Sorry seems to be the hardest word

During a recent trip to Pakistan, David Cameron made the surprising admission that Britain was responsible for many of the world’s problems, including Kashmir. This was refreshing, especially coming from a British Prime Minister. The historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, on the other hand, in a recent Daily Mirror column concludes that Britain has little for which it needs to apologise. When the East India Company first went into India, it was because it was one of the richest places in the world.

When the British Raj left, it had become one of the poorest. Clearly, something happened in between which left India in such a state. But Hunt says little to address this. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s longest serving Prime Minister (1947-1964) in his book, The Discovery of India, gave the most powerful chronicle of the harm done by the combined impact of the East India Company and the British Raj. Nehru’s account concluded: “Those parts of India which have been the longest under British rule are the poorest today.” Bengal, Bihar and Orissa were a few of the examples he used. There was also much concern voiced by commentators in the United Kingdom about the mismanagement of the Empire. Adam Smith raged against the mercantile capitalism of the East India Company and others condemned the British Raj for being complicit in the Bengal famine of 1943. Other examples of the mess the British left was the creation of a Pakistan, which comprised of two areas with 1,000 miles between them and a potential adversary in-between. (It is not surprising the east abandoned the west part during the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.) India was also left to deal with the princely states. These were given the option of remaining in India or opting out. This triggered the long-running dispute over Kashmir. To top it all, when independence was declared in August 1947, the boundaries of the two new states had yet to be disclosed to the general public, causing much of the panic that ensued and resulting in more than 500,000 deaths as 14 million people literally swapped countries. Many consider this episode to have been one of the worst cases of maladministration in the history of empires. Lord Moutbatten and Lord Radcliffe, who presided over the partitioning of India, have a lot to answer for. More recently, a group of elderly frail Kenyans from the Kikuyu tribe have began their High Court fight for compensation for the pain and suffering they endured in concentration camps during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. They claim they suffered at the hands of the colonial regime after being detained and tortured by the British.

Some 20,000 people died in the camps. So I find myself defending the Prime Minister’s remarks on this subject. The history of India should serve as lesson for all of us. We should refrain from interfering in conflicts such as that in Kashmir. My grandfather taught me that history is often just the victor’s version of events. That’s something even respected historians such as Tristram Hunt would do well to remember.

Murad Qureshi is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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