Without hindsight

We're here because you were there

THE COUNTDOWN TO leave the European Union began in the British summer of 2017, but nobody in the country seemed to know in which direction they were headed. Those who voted to leave don’t know what kind of future they would like; those who voted to stay don’t know what they can do to stop the process they are certain will create only misery. British politicians from the two major parties – Conservatives and Labour – aren’t helping. The Conservatives are led by a Prime Minister who voted to stay and seems reluctant to leave the EU; Labour is led by a man who never wanted the UK to join the EU, and must somehow convince voters who wish to remain that he can strike a better bargain.

A decisive vote would have made the politicians’ job easier. But just over half (52 per cent) voted to leave, and nearly half voted to stay. Britain sees itself as a trading country – the EU began as the Common Market with free movement of goods, capital and people across national borders. Leaving would be easy, some politicians said; there would be new trade deals with the United States and China, as well as with the Commonwealth. Ministers spoke eloquently about re-establishing old ties with Commonwealth countries.

This showed the triumph of naive hope over experience, based on the misguided assumption that the Commonwealth countries were eager to forge new ties with Britain, instead of strengthening ties with the EU, the world’s second-largest economy.

Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as its fifty-one other member-states are not exactly sure what Britain wants, and whether Britain is what they need. They have all gone their separate ways. Canada, for example, is keen to protect the North American Free Trade Agreement, which US President Donald Trump wants to revise, if not tear up. Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. India is growing, but wishes to be seen as a major power at the head table, and would not wish to jeopardise its ongoing negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU for a pact with the UK. British politicians are going to find it hard navigating fresh agreements with dozens of countries and rewriting many laws.


THE BRITISH DECISION to join the Common Market in 1973 was a wise one, recognising the declining British footprint around the world. Britain realised its diminishing influence early. The decline can probably be traced to 1956, the year Britain finally realised that it was no longer an island with a large empire, but could be an influential player in a world dominated by the US on one side and the Soviet Union on the other if it played its cards right. At home, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed, urging an end to global ambitions. Abroad, the British adventure in Suez, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal, was a disaster, as both the Soviets and the Americans frowned upon Britain’s attempt to regain control. And at home, playwright John Osborne was writing Look Back in Anger, which made chastened Britons realise their diminished ability to influence the world around them.

Joining the Common Market extended British influence over international affairs for longer than would otherwise have been the case. Its skilled diplomats became part of the EU’s foreign policy team, acting as interlocutors between Europe and the US. Britain had largely amicable relations with elites in the English-speaking world in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, and that enabled its diplomats to be useful intermediaries, helping create consensus on tough issues. The referendum in 2016 changes that; British status is diminished. And it won’t be restored by reimagining the Commonwealth.

Resurrecting relationships with the former colonies is not going to be easy. Many in Britain feel nostalgic looking back to Empire; those in the former colonies don’t always carry such happy memories. Some countries, such as Singapore, have surpassed Britain in per capita income and growth, and they see little need to indulge the UK. For many others, the core premise of the Commonwealth brings back memories that are not necessarily warm.

When I was a graduate student in the US, one of my classmates was from Ghana. He asked me why we Indians were not angry with the British over colonisation. I said something about the way Mohandas Gandhi had led the non-violent struggle for independence. Gandhi taught Indians to attack the system and its injustice, but not the people, and that’s how the British parted as friends. ‘It was different in Africa,’ he told me. ‘In Africa, when we see the white face, we get very angry. We had to fight for our freedom with violence.’

I hadn’t read Frantz Fanon at that time, nor had I any understanding of the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya or how Kwame Nkrumah was toppled. I would learn about that, and the anger against colonialism, later. And it was only years later when I’d read Amartya Sen and Madhusree Mukerjee that I realised the scale of the Bengal famine of 1943–44, which had been mentioned as a mere footnote at my school in India. I had learnt that my own history was far more nuanced: the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919 was not the only British atrocity in India; and that Gandhi and his followers were superhuman in suppressing and conquering their anger, and in showing magnanimity towards the British when India became free.


I HADN’T KNOWN much about British colonial history in Africa, but I did know my history. I was born in Bombay, as the city was then called, in 1961, and my first real trip out of India (barring a short hiking trip to Nepal in 1976) was in 1979, when I came to London on a student-exchange program that an Indian organisation called Samanvaya (a Sanskrit word meaning integration) had run with the English-Speaking Union of the Commonwealth. I spent several weeks that summer in Scotland and England, attending schools, living with families and getting some insights into British life.

