The Debate

Imperialist Apologia: Salt on Colonial Wounds

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion

Imperialist Apologia: Salt on Colonial Wounds

The success of “RRR,” set during the British Raj, has sparked a new wave of apologia for British colonialism.

Imperialist Apologia: Salt on Colonial Wounds

Gandhi leading the famous Salt March in 1930 to protest British rule in India.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The internet certainly has a bottling effect, often creating echo chambers occupied by hubris, biases, and homogeneous views. The idea that access to the internet, along with the proliferation of liberal-progressive ideals, has instilled a true recognition of the travesties associated with colonialism is often, in truth, a misleading, opaque veil. Robert Tombs’ recent movie review on the Indian historical blockbuster “RRR” in The Spectator is a stark (but not a surprising) reminder of this.

Western apologia of British colonialism is based on three fundamental assumptions. First, films and other artworks like “RRR” unnecessarily demonize the British as colonial administrators in India, painting them as “1984”-style common historical enemies. The second assumption is that such a narrative paints an egregious and violent picture of the Crown’s apparently benevolent imperial rule. Third and finally, this anti-colonial narrative is dismissed as essentially a propaganda tool of right-wing nationalists to further politically radicalize the population against minorities. Problematically, colonial apologists also operationalize “whataboutism” to talk about practices related to local customs (such as sati) while deflecting the principal subject matter of these memories: oppression and exploitation within the British civilizing mission in India.

In Tombs’ article, the deflection is most visible when discussing Jallianwala Bagh (the Amritsar Massacre) as an anomaly in an otherwise benign colonial administration. The shallow recollection of developments after the massacre, including Churchill’s condemnation in the British Parliament, substantiate the claim that the horrific incident was “regarded at the time as a unique and shocking atrocity.” Yet viewed in another light, this same example is one of ignorance and negligence. Churchill’s condemnation was regarding a British act within a British forum; an apology to the Indian masses is still pending.

Furthermore, it is unclear who is “regarding” the massacre as a “unique” incident. The Western apologist that defends colonialism under the garb of “rationality” is an age-old trope that dates back to the emergence of colonialism itself. The common trope associated with the supposedly rational commentators presumes their sole claim to an “objective” vantage point. Often the basis for this self-appointed vantage point is their direct (albeit usually minimal) experience or exposure to an otherwise alien entity. Based on this, they claim that their position is elevated and absolved; the “I can’t be racist because I have a black friend” narrative. Tombs, for example, states that he has visited India “half a dozen times” – a fact that has apparently allowed him to capture the entire national sentiment around British colonialism and definitively conclude that there is no hostility toward the memory of British colonial rule. After all, he knows Indians whose ancestors’ held office under the British Raj.

This narrative additionally implies that most of the infrequent and erratic cases of violence that did emerge were effectively the fault of Indian administrators, as, by 1920, the British were “distant” supervisors. This can be tightly debated. However, it still does not change the fact that statist officers and enforcers made use of the assent of the (colonial) state as well as its monopoly over violence against Indians – revolutionaries or not.

A simple thought exercise within this conception of the British Colonial Rule in India reveals the relevant nuance. If, ultimately, these acts of violence upon Indians were undertaken by other Indians within the British administration, who gave the right, the legal framework, the tools, and the socio-politico framing for this power asymmetry among the Indian population? This is not to cover up the fact that socioeconomic divides and violence did exist in India before the advent of the East India Company (EIC); however, it has to be noted the British cunningly weaponized these divides for their benefit through legal and political doctrines such as the doctrine of lapse or the divide-and-rule philosophy.

The purpose behind looking closely at such claims is not to merely elucidate a certain parochial understanding of India, its people, and their intergenerational memory. The crux of the argument here is a larger one. With Tombs’ views serving as an anchor point, it is essential to look at a particular vein of thought within Western academia aimed toward the absolution and obfuscation of the colonial fact (and with it, the full import of atrocities committed during colonialism across the globe).

This self-absolution requires impressive revisionist gymnastics, which firstly claim that anti-colonial voices are falsely maligning the Empire (read: the British). Imperial sympathizers seem vehemently of the opinion that claims about atrocities and human rights violations committed by the EIC, and later the British Crown, are blown out of proportion; instead, the reports of mass murder, torture, and administratively facilitated famines were unfortunate events and collateral damage in their noble and benevolent efforts at bringing civilization to a barbaric people.

Second, a portion of European academia seems to believe that similar atrocities committed by other empires and occupiers somehow absolve them of the crimes they committed. The larger issue here is an attempt toward sidelining, under the guise of objectivity and rationality, the emerging voices that resent the exploitation and oppression of entire civilizations in the interest of profit. Resistance and critique of power fundamentally cannot exist within spaces that are dictated by those being critiqued. Imperial sympathizers must recognize that resentment and anger are (unfortunately, for them) not a commodity that the Empire can appropriate, control, and reap for profit.

The impulse to dissociate from the barbarities of one’s past is not an unnatural reaction in the face of accountability, but it is one that must be addressed. Accountability is the underlying motive of movies such as “RRR,” “Lagaan,” and “Sardar Udham.”

