The Observer

BRITAIN’S polyglot possessions once covered a quarter of the globe, so why is the story told only from the white viewpoint? For the sake of all in our multicultural country we should look again at the history books

More than 30 years ago, soon after I first arrived in this country, I was taken to meet the father of an English girl I had got to know. He was a kindly man who said I should not believe the propaganda that Labour had given India independence; Churchill would have done the same had he won the 1945 elections. And, in any case, did I not think the Indians were better off under British rule and the British had done much good in India?

I smiled and said that I had no personal experience of the Raj but if the price of learning how to play cricket was 200 years of slavery, then I was happy my ancestors chose slavery so I could appreciate the beauty of a cover drive.

My attempt at humour backfired. My girlfriend’s father bristled at my use of the word ‘slavery’ and I was never invited back. But since then, I have been struck by the number of times people have sought my reassurance that the British in India did not behave too horribly. They have been eager for the reassurance that only I, as an Indian, can give them and are so pleased when I say that British rule in India was not always bad and, at times, did some good.

ITV’s screening of yet another look at the British Empire last month has once again illustrated this endless English search for reassurance about their empire. Back in 1969, a series on the Empire was presented by a white Englishman. Later that year, ITV featured a sitcom with Spike Milligan blacking up to play an Indian waiter who raised gales of laughter by endlessly saying ‘goodness gracious me’ in what was called a Peter Sellers Indian accent.

Thirty years on, Art Malik, son of a Pakistani migrant, has been the narrator of the current series, The British Empire in Colour. He wrote an article previewing it in the Mail on Sunday, in which he said he had no quarrel with the Empire as it was an attempt to make the world safe for democracy and world peace. How reassuring those words, from a child of a former colonial subject, must have been to the editor of the Mail on Sunday.

That a leading right-wing newspaper should have an article by an Asian praising the Empire shows the utter confusion that surrounds attempts to reassure contemporary Britons that the Empire of their fathers and grandfathers was not a force for bad.

Part of the confusion can be traced to the beginning of the Empire in India. Robert Clive’s victory in the battle of Plassey, when he defeated the Bengal nawab, Siraj-ud-daula, in June 1757, so launching the British Empire in India, was achieved through a conspiracy. Clive bribed the nawab’s general, Mir Jaffar, using as middleman a Calcutta businessman called Omichand.

Convinced Omichand was a crook, Clive set out to deceive him, preparing two agreements with Mir Jaffar. One was a false one with forged signatures, which mentioned the middleman’s commission Omichand would receive, and a genuine one that did not.

Years later, Clive’s deception was the subject of parliamentary inquiry and a censure motion in the House of Commons. The proposer, Colonel Burgoyne, accused Clive of looting Bengal for personal gain. Clive defended himself by saying what he did was for the good of Britain. The debate showed the English at their most sanctimonious; Clive was denounced for making money but praised for his ‘great and meritorious service to the country’.

Clive’s biographer, Nirad Chaudhuri, has pointed out that, using the moral standards being applied to Clive, the very establishment of British power in India was ‘naked aggression and usurpation, if not robbery… [but] England could not retain the stolen goods if they called Clive a thief’.

Ever since, the English have struggled with this dilemma. They have wanted the glory of the Empire but have recoiled from the messy, underhand, often criminal ways that always accompany the acquisition of such empires. They like to be seen as moral and upright men and women but when it is pointed out that in building and sustaining an empire they were also very cruel, vindictive, greedy, dishonest and evil they want to look away, unable to accept they could ever have been false to their essentially good and honest nature.

Not long ago, while walking on the Yorkshire Moors with an English friend, who is a veteran journalist and historian, the discussion turned to the Indian Revolt of 1857. I mentioned that the English had responded to the brutality of the Indians with their own brutal ways, such as tying Indians to the mouths of cannons, killing the sons of the last Mughal emperor and making Indians lick clean with their tongues the places where the English had been killed. As I spoke my friend looked away and said: ‘I cannot believe the English ever did that and I do not want to hear that.’

But if we are to understand the true story of the Empire and how it made us, both the white English and the browns and blacks who live in this country, then the entire story has to be told, not one where the shutter opens at a moment convenient for the British, say the end of the Raj. The violence that followed the British decision to leave India — a million killed, many millions uprooted — in 1947 was the culmination of many years of earlier violence and many more millions dead that had long made Indian self-government inconceivable in British eyes.

But the turning point came on 3 September 1939. Within hours of Neville Chamberlain declaring war in Germany, Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India, without consulting a single Indian, declared India at war with Germany. Though in regional governments there had been a very limited form of self-rule, the Indians felt that on the real issues they were still going to be treated like children. While Indians — and West Indians and Africans — in their millions fought for the Empire, they began to realise they were fighting not, as advertised, for freedom but for preserving their master’s empire.

In 1944, the Bengal famine, the worst in Indian history, led to four million deaths in a horrific mismanagement by the Raj. But the Raj, instead of accepting blame, or even censuring anyone, blamed the Indian shopkeeper for hoarding. Bengal never recovered and between 1945 and 1947 did indeed became ungovernable. It led to terrible riots between Hindus and Muslims, which finally convinced the Indian politicians that partition was inevitable. By then, the British had also conceded that they could not hold on to India; they no longer had the required support from the Indian collaborators who had sustained the Raj.

I am all for Empire studies but they must tell the whole story, not a highly selective story which may reassure those who cannot face the truth but does nothing to tell us how we came to be. I look forward to growing number of books, films and documentaries on the Empire, but I invariably find they are all about the English talking among themselves, with a walk-on part for the natives. Regrettably, this appears to apply even to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum which opened in Bristol last month.

I was astounded to discover that the new museum had nothing on Raja Ram Mohan Roy. He was one of the finest products of the Bengali renaissance, the result of the first interaction between the British and the Indians in Bengal. Roy believed that British rule would renovate India and its ancient culture; he converted to Christianity, sided with the British during the Indian Revolt of 1857 and is buried in Bristol. The Indian nationalist movement against the British was led by his descendants, who found that the promises and hopes nurtured in the early years of British rule were not being met. Indians, despite taking to British values and ways, were not being treated as equals.

The story of the Empire needs to address this. If it continues to ignore such men as Roy then, however many reassurances are sought from the likes of me, the gap in the real understanding of how the Empire affected the lives of all those now living in Britain will never be bridged.

© Mihir Bose


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