Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire

Marc Parry writes: Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

Elkins had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups.

It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. Her prose seethed with outrage. Britain’s Gulag, titled Imperial Reckoning in the US, earned Elkins a great deal of attention and a Pulitzer prize. But the book polarised scholars. Some praised Elkins for breaking the “code of silence” that had squelched discussion of British imperial violence. Others branded her a self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies.

By 2008, Elkins’s job was on the line. Her case for tenure, once on the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of the British empire, one that would take her far beyond the controversy that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.

That’s when the phone rang, pulling her back in. A London law firm was preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt. Elkins’s research had made the suit possible. Now the lawyer running the case wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor study of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the call came. She looked at the file boxes around her. “I was supposed to be working on this next book,” she says. “Keep my head down and be an academic. Don’t go out and be on the front page of the paper.”

She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice. And she stood behind her work. “I was kind of like a dog with a bone,” she says. “I knew I was right.”

What she didn’t know was that the lawsuit would expose a secret: a vast colonial archive that had been hidden for half a century. The files within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government would go to sanitise its past. And the story Elkins would tell about those papers would once again plunge her into controversy. [Continue reading…]

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Untangling the complicated legacies of colonialism and failed Arab regimes overshadowing today’s conflicts in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Why have most Middle Eastern lands that Great Britain, Italy, and France managed as mandates or colonies become violent wrecks and sources of large-scale conflict and human despair? It is just as dishonest to blame mainly Western colonialism for our national wreckages and rampant instability as it is to blame only Arab people and culture for those failings. We need a more complete and integrated analysis of the multiple phenomena that shaped our last erratic century.

Initially, we must absolutely acknowledge that Arab states’ inability to achieve sustainable economic growth and pluralistic democracies is the core reason for our problems today. The main reason for this reason, however, is to be found in a more complex set of interlocking relationships among powerful political actors inside our countries and capitals far and near.

This requires going back before 1916, maybe a century or two, to recall how European powers conquered much of the world as colonies or sites of unchecked imperial plunder. The main problem with Sykes-Picot is not only what happened in and after 1916; it is also heavily a consequence of the European colonial mindset that matured in the century before 1916, and continued to exercise its colonial prerogatives for decades to follow — perhaps even in today’s continued use of European, Russian, and American military power across our region.

At the same time, three critical issues after 1916 made it virtually impossible for many Arab countries to transition from Euro-manufactured instant states born on after-dinner napkins in the hands of Cognac-mellowed British and French colonial officers, to stable, democratic, prosperous sovereign states.

These three issues were, in their historical order:

1) British support for Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine in November 1917, which plunged Palestine into endless Zionism-Arabism warfare since then, and sucked in other Arab states, Iran, and others yet;

2) the discovery of large amounts of oil in the Middle East in the 1930s especially, which the West needed to maintain access to for its own industrial expansion; and,

3) the post-1947 Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Soviet Communist states that was translated into perpetual proxy wars across the Middle East for forty-four years, and maybe is resurfacing today in new guises. [Continue reading…]

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Britain should stop trying to pretend that its empire was benevolent

By Alan Lester, University of Sussex

The recent debacle of David Cameron’s filmed condemnation of Nigerian and Afghan corruption and the Queen’s remark on Chinese officials’ rudeness highlights the persistence of imperial thinking in Britain. There seems to be a continuing assumption within the British establishment that it sets an example for others to follow and that the British are owed deference by others.

Ever since evangelical antislavery activists campaigned for Britain to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, Britons have assured themselves that imperial overrule is compatible with the “benign tutelage” of other races and nations. Unlike the other European empires, Britons tell themselves, theirs was an empire founded on humanitarian compassion for colonised subjects.

The argument runs like this: while the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Belgians and Germans exploited and abused, the British empire brought ideas of protection for lesser races and fostered their incremental development. With British tutelage colonised peoples could become, eventually, as competent, as knowledgeable, as “civilised” as Britain itself. These platitudes have been repeated time and again – they are still at the heart of most popular representations of the British Empire.

