Looking back on Empire

Tariq Rahman offers a balanced assessment of British Imperialism and questions whether we've sacrificed history to the alter of the left

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The Cultural Left’s assault on the past extends to a broad range of beliefs, ideas, and institutions but it is an undeniable fact that the Empire – closest thing Britain ever had to its own idea of exceptionalism – is considered the most shameful and embarrassing. While a newfound Empire-bashing fever has gripped the former colonies – India, in particular – there seems to be no interest in Britain to promote a more objective view of the imperial past. In the rare occasions when the Empire does come up for discussion in Britain, it is invariably riddled with shame, contempt, and increasingly a revolutionary iconoclasm.

The Left’s attack on History

It is understandable, especially in the modern post-colonial age when the old ‘history is written by the victors’ dictum no longer holds, to have various competing narratives on history. It is, for instance, understandable, if not always intellectually defensible, for the current generation of South Africans to wipe out symbols venerating those they consider their colonial oppressors. But for the same sentiments to be felt by the current generation of Britons and for them to replicate the same act is nothing short of cultural suicide.

National identity and culture cannot be salvaged in a world where there are no heroes and everyone’s villains are the same. It is one thing to take a critical view of the past – to learn from its mistakes, to identify the need for change or reform, and appreciate all that is worth conserving – but to unleash a completely mindless and vicious assault on the past can lead to the most intolerant imperialism of the mind. Under the guise of freeing people from the restraints of the past, it imposes a new conformism more uncompromising than the one it purports to replace. The old empire has come to be replaced by a new one, an empire of the mind as the great statesman Winston Churchill so prophetically said. That is not only visible in the iconoclasm of the present generation of Britons, but also in the imitative tendencies among non-Europeans. While English education emancipated several generations of Indians, modernized their thinking, and re-connected them with their intellectual inheritance, the post-imperial generations pose as triumphant nationalist chauvinists while surrendering themselves wholly to the most debased forms of Western popular culture.

India and Empire

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The economic impoverishment of India that came as a result of British rule is no longer a serious point of debate. There was a widely held consensus even during the days of the Empire that India’s position, militarily and economically, had declined considerably under the guardianship of the British. In his 1928 microcosmic overview of Indian history India Through the Ages, the great nationalist-imperialist historian Jadunath Sarkar notes ‘that India is to-day much less able to wage an economic or military contest with Europe than she was in the age of Akbar.’ Despite that, he and several generations of Indians not unlike him held British rule in great regard because they were true nationalists who understood the historical reality of our civilization. The purely economic stance against the Empire, resurrected by the likes of Shashi Tharoor in his bombastic best-seller Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, is a narrow view which precludes the tremendous growth in the intellectual, moral, spiritual and artistic life of the country that so distinctively marks the British period of Indian history.

The modern nation-state called India, owing to its leaders and populace being more conducive to a democratic form of government, has been able to retain the colonial institutions and administrative framework to carve out one of the very few, if not the lone, success stories among the post-colonial states. The two other progenies of the partition of the sub-continent that followed the disappearance of British rule have been less fortunate. That is certainly the case of Bangladesh, of which I have full knowledge.

In the first part of his two-volume autobiography, Nirad C. Chaudhuri evocatively brings to life the rural upbringing he had in a small village called Kishorganj (in modern day Bangladesh). The echoes of the renaissance in Indian thought, culture, religion, and politics that came as a result of English education and exposure to European high culture reached even the schoolboy growing up in a backwater village. The village still stands, perhaps more prosperous and materially well-off than ever before, but with very little knowledge and absolutely no appreciation for anything that could conceivably be called high culture. The village high school library which once stocked even the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet would today be found empty, uninviting, and devoid of any great literature. It would not be surprising to find smartphones and the internet in wide use, but the place and its residents have been cut off from the artery of world affairs like never before. Chaudhuri writes that having read the descriptions of the environment in which he grew up, ‘one could question the presence in it, not only of any knowledge of England, but also of all means of knowledge’. It was only as consequence of being an integral, arguably the most significant, member of the great British Empire that made any kind of intellectual activity possible in so ill-suited an environment. Now, with the disappearance of British rule, the village, in fact the entire country and to a lesser extent the sub-continent, has reverted back to its natural roots.

Blaming the British Empire achieves nothing

Douglas McCallum, in the brilliant 1962 symposium-style publication Australian Civilization, somewhat lamentably noted that had Le Perouse established the first settlement in the Australian continent instead of Captain Philip, then Australia would have at least developed a strong national culture. He contrasted the effects of two competing imperialisms, whereas my judgement of the imperial past is based on the effects of 71 years of supposed freedom from imperial oppression. Despite the economic progress and rise in living standards, we have turned our lands into a barren desert culturally and stunted the intellectual progress of our civilization. We are less sovereign in our minds than ever before – all our institutions and ideas are borrowed from the West and perverted to suits the needs of our intellectually impoverished masses. If we are to continue as we are, and we possibly will, the least we can do is acknowledge that there is no use shaming the Empire.