This August marks 70 years since the partition of South Asia into India and Pakistan (East and West Pakistan). This anniversary has seen the production of a number of television shows and op-eds on what partition meant for the people of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Whilst some shows have even focused on how partition impacted the British (and not with regards to the colonialist state of mind).
Rather, one BBC show traced families roots in South Asia, which seemed fine until one such family was British (read: white). Mandy Duke, who was the “granddaughter of prominent Raj businessman Arthur Wise”. Unsurprisingly there was no critique of what it meant to be a “prominent Raj businessman” or better said “settler colonialist crook”. This detail was passed over as the myth of British colonial benevolence in India (“we did build railways”) continues and white people likewise to continue to name their children “India”.
This wasn’t the only example though. Joanna Lumley likewise has had a show on the BBC entitled “Joanna Lumley’s India” which featured some rather problematic imagery. It mainly involved her wondering around in Indian attire, lapping up the spirituality of “magical India” as she recalled how she was brought up in the “British Raj”.
But again was little critique of what her upbringing symbolised, or what it meant that her father was a Major in the army in colonial India. Lumley can go on and on about how she loves the Gurkhas all she wants but the fact remains that she was born to settler colonialist parents and that she likewise was born to be a settler colonialist. This doesn’t mean that she is responsible for the horrors of empire (although her father as a Major in the army was no doubt responsible for committing atrocities and had a position that served to uphold empire), but to have such little critique or mention of what this means serves to recreate the idea of a benevolent and natural Imperial order.
Lumley’s family wealth, like Mary Duke’s, was built off the back of colonial plunder and colonial atrocities. The privilege they have today (so much so that they can be white people going back to India to “trace” their stories without any sense of irony) would be drastically reduced without Empire. This is of course the case for many British families. Lumley’s upbringing in India would have been one of great privilege which was enjoyed at the expense of those who lived there prior to colonialism.
Britain and the British do have a rather strange relationship with India though. India is romanticized time and time again in the popular British imagination, whilst simultaneously being ridiculed for its backwards cultures, customs and beliefs.
The author of this piece, for instance, starts by noting “I have an intimate family connection to the independence movement in India.” Which was probably because his family were colonialists (he does add he is “Not proud” of this history). India was the “jewel in the crown” so there is unfortunately a certain pride and romantic nostalgia for middle and upper class British people when they go on gap-yahs to India (whether as teenagers or OAPs like Lumley). The press for instance were bewitched when Will and Kate returned to their former colony last year.
Why? Because simply put, there is a complete erasure of the horrors of empire. Rather than being proud of it or romanticizing it, or calling your children “India”, people should be ashamed of their colonising roots. Unfortunately though the narratives around the “civilising mission” have allowed revisionist accounts of colonialism to seep into Britain’s common sense understanding of things (particularly through people like Niall “they built railways” Ferguson and the like).
This whole BBC saga is crass. It presents colonialism as something that existed in a specific time and space and has now ended (and of course wasn’t that bad). This idea of colonialism having an end date (in this case August 1947) is part of the problem. Colonialism did not start or end with partition, its legacies are still very much felt today across the globe and will continue to be so until we begin to debunk some of the myths of the romantic and benevolent Imperial project.