British Empire’s pernicious legacy

In a summer largely distinguished by floating Taj Mahals, Bollywood extravaganzas and empire-nostalgic television, a new exhibition at the British Library in London offers a more thoughtful commemoration of the 60th anniversary of independence for India and Pakistan. Countdown to Freedom chronicles the turbulent centuries from the arrival in 1608 of the East India Company to the fabled midnight of independence. Though small, the display succeeds in evoking the historical ties that bind Britain to the subcontinent.

While the end of British rule was a crucial historical moment for four subcontinental nations, current celebrations focus largely on contemporary India. This is less a tribute to history than canny courtship of that nation as a lucrative trading partner. Celebrating the end of imperial rule also sits oddly next to calls to take pride in the British empire as integral to “Britishness”. At a time when most Britons have only a vague understanding of empire and some young Indians are quick to shrug off the economic and moral lessons of the freedom struggle, the exhibition offers some salutary reminders.

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. These texts refuse subjection and call on Indians to take freedom, not expect it to be given. Some make polemical use of criticism of empire by Englishmen themselves, citing W Digby — on “famine-stricken India being bled for the maintenance of England’s world-wide empire” — and Charles Dilke, for whom imperialism was testimony less to so-called British values than “our descent from Scandinavian sea-king robbers”.

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. Underpinning anti-colonialism was the sense that achieving freedom also necessitates self-criticism and transformation of one’s own self and society.

Many of the materials on show at the British Library were banned at the time. Despite the fond notion that the empire spread liberty, protest was heavily policed through anti-sedition and press-control legislation. The scholar Gerald Barrier has shown how a vast range of materials (including plays, histories of revolution and political commentaries, especially Irish and Russian) were judged to be critical of western civilisation or Christianity and banned as “incitement to violence”.

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. Or that it behoves community pride to appeal to colonial-era legislation to censor offence. In doing so, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim chauvinists show themselves to be most thoroughly colonised. Or that the answer to extremism is “Britishness” through citizenship courses and English-speaking imams. As the exhibition shows, chauvinism speaks many languages, including English. Luckily, so do freedom and tolerance. It is these that we need to recover and strengthen from the margins to which history has tried to relegate them. — The Guardian