After my graduate degree in the US, I returned to India in 1986 to work as a journalist, moving with my family to Singapore in late 1990 as a foreign correspondent. In mid-1999 we left for the UK, where I was hired to work at Amnesty International. In the past half century, then, I have lived in two former colonies – India and Singapore – and in the seat of the Empire. Our histories and lives are intertwined. Much of my history is shared with, and shaped by, the British, but not many in the UK seem to know much about it – certainly not some schoolteachers.

Within weeks of moving to London from Singapore, as we were still settling into our new home, I received a note from my son’s school saying that ‘History Week’ was coming soon and the students were to dress up as a character from British history, impersonate that character and tell a story.

We were still new to Britain, struggling to open a bank account without having our own banking history in the country, and registering ourselves at a local doctor’s clinic – both processes less exasperating than in India, but bewilderingly complex compared to the ease with which we had settled in Singapore a decade earlier. Trying to figure out how to get the costume of a long-dead king, a military commander, or an author with whom my then six-year-old son could connect, seemed difficult and, naturally, less of a priority. So we sent him dressed in churidar-kurta and a waistcoat with a red rose planted in the top buttonhole, and told him that he should tell the story of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, about whom he knew a bit.

The day after, the teacher called me in to have a chat. She spoke slowly, as though I was new to the language, and patiently told me that I had probably misread the note: the character had to be important in British history, not Indian history.

I smiled and said that actually, Nehru was pretty important for British history. He had studied at Harrow and Cambridge, and later trained as a lawyer at the Inns of Court. He had also deployed the very British skill of debate, by arguing with the Empire, citing long-held British traditions, beliefs, laws and customs, and reminded the British government of how much its actions in the colonies contrasted with the Englishman’s sense of who he was (a gentleman who believed in fair play). Nehru was known to be an Anglophile; he was called a brown Englishman in India. As prime minister, he set India’s democratic foundations and scrupulously followed parliamentary norms. Much to Britain’s relief, he kept India part of the Commonwealth at independence. Had India not done so and parted ways completely, the decline of Britain would have been far quicker.

She smiled politely, but wasn’t convinced. She thought I didn’t get it; I thought she didn’t. Kipling came to mind – about East and West and ‘never the twain shall meet’.

Eighteen years after my arrival in London, I realise how difficult it is to make Britain see its past. It seems every generation a new set of films and novels emerge, which underscore the point that the British ruled the colonies by accident. While there was a degree of injustice, they performed their God-given duty to maintain order and, ultimately, they loved the colonies. Some forty years ago, MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (Viking, 1978) romanticised the past; Paul Scott’s series of novels The Raj Quartet dramatised it; and David Lean’s 1984 film based on EM Forster’s A Passage to India sentimentalised the novel even further.

Four films released last summer too recall that time, and present the Empire in a way that comforts the British, rather than making them confront reality. In the eponymous film Churchill, the former prime minister is humanised. Viceroy’s House mythologises the disaster of the widespread violence that broke out at the birth of India and Pakistan during the Empire’s disintegration into a desperate imperial attempt to rescue the situation by restoring order. Dunkirk shows how an ignoble retreat forms the foundation stone on which to construct national character. And in Victoria & Abdul we see an ageing queen shown utter devotion – nay, servility – by an Indian servant. That 2017 was the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition is coincidental. As time passes, the act of remembering becomes more difficult, as fewer people remain who have witnessed that era. And without such remembering, any future relationship across the Commonwealth, between the former rulers and their former subjects, will be fatally flawed.


ONE WAY TO look at the British referendum to leave the EU is to see it as a leap backwards into a past that existed more in imagination than in reality. The yearning for the Commonwealth – expressed in the speeches of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox – sounds peculiar. It is nostalgia in its most basic sense: evocation of the past without the pain suffered or inflicted. Johnson and Fox have spoken confidently of deepening trade relationships with the Commonwealth based on shared ties, assuming that those ties can seamlessly replace those with the EU.