Even when we are encouraged to pay attention to empire’s costs as well as its benefits, these costs are imagined solely in terms of specific incidents of violence such as the Amritsar Massacre in India or the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. Britain has excused itself from that most structural injustice of empire – the slave trade itself – by the fact that it was Britain that pioneered its abolition.

[Read more…]

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How the curse of Sykes-Picot still haunts the Middle East

Robin Wright writes: In the Middle East, few men are pilloried these days as much as Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot. Sykes, a British diplomat, travelled the same turf as T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), served in the Boer War, inherited a baronetcy, and won a Conservative seat in Parliament. He died young, at thirty-nine, during the 1919 flu epidemic. Picot was a French lawyer and diplomat who led a long but obscure life, mainly in backwater posts, until his death, in 1950. But the two men live on in the secret agreement they were assigned to draft, during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement launched a nine-year process — and other deals, declarations, and treaties — that created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since.

“Hundreds of thousands have been killed because of Sykes-Picot and all the problems it created,” Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the Governor of Iraq’s Erbil Province, told me when I saw him this spring. “It changed the course of history — and nature.”

May 16th will mark the agreement’s hundredth anniversary, amid questions over whether its borders can survive the region’s current furies. “The system in place for the past one hundred years has collapsed,” Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, declared at the Sulaimani Forum, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in March. “It’s not clear what new system will take its place.”

The colonial carve-up was always vulnerable. Its map ignored local identities and political preferences. Borders were determined with a ruler — arbitrarily. At a briefing for Britain’s Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, in 1915, Sykes famously explained, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘E’ in Acre to the last ‘K’ in Kirkuk.” He slid his finger across a map, spread out on a table at No. 10 Downing Street, from what is today a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to the northern mountains of Iraq.

“Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure,” Zikri Mosa, an adviser to Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, told me. “It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them.” [Continue reading…]

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The Arab world and the West: A shared destiny

Jean-Pierre Filiu discusses his book, Les Arabes, leur destin et le nôtre, which aims to shed light on struggles in the Arab World today by exploring the entwined histories of the Arab World and the West, starting with Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, through military expeditions and brutal colonial regimes, broken promises and diplomatic maneuvers, support for dictatorial regimes, and the discovery of oil riches. He also discusses the “Arab Enlightenment” of the 19th Century and the history of democratic struggles and social revolts in the Arab world, often repressed.

Filiu is also the author of From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy, “an invaluable contribution to understanding the murky world of the Arab security regimes.”

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A generation of failed politicians has trapped the West in a tawdry nightmare

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Pankaj Mishra writes: Racism, a beast cornered if not tamed after much struggle, has lumbered back to civil society in the solemn guise of “reforming” Islam. Tony Blair summons us to worldwide battle on behalf of western values while embodying, with his central Asian clients, their comprehensive negation. The handful of media institutions and individuals that are not obliged to flesh out Rupert Murdoch’s tweets on Muslims seem to be struggling to remain viable in an increasingly retrogressive political culture. Even the BBC seems determined not to stray far from the Daily Mail’s editorial line.

Unsurprisingly, we witness, as Judt pointed out, “no external inputs, no new kinds of people, only the political class breeding itself”. “The old ways of mass movements, communities organised around an ideology, even religious or political ideas, trade unions and political parties to leverage public opinion into political influence” have disappeared. Indeed, the slightest reminder of this democratic past incites the technocrats of politics, business and the media into paroxysms of scorn.

Having acted recklessly to create their own reality, they have managed to trap all of us in a tawdry nightmare – a male buddy film of singular fatuousness. At the same time, reality-making has ceased to be the prerogative of the American imperium or of the French and British chumocrats, who lost their empires long ago and are still trying to find a role for themselves.

Some random fanatic, it turns out, can make their reality far more quickly, coercing the world’s oldest democracies into endless war, racial-religious hatred and paranoia. Such is the great power surrendered by the crappy generation and its epigones. The generations to come will scarcely believe it. [Continue reading…]

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Middle East still rocking from First World War pacts made 100 years ago

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Ian Black writes: In an idle moment between cocktail parties in the Arab capital where they served, a British and French diplomat were chatting recently about their respective countries’ legacies in the Middle East: why not commemorate them with a new rock band? And they could call it Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration.

It was just a joke. These first world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.

“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.

In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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Spinning against imperialism: Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne and the Middle East

By Brian Whitaker, al-bab, October 27, 2015

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the opposition Labour party in Britain last month I wrote a blog post looking at his public statements on international affairs and trying to draw some conclusions about how British policy in the Middle East might change under a Corbyn-led government.

While some of Corbyn’s ideas struck me as naive there were others that looked more promising. Along with his unwillingness to be drawn into military adventures his declared intention to place human rights “in the centre” of foreign policy seemed like a positive development.

Corbyn has since had some success in that area, embarrassing the government over its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The government has been struggling to justify its eagerness to do business with the Saudis in the face of their egregious human rights abuses and on this issue the British public, together with large sections of the media, appear to be on Corbyn’s side. This is clearly one of the government’s weak spots, ripe for Labour to exploit.

Last week brought a distraction from the business of opposing the government, however, with the appointment of Guardian columnist Seumas Milne as Executive Director of Strategy and Communications – in effect, as Corbyn’s chief spin doctor. It’s the post formerly held by Alastair Campbell in Tony Blair’s government, and it gives the holder a lot of influence if not actual power. At the very least we can expect Milne to be in daily contact with Corbyn, discussing how to present Labour’s policies and respond to events. [Read more…]

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Leftists who think politics is more important than people

In response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment of Seumas Milne as the UK Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, Oliver Bullough writes: For Milne, geopolitics is more important than people. Whatever crisis strikes the world, the West’s to blame. Why did a group of psychopaths attack a magazine and a supermarket in Paris? “Without the war waged by western powers, including France, to bring to heel and reoccupy the Arab and Muslim world, last week’s attacks clearly couldn’t have taken place”.

Why did Anders Breivik slaughter 77 people? “What is most striking is how closely he mirrors the ideas and fixations of transatlantic conservatives.”

Why did two maniacs in London decapitate an off-duty soldier? “They are the predicted consequence of an avalanche of violence unleashed by the US, Britain and others.”

Milne’s geopolitics spared us having to read how the children of Beslan or the theatregoers of Moscow only had themselves to blame, but office workers in New York had no such luck. “Recognition of why people might have been driven to carry out such atrocities, sacrificing their own lives in the process – or why the United States is hated with such bitterness, not only in Arab and Muslim countries, but across the developing world – seems almost entirely absent.”

And this rampant victim blaming is not an approach confined to current affairs. His geopolitical preferences extend into history too, where he fiercely opposes any suggestion that Stalin’s Soviet Union was as bad as Hitler’s Germany. He has been caricatured as a Stalinist as a result, something that appears to irritate some of his once-and-future Guardian colleagues (he is on leave from the paper). I got into a Twitter debate with Zoe Williams yesterday, in which she pointed out: “he’s written reams about the crimes of Stalin”.

He has indeed, but he has written about them in the manner of a Brit acknowledging the Amritsar massacre, before pointing out how much worse off India would be without trains. [Continue reading…]

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Anti-imperialism 2.0: Selective sympathies, dubious friends

Charles Davis writes: The new imperialism is caring a bit too much about the suffering of people who are being brutalized by a regime which is not currently an ally of the United States – and the new anti-imperialism is not giving a damn at all, solidarity that extends beyond the border permissible only if the drawing of attention to their plight could not possibly be used as ammunition by the “humanitarian” militarists of the American empire. The world, in this view, is divided into but two camps: those with America and those against it, with the good anti-imperialist’s outrage dialed up if the atrocity can be linked to the United States, as well it should be, but dialed down to total silence if it’s not.

