Friday, 15 August 2014

Indian Independence, and how it helped free Britain

Richard Lederer, in his Anguished English, quotes a student who believed that the sun never set on the British Empire because the Empire was in the East, and the sun sets in the West.

An American, the Revered W. B. Brown, suggested that the sun never set on the British Empire because God didn’t trust the Brits in the dark.

Both statements have some merit. 

We’re all watching blood-curdling events unfolding in the Middle East at the moment, as Islamic State militants terrorise their region to build themselves a new country that crosses the recognised borders of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. But where did those borders come from? Why, from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. In the middle of World War One and without even waiting to beat the Ottoman Turkish Empire, the British, represented by Sir Mark Sykes, signed a secret agreement on how to divide up Turkish possessions in the Levant with the no more trustworthy French, represented by Fran├žois Georges-Picot.

Sharing out the spoils of the Ottoman Empire
In other words, a lot of blood is being spilled today because of a devious deal brokered by the British and their fellow conspirators. It seems that letting them operate away from scrutiny was never a good idea. It was indeed wiser to keep the Empire in the sunlight.

As for its Eastern nature, it’s true that the main centre of the British Empire, the jewel in its crown,  was India. While I was preparing my recent Countdown to War series, it was curious to read a 1914 Manchester Guardian reference to Britain as an “Asiatic power”. It seems a strange notion today, but back then the possession of India and its other Far Eastern holdings, certainly made Britain an Asiatic power and a major one at that.

The fact that the Empire was best not left unsupervised meant that being a British colony was hardly a matter for self-congratulation in India. Just how serious a misfortune it was is perhaps best illustrated by the events surrounding the ending of that status. 

Rather than leaving India to the Indians, and allowing them to sort out their internal difficulties, including sectarian ones, Britain partitioned the country first. So the Muslim majority areas were hived off, eventually forming Pakistan, even to the extent of giving that country two separate wings with 1600 km of Indian territory between them.

To ensure that an independent India could not block the partition, Pakistan was granted its independence a day earlier. India was faced with a done deal, which it was forced to accept despite fighting four wars with its neighbour to undo it.

Partition also sparked the world
s largest migrations, involving some ten million people. Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to India and Muslims travelled the other way. Conflicts between the groups left anywhere between 200,000 and a million dead. Eventually the two wings of Pakistan fell out, and a short but destructive war led to East Pakistan winning independence as Bangladesh.

Refugees on the move as a result of Indian partition
And yet, was there any point in partition? There are more Muslims in India today than there are in Pakistan. They are one of the many disadvantaged minorities of the world’s largest democracy. Had the Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh remained inside India, sheer numbers might have ensured better treatment for such a large minority. It would also have spared the world the creation of two failed or failing states.

Kipling and his ilk thought of the British presence in India as shouldering the white man’s burden. It strikes me that the burden was British and it was carried by the Indians. Except maybe that by imposing it on the Indians, we in Britain bound ourselves to keeping our country authoritarian and imperialistic, to our own loss. I remember the late Tony Benn, the radical Labour MP, describing England as the last colony of the British Empire. So the independence of India was the beginning of a process to free us from our self-imposed yoke too.

The White Man's Burden: the question is, who was carrying it?
That’s why today, 15 August, I celebrate the 67th anniversary of Indian independence with my glass raised to my many Indian friends and colleagues. I wish them enjoyment today and prosperity in the future.

And breathe a sigh of relief that, however Eurosceptic it may be, my homeland has at last accepted that it is a second-tier European state, and not an Asiatic power with global reach.

Jawaharlal Nehru's first address as Prime Minister of an independent India
Even though, with a few islands scattered round the globe, technically the sun still doesn’t set on the British Empire...

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