The era when Britain enjoyed favourable terms of trade with the colonies was very different, and it relied on the unequal power-relationship inherent in the colonial set-up. There were rules, but Britain set them. It was the time when Britannia ruled the waves – and waived the rules when it wanted. The East India Company is mistakenly called a free-trade pioneer; it was more like a buccaneer that established control backed by the strongest naval power of the time, and conscripted soldiers drawn from the colonies. The company spoke of free markets, but it was actually a vast monopoly, which believed in prospering not due to Adam Smith’s hidden hand but to the Darwinian logic of survival of the fittest, manipulating markets by extracting promises and ensuring its own dominance. The terms of trade were unilateral: the company had the freedom to do what it wanted, which in effect meant thwarting competition through regulatory sleight of hand at home and perfidious strategies abroad. It wanted to have its cake and eat it. Not surprisingly, Boris Johnson’s worldview of what a post-Brexit trading regime might look like is not markedly different. (After the Brexit vote, describing British strategy, he famously said, ‘My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it’ – whatever that might mean.)

Many Britons believe the Empire was a good thing. A 2014 YouGov poll of 1,741 people across Britain showed that 59 per cent felt that the Empire was something to be proud of and only 19 per cent thought it was something to be ashamed of. Almost half the respondents felt that the colonies were better off for being colonised; only 15 per cent felt they were worse off. Not surprisingly, the Harvard academic Niall Ferguson tweeted those results, saying ‘I won’ because he believes that the Empire was, on balance, a good thing for its subjects. To me, those statistics actually showed how poorly history has been taught in Britain.

Regardless of British wishes, the once-subject nations are no longer supplicants. Prime Minister Theresa May was in for a rude shock in November 2016 when she raised the topic of a free-trade agreement with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Instead of agreeing enthusiastically, as a maharajah in the nineteenth century would at Queen Victoria’s durbar, Modi wanted something in return. He wanted more visas for Indian students and easier migration. May could not agree: reducing immigration was one of the prime drivers for those who voted to leave, and no British politician could go back to her voters saying that instead of Poles, Italians and Bulgarians, Britain would now welcome Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. Modi said fine – and there was no deal.

The fear of ‘a flood of immigrants’ is an old one, going back at least fifty years, when the Conservative MP Enoch Powell warned of ‘rivers of blood’ if immigration from the former colonies continued unabated. The Brexit vote partly showed a yearning by some to return to a time when Britain was not ‘contaminated’ by outsiders. But as Robert Winder wrote in Bloody Foreigners (Little, Brown, 2004), there was never such time. All you had to do was to look. There is a section in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (Viking, 1988) about London being transformed by immigration. It is called ‘a city visible but unseen’. In an interview in 1996, Rushdie said that the London Indian community ‘really was unseen. It was there and nobody knew it was there. And I was very struck by how often, when one would talk to white English people about what was going on, you could actually take them to these streets and point to these phenomena, and they would somehow still reject this information.’[i]

The Brexit campaign succeeded in stoking British fears about immigrants. Columnists such as Katie Hopkins in the Sun described refugees more colourfully, calling them ‘cockroaches’. This prompted Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to make an unusual intervention, pointing out that the word ‘cockroaches’ was used by both the Nazis and those who perpetrated the genocide in Rwanda, and urged authorities and the media to respect laws curbing incitement of hatred.

The Leave campaign aimed to wrench Britain away from the multicultural ‘Cool Britannia’ of the mid-to-late 1990s, to an earlier era. Not the Britain of the champion athlete called Mo Farah and a cricket captain called Nasser Hussain, not a country whose cities boast fine Indian restaurants that have made chicken tikka masala the national favourite, nor a capital whose elected mayor is called Sadiq Khan, but to the landscapes of Constable and Turner, the adventures of Enid Blyton, the red post box, the bobby on the beat and gentle drizzle on a green meadow on a cold morning.

Nativist fears were always overblown. But Eurosceptic attitudes are a powerful undercurrent. Back in the 1990s, Conservative politicians implied that Britain would no longer be Britain if it got any closer to the EU. Admonishing them, then Prime Minister John Major said that being part of the EU wouldn’t change Britain, it would remain what it was: ‘the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist…[and] Shakespeare still read even in school”.’[ii]

Major’s speech used nostalgia to reassure Tory sceptics; by 2016, a different kind of nostalgia came to the fore, bringing along an attachment to Empire to replace the EU, where Britain was only one of twenty-eight countries.


THIS WAS FAR removed from the grimy, horrifying view of what the Raj really did.

Seven decades after decolonisation began with the independence of India and Pakistan, Britain remains largely ignorant about how the colonies view their former rulers, and given the way history is taught in the UK, that is not about to change soon. Some reflection on that history is in order.

