LAST Sunday the BBC reported the increasingly violent sectarian clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester, sparked by the result of a cricket match some weeks ago on another continent. With exquisite timing, a Sunday Times article by Sarfraz Manzoor told us that ‘Now is the time to acknowledge our empire’s sins’. He was prompted to write it after seeing the play Silence on the day our Queen died. It’s about the bloodletting which resulted ‘from the tragedy of [Indian] partition – a mayhem made in Britain’. But this carnage was by no means caused by ‘our empire’.
The sub-continent’s pot of religious hate had been bubbling away for decades in communities which generally rubbed along comparatively peaceably under British rule until February 1947 when, after years of campaigning by Gandhi and other Indian nationalists, Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced Britain’s intention to leave India. The Indian National Congress and Muslim League led by Nehru and Jinnah respectively were unable to reach agreement on a political structure after independence. Their failure turned up the heat under increasingly widespread violence and slaughter, a spreading wave of bloodletting that gained momentum and scale beyond anything the British could hope to control as they withdrew, becoming a frenzy of butchery by both sides which took hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions.
It wasn’t the British doing the looting, burning, raping and killing. Partitioned or not, as soon as the British left, the lid would have come off the simmering pot of pent-up hate and blood would have flowed. So what does Manzoor want us to acknowledge? Are Britons in denial that the events before, during and after partition were horrific? No, of course not, but does he expect 21st century Brits to accept responsibility for carnage inflicted by Indians upon Indians? These crimes were neither committed by us nor of our making. So why Manzoor thinks these are ‘our’ sins is unclear.
He also bemoans the lack of an apology from the Queen for the 1919 Amritsar massacre, thereby somehow imparting guilt by association to the monarch. Far from not being acknowledged, the Amritsar massacre was the subject of fierce parliamentary and public debate and a government inquiry whose findings led to the responsible General Dyer’s dismissal from the Army (though for modern sensibilities perhaps a criminal prosecution would be more appropriate).
I for one am tired of Manzoor, Sathnam Sanghera, Afua Hirsch, David Olusoga, William Dalrymple et al, regularly indulged by the BBC and others, telling 21st century Britons to confront perceived imperial and colonial wrongs without ever attempting to explain or provide historical context for Britain’s (largely accidental) acquisition of an empire, other than the implication that we possess an exceptional innate native wickedness and greed for which we must atone in perpetuity. Why do they do this, and to what end?
If Manzoor needs to feel contrite about the sins of a colonial power subjugating and oppressing an ethnic group, he might like to focus on more recent atrocities committed by his native Pakistan in 1971, the year of his birth, when it waged a war against the people of Bengal, killing between 300,000 and 3,000,000 Bangladeshis and driving millions to seek refuge in India (source: BBC, Manzoor’s sometime employer). Pakistan killed far more Bangladeshis in nine months than Britain killed Indians in over 200 years. Or perhaps he’d better just keep quiet about it in case it opens a second ‘Muslim v Muslim’ front in the Leicester turf wars.
In 2007 I was living and working in Mumbai when, during exceptional monsoon flooding in the city, a TV news reporter quoted authorities who blamed the British for not building adequate drains before leaving 60 years earlier when the population was one sixth of what it would be in 2007. It’s time to stop the blame game and attempting to impose guilt on 21st century Britons for wrongs, perceived and real.