Britain’s not so glorious imperial past

The legacies of dividing nations and sowing the seeds of permanent conflict following the retreat from Britain’s occupied colonies, from Ireland, India, Cyprus and Palestine requires an examination and an open discussion without fear or favour, argues Harsev Bains

It is ironic that we have Prince Charles, now King, addressing the 26th heads of Commonwealth government meeting last year, underlining the need for recognising the wrongs of the past. “To achieve this potential good, however, and to unlock the power of our common future, we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past.” Contrast this with the political leadership of the ruling class, repeating the worn-out mantra to forget the past. With a promise of cake tomorrow.

We are asked to simply forget and erase the memories of the historical wrongs which are manipulated through the convenience of institutionalised amnesia. This careful orchestration deliberately creates confusion, clouds the barbarity and glorifies the conquest of people, their culture, language and the destruction of their economic systems.  It is an insult to the hundreds of millions killed under colonial rule to say “move on.”

The support and solidarity for people still struggling for liberation and control of their independent destiny is stigmatised. The uncomfortable truth of the past that should haunt us and give us sleepless nights is sanitised. All criticism of repressive governments is censored. Leaders of the people, speaking in favour of peace and justice for the people struggling to defend their own lands and live with dignity and human rights within the UN recognised international borders are marginalised and hounded from office. Voices are silenced.

Liberation has always challenged such notions. We cannot remain silent spectators. As long as there is exploitation of one human by another, the struggle for emancipation must go on. In a world where children go hungry, where people sleep on an empty stomach, where they die of the inability to access health care are kept ignorant of science and education. Liberation will speak up and raise awareness. For us it’s not a question of moving on.

An examination of a You Gov poll in 2016 confirmed the illusions about the British Empire, with 44% believing that it was a force for good and only 21% regretting that it happened. We do not blame the people. It is the result of the inherent prejudices of the education system in Britain with a curriculum designed to be in deficit of the truth, mostly projecting the false narrative of the ruling classes.

Second Boer War

One of the earliest examples of Britain’s not so glorious past is that of Boer concentration camps in Africa.

During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the British rounded up around a sixth of the Boer population – mainly women and children – and detained them in overcrowded camps. These became the breeding ground for outbreaks of disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.

Of the 107,000 people interned in the camps, 27,927 Boers died, along with an unknown number of black Africans.

Jallianwala Bagh massacre (Amritsar)

When peaceful protesters defied a government order and demonstrated against British colonial rule in Amritsar, India, on 13 April 1919, they were blocked inside the walled Jallianwala Gardens and fired upon by Gurkha soldiers.

The soldiers, under the orders of Brigadier Reginald Dyer, kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, killing officially 379 people, massively distorting the real figure of 1,500 plus innocent men, women and children, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims butchered within 10 minutes, cornered with no means of escape. The district and surrounding districts were subjected to bombing, public floggings, crawling orders and other degrading and inhumane practices.

Brigadier Dyer was later acclaimed as a hero by the British public, who raised £26,000 for him as a thank you.

Michael O’Dwyer the lieutenant governor of Punjab at the time of this atrocity was later assassinated by the Punjabi revolutionary Udham Singh on 13 March 1940; for this he was hanged on 31st July.

Udham Singh is often linked to the Indian Workers’ Association GB. Documents related to his case were released by UK authorities after a sustained campaign by the IWA GB late General Secretary Avtar Jouhl. 

Shaheed Udham Singh as he is fondly remembered globally by Indians reportedly used the name Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, which represents the three major religions in Punjab with Azad denoting freedom. It was this growing unity of people of Punjab that frightened the Governor and ruling elite which led to the massacre at Jallian wala.

A meeting is being held at the House of Commons on 30th March 2023 seeking a formal apology by a serving Prime Minister and the teaching of British colonial History.

Bengal famine 1943- 1944

Between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation while it was under the control of the British Empire, as millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain as famine raged in India.

In 1943, up to four million Bengalis from Bengal and Orissa, out of a population of 60.3 million, starved to death when Winston Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Japan and Greece while a deadly famine swept through Bengal.

According to Jason Hickel, an anthropologist, author and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. “The mass starvation that killed three million Indians during the closing years of the Second World War was no act of nature; it was engineered. Britain must face up to this crime.”

This appalling fact of the famine being man made is supported with empirical evidence based on the causes of the war time inflation that pushed the price of food beyond the reach of Bengalis. The inflation didn’t just occur by itself, an experience that resonates with the British working class today (2023) facing a crisis with unprecedented cost of living inflation. This was a deliberate policy at that time put forward by the economist Liberal Lord John Maynard Keynes.

In his capacity as advisor on the Indian Financial and Monetary Affairs for the British Government.  Keynes advocated the notion of profit inflation in order to finance war expenditure by the allied forces from Bengal. This deliberate policy gave rise to the catastrophic inflation with a 600% percent increase in the price of rice which contributed to the Bengal famine of 1943-44. This was when the British Government found the “magic money tree” and printed unprecedented amounts of money for military expenditure causing an exponential increase in inflationary price increases in the cost of basic commodities.

Ever wondered why the British ruling classes find it easier to cover this most uncomfortable truth, the reflection of always placing its national interests above others it looted and exploited? The grand coalition of World War II provides the key to this mystery. The war cabinet from May 1940 -May 1945 featured the two most powerful leaders of British politics Winston Churchill (Conservative) and Clement Attlee (Labour) as Prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively.

Talking about the Bengal famine in 1943, PM Churchill openly expressed his disdain “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.”

Partitioning of India

In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with drawing the border between India and the newly created state of Pakistan.

After Cyril Radcliffe split the subcontinent along religious lines, uprooting over 10 million people, Hindus in Pakistan and Muslims in India were forced to escape their homes. The movement of people across the artificial borders with the creation of East and West Pakistan with India in the middle descended into violence and over million people lost their lives in sectarian killings.

This episode is a tragic chapter with a multitude of political players, silent spectators, none of whom can be proud of their respective roles and who find it convenient to let ignorance prevail.

Kenya: the Mau Mau Rebellion 1952-1960

Sometime referred to the Mau Mau uprising in the British colony (1920-1963). Led by the Kikuyu, Meru and Embu people struggle against the European colonialists.

Members of the Kikuyu tribe were detained in camps, since described as “Britain’s gulags” or concentration camps, where, they allege, they were systematically tortured and suffered serious sexual assault.

Estimates of the deaths vary widely: historian David Anderson estimates there were 20,000. 

Thousands of elderly Kenyans, who claim British colonial forces tortured, mistreated and raped the people during the Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1960), have launched a £200m reparations claim against the UK Government.

The legacies of dividing nations and sowing the seeds of permanent conflict following the retreat from Britain’s occupied colonies, from Ireland, India, Cyprus, Palestine, requires an examination and an open discussion without fear or favour.

It is absolutely correct that an institution in remembrance will be built at Westminster in the memories of history’s most horrific barbarity the victims of Holocaust.

Along with this it’s time that Britain’s ruling classes come to terms with its own inglorious past and establishes a centre to acknowledge the wrongs done in the name of the British people.

Harsev Bains is a member of Liberation’s Education Committee and national vice-president of the Indian Workers Association GB

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Jallianwala Bagh memorial: Paul Simpson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


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