This is, of course, the “anti-imperialism” of the reactionary, in more than one sense: How a person of the left responds to a pile of dead women and children is in effect dictated by how the U.S. government itself responds, the advocate of the poor and forgotten consigning foreigners to their fate – “not our problem, pal,” as one popular liberal congressman essentially put it on cable TV – if their interests have the misfortune of being perceived as aligned with America’s, the left’s commitment to internationalism abandoned for an inverted form of muddled nationalism that sees U.S. imperialism as not just one factor to consider in a complex world, but the only factor relevant in how we in the imperial core should view what happens on the rest of the globe. And if your cause is sullied by the perception it’s America’s cause too? The leftist sounds just like that liberal who sounds like Pat Buchanan: Sorry, pal, if you wanted our solidarity you should have been born somewhere that better lends itself to a black-and-white anti-imperial critique. [Continue reading…]

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European imperialism grew out of a hunger for pepper

Stephen Kinzer writes: As Europe began awakening into the modern age, people were eager for new sensations. The arrival of exotic spices dazzled them. Pepper is the reason modern imperialism was invented.

For generations after their founding in the early 17th century, two powerful mercantile forces dominated much of the world: the East India Company, based in London, and the Dutch East India Company, based in Amsterdam. They were richer and had greater reach than any government — complete with armies, navies, merchant fleets, fortified ports, plantations, court systems, prisons, currencies, and treaty-making rights. With this authority, granted by the British and Dutch governments, they captured far-flung territories and sowed seeds of conflict in vast areas east of Suez.

Both of these companies were founded to bring pepper to Europe. The first islands they subdued, the Moluccas, are now part of Indonesia but were long known in the West as the Spice Islands. It is a wonderful example of how food can become the lens through which we see foreign lands. Europeans went mad for pepper and other spices. That meant ships had to be sent halfway around the world to claim land and suppress unruly natives. [Continue reading…]

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The East India Company: The original corporate raiders

William Dalrymple writes: One of the very first Indian words to enter the English language was the Hindustani slang for plunder: “loot”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was rarely heard outside the plains of north India until the late 18th century, when it suddenly became a common term across Britain. To understand how and why it took root and flourished in so distant a landscape, one need only visit Powis Castle.

The last hereditary Welsh prince, Owain Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn, built Powis castle as a craggy fort in the 13th century; the estate was his reward for abandoning Wales to the rule of the English monarchy. But its most spectacular treasures date from a much later period of English conquest and appropriation: Powis is simply awash with loot from India, room after room of imperial plunder, extracted by the East India Company in the 18th century.

There are more Mughal artefacts stacked in this private house in the Welsh countryside than are on display at any one place in India – even the National Museum in Delhi. The riches include hookahs of burnished gold inlaid with empurpled ebony; superbly inscribed spinels and jewelled daggers; gleaming rubies the colour of pigeon’s blood and scatterings of lizard-green emeralds. There are talwars set with yellow topaz, ornaments of jade and ivory; silken hangings, statues of Hindu gods and coats of elephant armour.

Such is the dazzle of these treasures that, as a visitor last summer, I nearly missed the huge framed canvas that explains how they came to be here. The picture hangs in the shadows at the top of a dark, oak-panelled staircase. It is not a masterpiece, but it does repay close study. An effete Indian prince, wearing cloth of gold, sits high on his throne under a silken canopy. On his left stand scimitar and spear carrying officers from his own army; to his right, a group of powdered and periwigged Georgian gentlemen. The prince is eagerly thrusting a scroll into the hands of a statesmanlike, slightly overweight Englishman in a red frock coat.

The painting shows a scene from August 1765, when the young Mughal emperor Shah Alam, exiled from Delhi and defeated by East India Company troops, was forced into what we would now call an act of involuntary privatisation. The scroll is an order to dismiss his own Mughal revenue officials in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, and replace them with a set of English traders appointed by Robert Clive – the new governor of Bengal – and the directors of the EIC, who the document describes as “the high and mighty, the noblest of exalted nobles, the chief of illustrious warriors, our faithful servants and sincere well-wishers, worthy of our royal favours, the English Company”. The collecting of Mughal taxes was henceforth subcontracted to a powerful multinational corporation – whose revenue-collecting operations were protected by its own private army.

