Will Brexit herald an Empire 2.0?

With Britain all set to exit from the European Union, there is talk of Empire 2.0, and the Commonwealth. Some flippantly quip, “I thought that sort of talk was dead as a doornail.”
Contrastingly, the United Kingdom’s Trade Minister, Liam Fox, hinted that the jewel in the crown of the erstwhile British Empire, India, would be central to make Britain great again. But when the Guardian picked up the minister’s tweet of 2016, “the United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th Century history”, there was an outcry. Liam Fox pushed back, saying he had been quoted out of context. The newspaper, in reply, listed out the atrocities committed by the UK in the 20th century that included the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, of 1919 and the partition of India in 1947.
Shashi Tharoor’s best-seller The Era of Darkness offers a hard-hitting rebuttal to all those who speak glowingly of the Empire. Unsurprisingly, the Irish Times wrote an insightful review of Tharoor’s book, ‘Inglorious Empire’, for UK readers, using Winston Churchill’s infamous quote: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion … Let the Viceroy sit on the back of an elephant and trample Gandhi into dirt.”
Meanwhile New Statesman’s ‘Why Brexiteers need to update their reading of colonial history’ brought realism to the more proximate matters at hand, like the UK’s negotiations on a free-trade agreement (FTA) with India after Brexit. FTAs are fundamental to Brexit and when it comes to India, some key statistics bear repetition. First, the Commonwealth is a humble substitute for the EU single market, which buys 44 per cent of the UK’s exports compared to the Commonwealth’s 9.5 per cent. Conversely, the EU is India’s largest trading partner, accounting for 13.5 per cent of India’s global trade, while the UK accounts for only 3.4 per cent of exports and under 2 per cent of imports. Notwithstanding these numbers, Manoj Ladwa’s Winning Partnership: India-UK relations Beyond Brexit says there is a huge opportunity to be tapped. He argues for a transformational relationship instead of a transactional relationship, but at his book launch India’s High Commissioner Y.K. Sinha, while sanguine enough of the future, did some plain peaking and said Britain’s policy of providing haven to anti-Indian elements needs to be addressed as London seeks an FTA with New Delhi.
India celebrated its 70th Independence Day last year and come August, there will be yet another milestone. And as it strides forward – India’s economy recently overtook the UK’s – it is self-evident that the country is a rising power with its strategic clout expanding. This is notwithstanding the formidable challenges it faces, in poverty alleviation and the coercive pressures within its own backyard. But in 1947 there were grave doubts as to whether it would hold together as a nation. The imperialists said, as they left the shores of India, the country would come asunder. Ironically the mother country, Britain, is today facing a siege of sorts from within, what with yet another Scottish referendum looming ahead and the Good Friday agreement under threat as British Prime Minister Theresa May cosies up to the Democratic Unionist Party.
Much has been written on the partition of India and the UK’s role in it. W.H. Auden’s poem written in 1966, on Cyril Radcliffe, the man appointed by His Majesty’s Government to head the boundary commission that was to divide India, captures eloquently those extraordinary times. While this division by the imperialists may have been the bloodiest and the worst separation that they put their hands on to, dividing up homelands and heaping misery on hapless people appears to have been their favourite pastime. A parlour game.

Source : Gulf News

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.