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Millennium Post

Why imperialists were no better than Hitler

I was watching the 2010 British film The King’s Speech, not for the first time, a few days ago. While the film explores the relationship between King George VI (played by Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue, his Australian speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush) and is set against the backdrop of the looming war in Europe, there was one particular line in the film that I found rather disturbing (though not surprising). It was the bit where the outgoing prime minister, Stanley Baldwin (played by Anthony Andrews), while tendering his resignation to the king, tells him 'I have found it impossible to believe that there is any man in the world so lacking in moral feeling as Hitler'. That Adolf Hitler was woefully bereft of morals is well known. Everyone knows of the many inmates of concentration camps that the allied armies liberated towards the end of the war. Of course, the implied context was that the German was Chancellor plunging the continent into another crisis and yes, it was only one line in the entire film. However, what was disturbing was the prime minister’s implied belief in the moral superiority of his home country’s imperial project. It was not said but surely felt.

At the time when Stanley Baldwin resigned from office in 1937, the Bengal Famine, one that was not a natural but a 'man-made' one, as people like Ian Stephens and Amartya Sen have demonstrated in the past, was six years away. Rice Denial was an official British policy in the period preceding and surrounding the famine. Thirty seven years earlier the British had been running 'concentration camps' in South Africa during the Second Boer War when Adolf Hitler was still a schoolboy in Austria. Fifteen years later, the British would viciously begin suppressing the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. The high court in London recently ruled in favour of the three Mau Mau veterans who had travelled to the United Kingdom to seek justice for the humiliation they were made to undergo during those years of colonial occupation. They now have the right to sue the current British government and seek reparations for crimes committed by the empire.

How was the metropole hallowed in the eyes of the British Empire’s subjects and indeed, in the eyes of the British themselves? The History of British India written by James Mill (1818), which was prescribed reading for civil servants headed for India, was authored by Mill without ever having visited India. He had no knowledge of any Indian language. Thomas Macaulay, in 1835, famously said, 'I have never found one among them [Orientalists] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.' The value of such works and words cannot be ignored. For decades, they constituted the intellectual cornerstone of British rule in India and elsewhere in the world. The justification for the empire was one, a civilising mission and two, a project undertaken to save the natives from ignominy by rescuing them from their hellish existence.

The attempt here is not to single out the British by writing a vituperative bill of indictment for their empire’s crimes (heck, a bill of indictment is only accusatory whereas what we are in possession of is conclusive evidence). As an anti-colonialist myself, I cannot distinguish one imperial project from another. The notion of a benevolent empire is misleading and we should free ourselves from the thought that imperialism in some forms may have been good even the Soviet Union was an empire (putting it plainly before readers jump to the conclusion that the writer of this piece is from the red brigade). It is also odd when one is told that the good work done by the empire compensates for the negatives. If Thomas Macaulay made that statement, he also played a very important role in the introduction of English as the language of instruction at institutions of higher learning in India. The point is well taken. However, that further reinforces the claim that without European empires, the Orient would perpetually remain in a state of antiquated barbarism. The idea that we were killing each other and were up to no good before the Portuguese or the British or the French arrived is malicious and utterly false. In reality, the period succeeding colonisation was marked by chaos and bloodshed as the histories of the Americas, Australia, most of Africa, and other former colonies prove. The colonialists claim that their way of life is better than ours is nevertheless an important one for without it, the hegemonic subjugation of the colonised – so vital to the good health of the empire – would be unattainable.

Arko Dasgupta is a student in the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Jamia Millia Islamia
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