I’m off to the Dhaka Literary Festival next week. The programme has not been published yet, so I can’t reveal what I will be doing, but it will involve defending the British Empire, or at least criticising those who are attacking it.
This is going to be an odd experience, becaeuse I am not ‘an apologist for empire’ as I am sure I will be called. I will have to stand up in front of a large South Asian crowd and say things that will probably not make me very popular. But, if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. That is a quote from George Orwell, and he was no apologist for empire. So I’ll take it from there, be prepared to duck, and see what happens.
If I am defending anything it is (as ever) a balanced approach to history, a historical account that is not unduly swayed by nationalism. A great deal of South Asian history has been – British imperial history included – but this again puts me in a potentially awkward spot.
Because I actually approve of nationalism – up to a point. It seems to me unlikely that it is possible to run a mass democracy without some form of national identity underpinning the whole enterprise. Nationalism in that sense can be positive, if it binds people together and supports a shared project. This is a partial and rather optimistic view, though, of what nationalism actually is and does.
Frequently it reverts from an initial positive impulse into a sustained negative force, defining primarily not who is in the group but who is outside it. The identification of friends, or an inclusive view of neighbours, can easily degenerate into the demonising of anyone not in line with majority expectations or norms.
I can point out that Indians were colluding with the imperial project all through, for all sorts of reasons both high and low; we cannot neatly separate British and Indians within British India. I can point out that the British unified India, though at a high cost in blood and treasure, that this created the modern states of South Asia, and that we cannot know that whatever else might have happened, had the British been driven out, would have been ‘better’. I could point out that Britain did not cart off the very large proportion of India’s wealth that is routinely claimed, though manipulation of the economy, including extraction and under-stimulation, certainly occurred. I could venture that, when the British arrived, India was not as rich as nationalists insist, and was therefore not quite as relatively impoverished when they left. I could explain how India’s deficits with Britain, which were never crippling, were made good by trade surpluses with other nations. I can even point out all the multifarious mistakes, misrepresentations, omissions and distortions of my adversaries.
I can say all that, and I’ll say it as nicely as I can. I’ll even be an apologist – meaning I’m quite happy to say sorry – for empire and its misdeeds.
But I’ll still be ready to duck.