Robert Griffiths on the Empire’s limits


The limits of empire

Wed 05 Sep 2007

ROBERT GRIFFITHS joins the dots between British imperialist rule in India and the equally racist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMONG the spate of articles marking the 50th anniversary of India’s independence on August 15, several raised the question of whether Britain cleared out too soon.

They argued that a more protracted “transition” to independence might have reduced, if not eliminated, the chaos and slaughter which accompanied British withdrawal and Indian independence.

As it was, millions of people migrated between India and the breakaway Muslim state of Pakistan in the summer of 1947 as intercommunal violence between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims claimed half a million lives.

The subtext of these articles for today is that Britain needs to “stay the course” in Iraq and Afghanistan, ensuring peace and security so that eventual withdrawal does not plunge those countries deeper into civil war.

President George W Bush delivered a similar message with his speech on August 23, only he used the example of the US flight from Vietnam in 1975 to warn against “cutting and running” from Iraq today.

The draft-dodging son of an oil tycoon has long believed in fighting for ignoble causes to the last drop of a poor soldier’s blood.

But the use of India and Vietnam as “precedents” to avoid now in Iraq and Afghanistan also demonstrate something else, namely the arrogance, ignorance and racism of the imperialist mindset.

Let’s take the question of India first.

The fact is that, from the end of the second world war, British rule in India rapidly became untenable. The question was not how long would Britain decide to stay, but how much longer would the presence of the colonial administration be tolerated. The mass struggle of India’s people supplied the answer in the course of 1946 – months, not years.

In February 1946, for instance, a general strike and uprising in Calcutta united workers and students, Muslims and Hindus. One week later, Indian naval ratings mutinied in barracks and aboard three warships, hoisting the flags of Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party in place of the Union Jack. Tanks helped kill 500 solidarity strikers in Bombay, where martial law had to be declared.

The British Labour government’s promise of negotiations to transfer sovereignty failed to prevent the mutiny from spreading to other sections of the imperial armed forces in India.

In Travancore, peasants marched and occupied their villages against landlordism and the threat of famine, with the Communists organising a general strike from October 1946 which provoked another large massacre by the colonial military.

Meanwhile, Communist-led risings of peasants and landless labourers were underway in Telengana and Maharashtra. In the course of 1946, there were 1,629 industrial strikes in Bengal alone.

This whole, decisive period of mass struggle was entirely overlooked in recent anniversary articles and programmes in the British media. Covering it up in order to concentrate exclusively on Gandhi’s pacifism serves several useful purposes for the imperialist mindset.

First, it denies the capacity of subject peoples to resist in huge numbers with courage and ingenuity. Occupied natives are to be portrayed instead as compliant if not welcoming. When roused against occupation, this is attributed to a simple-mindedness which makes them prey to Communist and terrorist agitators, as in a recent BBC programme about the Malayan “emergency,” or to mystic, messianic leaders such as Gandhi.

Second, non-violence is upheld as the only legitimate form of protest against occupation – a lesson which violent oppressors everywhere wish the oppressed to learn.

Third, this approach makes it possible to argue that occupations – sorry, “humanitarian interventions” – end as the result of “moral” considerations in the pursuit of justice. In other words, imperialism operates in accordance with moral force, not brute force.

In the case of India, denying the role of mass struggle also denies its potential for building unity among different sections of the Indian people. The imperialist mindset sees only differences and divisions among the occupied and the oppressed.

Even today, most news reports about India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka seize upon ethnic and religion-based conflict as evidence that, having foolishly spurned the benign embrace of empire, these countries are forever doomed to pay the price in disunity.

The role of empire in promoting divisions invariably goes unmentioned. For example, nowhere in the recent coverage was it pointed out that British political leaders and the intelligence services had been promoting Mohammed Jinnah’s Muslim League for a separate state of “Pakistan” from the early 1930s.

Or, for that matter, that Britain had legislated for the “right” of states run by feudal native princes to opt out of an independent India, thereby necessitating armed struggles in Travancore (now part of Kerala) and Telengana (which includes Hyderabad).

Indeed, delaying British withdrawal enabled the colonialists and local reactionaries to fan communal strife for a few more years before independence.

It was a strange feature of this period that, while the utmost military force could be mustered to suppress united non-sectarian action by peasants, industrial workers or students, the colonial power seemed powerless to suppress the instigators of communal riots and massacres in Calcutta, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab.

In the case of Vietnam, the imperialist mindset again excludes the struggles of the oppressed.

We are invited by the Hollywood myth manufacturers to sympathise with the plight of GIs, whether they are killed, missing in action or brutalised by war. The atrocities committed by the occupiers are mostly hidden and the crucial strategy of divide and rule goes unmentioned. Even today, the war is portrayed as the Communist north attacking and conquering the “democratic” south.

Now the imperialist mindset wants to rehabilitate the ludicrous notion that the US had an option to fight on. In reality, by 1973, there was no prospect of a military victory or even of propping up the southern puppets for more than a few years.

US forces had no real choice but to quit Saigon, leaving behind the world’s biggest brothel and three million dead Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.

So it is today. When Iraqi and Afghan resistance make it impossible to stay any longer, the imperialist powers will have to go and they will go without a second thought about the fate of the collaborators or civilians left behind.

In the meantime, calculations in Washington and Whitehall about staying in Iraq and Afghanistan have nothing to do with securing democracy, fostering stability, preventing civil war or wanting to avoid further military or civilian casualties. As ever, the key considerations relate primarily to US geopolitical, military and energy interests.

How cold-blooded these calculations can be were brought home to me in 1993, when I learnt that IRA and Sinn Fein representatives had begun talking to British government officials.

But the willingness of the Irish republican movement to contemplate a ceasefire as part of a comprehensive peace process were being interpreted by the British as a sign of battle-weary weakness.

In February 1993, an IRA bomb in Warrington had killed two children. Tory government ministers announced that the killers would be hunted down relentlessly and that talks with such heinous terrorists were unthinkable.

In private, meanwhile, the arrogant attitude towards the Irish republicans continued. Then, in April, a truck bomb in Bishopsgate destroyed City premises to the value of £350 million.

British government representatives urgently sought another meeting, where they greeted the Irish republicans with words to the effect: “OK, lads, we’ve seen what you can do, so let’s get down to business.”

The IRA had hit British state-monopoly capitalism where it really hurts – in the wallet. Discussions recommenced in earnest.

The Tory government eventually admitted on November 29 that it had been involved in secret contacts with the IRA and Sinn Fein, the bombs stopped and the first ceasefire was officially declared in August 1994. The government’s grief and fury had been strictly for the cameras.

Most of the top decision-makers in Britain’s state apparatus do not lose a moment’s sleep over the deaths of children, civilians or soldiers, whether British, Iraqi or Afghan, and never have done.

The imperialist mindset breeds such callousness alongside arrogance, racism and the ability to lie without blushing.

One Response to “Robert Griffiths on the Empire’s limits”

  1. Exile Says:


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