Shashi Tharoor, the Indian diplomat-turned-politician, has written an engrossing account of British rule, Inglorious Empire (Scribe, 2017), which provides a powerful reality check. (His essay ‘Imperial amnesia’ follows on page 62.) He called it An Era Of Darkness in India, and that title echoes – and mocks – the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul’s first and much criticised book about the country, An Area Of Darkness (Andre Deutsch, 1964). In a famous essay, the late Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel eviscerated Naipaul’s ‘discovery’ of India, calling it ‘rubbish’. For while Naipaul to some extent saw India as an unmitigated disaster redeemed by the benign, benevolent hand of British rule, Tharoor forcefully argues that colonial rule not only impoverished India, but enfeebled it.

In 2015, Tharoor took part in – and convincingly won – an Oxford Union debate on colonialism. There, he said India didn’t seek compensation, but was owed an apology. The house voted with him. The speech had an electrifying effect in the age of social media, and virtually every Indian, regardless of party affiliation, cheered. His book refutes British claims of superiority, questions the benefits of British rule, castigates British governors and their subordinates for their profligacy and arrogance, exposes their corruption and ridicules the conceit that has taken root: that colonial rule was a divine dispensation, which civilised the natives.

As Britain’s global influence has waned, nostalgic romance for the Empire has taken hold among some historians – notably Niall Ferguson, although he is by no means alone. Some of this revisionist writing provides a comic-book version of the Empire where the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was an aberration. The power of that narrative is formidable. Many in India are also unaware of the extent of despair the Raj brought – it is cringe-worthy to see Winston Churchill regarded as a hero in some circles in India, given his central role in allowing the creation of conditions that led to the Bengal Famine of the 1940s.

Tharoor pierces this conceited bubble with facts, arguments, humour, sarcasm and logic. The ‘company sarkar’ (government), he shows, carried out organised looting, preventing Indian businesses from challenging British monopolies by destroying competition, placing barriers at home on imports from India, making British exports to India tariff-free, manipulating the currency to increase Indian debt, setting standards that made Indian manufacturing uncompetitive in global markets, and requiring tea estates to be run by British managers. He challenges the notion that Indian political unity is a British gift. India was not an entity the British created, he argues: despite its many princely states, there was a common civilisation that ran through centuries, and the Indian abroad from medieval times was known as an ‘Indian’, and not as a ‘Punjabi’ or a ‘Gujarati’ or ‘Tamil’. He also speaks of class, which separated Indian judges and civil servants from their British superiors, and the routine humiliation heaped on the subordinates who were junior to them only because of the colour of their skin. He reveals young British men – and they were always men, always white – in their mid-to-late twenties administering areas the size of small European nations, acting virtually with the divine right of kings. He highlights the manner in which the much-cited ‘rule of law’ was actually rule by laws, which the British made and which had different standards for the British and the Indians.

He then turns to the familiar theme of divide and rule, which helped consolidate colonial control. Tharoor does not exonerate Indian princes’ ineptitude, corruption and misrule. Nor does he condone inherent inequities of many Indian customs and traditions. Those he notes, but his point is that the Raj was not the solution to such problems, and in many instances made them worse. He demonstrates – with facts and statistics – how post-independence India has made rapid strides in economic and social development, which were simply impossible during the colonial era, and without stressing the point too loudly, reminds the reader how much more India could have achieved had it been able to modernise without colonial subjugation. Tharoor’s civilised response to an inhuman system seeks justice, not revenge – and all this with magnanimity, erudition and humour.


WHEN YOU PLACE Tharoor’s book alongside the films that dominated screens last year, you realise how wide the gulf is between what Britain knows (or wants to know) and what really happened. It is also why re-establishing links with the Commonwealth is not going to be as simple as trying to arrange a date with an old flame.

At the start of Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, a caption notes (without any sense of irony) that history is written by the victors. The film is crawling with images of supine, scraping and bowing Indians serving the Empire – keeping the manicured lawns pristine green, the marble floors gleaming, the furniture polished.

Lord Mountbatten is depicted as in an enormous hurry to give India independence and leave. Note, he is the one doing the ‘giving’. He appears benevolent, an impression many Indians and Pakistanis share about him. By the time he arrives in India, partition has become inevitable, as relations between Hindus and Muslims have worsened so much that the British, who encouraged divisive tendencies among the groups, look like befuddled outside arbiters trying to bring peace.

