JEAN-PIERRE LEHMANN. Aug 15: A day to mark Western imperialism

Aug 16, 2017

The date marks the 70th anniversary of the independence and partition of India, an event that has its roots in Western colonial conquest of the Indian sub-continent. It should also be remembered by the imperialists who plundered the planet.

The year 2017 marks the anniversaries of a number of major Asian historical landmarks.

July 7 is the 80th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of China, Aug 8 the 50th anniversary of the Asean Bangkok Declaration, while Aug 15 will be the 70th anniversary of the independence and partition of India.

Anniversaries should be periods of reflection. Why did what occurred occur and what have been its consequences? In facing the past, is honesty prevailing? Or is it more a case of dishonesty, distortion or simple amnesia? To what extent is the past influencing the present? What lessons should be drawn? Should our assumptions be challenged? How should our behaviour alter?

Having been a close observer of the global landscape for many decades, having lived as much in the East as in the West, and travelling frequently and regularly to the South, it seems clear to me that the primary reason for the current lacunae in global leadership and the drifts in the global policy agenda – climate, trade, refugees, et cetera – arise from a failure on the part of the West to recognise the new global realities and consequently adjust attitudes and practices.

This syndrome has been recently exacerbated by the crashing entry of Mr Donald Trump in the global arena as the American President, but the pattern had previously prevailed.

In that context, what might be some of our reflections on the 70th anniversary of the partition of India? First, the flavour of partition on Aug 15, 1947, is brilliantly and evocatively captured in the 1981 novel by Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. It is undoubtedly one of the great literary masterpieces of the 20th century and should be read.

Beyond that, however, it must be recognised that what occurred with the partition of India counts among the greatest atrocities and crimes against humanity of the 20th century – and there were quite a few!

Apart from the millions who were killed, maimed and raped and had their properties looted at the time, the consequences, which include several wars – four between Pakistan and India, one between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (since 1971, Bangladesh) – border skirmishes, acts of terrorism and seemingly enduring hatred, have been tragic and do not seem as the 70th anniversary looms to be nearing solution and reconciliation.

While the reflection should be on Indo-Pakistani relations and what is one of the most combustible bilateral relations in the world, there are some broader implications and lessons.

While for much of the last two centuries, the Western powers (along with Japan) plundered the planet and caused havoc, in recent decades, they have donned the mantle of superior “values” while mounting their moral high horses.

The hubris with which Westerners sermonise others about “Western values” is insufferable. As is the presumption often implied that Western nations play by the rules and admonish others, for example China, to do likewise.

What values did they exhibit and by what rules did the Western powers abide by as they subjected and colonised the “lesser races”?

These questions are raised by Asian thought leaders, for example, Pankaj Mishra in his 2012 publication, From The Ruins Of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, but should be far more recognised and addressed in the West. In teaching courses to Western executives, I am invariably struck by how ignorant they are of the past and especially those parts that might contain some inconvenient truths.

Thus, henceforth, Aug 15 might be declared “Western imperialism remembrance day”, with the remembrance occurring not so much in former imperialised territories but in the erstwhile imperial nations themselves.

In preparation for the remembrance, I would strongly recommend reading Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India (2016). The objective would not be, as Tharoor himself avers, that henceforth Westerners in general and the British in particular should limit their sartorial bearing to sackcloth and ashes, but that they should at least recognise past deeds from which it would be clear that there is no cause for Westerners to feel superior and thereby to stop pontificating about Western values.

The study of the history of the British empire in India illustrates what should be an incontrovertible point: The West got rich by making the rest poor – and not just through slavery, indentured labour and the coolie trade.

In the beginning of the 18th century, India’s share of global GDP has been estimated (by the late British economic historian Angus Maddison) at 25 per cent, while by the time Britain departed in 1947 it had dropped to 3 per cent. As Tharoor states: “Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India.”

What is also eminently clear is that the partition and all the tragedies it wrought and continues to do were a direct result of Britain’s policy and practice of “divide et impera” (divide and rule).

Tharoor repeatedly emphasises that in cataloguing the arrogance, racism and predations of the British, by no means is he putting the blame for all India’s ills on its former colonial overlords.

Thus, for example, while the Raj froze rather than reformed the caste system, this is no excuse for the fact that the odious system continues to contaminate Indian society in the 21st century.

Therefore, while I strongly recommend reading Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire, I do so targeting not so much Indian or former colonial subjects, but rather the British and other former colonial overlords.

To Indians, I rather recommend Harsh Mander’s (2015) remarkable and devastating indictment of contemporary Indian society, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice And Indifference In New India.

While officially decolonisation was essentially terminated in the second half of the 20th century, atavistic colonial attitudes continue to prevail. Furthermore, even after liberation from colonialism, the Western powers and Japan continued to dominate the world geopolitically and geo-economically. This was vividly illustrated in, notably, the global trade agenda, whereby the so-called Quad (Canada, EU, Japan and the US) called all the shots.

Since the turn of the century, however, the balance of power has been significantly transformed. Former global “minions” such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam are increasingly emerging as active players on the global economic scene.

As the hard geopolitical and economic power of the erstwhile dominant Western powers and Japan has ebbed, there is increasing attempted resort, as noted above, to soft power by proclaiming values and playing by the rules.

Yes, a rules-based global order is infinitely desirable, but it needs also be accompanied on the part of the former imperialist rule-breakers by humility rather than hubris. The most prominent Western value and rule during the previous two centuries was “might makes right”.

Come Aug 15, Pakistanis and Indians should seek to mitigate the perniciously harmful consequences of “divide et impera”, while the West might reflect on its predatory past and on how the 21st century should differ from the former two centuries divided between the exploited and the exploiters.

While the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals are estimable and should be made achievable, there might be consideration given to an 18th: promote learning, knowledge and respect among and between countries, and especially between North and South.

The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline ‘Aug 15: A day to mark Western imperialism’.

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