Should we hate our imperial history?

From the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari —

All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.

Think, for example, about the love-hate relationship between the independent Indian republic of today and the British Raj. The British conquest and occupation of India cost the lives of millions of Indians and was responsible for the continuous humiliation and exploitation of hundreds of millions more. Yet may Indians adopted, with the zest of converts, Western ideas such as self-determination and human rights, and were dismayed when the British refused to live up to their own declared values by granting native Indians either equal rights as British subjects or independence.

Nevertheless, the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire. The British killed, injured and persecuted the inhabitants of the subcontinent, but they also united a bewildering mosaic of warring kingdoms, principalities and tribes, creating a shared national consciousness and a country that functioned more or less as a single political unit. They paid the foundations of the Indian judicial system l, created its administrative structure, and built the railroad network that was critical for economic integration. Independent India adopted Western democracy, in its British incarnation, as its form of government. English is still the subcontinent’s lingua franca, a neutral tongue that native speakers of Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam can use to communicate. Indians are passionate cricket players and chai (tea) drinkers, and both game and beverage are British legacies. Commercial tea farming did not exist in India until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was introduced by the British East India Company. It was the snobbish British sahibs who spread the custom of tea drinking throughout the subcontinent.

How many Indians today would want to call a vote to divest themselves of democracy, English, the railway network, the legal system, cricket and tea on the grounds that they are imperial legacies? And if they did, wouldn’t the very act of calling a vote to decide the issue demonstrate their debt to their former overlords?

Even if we were to completely disavow the legacy of a brutal empire in the hope of reconstructing and safeguarding the ‘authentic’ cultures that preceded it, in all probability what we will be defending is nothing but the legacy of an older and no less brutal empire. Those who resent the multinational of Indian culture by the British Raj inadvertently sanctify the legacies of the Mughal Empire and the conquering sultanate of Delhi. And whoever attempts to rescue ‘authentic Indian culture’ from the alien influences of these Muslim empires sanctifies the legacies the Gupta Empire, the Kushan Empire and the Maurya Empire. If an extreme Hindu nationalist were to destroy all the buildings all the buildings left by the British conquerors, such as Mumbai’s train station, what about the structures left by the India’s Muslim conquerors, such as the Taj Mahal?

Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance. Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into the good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.

Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys.

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