DOES critiquing-even detesting-aspects of the British Empire make you any less British? Especially when you are not of specifically English extraction?
This is the conundrum British Asians, British Indians, British Hindus, British Muslims, British people of colour, are faced with when confronted with the fact that while they love being a British citizen, cherishing its rich history, democracy and wish nothing more than to integrate and assimilate into its consciousness and society—the entire enterprise of the British Empire conjures up a vomit inducing reaction when one tries to reconcile oneself with its more inhumane aspects.
Last night I spoke at the Centre of Sikh and Punjabi Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, discussing the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre. It’s been a hundred years and you may not be aware of it but it was a colossal event, marking the end of the British Empire, in India at least, its most profitable outpost.
On 13 April 1919 Brigadier General Reginald Dyer commanded his (non-English) troops to empty their ammunition into a crowd of approximately 15-20,000 peaceful protesters within the confined grounds of the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, India.
He did so without giving a warning, without attending to the wounded. He even admitted that had he been able to bring in his mounted army tanks (the lane into the grounds was too narrow) the casualties would have been greater. As it was the Partition Museum in Manchester this year surmised that approximately 550 people died, thousands more were wounded. All unarmed, some women, some children, and not one of them attempted to charge the officers firing at them. They were too busy running for their lives.
After the massacre, General Dyer gave instructions for natives to crawl on their stomachs, to be flogged in public if they didn’t salute Europeans.
The actions were cruel, mean spirited and deeply racialist in nature, turning a once trusting Indian populace into one that hated its rulers.
Now does saying, or feeling, any of this make me less British? You may well think it does opining that a true Briton-Indian or otherwise-should feel nothing but goodwill towards the enterprise of Empire; for after all it developed curricula, transport routes, law, democracy, engineering and commerce into a region that was beset with archaic traditions and arguably was in desperate need of modernity.
But admiring the current British way of life and demanding that a true Briton is one who is assimilated into its society does not preclude that person from highlighting the deeply troubling and shameful aspects of it’s country’s history.
This does not make me hate England or the British, far from it-but after previous generations having endured decades of true racism and discriminatory laws, the modern British Indian has worked his and her tails off to prosper and to contribute, allowing religion and culture to interweave within the fabric of a just, tolerant and modern British society.
This stands in stark contrast to those who decry how British they are and yet maintain a distinct contempt and hatred for its modern day form. The Empire is over but they believe every Englishman and woman carries its darkest aspects in their heart and firmly believe British identity must be supplanted, even erased.
That is self-defeating and cannot allow any person of colour to ultimately assimilate and integrate and I reject it absolutely.
Calling out the horror of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre doesn’t make me any less British because I admire how far England has come in putting to bed its more loathsome history and instead concentrating on the future and offering children of Commonwealth countries a vibrant future.
The extension of this privilege has been taken for granted by some and more shame to them for despising the country in which they live and from where they derive a lifestyle and degree of affluence and legal protection that they simply would not find elsewhere.
Analysing the pernicious nature of Empire in its darkest moments does not make a British Indian less British; for you will find many such individuals revel in being jingoistic patriots today, wishing good fortune upon our military and ensuring its prowess remains unparalleled as we combat dark characters in this modern age.
This is first and foremost a Christian country, but one does not have to quaver at the impertinence of the religion in many centuries gone by. Today the Christian spirit of Britain allows for a multitude of religions and cultures, even those that spit venom at the very idea of its continued existence.
I have never failed to be proud of our achievements in industrial development, and have come to understand how much the English owe to our Scottish, Welsh and Irish colleagues for so much of this-and even those of colour who were colonized.
Whether or not Britain takes gets (or takes) the glory for the achievement of others is superfluous; being proud of who you are and where you are means you do not fall within the lens of myopia, that you can be ashamed of the past without despising the present and being hopeful for the future.
Despite what many say, this remains a country of tolerance, charity, compassion, and the Empire of old-entwined within selfishness, self-centred motivation and deep rooted racism-is dead in that incarnation. Another lives on, one that is proud to be quintessentially British and as long as you live in this country of wealth and decide to face the future within it benefiting from its protection and adoration by allies, then you should reconcile yourself to the fact that you can sing God Save The Queen and still feel ambivalent to what it represented in years gone by.