In Response to the Empire Debate

I wrote this article in response to the above “Empire Debate”, and it originally appeared on

You may wish to watch the debate first, but it’s not essential. (In fact, it could be even more fun to read first and then watch the video.)

The motion they were debating was: “This house believes that the Indian Subcontinent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism.”

After years of post-colonial theorizing, nostalgia, historiography and head shaking, it comes as at least a mild shock that the motion was phrased in the positive. It’s a “quaint” discussion, as William Dalrymple put it, because most of humanity hopes that we’ve left our colonial tendencies far behind. And yet, despite the resounding victory for the opposition speakers, I felt they failed to address the most pressing concerns.

The omission of partition – with the devastation that it has caused, economically, morally, socially, culturally – was certainly a huge mistake by the opposition team of Dalrymple, Nick Robins and Shashi Tharoor. Maybe they were trying to give lesser-known examples, but that is only an insufficient consolation.

Kwarteng Kwasi raised an interesting point – he argued that we couldn’t just stay focused on history alone to evaluate this motion. That India had a colonial past may have been bad for them, he argued, but it certainly has led to a competitive advantage over, say, China and will undoubtedly lead to more economic opportunities in the future. Although Robins easily dismissed Kwarteng’s question as being out of point because the motion is specifically phrased as pertaining to the past, I believe that it is still quite important.

Here’s his argument, phrased as a question: will having a colonised history turn out to be better for us in the future, compared to not have a colonised past?

There are two ways to tackle this question. First, we ask – what would India have looked like had we not been colonized? In this line of thinking, one might try to extrapolate from pre-colonial conditions, bringing them logically into the present. You might point out that Mughal, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi heritage was far beyond the modern narrow understanding of human rights; that while Britain advanced by fighting nature’s elements, Hindustan’s technology, architecture and science advanced to live with, appreciate and admire them; that Indian sub-continental culture, sophistication and social calibration operated on far more intimate human truths than the clunky “decision by consensus” governance and legal systems the British were evolving. Or, you could argue the exact opposite of all the above… All these are mere conjecture – we can’t possibly hope to predict such a complex society’s future accurately.

So then, let’s ask a slightly more explosive question, but one that is rather easier to answer. Would we have better future prospects had we colonized Britain instead? Statistically, this is easier to answer – look at any of the colonial powers. The argument from economics is elementary: Hindustan, with her natural richness, having vast hordes of Europeans to force feed her exemplary goods at exorbitant, monopolized prices? India’s share of global GDP would certainly have boomed. What’s more, the world would’ve been speaking Urdu, or Tamil, or Sanskrit, or Bengali, or all four. Children in Manchester’s schools would’ve been reciting Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi. We would’ve hosted a debate like this one in the Lal Qila Diwaan-i-Khas, talking about how the now grossly impoverished Londoners are way better off because they speak the global Indic languages, because they have wonderful economic prospects in the future. The debate would’ve been in Urdu.

The future argument is futile, and reeking of the same kind of twisted consequentialist ethics that led to colonialism in the first place: that eventually India seems to be bouncing back and making the most of our horrendous past is not a credit to Britain, but to India and her deep wells of post-traumatic courage. These consequences must have no bearing on our judgment of past wrongs.

Instead, what we can bring to the table is a softer, more delicate appreciation of what humanity lost as a whole due to the crimes committed by British imperialism. Dalrymple mentioned this in passing: we hurt the soul of India, and by extension, the soul of humanity.

As Britain was experimenting with democratic structures, India too was experimenting with what Rabindranath Tagore called social “calibrations”. There was a widespread recognition of the spiritual side of human life, that had little thirst for commercial gains, and that asked people to look inwards for its peace. There was precious little top-down intervention – social life was being regulated by the ebbs and flows of human interaction. The English, on the same question of how to live life in such a state of social and cultural flux, looked towards a machinery. In other words, they didn’t invent democracy – consensus and discussion are as old as language. They found a way to mass-produce it.

The colonial powers were run on these machines of great efficiency. But in the process of scaling up, solidifying, clarifying, and putting down rules, we’ve lost something crucial: that justice is after all personal and subjective, not systematic and objective.

Kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza Ghalib, aur kahaan waaiz,
Par itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha ke hum nikle.

Translation: The door of the bar and the Preacher are very far apart from each other. But, all I know is that when I left the bar yesterday, the Preacher was on his way there.

Humanity today is suffering from it. Vast communities in India, from Kashmir, to the Naxals, to the Zomia – those who disagree with the Constitutional, with the Mainstream, or National, are marginalized, brow beaten and subjugated by nationalists, patriots… zealots. And as India will inevitably master this machinery, and outwit other nationalist machineries around the world, you can expect the imperialism of Indians to dominate the coming century.

So when Dalrymple says colonialism hurt India’s soul, this is what he means. He is referring to the premature, violent termination of an experiment in humanity that was ongoing at the time – cast aside for another, more menacing ‘national’ machinery, supplanted with fears of racist. Who knows what we could’ve discovered, and how profoundly humanity could have benefitted.

We’ve spent too long discussing it already. We have become so jaded with the horrors of our British past that we choose levity over seriousness – not as a means to reconfigure the past, but to cope with it better. We fall back on economic analyses, leveraging their ability to anaesthetize the most horrendous of acts. One can understand, from the point of view of the British government, how this must be an essential PR exercise to mollify India’s painful memories. I can see why they did it, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Beyond all the words (the never ending words) are simple truths that we can feel in our gut, that make the gut itself contort in morbid disbelief. I feel that truth in my heart. It permeates in the communal paranoia that is bursting India’s veins, it explodes to the surface in our distrust with our neighbours, it makes its ugly head visible whenever we battle our own inherited racial inferiority complexes. This is our truth now, our heritage.

And so – I’m unnerved by the speakers’ levity. The whole exercise was an insult to the baggage that a million families now carry. No, the audience wasn’t ‘convinced’ that our colonial past was a gross injustice to humanity, and a blot that will forever mar the fabric of human history. Far from it. The British among them would perhaps go home and say, over a cup of tea – “Well, doesn’t look like India enjoyed our company then. Too bad.”


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