It would be deviously pedantic to assume that these films are meant to be an accurate account of events, especially since they explicitly claim to be a fictional reimagining of the period in question. It is essential to understand here that literally every piece of media (that is not a documentary of some sort) involved with a historical period is at least partially fictional. The story of Shosanna Dreyfus in “Inglorious Basterds” is fictional, but does this take away from the film’s depiction of the genuine terror and brutality of the German occupation? Individual events portrayed in works of fiction (of such nature) serve not as accurate, historical accounts of actual occurrences but as an aggregate of the emotions and experiences of the oppressed. The story of “Django Unchained” is fictional, but it would be jarring to read an apologist claiming that it is Black propaganda that serves to demonize slave owners.

Semantics may be endlessly argued as a means of absolution of guilt. In the interest of being historically accurate, one may only look at the timeline of the abolition of slavery in Britain and the indentured servitude that proliferated in Fiji and Mauritius, among other places.

It seems that a refresher on the modalities of colonialism is in order to remind Tombs and others who share his perspective of the particulars of a postcolonial position. It is fundamental to any constructive communication, especially one of such historic valence.

Tombs claims in his review that the British, by the period portrayed in the film, were nothing more than “distant” supervisors, implying that British-schooled officials of Indian descent, or in the words of Homi Bhabha, mimic-men, were in charge of most of the governance. What is often ignored is that this is precisely one of the central themes of such projects. The operationalization of the “almost the same, but not quite/White” officials, as ideological sentries, almost like marionettes, which could oppress their own people, is indicative of the true horror of colonialism. The father in “RRR,” Venkata Rama Raju, before his disillusionment, exhibits a “partial presence” of the colonial within him. He is a tool that looks like those he is charged to oppress, or in Thomas Macaulay’s words, a “person(s) Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Venkata Rama Raju did not exist, but he is a figure that embodies a seldom talked-about psychological dimension of colonialism. The British project in India (and elsewhere) did not thrive merely by policies incompatible with the land they were occupying or violent suppression of the indigenous populace. Those were simply manifestations of ideological and essentially theoretical constructs that fueled and justified occupation. It is, therefore, of paramount importance to point out that the colonization of India does not merely denote the physical presence of the occupying forces but extends to a psychological intrusion into the very minds of people, which was designed to fracture their sense of identity.

Postcolonial texts, of which “RRR” is the newest paradigm, are a means of reclaiming a subjective expression by a people coping with a past riddled with acute objectification, dehumanization, and exploitation. One must not forget that colonialism was a project of bringing the light of civilization to the “not yet wholly human” (as per Lord Roseberry). While it would be relatively straightforward, if not a bit tedious, to list all the dehumanizing acts of the British during their most noble mission in India, it would be more profitable to look at an example of the ideological justifications behind such practices.

To circle back to the supposedly “unique and shocking” Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, a mere five years before the “anomalous event” the 1914 British Military Manual maintained that “civilized” states were exempt from the constraints of the Laws of War (regarding attacks on civilians, torture, treatment of prisoners, etc.) in their operations in and against “uncivilized” states. The point remains that the Empire’s relation to the Indian populace, much like its other colonies, was not simply that of the self and other, but of the self and a supposedly subhuman other. This dehumanizing gaze of the British is evoked in “RRR,” where a bullet is deemed too expensive to be wasted on “worthless tribals.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that (as Tombs complains) the “villains are British,” both in “RRR” and in Indian history. To echo Zizek, who draws from Benjamin, the very act of revisiting history is an ideological practice of creating that which one is returning to. Apologists of colonial rule must be made aware of this as they attempt to paint a picture of benevolence and fondly reminisce of a time when the sun did not set on the British Empire.

In his conclusion, Tombs claims that nowadays, people will “swallow” anything negative about British imperialism. Alternatively, nowadays, everyone questions the force-fed sugar-coated imperial rhetoric of the British. He predicts that British students will consume media such as “RRR” and will cite and discuss them as “historical evidence.” Honestly, if this leads to British academic curricula being more forthcoming about the harrowing colonial past, this is a development most welcome and necessary. “RRR” joins a long list of Indian films that have criticized British rule, fictionalized actual experiences, and independently adopted postcolonial rhetoric that is not often digestible to some. We believe this is because it is more comforting to revel in their intended amnesia than confront their nasty, egregious, and simply unjust past.

Guest Author

Ryan Mitra

Ryan Mitra is a Ph.D. candidate in International History and Politics at The Graduate Institute Geneva. His Ph.D. thesis, supervised by Prof. Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, is titled “The Question of State-Death and Migration in the Indo-Pacific Island States: Territory, Artificial Islands, Climate Displacement, and Maritime Boundaries.” He is also presently interning with the Humanitarian Policy Division of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Guest Author

Parijat Pandya

Parijat Pandya is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Central University of Gujarat. His primary areas of interest include Digital Humanities and Post-Colonial theory. His doctoral work is focused on the socioeconomic, political, and semiotic aspects of memes. He is also a published poet and translator.