Time flies, heals; time comes and goes; time changes things and more. History is sometimes what happened yesterday and for others it was way back 300 years ago. Nations that have been colonized continue to exist with history in the forefront of their existence. India is no different. Its colonized past is very much a part of what it is today. Even the generations that did not directly experience the British rule somehow continue to talk of time as before 1947 and after. And well the language they speak in, namely English is also a colonial import!
In a recent visit to India, the British Prime Minister David Cameron laid a wreath at the site of a notorious 1919 massacre. Known in history and public conscience as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre where with one ghastly order “fire”, the British general Dyer and his soldiers killed close to a 1000 unarmed people. The number of victims killed or injured has been a source of debate between Indians and the British but both agree the incident did happen. This incident has long been seen as one of the British Empire’s most shameful episodes. Indian scholars and students of history deem this incident a crucial moment in the country’s struggle for freedom.
“This was a deeply shameful event in British history — one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous,” Mr. Cameron wrote in the visitor’s notebook at the pink granite memorial. Like the queen before him, Mr. Cameron did not offer a full apology. A very sensitive and patient Indian media kept its ears open for more and was left quite disappointed. Mr. Cameron stopped short of apologizing for the attack, though, which some Indians had hoped would happen. His words of regret touched off a debate in India about what Britain’s current leaders owe India’s citizens, if anything, for the errors of their predecessors.
Britain’s colonial history is so replete with regrettable episodes that officials have quietly worried that an apology for one episode might lead to an outpouring of demands for similar apologies all over the world. In addition the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague had stated, "We have to get out of this post-colonial guilt," And that the British need to “be confident in ourselves.” “The days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over". The question is has there ever been any apology expressed for British imperialism?
The Empire as we know it has virtually ceased to exist in global memory like an awkward phase in someone’s life and you know it happened but choose to not talk about it and hope everyone else does not remember.
India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire was the richest of Britain’s overseas possessions, the center and symbol of empire, as the imaginative Disraeli realized when in 1876 he had Queen Victoria proclaimed empress of India. At the beginning of the 18th-century – before it was conquered – its share of the world economy was well over a fifth, nearly as large as all of Europe put together. By the time the country won independence, it had dropped to less than 4 per cent Throughout the nineteenth century many British “lived off India.” Some of them were in private business, but most were military and civilian workers. Yet Indians were gradually working their way into positions of greater responsibility, into both private and public posts at the policy-making level.
Western knowledge permeated into India and in some ways changed itself and changed the language of learning. In the 1800’s British financed schools to spread Western knowledge in the hopes of eliminating indigenous knowledge. For Indians western education was imbued with importance and status and for some their jobs and fortunes depended on it. Even today almost anything serious about knowledge in India is based on western pedagogy.
So when Cameron extends a hand, Indians wonder – trade it was that East Indian Company found reason to walk into the country and trade it is now. There are 1.5 million British voters of Indian descent he wishes to appease and yet the issue of post-study work visa for students in Britain remains unresolved. David Cameron has urged the Indian government to cut "regulation and red tape" in a bid to encourage more trade and investment involving UK businesses. UK wants to be the “partner of choice.” Additionally, what was left as evidence of the “burgeoning partnership” was a proposed joint cyber taskforce. The venture has been trailed as part of efforts to secure the personal information of millions of Britons stored on Indian servers against “cyber-attacks by terrorists, criminals and hostile states”.
Times have changed and this time it is different – a socio-political environment that dictates relationships between nations. Yet the memory of colonization is still very real, and the lived experiences of those times form the bedrock for future diplomatic relationships. May we all remember!
Rajashree Ghosh is a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham.