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Post-colonial guilt has changed how European history is being taught, writes Swapan Dasgupta

Oxford University has tweaked its curriculum to make a paper on non-European history obligatory for history students. The implicit Eurocentric bias, aimed at glorifying Empire has been replaced by a culture of self-loathing

analysis Updated: Jul 13, 2017 07:26 IST
Swapan Dasgupta
Swapan Dasgupta
Shashi Tharoor,Anti-colonialism,Oxford University
Students march past Oxford University's Oriel College and the statue of Cecil Rhodes. The demonstrators were calling for statues of colonial era figures including Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria to removed from university campuses. Recently Oxford University announced it is tweaking its curriculum to make a paper on non-European history obligatory for history students. (Getty Images)

At this summer’s Jaipur Literature Festival in London, I complimented my old college mate Shashi Tharoor for having transformed anti-colonialism into a cottage industry. His book on the depredations of the British Empire in India has — as his gleeful publisher told me — been a roaring success in the UK. While this has much to do with the author’s presentation skills, it is also a commentary on today’s Britain.

Recently Oxford University announced it is tweaking its curriculum to make a paper on non-European history obligatory for history students. Nominally, this had nothing to do with either the noisy ‘Rhodes must fall’ stir or Tharoor’s eloquent attack on the Raj at an Oxford Union debate. Nor is the desire to enlarge the sphere of exploration an outcome of economic globalisation, a process that has fuelled premature anticipation of a post-national world.

Arguably, the changing ethnic landscape of western Europe has kindled popular interest in Asia and Africa. Since multiculturalism — as opposed to assimilation — is now the preferred European approach to integration, there is a feeling that ‘national’ histories are inadequate. Just as an understanding of India’s colonial experience is patchy without a parallel awareness of British history, the complexities of today’s UK warrant examining how Empire impacted the colonies.

Not that European academia has only been obsessed with Judeo-Christian civilisation. Western universities have a rich tradition of engagement with non-European themes, even if they were aimed at servicing the Empire project. Indology, for example, has been enriched by European scholarship. And even when post-Independent India turned its back on classical studies in the elusive quest of the ‘scientific temper’, dedicated western scholars, often working in monastic isolation, kept Indology alive.

What the History Faculty of Oxford — housed, ironically, in a building called the India Institute but from which Indian studies were arbitrarily banished in 1968 — has done is to move fringe and exotic concerns into the mainstream. The decision is laudable.

Unfortunately, things are often not what they seem. The Oxford dons may have acted with the purest of motives and with only half an eye on the commercial implications for cash-strapped universities. However, the move comes in the backdrop of an intellectual environment that is eroding the vitality of European societies.

There was a time when the study of non-European societies was accompanied by an implicit Eurocentric bias, aimed at both glorifying Empire and hinting at the backwardness of the Orient. Today, this has been replaced by an emerging culture of self-abnegation, verging on self-loathing. The celebration of the Empire and all that it represented has yielded space to a profound sense of post-colonial guilt — what an Australian writer has described as the replacement of the “Three Cheers” view of history with the “Black Armband” perspective.

I saw an example of this at an exhibition on German Colonialism at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. The exhibition, documenting some of the brutalities and racist overtones of the short-lived German Empire, culminated in a felled bronze statue of Hermann von Wissmann, a former Reich Commissioner and Governor of German East Africa, that stood in Dar es Salaam until 1919. Relocated to Hamburg University in 1922, it was toppled in 1967 following student protests against imperial glorification. The exhibition in Berlin has the statue lying on its side, the face still smeared in the yellow spray paint with which it was vandalised by students.

As a symbol of inversion the imagery is powerful. The German desire to repudiate a troubled past is understandable. If, however, historical guilt becomes an overriding concern, it could be a prescription for national paralysis. Germany’s self-destructive open-door policy towards ‘asylum seekers’ has owed entirely to this sense of guilt, as has the UK’s inability to curb the evolution of a ‘Londonistan’.

History is rarely dispassionate or objective. Winston Churchill can be remembered as the leader who saved Britain from Hitler or as the man whose strategic choices led to a million plus deaths in the Bengal famine. India recalls the latter but if Britain also starts perceiving Churchill as simply an imperialist monster, there are bound to be complications. What matters is not what is taught but how the subject is approached. And with what objective.

India too has experienced the systematic rewriting of its history to suit post-national tastes. More than an exercise in puerile iconoclasm, the reshaping of the national imagination is also aimed at eroding the national spirit. There is undoubtedly a place for rarefied scholarship but at the popular level history must aim at bolstering the nation.

Swapan Dasgupta is a Rajya Sabha MP, senior journalist and political commentator

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 12, 2017 12:58 IST