It was at this moment that the East India Company (EIC) ceased to be a conventional corporation, trading and silks and spices, and became something much more unusual. Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal. An international corporation was transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power. [Continue reading…]

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NSA surveillance is the least shocking among recent subversions of democracy

f13-iconIn a conversation with Kamila Shamsie, Pankaj Mishra says: [A] part of me doesn’t understand why we are so shocked and appalled by the excesses of the NSA. Have we forgotten about the Cold War and the innumerable hot wars, not to mention the numerous assaults on ordinary moral sense by the “free world”?

Our tolerance of the intolerable found a low threshold as early as the late 1950s with the grotesque excesses of McCarthyism, which destroyed so many honest lives, and then with the insane nuclear arms race and confrontations. That’s when the Dr. Strangeloves first emerged, and the shape of the sinisterly invasive and the ferociously armed national security states people in the West live under today was fixed. No wonder that Václav Havel wrote, remarkably, while living under a repressive communist regime that Western Cold Warriors wishing to get rid of the political system he belonged to were like the “ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror which reminds her of it.” “Even if they won,” Havel said, “the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.” And that the West would eventually construct its own Gulag “in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline.”

Alas, Havel’s prophecy seems too close to the actuality of the free world today — Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture, extrajudicial killings by drones. All this going on while the plutocrats at home grab a few more yachts and mansions. And the NSA actually is the least shocking among the many recent flagrant subversions of democratic values.

We’ve seen an institutionalized conservatism in most mainstream periodicals, if not small magazines, since the 1980s, and a general depoliticization everywhere disguised by the strident partisanship of politicians and lobbyists. It’s only in recent years with younger writers and magazines like n+1, The New Inquiry, The Baffler, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and others that some of those older traditions of American dissent have been revitalized. Otherwise, an ironic but superior knowingness was the hegemonic intellectual and literary mode for a long time.

Not surprisingly, despite all the immense cultural power accumulated in New York and London, which keeps so many of us fixated with Anglo-American writing, the writers who have radically expanded our ideas of literature and of the individual self and the world at large in the post-WWII era have mostly come from the “suburbs” or the “periphery” — Borges, Paz, Camus, Neruda, Miłosz, Szymborska, García Márquez, Lessing, Naipaul, Gordimer, Achebe, Atwood, to take some very different examples, and the evidence becomes even more formidable if you include Irish writers.

Today, practically every country outside the West is undergoing an intellectual, political, and cultural churning, from China to Bolivia, Egypt to Indonesia, but we haven’t really had, after the 1960s, a major oppositional culture in Western Europe and America. The Occupy movement was so startling and welcome partly because it was the first such eruption of mass protests in decades. That’s one of the many reasons why we, especially those of us in depoliticized and pacified societies, need to cast a colder eye at our self-perceptions, now and in the past, as sentinels and embodiments of Enlightenment virtues of reason, dissent, and skepticism. And it is this capacity for relentless self-criticism that should be — everywhere — the true measure of intellectual freedom and cosmopolitanism, not the entrenched cultural power and self-congratulatory moral rhetoric of some people in countries long accustomed to telling other societies what to do and how to behave.

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An interview with Pankaj Mishra

Boston Review: Wajahat Ali: Reflecting on recent events, could an argument be made that the disastrous Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis have shifted the axis of power from the United States to rising Asia?

Pankaj Mishra: I don’t think Asians and South Asians have much cause for celebration if power is indeed shifting to the East due to the disastrous blunders of the United States. One still has to ask, whose power? And to whom is it shifting and who in Asia will it eventually benefit? We Asians have shown ourselves very capable of making the same kind of mistakes. I write from Japan, which has its own history of militarism and imperialism, and where the ghost of nationalism is yet to be exorcised. And we know about South Asia’s inability to defuse its toxic nationalisms or provide a degree of social and economic justice to its billion-plus populations.

