Should Britain Apologise?
As the world becomes more sensitive towards the wrongness of occupation [even George Bush was heard saying that occupation of Georgia by Russia is unthinkable in the 21st century!!], and the world justice system gears up to try the leaders causing genocide and violence, paying for past crimes - including occupation - becomes ever more relevant and important. There are several issues which are still hotly debated - slavery, for example, wherein the European colonialists displaced and dehumanized millions of Africans, needs to be answered for. Japanese have denied an apology to 'comfort women', thousands of Chinese and Korean women forced into prostitution under the Japanese occupation during the war, and Pakistan never acknowledged their genocidal practises unleashed on pre-liberation Bangladesh. However, such apologies are needed - to remind the current generations of the wrongness and futility of such practises.
On the same note, one can ask whether it is appropriate to expect Britain to apologise to India for its two hundred year long colonial rule. Given that colonial occupation is wrong, and British occupation caused untold miseries to Indians, and destroyed its economic and social structures, an apology is clearly due. However, it seems that the British believe that such apology is not necessary, because British occupation actually helped India, helped it to do away with its social evils. They further argue that the twin gifts of the empire - English Language and Democracy - are what is powering India to prosperity and prominence today.
Some of this is actually true. English Language and Democracy are both helpful, and some British colonialists played their part in reforming India's social practises and ushering in modern thinking. In all fairness, the interactions with the British changed Indians - or at least a section of India's population - and this, so far, played a prominent role in post-independence India.
However, the assertion that the effect of empire was beneficial is naive, one-sided and clearly not true. First of all, British empire destroyed India's economy. It is hilarious that some of empire's apologists claim that it is because of the British empire, India has started becoming prosperous today. India was a prosperous country - one of richest in the world - when the British set up their trading posts. The empire ruined India - of not just its jewels, but also of its industry and enterprise. The empire systematically destroyed India's village system and its agriculture. It created an unequal, unfair, favour-based system to buy off the urban gentry. While India's raw materials powered Britain's industrial revolution, India itself was left devoid of industry, through a clever mixture of trade laws, tariffs and local administrative policies.
Second, the British empire destroyed India's system of education. Elsewhere, I wrote about Lord Macaulay, and talked about his role in spreading English education. I maintained that he did Indians a favour by introducing English, though his intent was to create a subservient class of government servants, and not universal education. In the process, indeed, he destroyed universal education. Thinking on his lines, subsequent generations of Indian administrators even gave up thinking of the possibility of universal education, and channelled limited government resources towards funding expensive tertiary education. However, Indian languages, knowledge and tradition were irretrievably lost in the process. The British empire is largely responsible for limiting the scope of education in India, and creating a 'babu' class taught in the Master's language. Any effect that may have on our prosperity is purely accidental, but the damage it has caused to India is beyond doubt and limitless.
Third, though some of the leading British thinkers played a significant part in creating modern India, they were not representatives of the empire. In fact, they had to confront the empire in achieving their liberal, humanitarian goals. The overall legacy of the empire itself, on the Indian society, was one of division, strife and violence. One must not forget the most visible sign of the empire was observed in its parting - they entered the land of a mighty, unified empire and left a land divided, with millions of refugees, in the middle of the most violent communal strife in modern history. Empire's social effects must be observed with this in perspective.
Fourth, while it is true that Indian administrators learnt the art of Parliamentary democracy from the British, it isn't a gift from the empire, but an invention of the post-independence Indian leaders. They demonstrated courage and determination in allowing universal suffrage from the word go. At that time in history, the coloured did not have a vote in the United States. The Indian democracy was an act of imagination from Nehru and co., it was not a 'gift' the empire wanted to leave behind.
In summary, it is time that the British come in term with the truth - that the empire was an ugly, exploitative and unfair burden they had put on other peoples. They need to apologise and they should pay a reparation. Hiding behind the united voices of English language textbooks and biased media stories have gone on for too long. A true apology will hurt no one; but the absence of one will leave Britain a country in denial, unable to come in terms with the modern world, and surely, one day, history will overtake its vanity and it will fail its moral claim of attempting to create a better world.