Wednesday, 15 August 2007

60 years on

George Orwell said that you could tell a lot about a country by how their army marched. He contrasted the British stylised walk with the Nazi goose-step. I'm not too sure about the accuracy of his theory but this picture doesn't reflect too well on India or Pakistan. Maybe they are just fans of John Cleese, but generally the goose-step is a universal image of authoritarianism.

This week there are a number of family history programmes on TV to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian / Pakistani independence. Painful and poignant stories of those who came to this country fleeing sectional persecution and displacement. Making these stories understandable in human terms can only be a good thing at a time when suspicion of immigrants and refugees is on the increase.

This history ‘from below’ is great at giving voice to those who are otherwise seen as the chorus-line on the great stage of history. But there is also a danger; such history tends to miss out the big ideas. And when you look at the independence struggle and the partition of India the big idea that stands out is quite how badly the region was fucked over by the twin forces of empire and religion: Partition left 1 million killed in sectarian violence and 12 million made homeless.

We can easily forget that religious bigotry does not become any more palatable because it comes dressed up in exotic oriental garb. The sectarianism of Jinnah’s vision for a Muslim state was as ugly as anything seen in the Balkans or on the streets of Ulster. It created a logic that was the basis for the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs - mirrored on the other side by those Hindu nationalists who drove Muslims from Bengal and the Punjab out of ‘their’ India.

A classic policy of divide and rule permitted a tiny British presence to control a huge area; a policy Churchill called "a bulwark of British rule in India". In this they were very sophisticated imperialists. They weren’t interested in settlement as had been done in the American colonies, or in integration and assimilation as the French did in North Africa. The driving motivation was trade and profit and everything else was secondary.Before the mutiny of 1857 British rule was a private venture (an early version of PFI ?)in the hands of the East India Company. The British were generally quite happy to use client states to do their dirty work until these local rulers got either too strong (and bolshie), or too weak (and ineffective).

And sixty years on, in many ways this seems to remain the same; religion and empire continue to blight this part of the world.

The situation in Kashmir, exists only because at the time of partition the British supported the local native ruler (a Hindu ruling over a Muslim population), in joining India. As a result it is now the focus and symbol of Indian-Pakistani conflict and a tinder-box that could ignite the whole region.

The new imperialism is off-shoring and globalisation as the sub-continent becomes the call centre / sweat shop of the West. And the result of this unprecedented growth is not a ‘trickle-down effect’ that raises the living standards of even the poorest layers of society. Science-parks and business areas so advanced that they would shame anything in this country, co-exist with dirt roads, villages without essential utilities, and beggars forced onto the streets because of a lack of a welfare safety-net.

The consequences of this are not hard to predict: A minority will benefit from economic growth and new elites will look to the West. But there will also be another much larger section who will miss out on this growth and will resent the winners.

In the past these people would have been drawn to the national liberation movements and radical parties. But these movements at the moment are weakened across the world. Instead recent experience shows that those who miss out will assert and defend their traditional culture and values.

And that can only mean more religious fundamentalism and sectional nationalism. And more goose-stepping at the border.

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