11 May 2020
On the 12th of February, PPR students, colleagues and staff from other departments at Lancaster University came together for a special departmental seminar on ‘The British Empire and Decolonising the Curriculum’. The panel consisted of Dr. Kunal Mukherjee, Lecturer in Asian politics/security, Aqsa Ahmed, final year History student, Dr. Sunita Abraham, Associate Lecturer in PPR, and Dr. Brian Black, Lecturer in South Asian religions.

The panel opened with the argument that in the conversations associated with the British Empire, one can see a divide between the critical approach taken by female and ethnic minority scholars (Gopal 2019) and the approach of many prominent white male scholars inclined to defend British imperial policy (e.g. Ferguson 2004, Allen 1975). For example, to extoll the achievements of Empire, the railways are often cited as a key British contribution to the development of India. However, if one looks at the way the railways were built, they connected the ports to the hinterland for the extraction of resources. The railways did not connect towns or cities and were not introduced to suit the needs of the people. Whatever infrastructure was introduced was ultimately intended to serve the needs of imperial Britain (Tharoor 2016). Similarly, western education and the universities were also introduced in India by the British ruling elite to create a class of men who would look after and consolidate British imperial interests in India and who would also fill the more subordinate positions of the East India Company, which was one of the main pillars of the British Empire. It is often argued that the British gave India justice, rule of law and liberty (Ferguson 2004). But Empire was structured along racial lines where British colonizers had more rights and economic privileges over the Indians.

Mukherjee pointed out that defenders of Empire often balk at applying contemporary standards to assess the effects of Empire. However, even by the standards of the time, violent, exploitative and wrongful acts were committed, such as the 1919 Jalianwala Bagh massacre when General Dyer and the British Indian Army opened fire on an unarmed gathering in Amritsar (Gopal 2019, 82; Tharoor 2016, 77). However, the British public lack awareness of such events, as they are not part of national curriculum in British schools. On this point, Black argued that none of the aspects of British history could be understood properly without appreciating the fact that British imperialism shaped them. One example is the Industrial Revolution, which was possible partly because of the wealth generated from the transatlantic slave trade and far flung colonies (Eddo-Lodge 2017, Olusoga 2016). The knowledge deficits carry over from school to university. Disciplines across the sciences and the humanities should shed their colonial legacies, and incorporate more representation of non-Western traditions. Moreover, there is no such thing as a separate white British history (Hirsch, 2018, 83). With over 200 years of British colonial rule in the subcontinent and with 400 years of Britain’s involvement in slavery, Britain’s history is already thoroughly intertwined with the histories of South Asia, the Caribbean and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

So what can be done to decolonise the curriculum? The panel argued that the first step is to understand mythologies associated with Empire, and then to undo them. Once the British public has access to this new narrative, it opens up the possibility of reframing relations with people from diverse backgrounds. Mukherjee suggested that the top-down approach to Empire often embraced by white male scholars has paved the way for what might be called a racial arrogance in Britain and has strengthened racist tendencies. This top-down approach shows the British as the teachers, and as the givers, and the Asians and Africans as the takers, and the taught. One of the ways to challenge this status quo would be to bring to the fore the voices of women scholars and ethnic minority scholars who tend to take a more critical approach towards the British Empire.

Abraham argued that India was one of the richest countries in the world when the British East India Company began trading with it, but by the time the British departed from India, India’s share of the world economy had dropped from around 23 percent to just over 3 percent (Tharoor 2016, 2-3). This was simply because India was governed in a way that benefited Britain and its economy – this was in essence a capitalist enterprise built on racism, extraction and exploitation. The panel argued that it is time to stop teaching a romanticised view of colonialism and Empire in our schools and universities. Instead all students should be enabled to think critically and understand Britain’s imperial past. The panellists saw this as the moral responsibility of educators today. What also needs to be talked about and celebrated are the tremendous contributions of the previously colonised countries in terms of art, music, architecture, literature, mathematics and science.

Bibliography:

Allen, C., (1975), Plain Tales from the Raj, London: Abacus.

Eddo-Lodge, R., (2017), Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, London: Bloomsbury.

Ferguson, N., Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, 2004, UK: Penguin.

Gopal, P., (2019), Insurgent Empire: Anti-colonial Resistance and British Dissent, London: Verso.

Hirsch, A., (2018), BRIT (ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging, London: Vintage.

Olusoga, D., (2016), Black and British: A Forgotten History, London: Pan Books.

Tharoor, S., (2016), Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, London: Hurst.