claimed that much of the 'tribal hierarchies' used by the British in Africa were essentially invented by the British. The inference is not that this was deliberate but that, in trying to understand alien societies, the British crystallised formerly fluid systems into rigid hierarchies. The same process has been analysed in the British assessment of the Hindu caste system.
To what extent this line of argument is entirely correct is debatable - the caste system particularly has antecedents well before British involvement - but it has interesting lessons for contemporary government, particularly in light of the current governmental trend for listening exclusively to 'community leaders' when the bulk of their leadership seems to derive from the fact that they are listened to by government.

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2 Comments:

Blogger JohnM said...

separatism was intrinsic to colonial rule

This is a common belief. The idea being that Britain used divide and rule to conquer a country that previously knew a greater harmony. This idea is particularly used to describe India.

The reality is that Muslim invaders from the 10 century onwards were responsible for the deaths of 40m-100m non Muslims Indians.

4:11 pm  
Blogger Tim J said...

Britain was always very good at exploiting existing divisions and classes. The point is of course that they were pre-existing...

5:38 pm  

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