WA: Your book focuses on late 19th-century cosmopolitan intellectuals, such as Jamal al din Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Tagore, who were early resisters to Western imperialism and colonialism. Do their lives and ideas inform and relate to the dissidents of today, such as the protestors in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries in Syria, or civil society groups in Malaysia?

PM: People like al-Afghani, Liang, and Tagore were responding, in another era of globalization, to the growing predominance of a mode of political economy vindicated by the great power of the West and to the increasing violence and suffering of non-Western societies as they scrambled to organize themselves for life in the new, ruthless world of international relations. They were at the beginning of the process that we now seem more clearly in places like Egypt, Syria, or Malaysia—the formation of unwieldy and unviable nation-states over multicultural mosaics, the invocation of religious-ethnic solidarities (Malaysia), or the creation and eventual collapse of pro-Western military dictatorships (Egypt) to sustain and legitimize the rule of local elites. I think al-Afghani in 1890s Iran or Liang in early 19th-century imperial China would have recognized the daunting backdrop to ordinary struggles for freedom and dignity today—the general political fragmentation, the loss of the state’s legitimacy everywhere, and the rise of transnational elites who owe primary allegiance to themselves. [Continue reading…]

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The British Empire was built on a mountain of skulls

William Dalrymple writes: On 13 April 1919 a large group of Punjabis protesting against British rule gathered in the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. They were incensed at the arrest of two of their leaders, and for 24 hours the city had been consumed by riots. At five in the afternoon, General Reginald Dyer marched into Jallianwala Bagh with 140 troops, most of them Gurkhas, but with a few Sikhs and Baluchis as well. Having blocked the exits, they fired into the peaceful and unresisting crowds until they had exhausted all their ammunition. Official estimates put the casualties at 379 killed and 1,200 injured. Popular estimates put the casualties as much as 10 times higher.

The massacre was a major turning point for the Indian freedom struggle and, along with Gandhi’s Salt March 11 years later in 1930, was one of the two forces that gave India’s march towards independence its unstoppable momentum. For a generation of Anglophile Indians brought up on British propaganda that British rule was just and uncorrupt, and that it had replaced centuries of arbitrary tyranny at the hands of brutal Muslim invaders, Jallianwala Bagh was a moment of revelation. Rabindranath Tagore immediately gave back his knighthood. The Nehrus were radicalised overnight. Gandhi lost his faith – intact until that point – in British justice, and wrote that he had “underrated the forces of evil” in the British empire.

But Jallianwala Bagh was by no means the worst atrocity committed by the British in India. Following the British conquest of Bengal in 1757, the province was left devastated by war and high taxation, then stricken by famine. According to Edmund Burke, the women of Bengal suffered mass rape at the hands of East India Company tax collectors. Certainly the wealth of Bengal rapidly drained into British bank accounts, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new British masters, and the markets flooded with British products.

More horrific still were the actions of the British army sent into Afghanistan in 1842 to take revenge for the massacre of troops during the retreat from Kabul earlier in the year. All the villages in its path were looted and torched and the women were raped. When the army got to Kabul the city was deliberately consigned to the flames. [Continue reading…]

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Why Asia’s insurgencies are Europe’s shame

Pankaj Mishra writes: It wasn’t an incredible photo-op, and it’s unlikely to be included in this month’s valedictory roundup of 2012 highlights. In fact, it was barely reported.

One of this year’s most remarkable events, however, was the agreement between the Philippine government and the insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

If successful, it may not only terminate decades of secessionist violence in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines; it may also inspire hope in a wide swath of Asian countries damaged, politically as well as economically, by internecine conflicts.

Divide-and-rule European imperialists, favoring one ethnic group and persecuting or neglecting another, or drawing arbitrary lines in the sand or the grass, originally transformed social and religious differences into political antagonisms within Asian societies. Their local opponents — mostly educated natives — hardened religious and ethnic identities by turning them into a basis of anti-imperialist solidarity.