If Viceroy’s House is seen in isolation, you would think that the British left India only because of war-ravaged exhaustion: resources depleted, they can no longer run an empire because they must create jobs for the soldiers returning home to the UK and revive a devastated economy.

Mountbatten is going to liberate India, one of the Indian servants says, as though it was Britain’s gift to give, and not something Indians had fought for, largely without violence. Both Mountbattens – the viceroy and his wife Edwina – seem remarkably clueless (at least in the film) about why matters are getting worse. It does not occur to either that the British have any role to play in Hindus and Muslims turning on one another, tearing apart the country and its syncretic ethos. One only has to look at the record of divisions British rule has spawned around the world, of arbitrarily drawn boundaries, of nations carved out to accentuate ethnic differences – Cyprus, Palestine, Iraq, Ireland – reminding language groups and religions of how different they are from one another, and how they can live together only under British rule. In a video on New Naratif, a multimedia website on South-East Asian society, the Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin shows how the British created the Malay identity essentially to distinguish it from Indians and Chinese, perpetuating racial differences that even today plague the politics of Malaysia and, to some extent, Singapore.[iii] The British decreed that these groups could live in peace only when kept apart, with clearly defined boundaries carved and administered by officers of the Empire who were often inexperienced and ignorant of the geography or society they were called upon to administer. Chadha is a British-Asian born in Kenya, and her film is remarkably authentic about how Britain views its role. As Fatima Bhutto, the Pakistani writer, concludes in an essay about the film in The Guardian: ‘If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely Empire continues to run in the minds of some today.’[iv]


JONATHAN TEPLITZKY’S CHURCHILL is about how the wartime prime minister was preoccupied with saving the lives of his soldiers before the Normandy invasion. It shows a vulnerable Churchill, a man with a heart, aware of the loss of lives at the Somme, Verdun and Ypres during World War I, and haunted by the prospect of repeating such horrors, trying to restrain battle-ready generals Eisenhower and Montgomery.

The world knows Churchill as a war hero. The silver-tongued orator’s powerful speeches comforted a dispirited nation bombed night after night during the Blitz. He has lost battles – in Singapore and in Dunkirk – but he has roused his nation. A chastened Churchill is now concerned about the lives he is about to put at stake.

But as Indian critics have pointed out, his compassion was selective; it had its own hierarchy. The surprising aspect of India’s relationship with the Empire is that while Churchill is not necessarily admired (he ridiculed Gandhi as a ‘half-naked fakir’), he is not disliked enough. And the credit for that magnanimity goes to the kind of politics Gandhi practised, of non-violence – without anger at a people, but only towards an idea.

The largest blot on Churchill’s record – discussed infrequently in Britain – is the Bengal Famine. This famine was not a natural disaster. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998, has shown how famines are easier to prevent than droughts, because droughts are caused by lack of rainfall, whereas famines are man-made. Between 1942 and 1944, the famine led to millions of deaths.

Some historical context helps: By 1942, the Nazis had overrun much of Europe. Britain had survived the Battle of Britain, but lost its colonies in the East: Malaya, including the strategically important port of Singapore, whose fall stunned the British, who had believed that Singapore was an impregnable fortress. The surrender at the Ford Motor factory in February 1942 was humiliating for the British, and the exodus of the British from the island under siege was chaotic. In March, Rangoon, the capital of Burma, which was the region’s rice paddy, also fell. In October 1942, a cyclone devastated Bengal. Britain’s priority now was to halt the Japanese march towards India as well as to prevent Japan from blocking the Bay of Bengal. Britain therefore pursued a scorched earth policy throughout coastal Bengal, seizing and destroying rice stocks and sinking boats. Churchill was aware of all this.

The Bengal Famine began in late 1942 and persisted until 1944. In the first half of 1943, even as people in Bengal were starving, India exported some seventy thousand tons of rice to ‘support the war effort’. There was nobody to lead a protest movement demanding food, as Britain had jailed most of the political leadership of India’s Congress Party after Gandhi urged the British to quit India in August 1942. Adding to India’s agony, ships full of Australian wheat called into Indian ports, bound for Europe to feed the army and civilians in the West. The war cabinet in the UK had decided that around seventy-five thousand tons of Australian wheat would be transported to Ceylon and the Middle East each month for the rest of 1943 – and a further 170,000 tons would be shipped to a supply centre in the Mediterranean region, stored for future European consumption. ‘At the height of the famine, unknown protestors laid the dead and dying around the one-kilometre perimeter of the palace, encircling it in a wreath of corpses that marked the passing of British prestige,’ Madhusree Mukerjee noted in Churchill’s Secret War (Basic Books, 2010). ‘The pavements of Calcutta were strewn with corpses.’

