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Was British empire good or bad? Debate rages on

At the centre is the changes made by the government archive to its depiction of empire and colonisation in its museum following complaints its views are ‘anti-British’, and an Oxford professor who insists Britons should not feel guilty about the empire.

world Updated: Dec 25, 2017 14:24 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
British empire,National Archives,Tony Adler
At the centre is the changes made by the government archive to its depiction of empire and colonisation in its museum following complaints its views are ‘anti-British’, and an Oxford professor who insists Britons should not feel guilty about the empire.(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

The sun has long set on the British empire, but it continues to divide Britons: many are ashamed of it but others remember it with pride, reflected in the latest row involving the National Archives (NA) and over 50 academics and researchers at Oxford.

At the centre is the changes made by the government archive to its depiction of empire and colonisation in its museum following complaints its views are ‘anti-British’, and an Oxford professor who insists Britons should not feel guilty about the empire.

The NA first dropped the words ‘profoundly oppressive’ when complaints were made against its description in a display board: “The economic and social impact of colonisation on indigenous populations was profoundly oppressive and unequal, leading to nationalist movements for independence.”

The archives withdrew a blog earlier this month on India’s Partition after Tony Adler, a retired history professor, complained that the post portrayed it from an anti-British perspective. NA has also made changes following complaints about other aspects of the empire.

The archives said it had removed the blog for editing to comply with its code of impartiality: “An internal review of the complaint found that, while the majority of the blog did meet our editorial guidelines, there were some parts that required further editorial review.”

Elsewhere, Nigel Biggar, professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, raised hackles with his views on the empire, and his research project called ‘Ethics of Colonial History’. He wrote in The Times on November 30 that the history of the British empire was “morally mixed”.

Biggar wrote: “If…we recognise that the history of the British Empire was morally mixed, just like that of any nation state, then pride can temper shame. Pride at the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, will not be entirely obscured by shame at the slaughter of innocents at Amritsar in 1919”.

“And while we might well be moved to think with care about how to intervene abroad successfully, we won’t simply abandon the world to its own devices”.

His article and the research project sparked an open letter of protest from historians at Oxford, including those dealing with Indian issues such as Faisal Devji, Rosinka Chaudhuri, Ankhi Mukherjee, Sudhir Hazareesingh and Nayanika Mathur.

They wrote: “Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses or finds compelling, and to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate. But his views on this question…risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship”.

“For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past. We therefore feel obliged to express our firm rejection of them”.

They said Biggar’s research project “asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes”, adding that “however seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously”.

Biggar hit out at the signatories, saying they ought to have addressed him directly rather than engage in “collective online bullying”. He told The Daily Telegraph: “Not one has had either the courage or the sense of collegial responsibility to do so…They do not have the right to control how I, or anyone else, thinks about these things.”

A spokesman for Oxford University said Biggar’s project is a valid, evidence-led one but added that the open letter “eloquently illustrates an alternative perspective on empire taken by other University academics in related but different fields”.

“Argument and differing approaches to topics are to be expected in an environment with many different disciplines and where the robustness and good health of academic freedom is fundamentally important,” he added.

In India, the assessment of the British empire is overwhelmingly negative, but there are also more nuanced views. As former prime minister Manmohan Singh (an Oxford alumnus) said while accepting an honorary doctorate at Oxford in July 2005 that some of its aspects were beneficial.

He had said: “Today, with the balance and perspective offered by the passage of time and the benefit of hindsight, it is possible for an Indian Prime Minister to assert that India’s experience with Britain had its beneficial consequences too”.

“Our notions of the rule of law, of a constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories have all been fashioned in the crucible where an age-old civilisation met the dominant Empire of the day”.

“These are all elements which we still value and cherish. Our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy, and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration and they have served the country well”.

First Published: Dec 23, 2017 21:30 IST