Children celebrate Indian independence day. (Photo by Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India, Aotearoa, and the road beyond colonisation

And in the effort to decolonise, each can learn from the other, writes Gaurav Sharma, editor of the Multicultural Times.

For nation-states that emerged from centuries of brutal colonial rule, decolonisation is needed, in all its forms. The coloniser left India in 1947, and still the country is struggling. In Aotearoa, the coloniser coexists with the colonised, and maintains dominance over public institutions, including education, justice and health.

Indians and Māori have much in common.

The Māori concepts of Papatūānuku and Kaitiakitanga are similar to the Indian ethos of living in harmony with nature, seeking a dialogue rather than dominating it, and using its bounties responsibly and respectfully. (Dhaarayati itidharni and Sadaachar in Sanskrit, for example.)

And Indians and Māori alike faced the brutal exploitation of British colonial rule.

As the acclaimed historian Vincent O’Malley has documented, there was “an almost incomprehensible level of loss” suffered by Māori during the New Zealand Wars. As he notes, “any discussion of contemporary Māori poverty that fails to acknowledge the long history of invasion, dispossession and confiscation is missing a vital part of the story.”

This reality, and the importance of decolonisation, is something which resonates with the people of India, where colonisation ran for over two centuries, taking a brutal toll.

As even in India, where the coloniser and the colonised do no coexist as they do in New Zealand, one of the greatest modern challenges is decolonisation of the Indian mind.

Indians’ obsession with fair-skin and English-speaking ability as a status-symbol; the prevalence of outdated colonial-era penal laws; and the lingering legacy of British divide-and-rule policy which can create a rift between Hindus and Muslims – all point towards this challenge.

Indian Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor dismantled the British myth of Britishers being “benevolent colonial masters” at an Oxford Union debate a few years back, and elaborated the brutality Indians faced then. He then followed it up with a detailed book on the subject, published in 2018, Inglorious Empire – what the British did to India.

In its review of the book, the Guardian noted: “A 2014 poll in the UK found that 59% of people thought the British Empire was something to be proud of, and nearly half believed countries were better off for having been colonised. Tharoor’s passionately argued book provides a crushing rebuttal of such ideas with regard to India. The subjugation of his people was ‘a monstrous crime’ and any positives were mere by-products of actions not intended to benefit Indians.”

In his book and speech, Tharoor also noted that under colonisation, India’s share in the world economy fell from 23% – nearly as large as all of Europe put together then – to 4%. In fact, Britain’s rise for 200 years was financed by its depredations in India. A classic example was the destruction of the Indian textiles industry and its replacement by mills in England using raw materials exported from India, which led to our share of world textiles exports falling from 27% to 2%.

Arguing against British claims of its rule being “enlightened despotism”, Tharoor noted historical events such as the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre of 1919: “blowing freedom fighters to bits from the mouths of cannons and upholding iniquity through institutionalised racism”. On that day in April, 101 years ago, thousands of unarmed and peaceful protesters, including women and children, were killed by British forces, with 1650 rounds of bullets were fired on the crowd in ten minutes.

The human cost was immense too, as during the colonial rule between 15 and 29 million Indians were starved to death.

Of these, most notable was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, during which over four million Bengalis died, after Winston Churchill deliberately ordered the diversion of food from starving Indian civilians to well-supplied British soldiers.

“When officers of conscience pointed out in a telegram to the prime minister the scale of the tragedy caused by his decisions, Churchill’s only response was to ask peevishly ‘why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”, Tharoor noted.

As for imperialist arguments of colonialism benefiting India by providing it political unity, railways and the English language, the Indian MP countered: “With modern technology, transport and communications, we could have achieved all this without having to be colonised. Moreover, these so called ‘benefits’ were simply instruments of colonialism put in place to serve British interests.”

How then to achieve decolonisation?

There is no single answer to that question – to do so would require changes deep in meaning and complexity. But at least part of it involves symbolism.

John Key’s flag referendum, in which he sought to get rid of the Union Jack, was in my view a step in the right direction.

Another praiseworthy effort, which should have come decades earlier, is the current prime minister’s decision for New Zealand history – including the early colonial period – to be taught in all schools by 2022.

When I visited Waitangi Treaty Grounds for the first-time over the summer, it was strikingly clear to me that it is time to create a museum of British colonisation of Aotearoa.

Such an institution could house permanent exhibits detailing the atrocities of the colonial era, and educate, sensitise, reconcile and enlighten both Māori and Pākehā.

Such an everlasting reminder would help in the cause articulated by Maya Angelou, the great American civil rights leader: “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”


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