On 4 August 1943, Churchill refused to provide relief for famine victims in Bengal, and millions died, because food was taken away. ‘Their deaths were of little consequence, Churchill subsequently explained, because Bengalis were “breeding like rabbits anyway…” Churchill regarded wheat as too precious a food to expend on non-whites, let alone on recalcitrant subjects who were demanding independence from the British Empire. He preferred to stockpile the grain to feed Europeans after the war was over.’

Churchill made some spectacularly insensitive statements at that time, asking rhetorically: ‘If the famine is so bad why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’ In his papers, Leo Amery, the wartime Secretary of State for India and Burma noted: ‘Naturally I lost patience…and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s, which annoyed him no little.’ The stories of the suffering and death are detailed and horrific, but little known outside the Indian subcontinent; unless a British student has specialised in late colonial Empire studies, she is unlikely to come across any of them in the history taught in schools and colleges in her country.


CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S BLOCKBUSTER Dunkirk is part of that pattern of partial reading of history. The film perpetuates the idea that Britain defended itself all alone and, with pugnacious determination and Churchill’s powerful rhetoric, liberated the continent from Nazi Germany by dragging a reluctant America to the battlefront.

Much of that is true, except the ‘all alone’ part. The reality was more complicated. In The Raj At War: A People’s History Of India’s Second World War (Vintage, 2015), Yasmin Khan showed how the British war effort was collective; the British Empire fought the war. Britain indeed suffered enormously, but its defence was vastly boosted by the largest mobilisation of a voluntary army from the colonies. Some of those soldiers were Indian, and they saw action at Anzio, El Alamein, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Singapore, Kohima and Dunkirk.

Nolan’s film is not history, but well-made films often shape how history is seen. Dunkirk is well made, and reinforces a particular view of British history. It is not the only view, and it has been contested in Britain, but in the context of the Brexit debate, inadvertently, the film reinforces attitudes that boost the image of ‘plucky England’, influencing politics as well.

To be sure, of the more than three-hundred thousand British troops evacuated from Dunkirk, there were only a few hundred from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. But as John Broich, who teaches history at Case Western Reserve University in the US, pointed out in an article in Slate: ‘There were also four [Indian] companies…on those beaches. Observers said they were particularly cool under fire and well organised during the retreat. They weren’t large in number…but their appearance in the film would have provided a good reminder of how utterly central the role of the Indian Army was in the war. Their service meant the difference between victory and defeat. In fact, while Britain and other allies were licking their wounds after Dunkirk, the Indian Army picked up the slack in North Africa and the Middle East.’[v]

During the Dunkirk evacuation, John Ashdown, a British Army officer, managed to get many of his Indian troops on the last ship before the jetty was bombed. In doing this, he disobeyed an order to abandon his Indian troops. He was later court-martialled, but the judgement against him was ultimately thrown out, and Ashdown ended the war as a colonel. Ashdown’s son Paddy, who would become a Marine captain and later have a distinguished political career leading the Liberal Democrats in British politics and representing the United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told The Guardian in 2000: ‘My father thought simply that these were his men, he was responsible for them, and he must bring them back.’

Such stories are not widely known, nor recounted enough in Britain. When they are told, they focus on the gallantry of the officer, not the perfidy of his superior, nor mention the Indian soldiers much. This makes history monochromatic, and the complex dynamics of the Empire are simplified or glossed over. It contributes to the false narrative. It makes it harder for those of us who grew up in the Commonwealth to appreciate that there was anything in common, that there was a wealth to be shared.


THE INDIAN NOVELIST Amitav Ghosh was named as the winner of the Eurasian regional award in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2001 for The Glass Palace (HarperCollins, 2000), his magnificent novel about the Burmese century – from the defeat of King Thebaw after the Anglo-Burmese Wars in 1885 and his expulsion to India, to the present. Ghosh withdrew the novel from being considered for the overall prize, saying: ‘So far as I can determine, The Glass Palace is eligible for the Commonwealth Prize partly because it was written in English and partly because I happen to belong to a region that was once conquered and ruled by imperial Britain.’[vi] He found that reason to be ‘the least persuasive’. As a grouping, the Commonwealth, he added, ‘serves as an umbrella forum in global politics. As a literary or cultural grouping…“the Commonwealth” can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries (it is surely inconceivable, for example, that athletes would have to be fluent in English in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Games). That the past engenders the present is of course undeniable; it is equally undeniable that the reasons I write in English are ultimately rooted in my country’s history. Yet, the ways in which we remember the past are not determined solely by the brute facts of time: they are also open to choice, reflection and judgment. The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialisation of Empire that passes under the rubric of “the Commonwealth”.’

