Narendra Modi in UK: Commonwealth must confront, exorcise ghosts of colonial past if it wishes to remain a viable project

Editor's note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in the UK on Wednesday for a four-day visit of bilateral engagements as well as multilateral discussions as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). This article argues that in light of a number of revelations made in a book by a journalist working for The Guardian, India and other former colonies need to rethink on the benevolent narrative of Empire propagated by the British government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his British counterpart Theresa May. Twitter @MEAIndia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his British counterpart Theresa May. Twitter @MEAIndia

In the context provided by the recently concluded Commonwealth Games and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, citizens of those postcolonial countries that were one within the ambit of the British Empire have eminently good reason for rethinking their partnership with the United Kingdom.

This is not to suggest that many decades after the decolonisation process, the former colonies should sever all connections with the former imperial metropolis; the plea is of a more limited character: The former colonies must rethink the basis of their relationship with the United Kingdom and their membership of the Commonwealth.

A book by an investigative reporter, currently working for The Guardian, nails the lies assiduously propagated by the British government for decades and the secrecy with which it envelops its functioning. Published in 2016, Ian Cobain’s The History Thieves, Secrets, Lies and the Making of a Modern Nation recounts in chilling detail the ways in which the British government has sought to cloak its activities in a shroud of concealment for centuries, but especially so since the passage of the draconian Official Secrets Act in 1889, and its many amended versions, some of which have historically tightened provisions for maintaining secrecy on matters not necessarily related to ‘national secrecy’.

This Act in its various avatars had at one point criminalised the disclosure of mundane matters relating to the functioning of the government. Of interest, too, is the account of how the ‘free’ press was (and probably is still) muzzled by a combination of government directions and ‘encouragement’ to practise self-censorship.

The entirety of this story need not detain us here. What is of particular relevance to us is the account of how the authorities of colonial regimes in a number of countries across the intercontinental British Empire destroyed mountains of documentation as they retreated from their colonies and carried separate mountains of papers to Britain and in effect buried them in secure repositories, until forced by circumstances to first admit their existence and then haltingly make public a fraction of these holdings.

Before we get to that story, it would be relevant to examine the rhetoric on which the Commonwealth is based and the basics of the whitewashed account of the practice of Empire. The Commonwealth Charter says, for instance, "Affirming that the special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of our diversity and our shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law; and bound together by shared history and tradition; by respect for all states and peoples; by shared values and principles and by concern for all the vulnerable… the Commonwealth is uniquely placed to serve as a model and a catalyst for new forms of friendship and co-operation in the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations…"

This is a huge claim, which should be read alongside what we can call one of the established wisdom of our histories (and lives), i.e. the histories of Britain’s former colonies. Both as a historian and a citizen of a postcolonial nation-state, I can testify that at the centre of this transmitted (and seldom questioned) wisdom is the idea that the British Empire was different when compared to those of the continental nations: Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, for example. The difference was that the British Empire was founded on a rule of law and never practised the barbarities and excesses of other imperial powers.

To a significant extent, this idea was bought by the British people, the peoples of the former colonies and the world at large.

We in India bought it despite the documented atrocities of the Empire, including the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the all-too-obvious racism of the imperial rulers and the white – largely British – people who came to work (and rarely settle) in India.

Cobain’s work uncovers the formidable lies veiled by this conventional ‘truth’. At the heart of his story of the mass destruction or theft of documents is the question of motive. Was this project, at one point code named ‘Operation Legacy’, inspired merely to protect the delinquencies of individual colonial officials and protect them from prosecution for crimes against humanity? (It would not be remiss to recall that in the course of the protracted process of decolonisation, Nazi functionaries were being prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, whenever they could be run to ground.)

Or was the motive more grandiose? The name of the operation itself suggests the answer. The motive was to present the British Empire in a benign light; as the agents of imperial democratisation, while, actually, British authorities were engaged in the commission of unspeakable atrocities during the endgame of Empire.

Some of the countries, in Cobain’s account, where the British fought covert wars and then covered them up by destroying all records of its involvement and barbarities were Kenya, Malaysia, Cyprus and Oman (which was technically a sovereign nation but was to all practical purposes a colony).

The British also lent personnel, equipment and arms (including aircraft and heavy-duty bombing capability) to colonial powers that were increasingly beleaguered by the growth of nationalist and insurrectionary movements: Thus, the Dutch received the aid of the British government in Indonesia and the French in Vietnam, where British authorities collaborated with the puppet Vichy regime and press-ganged Japanese prisoners of war to fight a dirty war against the Viet Minh in the immediate aftermath of World War II, needless to say, long before the US got embroiled in a war that they could not win.

It subsequently tried to cover its tracks with incredible success.

In British Guiana, which was finally liberated in 1966, a democratically elected government was overthrown by British troops in 1953, followed by an Anglo-American campaign of bombings. No files survive of British activities.

The mass destruction of documentation — euphemistically referred to as weeding out — pertained to several countries and wars, some of which have already been mentioned, but Cobain also mentions that on the Partition of India, "Members of the press greatly enjoyed themselves with the pall of smoke which hung over Delhi during the mass destruction of documents", citing the reminiscences of a colonial official. A few months later, the same thing happened when the British were pulling out of Palestine.

It was only when a group of survivors from the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya sued the British government for damages that court proceedings compelled the British to acknowledge the secret archives. The claims made of inhuman barbarities committed on Kenyans by the British in a book by a Harvard historian, who had to rely on oral testimonies in the absence of an archive and was pilloried by establishment Anglo-American academics, were borne out by the documents that the British government had to make public.

It was at this time, that it was also forced to acknowledge its secret archives though it tried desperately to backpedal. Initially it admitted that it had concealed 8,800 colonial files in a secret location. This turned out to be 20,000 files concerned directly with the colonies. The ‘special collection’ covering hundreds of years, and crucial aspects of history, such as the slave trade, was found eventually to contain 1.2 million files.

This is a brief summary of what Cobain has documented about documentation, its destruction, pathological secrecy and a State-sponsored campaign of falsification that had been concealed for over half a century.

So, what does this tell us? It tells us that ex-colonial countries have been illegally deprived of knowledge of their own histories to facilitate the propagation of the myth, or colossal lie, that the British Empire was a humane project undertaken to spread the light of civilisation and democracy, and that it was completely unlike contemporaneous European empires. The Commonwealth charter repeats this lie when it talks about a shared heritage of the rule of law, shared traditions and "shared values and principles and by concern for all the vulnerable".

If the Commonwealth is to be a viable and egalitarian contemporary project, it must first admit to the delinquencies of Empire and make some sort of reparation, even if it is just gestural. Over 50 countries and billions of people have had their histories stolen from them. This theft, as Cobain underlines, is not merely an academic issue, it could well have prevented postcolonial regimes from pursuing more productive and pragmatic policies, especially in the immediate aftermath of decolonisation.

One objective of the project of secrecy and falsehood was, in fact, precisely to achieve that end by tying postcolonial regimes to Britain by propagating the utterly false idea that, in the final analysis, the Empire had been just and fair, that it had played the game according to the rules. The expanded Commonwealth was intrinsic to this project and must be exorcised of its colonial ghosts.


Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 19:29 PM

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