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UK: “Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent” - A history of dissidence

Book Review

Friday 13 March 2020, by siawi3


India: A history of dissidence

Tuesday 18 February 2020,

by Sravasti Datta

Priyamvada Gopal in her book Insurgent Empire looks at the dissent by British critics, who were actively inspired by Black and Asian insurgencies, against the Imperial project

From the Revolt of 1857 in India to the 1905 ‘Mau Mau’ uprising in Kenya, Priyamvada Gopal explores a century of dissent against the Empire, both within the UK and in colonised countries in her non-fiction book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. Priyamvada, who teaches in the faculty of English, Cambridge University, was in Bengaluru recently.

Speaking of how the idea for the book came to her, Priyamvada says: “In the beginning of the book I write about how I got involved in public debates about the Empire and I realised two things; either there was an uncritical celebration of the Empire or there was complete amnesia about the fact that there was an Empire, and these were contradictory views.”

She points out that the Empire has largely been mythologised, and this has led to the distorted ways in which it is perceived. “There is hardly any teaching of Empire in British schools. So my final year students come to me knowing nothing and that became clear to me only after a few years of teaching in Britain. They knew there was an Empire and they knew Britain no longer had an Empire. They didn’t know what it was and how it began. They knew very little about slavery, about 1857 or any of the other wars in Africa, for instance.”

Priyamvada, thus, addresses this lacuna in her book. “It became clear to me that some kind of history had to be put in the public domain that allows students to start thinking about these issues. They would become adults and then they would keep hearing politicians, from across the political spectrum, say, ‘we should be proud of the Empire!’ So the book is to address that amnesia but also to push against the idea that Britain should be uncritically proud of it.”

Priyamvada challenges the claim that the past of the Empire, such as famines and massacres, must not be judged with present-day parameters. “It was my guess that it was never the case that everyone in Britain was completely behind the Imperial project. And sure enough that is what my research shows. I write in the book that there were plenty of people in Britain in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who were critical of things being done in their name. Not just Jallianwala Bagh (that is the most famous example) but also of massacres all through the Empire. There were people in Britain who asked why is this being done in their name?”

Insurgent Empire tells a part of the story of the Empire through looking at British critics of Empire. “I say to my students you have a history of dissidence on the question of Empire. You have ancestors and a social past in which they said no.” The book also includes how British critics of Empire were actively inspired by Black and Asian insurgencies. “We are familiar with the idea that the British gave us the Parliamentary system, the idea of sovereignty and of nation, and the idea of influence from Britain to the colonies. We never talk about the reverse influence. If you are of the colonial notion and you have an empire for 200 years, and that Empire is constantly rebelling, then how can you not affected by that?”

Are there parallels between how the Empire suppressed dissidence and what is happening in the country now? “It is deeply ironic,” Priyamvada agrees, “When I witness the protests now, I can’t help thinking about the Meerut Conspiracy Case We have completely kept the colonial state, literally, word for word. The only thing that has happened is that if the Meerut Conspiracy people were charged for conspiracy against the King Emperor, you just now need to remove King-Emperor and put the government in its place.”

Priyamvada agrees that India has not de-colonised in many ways. “The Indian elite have imbibed colonial thinking to the point where they think it was good because it introduced railways, the English language or the idea of the nation. The short version would be this, did India really benefit from British from simply being moved to the nation formation and at what cost? So in other words, yes of course the idea of nation came to us from Europe, but was it right to just take it without any alterations, and without paying attention to what the context was in disparate kingdoms? In a way what we are experiencing now is blow back that actually what the British left us might have been a mixed bag. ...I always start my lessons with how I am here because of Lord Macaulay. He created a class of interpreters between us and the masses. That doesn’t make it a great thing, it shaped my life but it is also conceivable that India would have got on very well without the English language, so we can’t say it is a gift... it is only a fact.”

Insurgent Empire is published by Simon & Schuster.