Some criticised Ghosh for politicising the Commonwealth Prize by turning it down, when it was meant to celebrate the coming together of nations that were once part of the British Empire. In his letter, Ghosh acknowledged the good work the Commonwealth does, by providing aid and technical assistance to the formerly colonised countries.

Since that controversy, the Commonwealth’s scope has expanded, to include a country that was never part of the Empire (Mozambique) because it shares the development challenges of its neighbours, which were part of the Commonwealth. It has also taken the bold steps of expelling countries with a poor human rights record – Fiji and Pakistan twice, Nigeria once (now a member again), and Zimbabwe (which has since withdrawn). But the Commonwealth can do much more to expand respect for human rights.

One of the major legacies of the British Empire is a body of laws that curb civil liberties. Many Commonwealth countries have identical sections of the penal code, drawn from the Indian Penal Code of 1860. These laws prevent public assembly, restrict free speech, have provisions to try people under sedition charges, and cover sexual morality – in particular, in outlawing sex ‘against the order of nature’, which implies homosexuality but covers an undefined swathe of intimate relationships between consenting adults. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch traced the origin of many of the laws outlawing sodomy to British rule. To its credit, the Commonwealth is trying to get member-states to undo those laws, but many states remain reluctant, citing ‘traditions’ and beliefs. As the Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha told me recently, homosexuality is African, homophobia isn’t.

Even as the ‘mature’ democracies in the Commonwealth – Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – seek to make the laws and practices in the Commonwealth more ‘humane’, they face resistance from Asian, African and Caribbean member-states that want to assert their sovereignty, even as they perpetuate colonial-era laws.

Many of those laws helped the new nations establish control and order, and curb dissent. They’ve outlived their utility, but they persist. These laws enable the states to restrict political opposition and stop ‘deviant’ behaviour. As with the colonial era, it is rule by law, not necessarily the rule of law; it keeps people divided into neat boxes, preventing alternatives from emerging. Such methods enabled colonial powers to establish control in the past, but participative democracies need new laws.

The Commonwealth can atone for the Empire’s brutal past by supporting activists, human rights defenders, and non-governmental organisations in the former colonies. Those civil society groups engaged with human rights, sustainability and education are the latter-day equivalents of Gandhi and Nehru, seeking freedoms from their own governments which have adopted colonial-era powers, and act like the former masters.

This won’t be easy. The countries that make up the Commonwealth do not necessarily share interests – they do share a language, but it is not the only language they speak. Some have twisted the fine traditions of English law into forms scarcely recognisable if placed next to the original. Strengthening the civil society in Commonwealth countries is one necessary step. The other is to educate a new generation of Britons about the past to prepare them to become better global citizens when they meet people whose nations were once part of the Empire.

The Commonwealth does not have the resources of the World Bank; it doesn’t include many dynamic economies, as the OECD does; its countries are not geographically close, unlike other regional groupings like ASEAN or NAFTA; and there is little ideological coherence or consistency among its members. It needs to be modest and humble in its ambitions. A decade ago, Suketu Mehta recounted in The New York Times the story of his grandfather who was strolling in a London park. As a precursor of the kind of arguments one heard in the lead-up to the Brexit vote in 2016, a man asked Mehta’s grandfather: ‘Why are you here?’ Mehta writes: ‘My grandfather responded, “We are the creditors. We are here because you were there.”’



[ii] Full speech available at:

[iii] Video available at:

[iv] Fatima Bhutto. ‘Fatima Bhutto on Indian partition film Viceroy’s House: “I watched this servile pantomime and wept”’, The Guardian, 03/03/17. Available at:

[v]John Broich. ‘What’s fact and what’s fiction in Dunkirk’, Slate, 20/01/17. Available at:

[vi] ‘Commonwealth: Misnomer not an award’, The Times of India, 21/03/01. Available at:

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