NEW DELHI – Indians tend not to dwell on the country’s colonial past. Whether through national strength or civilizational weakness, India has long refused to hold any grudge against Britain for 200 years of imperial enslavement, plunder, and exploitation. But Indians’ equanimity about the past does not annul what was done.
Britain’s shambolic withdrawal from India in 1947, after two centuries of imperial rule, entailed a savage partitioning that gave rise to Pakistan. But it occurred curiously without rancor toward Britain. India chose to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic, and maintained cordial relations with its former overlords.
Some years later, Winston Churchill asked Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had spent nearly a decade of his life in British jails, about his apparent lack of bitterness. Nehru replied that “a great man,” Mahatma Gandhi, had taught Indians “never to fear and never to hate.”
But, notwithstanding appearances to the contrary, the scars of colonialism have not fully faded. I learned that firsthand in the summer of 2015, when I delivered a speech at the Oxford Union decrying the iniquities of British colonialism – a speech that, to my surprise, inspired a powerful response across India.
The speech quickly went viral on social media, with one post racking up more than three million hits in just 48 hours, and with websites across the globe reposting it. My right-wing opponents stopped trolling me on social media just long enough to hail my speech. The speaker of the Lok Sabha, Sumitra Mahajan, went out of her way to compliment me at a function attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who then congratulated me publicly for having said “the right things at the right place.”
Schools and colleges played the speech to their students. One university, the Central University of Jammu, organized a daylong seminar, at which eminent scholars addressed specific points I had raised. Hundreds of articles were written in response, both in support of and in opposition to my statements.
Two years later, strangers still approach me in public places to praise my “Oxford speech.” My book on the same theme, An Era of Darkness, has remained on Indian bestseller lists since its publication three months ago. The British edition, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, hits bookshelves next month.
Given India’s longstanding attitudes about colonialism, I did not expect such a reception. But perhaps I should have. After all, the British seized one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest.
Britain destroyed India through looting, expropriation, and outright theft – all conducted in a spirit of deep racism and amoral cynicism. The British justified their actions, carried out by brute force, with staggering hypocrisy and cant.
The American historian Will Durant called Britain’s colonial subjugation of India “the greatest crime in all history.” Whether or not one agrees, one thing is clear: imperialism was not, as some disingenuous British apologists have claimed, an altruistic enterprise.
Britain has been suffering from a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism. As Moni Mohsin, a Pakistani writer, recently pointed out, British colonialism is conspicuously absent from the United Kingdom’s school curricula. Mohsin’s own two children, despite attending the best schools in London, never had a single lesson on colonial history.
Londoners marvel at their magnificent city, knowing little of the rapacity and plunder that paid for it. Many British are genuinely unaware of the atrocities their ancestors committed, and some live in the blissful illusion that the British Empire was some sort of civilizing mission to uplift the ignorant natives.
This opens the way for the manipulation of historical narratives. Television soap operas, with their gauzy romanticization of the “Raj,” provide a rose-tinted picture of the colonial era. Several British historians have written hugely successful books extolling the supposed virtues of empire.
In the last decade or two, in particular, popular histories of the British Empire, written by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have described it in glowing terms. Such accounts fail to acknowledge the atrocities, exploitation, plunder, and racism that underpinned the imperial enterprise.
All of this explains – but does not excuse – Britons’ ignorance. The present cannot be understood in terms of simple historical analogies, but the lessons of history must not be ignored. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, how will you appreciate where you’re going?
This goes not just for the British, but also for my fellow Indians, who have shown an extraordinary capacity to forgive and forget. But, while we should forgive, we should not forget. In that sense, the powerful response to my 2015 speech at the Oxford Union is encouraging.
The modern relationship between Britain and India – two sovereign and equal countries – is clearly very different from the colonial relationship of the past. When my book hit bookstores in Delhi, British Prime Minister Theresa May was just days away from a visit to seek Indian investment. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.