The legacy of the British Empire can be a source of awkwardness or embarrassment for Britain, but it could also prove to be a source of strength in the future.
The increasingly polarised debate about the removal of statues of historical personalities neglects the voices of most of those affected by their decisions. It also overlooks the opportunity for Britain and others to engage with those regions of the world, like South Asia, which figured most prominently in Britain’s history - and maybe some of its most important partners in the future.
If not carefully managed and responded to, these protests may cause lasting damage; not only to Britain’s social fabric during what is already a difficult and divisive time but also to its relationships in the world. As it divorces the EU, the UK needs all the friends it can muster - and many of them will be in parts of the world affected by Britain’s historical actions.
As a Briton, I want the UK to emerge from this tumultuous time with stronger relationships. And as a Bangladeshi, I want the very real historical difficulties faced by my countrymen to be recognised in a balanced, fair and constructive way, rather than being co-opted by activists who have very particular priorities.
Those priorities often do not include Bangladeshis, despite protesters using the Bengal famine as a calling card to escalate their culture war targets; from Edward Colston, who up until a few weeks ago very few non-historians or non-Bristolians would have been familiar with, to Winston Churchill, who is one of the best-known and most-revered figures in modern history.
In Bangladesh, as in the UK, history is painful. In the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, up to 3 million were killed, some 400,000 women were raped, and almost half the country became internally displaced with 10 million Hindus fleeing to India.
Because the aggressors were of a similar skin tone and religion, and were at the time the victims’ compatriots, it does not fit neatly into models of “white privilege” and colonialism through which many of the protesters view the world.
They have preferred to focus on the equally tragic Bengal famine of 1943, where up to 3 million Bengalis died of starvation and conditions aggravated by malnourishment. Winston Churchill’s actions (or lack thereof) were, of course, linked to the famine, as were other factors like Japan’s invasion of Bangladesh’s neighbour, Myanmar.
Even those demanding that we address history seek to politicise it, zooming in on certain atrocities while airbrushing - or even completely cropping out - others.
As much as Black Lives Matter, Asian Lives must matter too. Most of those affected by Britain’s past actions (and those of other European powers) are not within her borders and cannot march in London. Their descendants lack the “First World privilege” of the vocal protesters on the streets of the UK capital. But they must be heard - and their priorities are often pragmatic rather than ideological, economic not political, and focussed on the future, not the past.
It is essential that Britain does not allow this very important debate to be dominated by fringe activists, because addressing history is an important part of Britain’s future.
The legacy of empire can be a source of awkwardness or embarrassment for Britain, but it could also be a source of strength. London’s reluctance to make this part of open, honest relationships with the young, motivated populations and high growth, entrepreneurial economies of South Asia has handed an advantage to newer powers like China.
Beijing does not have the same historical baggage when it supports development in Dhaka, Islamabad or Delhi. Chinese pragmatism has led to $10 billion (€8.9 billion) of infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, with everything from exhibition centres to bridges to underwater tunnels being built with renminbi, not dollars, euros or sterling.
Those are exactly the kind of relationships that post-Brexit Britain will need to establish. The ideological and cultural infrastructure for this already exists in the form of the Commonwealth, an institution whose potential as a tool for British soft power is only starting to be discovered.
Bringing together a third of the world’s population across 54 countries, the Commonwealth could be an investment network, a free-trade bloc, or even a future defence alliance. As the other intergovernmental bodies that Britain has committed to, such as NATO and latterly the EU, appear to weaken and the UK seeks to chart its own course, the Commonwealth could be an important part of this journey.
Working with The Queen’s Young Leaders Programme, I have seen the scale of ambition and openness across the Commonwealth, the existence of which shows that the next generation is eager to build relationships free from the historical baggage of the past.
It is a past that, in both Britain and Bangladesh, is seldom discussed in the school syllabus. But this history, and how to move beyond it, is being debated by various digital media, which, as my experience with CNI News has shown, is young people’s preferred news medium.
It is relationships with this new generation - and the potential of sometimes overlooked but invaluable partners like Bangladesh - that we must build. The past is painful, but the future is promising.
- Ashfaq Zaman is co-founder of Dhaka-based CNI News
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