New Conflicts, Old Ghosts: Discussions on the Legacy of British Colonialism

On August 13, the website of one of the leading magazines on international affairs, Foreign Policy, published an interesting and fairly unexpected article by Amy Hawkins that connected two seemingly distinct crises: the street protests in Hong Kong and the revocation by the Indian authorities of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, a predominately Muslim region. The author sees the reason for both in the persisting legacy of British colonialism, in part, the artificial borders that were formed after the disintegration of the British Empire. These borders cannot be justified with either ethnic or religious rationales. This is indeed the case, and both conflicts are rooted in colonialism: Kashmir directly and Hong Kong indirectly.

The tragedy of British India’s postcolonial partition is common knowledge. Mutual pogroms, huge civilian casualties and millions of refugees are linked not only with the religious conflict but primarily with the thoughtless and often provocative policy conducted by the last Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten. His obvious desire to wash his hands of India as soon as possible and rid Britain of any postcolonial responsibility was the main reason behind the sharp and absolutely artificial escalation of the conflict. Moreover, Pakistani historians and politicians often accused Mountbatten of not being neutral when creating the partition: he leaned toward India, giving it territories with a Muslim majority. Pakistan believes this is what happened in Punjab, Gujarat, as well as in other regions.

Kashmir was the focus of the partition issue which triggered the first postcolonial armed conflict, and this has remained an issue ever since. Recommendations by the UN Security Council in 1948 on holding a referendum to decide the fate of Jammu and Kashmir have not been fulfilled (and have long been forgotten). As a result, the conflict has been dragging on for decades at different levels of intensity. This can still be seen in the Indian-Pakistani armed clashes that took place several months ago and in India’s current decision to revoke constitutional autonomy. Obviously, now both India and Pakistan are pursuing their own national and often contrary interests on this issue, and it would be inaccurate to accuse only one of them of escalating the conflict. But it is appropriate to remember that British colonialism is at the root of the conflict.

As for Hong Kong, the roots of the problem lie in the criminal opium wars that the British Empire waged against China for commercial reasons, and that resulted in a surge in drug trafficking in this country. This is when the Brits annexed Hong Kong and separated it from China. In this context and in view of growing British interference in China’s domestic affairs due to the protests in Hong Kong, it would be natural to ask: does the former colonial metropole have the moral right to criticize China, considering the obviously criminal methods (even compared with general colonial aggression at that time) that were used to conquer Hong Kong in the first place?

The New Status of Kashmir: Will It Change the Situation in the Region?
Boris Volkhonsky
The Indian government’s decision to change the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir has very different implications depending on the perspective – from the point of view of the country’s domestic policy or the larger regional situation.
Expert Opinions

Artificial colonial and postcolonial borders are a key factor in other current crises as well. The conflict in Syria can be traced to the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement on the British and French spheres of influence in the former Ottoman Empire. Hence, current state borders in the region are not based on ethnic or religious grounds. As a result, modern Syria is a patchwork of ethnicities (Arabs, Turkomans, Kurds, Sunnites and Alawites), which triggered the crisis and full civil war with its grievous humanitarian consequences and refugee migration.

Another example is Iraq. Some of its borders were also defined by the same Sykes–Picot Agreement and other treaties between the victor powers of World War I with the same disregard for real ethnic or religious borders between the Sunni, Shia and Kurds, which turned the conflict between them into the driver of the current crisis in the country.

This is not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian legacy of British colonialism. The multidirectional and provocative policy of the British Empire as regards the Jewish and Arab communities in the first half of the 20th century largely created the reasons for this conflict that has lasted for decades despite the endless efforts of the international community (including Trump and Kushner) to settle it.

The picture in other regions is pretty much the same. Many current problems are rooted in the artificial borders of the British Empire. This is true of the aggravated conflict between the Muslims and the Christians and ethnic confrontation between Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and others in Nigeria. In Sudan, a lengthy civil war led to the split of the country. This is also happening in seemingly more stable states like Kenya, which suffers from religious instability in the north and ethnic social divides. The attention of the international community was paradoxically drawn to these issues because of Barack Obama’s ethnic roots. His father belonged to the Luo people that are split between the two former British colonies of Kenya and Uganda. Being an ethnic minority, the Luo people often complain that they are not duly represented in the top echelons of the government and are discriminated against by Kenya’s larger ethnic group – the Kikuyu people. As a result, even Obama, the president of the world’s strongest country, failed to resolve this issue.

Another contradictory aspect of British colonial legacy revealed itself in Zimbabwe. Former President Robert Mugabe was probably the most uncompromising in raising the issue of Britain’s postcolonial responsibility to its former colonies. In Zimbabwe, Britain had to pay for the return of the land seized at one time by the white colonists from local communities. The Valdai Club has written about this issue

The negative impact of British colonialism which is still felt today is also linked with the forced export of a workforce from India to sugar plantations in other colonies. Today this can be seen in the social divides and acute ethnic political struggles between Indian and local communities on Fiji, in Guyana, on Trinidad and Tobago and, to some extent, on Mauritius. Indian pogroms and the expulsion of Indian communities from many postcolonial countries in Eastern Africa (for instance, Kenya and Uganda) in the 1960s and 1970s also testify as to the harmful practice of British colonialism.

Thus, the attention given to the conflict-generating legacy of British colonialism by Foreign Policy author Amy Hawkins is fully justified. Today, it is becoming part of a bigger issue: uncertainty as regards the UK’s policy after Brexit. Articles about a potential revival of British imperial ambitions after Brexit have already started appearing in the British media. Assuming Brexit is finalized, there will be no EU political restraint and Britain will no longer have to pursue common EU policy. This could create new imperial temptations in post-EU Britain. The absence of EU control could lead to the lack of moral restraint after Brexit.

Obviously, it is impossible to return to the past and British colonialism is a fact of history. But to reduce its influence on policy in today’s world, Britain could probably make a number of symbolically meaningful steps as it prepares to leave the EU. For instance, the British monarchy could make global apologies for colonialism. Many people in former British colonies would say it is no exaggeration to compare these apologies with those made by a new Germany for Nazism.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.