In the end, the principle of self-determination was widely exported from relatively homogenous Europe to multicultural Asia, where it was embraced by rising native elites. The result was the proliferation of hastily and poorly imagined national communities — unwieldy nation-states where patchworks of relatively autonomous groups and individuals with multiple, overlapping identities had existed.

Since then, postcolonial rulers eager to hold on to their inheritance — centralized states, administrations and large, resource-rich territories — have made the map of Asia bleed red. [Continue reading…]

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Colonised and coloniser, empire’s poison infects us all

George Monbiot writes: Over the gates of Auschwitz were the words “Work Makes You Free“. Over the gates of the Solovetsky camp in Lenin’s gulag: “Through Labour – Freedom!”. Over the gates of the Ngenya detention camp, run by the British in Kenya: “Labour and Freedom”. Dehumanisation appears to follow an almost inexorable course.

Last week three elderly Kenyans established the right to sue the British government for the torture that they suffered – castration, beating and rape – in the Kikuyu detention camps it ran in the 1950s.

Many tens of thousands were detained and tortured in the camps. I won’t spare you the details: we have been sparing ourselves the details for far too long. Large numbers of men were castrated with pliers. Others were raped, sometimes with the use of knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels and scorpions. Women had similar instruments forced into their vaginas. The guards and officials sliced off ears and fingers, gouged out eyes, mutilated women’s breasts with pliers, poured paraffin over people and set them alight. Untold thousands died.

The government’s secret archive, revealed this April, shows that the attorney general, the colonial governor and the colonial secretary knew what was happening. The governor ensured that the perpetrators had legal immunity: including the British officers reported to him for roasting prisoners to death. In public the colonial secretary lied and kept lying. [Continue reading…]

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The ruins of empire: Asia’s emergence from western imperialism

Pankaj Mishra writes: The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was “despotism with theft as its final object”. So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man’s right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of “slave and master”. Was the master good or bad? “Let us simply say,” Orwell wrote, “that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” And “if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it.”

Orwell’s hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.

Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding “like rabbits”, Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

The unctuous belief that British imperialists, compared to their Belgian and French counterparts, were exponents of fair play has been dented most recently by revelations about mass murder and torture during the British suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to “lesser breeds outside the law” has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, “the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant” around the world. His apparently more intellectual rival Gordon Brown urged his compatriots to be “proud” of their imperial past. Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands. [Continue reading…]

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The imperial agenda of the U.S.’s ‘Africa Command’ marches on

Dan Glazebrook writes: “The less they see of us, the less they will dislike us.” So remarked Frederick Roberts, British general during the Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80, ushering in a policy of co-opting Afghan leaders to control their people on the empire’s behalf.

“Indirect rule”, as it was called, was long considered the linchpin of British imperial success, and huge swaths of that empire were conquered, not by British soldiers, but by soldiers recruited elsewhere in the empire. It was always hoped that the dirty work of imperial control could be conducted without spilling too much white man’s blood.

It is a lesson that has been re-learned in recent years. The ever-rising western body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded politicians that colonial wars in which their own soldiers are killed do not win them popularity at home. The hope in both cases is that US and British soldiers can be safely extricated, leaving a proxy force of allies to kill opponents of the new regime on our behalf.

And so too in Africa.

To reassert its waning influence on the continent in the face of growing Chinese investment, the US established Africom – the “Africa Command” of the US military – in October 2008. Africom co-ordinates all US military activity in Africa and, according to its mission statement, “contributes to increasing security and stability in Africa – allowing African states and regional organizations to promote democracy, to expand development, to provide for their common defense, and to better serve their people”.

However, in more unguarded moments, officials have been more straightforward: Vice Admiral Robert Moeller declared in a conference in 2008 that Africom was about preserving “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market”, and two years later, in a piece in Foreign policy magazine, wrote: “Let there be no mistake. Africom’s job is to protect American lives and promote American interests.” Through this body, western powers are resorting to the use of military power to win back the leverage once attained through financial monopoly. [Continue reading…]

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